Picabia Alert

Picabia Alert #11: ‘Pa’ at Venus

Francis Picabia, Pa, ca 1934, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 27 in.COURTESY VENUS OVER MANHATTAN

Francis Picabia, Pa, ca. 1934, oil on canvas, 29½ x 27 inches.


“Picabia Alert” takes note of shows and publications that include the wily French artist Francis Picabia (1879–1953), aiming to sate Picabia appetites until a retrospective of the artist arrives at the Kunsthaus Zurich and New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2016.

There’s a saying: the only thing better than a Picabia is a Picabia with a great provenance, and that is certainly the case with Pa (ca. 1934). Appearing in “Fétiche,” the current show at Venus (née Venus Over Manhattan) in New York, the dark and smoky number was owned not only by Mike Kelley but also by Gertrude Stein, and appeared in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s treasure-filled 2012 “The Steins Collect” show (where it seems to have been dated 1932). Now it is back on the Upper East Side, on loan from Sandy Rower, the grandson of Alexander Calder who now heads the Calder Foundation.

As is typically the case in Picabia’s “Transparencies” paintings (which are usually dated between 1928 and 1932), there is quite a lot going on here: that creepy, stone-faced monk at right; at least two sets of eyes near the center that seem to correspond to the lines of at least two separate faces; a green, orchid-like plant hovering just behind those heads; the necklaces at bottom; and a bounty of difficult-to-read shapes and marks in the distant background. And then there are the layers of exoticism and eroticism in the work: this is a distinctly discomfiting Picabia.

The piece resembles a surreal dream sequence in a film (of perhaps a slightly later date), or a portrait of a psyche overflowing with memories and visions, or an artist trying out ideas, one after another, plunging deeper into art history. Faces and forms proliferate, but no single image ever holds—except, that is, for a few fragments: those white eyes, which seem to hold secrets, and those red lips, which will never be able to reveal them.

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