PABLO PICASSO CAN BE EXHAUSTING to think about. He seems to occupy a slightly unnatural amount of space in the scheme of things. When he died in 1973, he had been the most famous artist in the world for well over half a century, hut virtually no one was thinking seriously about what he'd been doing lately. Despite the almost eerie diversity of his output, Picasso's part in the development of Cubism remained, for many, his most significant contribution (one that he spent the remainder of his life attempting both to own exclusively and to destroy). Many of his midlife innovations and stylistic syntheses defined the look of "the modern" for successive generations of artists and serious viewers and then became a generic touchstone for an increasingly vast and unspecialized viewing public for whom Picasso's celebrity and high prices were certainly more important than his advanced pictorial research. It is ironic but not totally surprising that at the dark heart of the present economic meltdown, late-period Picassos are among the most desirable lots on the auction block. As Guy Bennett, formerly of Christie's, recently commented to the New York Times in reference to a "musketeer" painting about to be sold in London: "Picasso is still a cornerstone of the marketplace, and these later paintings are much sought after because they are both powerful and far more affordable than his early canvases." If there is an afterlife, the thoroughly fatalistic artist must be very amused.
In his last years, Picasso worked exhaustively with the subject of musketeers, or "Mosqueteros," the title of the exhibition recently curated by his friend and biographer John Richardson at Gagosian Gallery in New York. This enormous show revealed a peanut gallery (with all due respect to Gagosian's hangarlike Chelsea digs) of owlishly unhinged swashbucklers and their women, the final iteration of the exotic procession of dead artists, noblemen, itinerant knights, bullfighters, pirates, classical youths, harlequins, and minotaurs who had long moved in and out of Picasso's work, functioning as bait-and-switch alter egos for the artist himself. In his final canvases, the peculiar blend of slapstick idiocy and gallantry associated with the musketeer subject merged with his uncanny ability to extract elements from "reality" and transmute them into distorted and disturbed painterly facts that ultimately feel more real than their source.
Couple, 1970, a largish painting facing the entrance to the show, immediately declared that chivalry was not dead for the elderly master, although perhaps it was a hit roughed up. This primarily blue painting depicts a debonair grandee meeting or escorting a lady and a bird in a collision of exquisite courtliness and scrambled painterly insanity. The closely observed (if that is the proper term for aspects of experience so thoroughly internalized) body language and implied tenderness and gentility are called into question by the depravity of the characters' depiction. This mixture of heightened yet oddly protective insight and unsparing caricature, almost a form of visual sarcasm, was typical of the work in the show and represents the culmination of tendencies Picasso displayed in shifting ratios throughout his career. There is a sense in "latest" Picasso of a knowingness that sees through all sentiment so thoroughly that even lack of sentiment falls away. It is amazing that someone whose early sensibility was so rooted in sentimentality and symbolist portentousness eventually worked his way to this.
Most of the musketeers appear in portrait format, but any sense of repetitiveness is obliterated by the diversity of facture and its psychological corollaries. The pictures range from a work like Mousquetaire assis (Seated Musketeer), 1972, whose dissonant forms recall an out-of-register lithograph and convey a sense of barely maintained dignity in the face of overpowering entropic forces, to the surprisingly unsettling Buste d'homme, 1971. …