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NYC Guitar Exhibits Bridge Artisanship With The Avant-Garde

New York’s Modern Art and Met museums are both featuring exhibits dedicated to the guitar. Viewed together, the Moma’s “Picasso Guitars” and the Met’s “Guitar Heros” say a lot about diverging trends in modern art history.

Guitars feature in many of Pablo Picasso's cubist works
Guitars feature in many of Pablo Picasso's cubist works
Ugo Nespolo

I am one of those who thinks nothing happens by chance. Certain facts and extraordinary coincidences, if that's in fact what they are, seem to brush up against the world of magic.

One of those coincidences is currently taking place in the New York art world, where two of the city's premier museums – the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art –each happen to be hosting exhibitions involving guitars. The first is called "Picasso Guitars," the second "Guitar Heroes." I, for one, have trouble accepting that all of this happened just by chance.

This particular coincidence involves both time and place. It also lends itself to an immediate reflection on the relationship between high and low culture and between modern and popular forms of art.

One fine day, sometime between 1914 and 1916, Picasso posed for a photo in his Parisian studio near Montparnasse, at 5b rue Schoelcher. The photo is slightly out of focus and now rather faded, but in the background one can make out the Smoker, a corner of the Demoiselles d'Avignon, and, at the bottom among the frames, rags and scraps, a brown cardboard Guitar leaning against a wall. Demoiselles, Smoker and Guitar: three works that would create a decisive rupture in the history of modern art.

It is at this point that I like to imagine Picasso walking at nightfall in a Paris that was then the unrivaled capital of modernity. He would have been familiar with the metro, advertising placards (Bonnard, Lautrec). Maybe he saw the first cars, or even an airplane with canvas wings, flying over the Luxembourg gardens.

The artist seems disillusioned after a wasted day seeking inspiration at the Louvre, among its ancient models of excellence. Suddenly he is struck by a tangible new energy emanating from the urban images that surround him. He throws himself into his studio to synthesize the signs of this "real" world, of this new source of inspiration that comes from real life, the bistrot, Anis del Mono liqueur, a guitar.

Cubism, with its collages torn from newspapers, its faux bois and its voracious perspectives inherited from Cézanne, appear like a desperate attempt to bring art out of the conventional 19th century methods and to distance it from the prevailing impressionist superficiality.

Hence, the "popular" vocation of Picasso's art found in the Guitar an ideal icon. The bars, the songs, flamenco, the writings of Lopez and Madrid, Spain itself. Between 1914 and 1916 Picasso examined this theme with the characteristic energy and the lightness that distinguished him. The Moma exhibit does a good job of conveying that intensity.

The Met's "Guitar Heroes' are three legendary artist-artisans who are Italian by origin, New Yorkers by adoption. John D'Angelico (1905-64), James D'Acquisto (1935-95) and John Monteleone, born in 1947: three men who – whether consciously or not – took the opposite road to Picasso's, transforming objects of high craftsmanship into real and truly precious works of art.

The tradition of Italian luthiers, those who make stringed instruments, has its roots in the Renaissance. Lutes, violas, violins and mandolins tell the story of the executive mastery and the triumph of Mediterranean fantasy.

Not long after Picasso created his cubist guitars, John D'Angelico, working in his laboratory on Kenmare Street in New York, began constructing his own revolutionary instruments. Inlayed with mother of pearl in a deco style, they are once innovative, elegant, and exceptionally well made. Great guitarists like Pete Townshend and George Benson tightly embrace these works of art in photos. James D'Acquisto and John Monteleone take aesthetics to the extreme with bold forms and colors, multi-colored lacquer and – of course – extraordinary sounds.

It's clear to all that the figurative culture of avant-garde art places less and less emphasis on the technique, discipline and know-how of true craftsmanship. Moreover, it has broadened the gap between so-called high art and applied art. As the New York guitar coincidence reminds us, however, these two approaches do not – nor should not – be mutually exclusive.

Picasso aspired to an impossible popularity. The three New York artist-artisans aimed for the highest echelons of creation and esteem. If art doesn't know how to marry the two worlds, to embrace the two attitudes and unite them in a single vision of the world, one that is both educated and popular, culture will remain – just as it is now – a useless alternative.

Works of art are only of use to collectors as boring, standard investments, while the popular vein finds itself diluted in a terrain that is, if that's even possible, drier still.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo credit – Jmussuto

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