This exhibit of the later works of modernist pioneers, Giorgio de Chirico, Francis Picabia, and Andy Warhol, prompts a reevaluation of the artists’ comparative achievements. Given the title, A Triple Alliance, essayist and art historian Robert Rosenblum regards this distinguished triumvirate in the show’s catalogue as representing "transgressions from modernist orthodoxy." He endorses their late works as art that has ventured outside the pursuit of early modernist ideals. Not only did they break the mold of our expectations, but they went against the grain of standardized acceptance. Each artist traversed beyond the established canon and the expectation of conformism to institutions of good taste by introducing appropriation strategies that became the hallmark of attention during the seventies and eighties when postmodernism was all the rage. Is it still the rage? I doubt it. But followers of this triumvirate are still doing appropriation in more ways than one, and in more boring and predictable ways than could have been imagined. Ironically, this recent anti-canonical, non-aesthetic establishment has become more rigid and fierce in its dogmatic indifference than anything these premiere modernist copiers believed they were bound to refute.
In speaking of a painting by de Chirico called "Gladiators in a Room" (1928), Professor Rosenblum comments that "traditional, pre-modern modes of painting are even more emphatically revived, offering a counterpart to Picabia’s art school look of the 1920s." And what is the role of Warhol in all of this? Again, Rosenblum argues that the American pop artist "clearly recognized the positive aspects of de Chirico’s so often maligned later work, namely its full embrace of the possibilities of repetition, of factory-style, of existing works, and its undermining of those traditions of originality, inspiration, and handmade spontaneity which Warhol, in his own ways, had been subverting since the 1960s." I am not entirely certain what is wrong with qualities such as "originality, inspiration, and handmade spontaneity," although I have been hearing about them in disparaging terms for nearly three decades. As far as I read the matrix or intent behind the exhibition, de Chirico and Picabia are mutual anti-canonical godfathers who have a subversive influence on younger generations of artists. But for what purpose? As the poet Ferlinghetti once exalted in his book, Starting from San Francisco, "I must have missed something somewhere." But what have I missed?
I prefer the late Picabia to either the late de Chirico or the late Warhol, because I think the painterliness of this Cuban-Franco insouciant is more dignified and intrepid, albeit sleazy. But the sleaziness in Picabia’s late work— purloined and altered according to a strategy not dissimilar to Lichtenstein’s comic-book pastiches two decades later— was taken from pulp fiction published during World War II. Yet somehow Picabia rings true. I don’t feel the rapturous, decrepit inauthenticity of either de Chirico or Warhol. Whereas they are exchanging cards in support of hamstrung art, as if to mutually sustain each other’s image, the results are highly negligible, that is, insipid— wounded, to say the least. The only painting by de Chirico worth studying in depth is "Metaphysical Composition" with the egg and the big "X" from 1914. Here the castration symbol is bold and out-front without hesitation, bereft of remorse, and clearly without doubt. In contrast, the late gladiators and furnishings appear desperately out of touch. The youthful honesty of the big "X" reads as a comment on de Chirico’s incestuous demeanor and his projective fascination with ego-enhanced epistles, such as the tribunals by another triple alliance, namely the allegedly pedophilic Nietzsche, the squanderous Schopenhauer, and the scatological Garibaldi.
One of the huge problems with a venerated artist, such as de Chirico, who develops a reputation based on work accomplished during his youthful period, is the expectation that his talent and focus will persevere. His early Metaphysical Period (1911- 1918) represented enormous success. The Surrealists gave him the status of a prophet, a visionary artist with special power, who could see the inner-realities of the modern world. De Chirico was understood as a painter of psychic dreams— metaphors that poured from the fountain of Nietzschean excess, representing the ultimate power of the imagination in coping with anxieties intrinsic to modernity.
Twenty-two years ago when The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective exhibition of the works of Giorgio de Chirico, there was a disclaimer printed in the catalogue and mounted on the exhibition walls that the late period of the artist (after 1928) suffered a decline and therefore would not be included in the exhibition. I remember being enraged that this prestigious museum would not display work from the entire period of this venerated Italian modernist. How could a museum, particularly this museum, fail to give us the full story? It was not until I saw a de Chirico exhibition devoted to the late paintings, sculpture, and drawings, shown in May 2000 at the Centro Cultural Borges in Buenos Aires that I fully understood. One can only speculate as to the nature of the artist’s disease— a form of obsequious dementia or palsy— beginning well in advance of his later years, but the thirties we begin to see the problem. De Chirico was frenetically delving into the "old masters" in search of a new style— allegories of medieval spiritual encounters— without an ounce or irony or humor. As the work regresses into the forties and fifties, one senses that the symptoms of his weird, uncanny disorder are getting worse. With the unbelievably stupid characterizations of Titan, Rubens, Watteau, Corot, and Hals, one can only ask: Where is this artist going? What is the work really about? Had the biochemical industry been more advanced at mid-century, perhaps the master might have benefited—Prozac by day, Viagra by night, or vice versa.
The ‘60s and fatal ‘70s did not get any better. Maestro de Chirico began re-doing early "metaphysical themes" giving them a slick Pop twist— but with no significant effect. The bronze sculpture of the sixties, again based on themes from the early period, is equally bad— overindulgent, without aesthetic distance, utterly lacking in critical perspective. Yet the catalog texts, written especially for the Buenos Aires exhibition, are fortified with overindulgent Germanic scholarship— remarkably turgid and bereft of wit. These exegeses are bulging with references, cross-references, references to other references, and endless footnotes. The small fonts are densely placed, crowded from margin to margin, as if to justify, and thus to exhume the reputation of this late, but marginalized genius. Unfortunately, none of the rhetoric matters. One only has to look with one’s own eyes— to witness these debilitating pictorial resemblances derived from a lost, unknown, ossified self-indulgence.
To compare the axis of creativity between these artists is more a spectacle than an exhibition; but it has its redeeming moments. What I find refreshing— indeed a reiteration of a hopeful discovery made years ago— is how good Picabia really is. The late period reveals his prodigious talent, the quiet sublimation of his immense sexuality, in full-force. Here we can read his ability to transform the common, the vulgar, the draconian sleaze of modernity into paintings of astonishing significance. If there is one Phoenix amid the ashes of modernism, it is the late Picabia. While the allure bends inward, the ecstasy rages outward from the center. It’s all there— as he stands proud and silver-haired among the fallen gladiators.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.