Experimenting first with Impressionism, then Pointillism, and then Cubism and Dada, Francis Picabia (1879–1953) made himself impossible to categorize. On the occasion of his October retrospective at MoMA, we try to take his measure in the pages of ARTnews. Was he “one of the leading exponents of cubism in France,” or had he “ruined an amazing talent by trying to shock the bourgeois?” Painter Philip Pearlstein wondered how Picabia helped bring “such foreign ideas to our pragmatic shores.” Picabia’s layered “transparencies” looked back as far as classicism and ahead to the likes of David Salle and Sigmar Polke, and finally, confounding audiences, came his brash “girlie” paintings. —The Editors
Jan. 25, 1913
Picabia, one of the leading exponents of cubism in France, arrived on La Lorraine on Monday.
“Cubism is modern painting,” said Mr. Picabia. “I think, in fact I am certain, that cubism will supplant all other forms of painting. I was originally an impressionist. Now, cubism is not a development of impressionism. In my case it was a personal revolution of taste.”
—“French Cubist Here”
Feb. 22, 1913
Francis Picabia is now here, to explain, if possible, the meaning of his work and why he became a “brigand in art.” To be sure, Picubia does not call himself a “Cubist,” whose work he says “barring the few technicalities in painting, such as reproducing the original in cubes, has much the same theory as that of the Old Masters.” Picabia says also that “he does not produce the originals, but simply impressions of original subjects.” In this room of the “Cubists” there is a so-called picture with a curious title, “A Nude Lady descending a Stairway,” which is already the conundrum of the season in New York. Up to the present writing, I understand that no one has yet been able to make out of what looks like a collection of saddle bags, either the lady or the stairway.
—“A Bomb from the Blue”
April 28, 1928
Picabia is the grasshopper of contemporary art, leaping lightly from ism to ism and having a very gay time of it. He brings a juicy wit to a sometimes sterile field.
There are no dull moments. . . . There are wicked wiggles in every line; sly, mocking curves; a wink and a knowing smile behind each picture. But Picabia’s is a purely mental humor in spite of the fact that his subjects are so obviously physical; there is brilliant repartee; there are disembodied contes drolatiques; but the exhibition is quite innocent of any sensuality. Picabia, one feels, is a solitary observer of emotional activity rather than one who needs a partner to realize its pleasures.
—“Francis Picabia: Intimate Gallery”
Nov. 10, 1934
Picabia could have been a great painter had he chosen the right path. As it is, he seems to have ruined an amazing talent by trying to shock the bourgeois. The first canvas which we saw was that bit of mischief entitled “Junge,” which probably started out as a rather nondescript water scene containing a sail boat, some water and a slice of flattened landscape in the background. With some perverted instinct, perhaps cerebrally clothed in what Gertrude Stein terms the “fourth dimension,” or else cramped by a scarcity of canvas, Picabia was unsatisfied and superimposed a head on top of all this. The result of such eccentric tricks is obviously to obscure the painter’s genuine talent.
—“Francis Picabia: Valentine Gallery”
How did such foreign ideas invade our pragmatic shores? Picabia helped bring them here at the time of the 1913 Armory show. He was one of the few European artists to make the trip (he could afford it). And he held a series of newspaper interviews at the time of the opening, and again several weeks later on the occasion of a one-man exhibition, at Alfred Stieglitz’ avant-garde gallery, of watercolors made in New York after his arrival. This series of watercolors is, for me, Picabia’s highest accomplishment as a painter, and is central to his subsequent development. His interviews, given prominence in newspapers, were reprinted and widely circulated. He briefly was Mr. Modern Art, and his statements were crucial, I believe, to the evolution of esthetic opinion in this country.
Consider the following: “You of New York should be quick to understand me and my fellow painters. Your New York is the Cubist, the Futurist city. It expresses in its architecture, its life, its spirit, the modern thought.
—“Hello and Goodbye, Francis Picabia,” by Philip Pearlstein
When critics write of the quick and crude paint sketches of women smoking and staring that [David] Salle began layering onto his paintings, they usually attribute the development to the influence of art-historical sources: to a similar layering in the work of the German painter Sigmar Polke, say, or to the image-dissolve overlapping in the “Transparency” paintings Francis Picabia did in the late ’20s. Salle did visit Europe in 1977, but says he never saw a Picabia or a Polke.
—“The Artful Dodger,” by Gerald Marzorati
This intriguing exhibition . . . is dedicated to what came later, with more than 25 paintings executed between 1927 and 1951. Some are in another of Picabia’s principal styles—the “transparencies.” . . . These late works look back to classicism, to Siennese Madonnas, to Picasso, to Marcel Duchamp, and ahead to, especially, [Francesco] Clemente, David Salle, Markus Lüpertz, Sigmar Polke, and Georg Baselitz. Picabia’s breadth is evident here, as is his versatility and the strength of his artistic personality.
—“Francis Picabia: Michael Werner,” by Barbara A. MacAdam
Feb. 10, 2015
We’re venturing back to 1915 today, when Dada was raging and Picabia was making his classic mechanical drawings, which often harbor slyly humorous and erotic undertones. This one . . . is from a series of witty portraits that Picabia made of friends and colleagues, in this case the French-American photographer and critic Paul Haviland. . . . The electric lamp embodying Haviland is missing its plug, cut off from its power source . . . a reference to Haviland leaving New York, where he was part of the thriving scene around Stieglitz, to help his father with the family’s china business in Limoges, France. He ended up staying there and becoming a gentleman-farmer after his father’s death in 1922, cut off from the avant-garde scene of his youth.
— “Picabia Alert #4: A Portrait of Paul Haviland in Zurich,” by Andrew Russeth
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 159 under the title “Then and Now: Picabia, Grasshopper of Modern Art.”