Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction
MoMA | November 21, 2016 – March 19, 2017
Francis Picabia (1879 – 1953), whose mother was French and whose father was a Cuban-born Spaniard, also described himself as being both Italian and American, and his art is no less polyvalent. MoMA’s monstrous, thought-provoking, and at times thrilling survey—with its formidable catalogue—demands focus, commitment, and an open mind; and provides everything you need to assess this unsung hero of an undefined modernism. Best known as an associate of Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery and a progenitor of New York proto-Dada around World War I, Picabia is newly revealed in this retrospective of 241 works, exploring the artist’s entire career through oils, drawings, printed publications, film, associations with music, theater, and dance, enamel paintings, photo-based work, spoken word compositions, and correspondence.
A remarkably protean artist, Picabia challenged modernist norms and changed stylistic tack and materials frequently. He once noted, “The artist shouldn’t understand what he does.” However, this convenient deflection from an independently wealthy painter is in no way preparation for his calculated early works: arch riffs on Impressionism in a bright palette between Monet and Eakins. Impossibly large for painting en plein air, and sourced from postcards, they reveal the banal, paint-by-numbers aspect of that inceptive movement and its formulaic brushwork. There are also juvenile digs at Picasso, Derain, and Matisse, as Picabia cheekily worked though avant-garde styles, critiquing their self-importance.
Embracing geometric abstraction, he developed a jarringly seductive style as blazoned across the nearly ten-foot square canvases Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic) and Udnie (Young American Girl, The Dance), painted in 1913 as pendants, and hung together for the first time in the U.S. These epic, puzzlingly-titled memories of Manhattan, and of seeing a dancer rehearse on an ocean liner deck, are contemporary with the non-objective and Cubo-Futurist works of Kandinsky, Kupka, and Malevich, as well as Severini’s whimsical designs, but are on a scale far from those artists’ capabilities. Not convex like Picasso and Braque’s Cubism, they are rhythmic, centrifugal vortices, lighter in their centers than their extremities, inhaling all the geometric flotsam and jetsam of European abstraction. This is painting in a wormhole. They are marvelous compositions, and spectacular assaults on both Renaissance and modernist space, grounded only by their block letter titles along their top edges. But just as his works were gaining in strength and size, the war put an end to it, forcing Picabia to operate on a more modest scale.
Picabia’s better-known writings and designs for journals and “mechanomorphs” —machine-age imagery—dominate walls and vitrines in three galleries. Included is what curators Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug refer to as his “anti-masterpiece,” The Cacodylic Eye (L’Oeil cacodylate) (1921): a collaborative canvas which Picabia’s friends signed, inscribed, and pasted materials onto when they came to visit him as he recovered from an eye infection. It is the greatest bar or bat mitzvah sign-in board in modern art. Adjacent is an audio reconstruction of The American Nurse, a twenty-minute musical composition performed at a Dada festival in 1920, consisting of three notes played over and over on the piano—anticipating the pioneering work of John Cage and Ragnar Kjartansson’s exercises in durational repetition. There are Dadaist and Surrealist zines and large assays with enamel paint, as well as a section relating his avant-garde work with composer Erik Satie and ballet director Rolf de Maré, which includes the entertaining twenty-two-minute film collaboration with René Clair, Entr’acte (1924).
By 1925, Picabia was in the south of France painting his “Monsters”—bizarrities that illuminate his saying that “A painter should always do a painting as if no one will ever see it.” The portraits and couples in slick enamel paint are like Munch gone madder, challenging every artistic convention. Picabia loved the Côte d’Azur, but had a strange way of showing it. It is thus revivifying to encounter the “Transparencies” of 1927-30 in the next gallery, his most beautiful body of work. In Sphinx of 1929, American Art Deco meets mythology and art history from Blake and Goya’s Caprichos to Moreau and Burne-Jones—images layered amidst looping lines and liquid glazes of resin varnish and oil. Like monumental glowing enamel miniatures, the works continue the artist’s interest in dislocations of meaning, vision, and bodies, but in opulent form.
In the 1930s, Picabia returned to the unpleasing, through uncategorizable portraits that look like black light images of red-light districts. Then, during World War II, while living in Vichy, France, he painted kitschy images that somehow combine Aryan propaganda, socialist realism, Hollywood posters, and softcore pornography. Though fixed meanings elude, the works need to be seen. By the 1940s, he was embracing the tactile abstractions of young French artists leavened with sexual suggestiveness, and a final series of galactic “Point” paintings—twelve pictures, beautifully arranged on one long wall—delight in their clarity, facture, and expansiveness.
Is Picabia a modernist? Does it matter? The artist suddenly seems more present than ever, his wide range of innovative figurative work impacting generations of contemporary artists. Its kitschiness, postcard aesthetic, photo-based qualities, appropriations, explicit sexuality, and grotesqueries have affinities with the likes of Ridley Howard, Becky Kolsrud, Max Maslansky, Tala Madani, Keith Mayerson, Nicole Wittenberg, and any number of young figurative painters, making clear we are in a new golden age for such work—the still surprising Picabia just keeps getting better and better.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.