Original Prankster: Francis Picabia at Michael Werner Gallery

A new show reveals the one-time Cubist and Dadaist as a harbinger of today’s art world

The French artist Francis Picabia made art critics apoplectic. “There cannot be anyone alive who does not think that at one or more points in his career Picabia produced some awful work,” John Russell proposed in The New York Times in 1979.

It is Picabia’s late work that has always rankled most deeply. Here is critic Hilton Kramer on the occasion of the Guggenheim’s 1970 retrospective: “The last three decades of Picabia’s production are among the saddest of modern times.” Mr. Kramer added, in another piece, “Many of the late works in the show are positively embarrassing.” And Vicki Goldberg in 2003: “Too much of the late work is every bit as boring as it looks.”

“The work is still hard for people to understand,” Gordon VeneKlasen, director of the Michael Werner Gallery, on East 77th Street, told The Observer by phone last weekend. Having said this, he added, “Many of the artists we work with are obsessed with Picabia. Artists have always understood it. The rest of the public is still catching up.”

The gallery is currently presenting “Francis Picabia: Late Paintings,” a show of more than two dozen pieces, most dating from 1938 to 1948. It reveals Picabia, who died in 1953, as a vital influence on the following 60 years of art, and serves as a too-brief aperitif for a Picabia retrospective that a major American museum is rumored to be preparing.

A realistic, if patchy, 1941 portrait of one of Picabia’s mistresses, Suzanne Romain, greets visitors at the door. Bathing in white light, she looks heavenward, a young beauty ready for her Busby Berkeley debut. Just a few paintings away, a 1946 work called Suzanne shows an angular, white-limned blob swimming over smoky reds and blacks. It could be mistaken for a piece by the young artist Sterling Ruby, and were it not for the iconic signature inscribed in one corner, it would be hard to believe that it was made by the same artist who made the earlier portrait.

“His perversity made him effectively acceptance-proof,” is how New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl once explained the outlier status of Picabia. In just this one-decade show, there are Miró-like abstractions and reverential portraits, lascivious images of women mined from pin-up magazines and tiny works—“pocket paintings,” Picabia called them—copied from Greek and Roman masks and statues.

“You can look around the room and see that all of this was happening at the same time,” Mr. VeneKlasen said. “He was absolutely tireless in experimentation in ways that very few artists are.”

That restless diversity aside, there is, to be sure, no sign at Werner of the Picabia who made it into most histories of 20th-century art: the madcap Dadaist and sidekick of Marcel Duchamp who produced carefully rendered paintings and drawings of hypersexualized machines. That Picabia existed for only a very few years, from 1915 to about 1920. His complete story is more complicated.

Picabia was born in 1879 to a French mother and a Spanish-Cuban father who held an honorary job at the embassy in Paris. Both were wealthy. Their only child, he was richly spoiled, preparing him for a life of indulgence. (The last of his three wives reported that he had owned 127 cars—most luxurious—over the years.)

According to scholar William A. Camfield, one of Picabia’s lovers wrote that “he appeared to have no identifiable nationality; physically he was small and stocky, his skin fine and dark, ‘like an exotic fruit,’ his eyes piercing, his voice wonderfully nuanced, his gestures and expressions lively.” He was a charmer. He was also “ardent, impulsive, unpredictable.”

After studying at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, Picabia began showing work at the conservative Société des Artistes Français, moving quickly through the fashionable styles of the day, always a few years behind the times, jumping from the well-established Barbizon style to a serviceable take on Impressionism (he churned out hundreds of pieces), Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism. He began catching up with the zeitgeist with Cubism.

Debuting new work at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, he came into his own as a media sensation in a large Times spread headlined, “Picabia, Art Rebel, Here to Teach New Movement.”

“Did I paint the Flatiron Building, the Woolworth Building, when I painted my impressions of these ‘skyscrapers’ of your great city?” he asked the reporter. “No! I gave you the rush of upward movement, the feeling of those who attempted to build the Tower of Babel—man’s desire to reach the heavens, to achieve Infinity.”

His enthusiasm for Cubism didn’t last. Having fallen in with Marcel Duchamp (no one is quite sure how they met), he quickly became associated with nascent Dadaists, traveling between Europe and New York. He wrote polemical essays and poetry and produced those iconic machine drawings. There were also attention-grabbing one-off experiments—a painting made with a few pieces of string, a canvas signed by a number of his artist friends, a portrait of the Virgin Mary made of a splashed ink blot, a portrait of Cézanne that featured a stuffed monkey.

In the mid 1920s, after denouncing Dada and returning to figurative painting, Picabia’s work began to get truly, intoxicatingly weird. There were “monster” paintings of people with multiple eyes and mouths, and works that are now known as “transparencies,” which he produced by drawing figures—often appropriated from the paintings of Botticelli or ancient art—one on top of another on top of another.

The “transparencies” were, Picabia said, “the resemblance of my interior desires,” though he never really explained what those were, as Mr. Camfield pointed out in his biography of the artist. One of the earliest works in the show at Werner is a “transparency” called Edulis (ca. 1930–33), which depicts at least three black women—it is beguilingly difficult to read—on top of one another against a purple backdrop.

In the 1980s, such works inspired artists like Sigmar Polke, David Salle, Julian Schnabel and, more recently, the younger New York artist Joshua Abelow, who has incorporated many of the artist’s figures into his drawings.

“There is something sort of mischievous about him,” Mr. Abelow told The Observer. “He is always off to the side in history. There’s something in his work that is self-aware, self-critical, self-mocking.”

A case for Mr. Abelow’s point may be Printemps, which dates to ca. 1942–43. It shows two bathers, a man and a woman, posing against a clear blue sky. The woman, eyes closed, holds aloft a shawl, savoring a breeze, while the man’s ursine face is puckered in a self-satisfied smile. It is hard to know if we are supposed to take it seriously.

Mr. Abelow added, “There is this element about his paintings that is quote, unquote bad or ugly, but there’s also something mysterious about them. You know that he is really skilled. You wonder why he’s painting that way.”

Indeed, Picabia was nothing if not self-contradictory. “Every painting must be completely absurd and useless, above all vis-à-vis the magic evolution of art,” he once argued. And yet he continued to work at a relentless pace at this useless project. “Duchamp stopped painting,” Mr. VeneKlasen said, referring to the artist’s famous retirement from the medium, which was followed by a claim that he was quitting art. The gallerist added, “Mr.  Picabia continued painting.”

And in continuing to paint, in trying to find new ways to paint, Picabia left almost no stone unturned. One of the most haunting paintings we have ever seen is also at Werner, Picabia’s Mère et enfant (ca. 1939-40), which, again, is really only identifiable thanks to the artist’s signature. It shows an olive-skinned mother and son that look like Greek stone kouroi in front of a black portal. Their eyes appear to be closed (though they may just not have eyes). It takes one of the artist’s quips—“Painting must be enigmatic and a little disquieting”—to its outer limit.

Up close, the paint is cracking, and the red-hot colors of lava appear to be breaking through. “That is a strange painting,” Mr. VeneKlasen said when we asked him about it. “That cracking is on purpose. We have dealt with a few pieces that he appears to have baked in an oven, like this one.” Picabia also intentionally  left at least one painting out in the rain.

Picabia’s refusal to back a single, specific movement, as well as his simultaneous denigration of, and passion for, painting makes him resolutely and thrillingly contemporary, a prototype for the movement-free, post-Babel art world that has existed since the 1970s. Just think of Joe Bradley, scrawling minimal graffiti on canvas in one show, then silk-screening monochrome figures the next: Picabia would have approved.

But his rapid evolution through styles, and his willingness to work in many at once in his late years, has also historically opened Picabia to charges of dilettantism, or a willingness to chase notoriety by any means necessary—which are also, of course, key aspects of today’s contemporary art world. One is tempted, in short, to question his sincerity.

Eliding personal politics and aesthetics is always a questionable project, but Picabia continually sought to conjoin the two, portraying himself as an insatiable provocateur, and so his behavior during World War I seems to be both fair game and potentially instructive about his art. After the war, Picabia proudly wrote that, when asked that classic question, “And what did you do in the war?” he smugly replied, “I got bored as hell.” (Actually, he assiduously avoided the conflict, and spent almost a year in New York with friends, after abandoning a mission to the Caribbean to procure molasses for Allied troops that was supposedly arranged through family connections.)

Should we expect consistency from artists, aesthetics or political? Or is it sufficient for them to be, like Picabia, kaleidoscopic talents, limitless idea factories, however capricious? In his later years, Picabia penned a poem, which offers, if not a complete answer, what sounds like a bracingly honest and thoroughly contemporary response to that question. “If you wish, completely nude, I will grow old / with your smile, my hands on your breasts,” he wrote. “Above all do not throw me into the void!”


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