Is it still possible for an artist to be a rule breaker and a revolutionary when we live in a culture where anything goes, and so much has already gone before? Spend some time with the exhibition “Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and you’ll really start to wonder. The show centers on a two-year period of unbridled experimentation by the Paris-based Spanish artist, who in 1912 made a guitar out of regular old cardboard and thus upended the notion of what a sculpture could be and, in fact, what materials could be used to create art. There were rules in the art world at the time—rules that everyone abided by—and Picasso boldly defied them, not for fame or to get people to follow him on Twitter but because that’s simply how his mind worked. He was constantly agitating in new directions. And this exhibition, on view through June 6, isolates a particularly iconoclastic period in his career that just happens to have been inspired by…a guitar.

First, some context. By 1912, 31-year-old Pablo Picasso—a child prodigy who was making academic drawings by the age of 7, “the minute precision of which frightened me,” he once said—was already famous. In the preceding two years, he and his close friend and fellow artist, Georges Bracque, had been pushing the boundaries of two-dimensional art by deconstructing three-dimensional forms on canvas, a style that came to be known as Cubism. There were familiar touchstones in this work—their medium was still paint, and the titles clearly indicated a familiar subject, such as Picasso’s Still Life With a Bottle of Rum from 1911—but the image on the canvas looked fractured, as though the artist had rearranged the details. We recognized the object we were looking at, but we felt as though we’d never seen it before and had to take it in with fresh eyes. Cubism was like an anti-complacency device.

Naturally, people wanted to copy it. Well, not copy but adopt. Ride the coattails of. In Paris in 1912, at the Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon)—a high-level showcase for, at the particular time, painters—artists were presenting work under the Cubist label. Picasso was less than thrilled. “There is Cubism, taking on a public identity that was not what Picasso had in mind,” notes Anne Umland, the curator of MoMA’s “Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914” exhibition. “He wanted to set himself apart.”         

And so, working in his studio in Paris, he quietly crafted a guitar out of cardboard, sewing it together with thread and using tape to hold the sound hole in position. He also fashioned a tabletop out of cardboard on which it would rest. Why a guitar? That, acknowledges Umland, is the million-dollar question, and the search for an answer offers a glimpse into the kinds of forensics that a museum undertakes when an artist is no longer around to explain himself. The process involves scrutinizing letters to and from Picasso’s friends, as well as photographs he took in his studio—he liked to prop up a handful of his works and photograph them to see them in a new way, a way that only the flattening quality of a photograph can offer. It also involves making some highly educated guesses, considering that Picasso did not play the guitar, nor was he much of a music fan. “In the end, what probably really drew him to the guitar was its shape,” says Umland. “The repertory of supplied forms and planes. The fact that it offered a readymade volumetric structure. It was a sculpture that’s out there in the world.”

What we do know is that guitarists were a fixture of cafe life, and Picasso had logged many an hour at Els Quatres Gats (The Four Cats), a cafe popular with avant-garde artists, in Barcelona before relocating to Paris. And he had included guitars in works prior to 1912, notably the painting At the Lapin Agile, from 1905, in which Picasso represents himself as a harlequin and renders his French landlord as a guitar player. (The landlord, Frédé, accepted paintings in lieu of rent. Those were the days.)

But there was a more potent sign that the guitar was looming large in Picasso’s imagination. In a photograph of new paintings that he took in the summer of 1912, while visiting Bracque in Sorgues, in the South of France, there are two paintings featuring a guitar that, as Umland writes in the exhibition catalog, “indicate a change in direction, a shift in formal tactics: clearly contoured shapes, bright colors, and diagrammatic lines predominate.” When Picasso returned to Paris, he continued his exploration of the guitar as a subject, an obsession that endured for two years and resulted in numerous constructions, paintings, drawings, cutouts, and collages, most of them riffing off the voluptuous curves of a guitar and, in some cases, a violin.

In some of these works, he includes signifiers of cafe life, as in Glass, Guitar, and Bottle, from early 1913. At times, he notes the way the curves of a guitar’s body conjure the shape of a head (Head of a Man With a Hat). And in 1914, he created a second guitar construction, this one out of sheet metal, which he gave to the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. (Upon his death in 1973, the museum was bequeathed his cardboard guitar construction of 1913.) The MoMA exhibition presents roughly 65 of these works and has staged them in an open, studio-like setting to create the sense that we are being immersed in an unpredictable, exhilarating creative process. Large-sale photographs taken in his workspace, which reveal the way he installed his sketches and the cardboard guitar, lend a jolt to the show. We are so accustomed to looking at works by Picasso and accepting his genius as fact that it’s easy to forget that these works did not just pour out of him fully formed. The photos are a fascinating reminder.       

If a guitar’s appealing contours seem inherently alluring for an artist, Picasso’s choice of materials during this period was altogether surprising: newspaper clippings, bits of wallpaper, sand, sheet music. Utterly unnoteworthy now—actually, today it’s radical when an artist uses just one medium, like oil paint—but rather a shock back in the early 1900s. A photograph of his 1912 cardboard guitar construction was published in the November 15, 1913, issue of the avant-garde journal Les Soirées de Paris with the caption “Picasso Nature Morte” (Picasso Still Life), and some readers were reportedly so upset that they cancelled their subscriptions. “For those who believed that art, by definition, involved academic training, skillful craftsmanship, and traditional, durable fine-art materials, Picasso’ still lifes proved deeply unsettling,” writes Umland in her catalog essay.

Which raises another interesting question: the concept of durability. Art was made to last, yet Picasso willfully embraced the idea that these works would not endure. He practically dared them to. In Musical Score and Guitar, he used only a pin to affix one of the elements, a charcoal-and-white rectangle of paper, to the composition. If the piece eventually went astray, c’est la vie, he seems to be saying. In fact, “Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914” was inspired by one such elision. Apparently, when MoMA unpacked his cardboard guitar in the ‘70s, the semicircular piece that was the tabletop went unnoticed. In 2005, art historian and professor Christine Poggi inquired about the tabletop, which can be seen in the photo of the guitar construction that notoriously appeared in that avant-garde journal. The piece was recovered, and what had been considered simply a study for his later, metal guitar construction now became a significant work in its own right.    

How could the missing piece have been overlooked for so long? Perhaps Picasso deserves some of the credit for the oversight. He never formally exhibited the cardboard or metal guitars, so there would have been no previous opportunity for these constructions to be displayed as he originally created them. Only visitors to his studio (or readers of Les Soirées de Paris) would have seen them. “He had a very personal attachment to his Cubist constructions,” explains Umland. “He refused to part with them, despite repeated entreaties.” In 1966, Picasso finally agreed to allow his constructions to travel to London for a major sculpture exhibition, probably because he was already sending work to Paris for a retrospective there in 1967 to coincide with his 85th birthday.

But even after these exhibitions and the increased interest in his work that they inspired, Picasso held tight to his guitars and, in fact, to all of his sculptures. In an amusing 1969 letter to Museum of Modern Art founder Alfred H. Barr, museum trustee James Thrall Soby writes of the effort to “wheedle some sculptures out of Picasso.” The museum was ultimately successful, of course, but the difficulty of obtaining these groundbreaking works is strangely inspiring. Yes, we live in an age where there aren’t many rules about art, but one principle is reaffirmed time and again: When the big boys come calling for you, you give them what they want. Picasso’s refusal was as revolutionary then as it would be now, if anyone actually had the guts to say no.

(Written for the spring 2011 issue of Guitar Aficionado.)