“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”

Art, Contemporary art
5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
(1user review)

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Francis Picabia was born in Paris to a French mother and an aristocratic Cuban father whose fortune afforded the artist a life of fast cars, fabulous parties and frequent amorous conquests. According to the catalog for MoMA’s fantastic retrospective, Picabia (1879–1953) was “singularly wealthy” among his avant-garde cohort, but more pertinent, perhaps, was the sense of entitlement that allowed him to upend convention—apparently, for the hell of it.

A self-styled “funny guy,” Picabia was the great-granddaddy of bad-boy art, a restive genius and check-writing machine for later artists who cashed in on his accomplishments—though his work, like that of frequent co-conspirator Marcel Duchamp, wasn’t fully appreciated until the 1960s. Unlike Duchamp, Picabia remained a painter and, as such, was both gadfly and butterfly, confounding critics by mixing high and low culture while flitting between abstraction and representation. He embraced Impressionism, Cubism, Dadaism and photo-based realism and also oscillated between revolutionary and reactionary impulses in ways that complicate our understanding of his political inclinations. Though disgusted by the carnage of World War I, for example, he remained in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, living in Vichy France.

MoMA wrangles Picabia’s fractious career with a chronological approach that brings order out of stylistic chaos. The show begins in the early 1900s with Picabia the late-blooming Impressionist, who, rather antithetically to Impressionism itself, painted Monet-like landscapes from picture postcards instead of en plein air. By the teens, he’d progressed to Cubism, with allover compositions of interlocking shapes. That work brought him to New York for the 1913 Armory show—a trip that also began an association with the circle (Duchamp, Marius de Zayas and others) around Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, where Picabia showed the same year.

New York and his experiences during World War I (though drafted, he escaped the trenches) inspired Picabia to join the movement with which he remains synonymous: Dadaism. This phase of his work is largely defined by “mechanomorphic” drawings and paintings that speak to the diminished role of human agency in the Machine Age. But by 1921, he broke with Dadaism and embarked on a course that put him increasingly at odds with the general thrust of early-20th-century art. This is especially true of the pieces done during the Vichy years, which include realistic canvases sourced from magazine photographs (even pornography) and his beautifully weird “Transparencies”—diaphanous veils of layered images that dissolve into dissonant agglomerations of art-historical quotations.

Picabia was just as promiscuous with themes as he was with styles, though the one constant was his view that modernism’s high-mindedness was absurd. While this attitude proved to be liberating for future generations, it also ultimately led to the current situation in which the spirit of art has been reduced to a fungible commodity incubated in academia and marketed at art fairs. No doubt the funny guy would have found that amusing.

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Event website: http://www.moma.org
Event phone: 212-708-9400

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This is his first exhibition in the United States to chart his entire eclectic career. My favorite periods included Monsters and Collages. I also enjoyed his use of varnish in some of his work to produce what could appear as errors or mishaps in his work such as comic-book-like dots on a portrait.

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