If his stories are to be believed, Picabia made copies of his father’s paintings as a boy, and sold the originals to fund his stamp collecting. As a young artist, in the first years of the 20th century, he painted Impressionist pictures from photographs, scandalizing artists and critics by thumbing his nose at the open-air orthodoxies of the school. Then he dove into abstraction, just one in a series of artistic shifts that would place him, at various points, ahead of his time, willfully behind it, or far off to the side. Feeling that consistency was the hobgoblin of small minds helped determine his way of life. “A conviction is a disease,” he once quipped. He wasn’t one for movements. He took up with the Dadaists, but then broke with them, writing “my colleagues annoyed me more and more, some because they believed themselves to be important, others by their sheer stupidity.” He spurned the Surrealists’ invitations. He put together lavish parties on the French Riviera with names like “Thursday Boxing Gala” and “…? And Some Sun,” one featuring live lions and panthers. He had love affairs, painted from soft-core pornography, and, late in his career, made mysterious near-monochromes. His third wife claimed that over the course of his life he had owned more than 100 cars. He signed some of his poems, “Picabia, cannibal, prankster, and loser.” The most famous of them begins: “I am a beautiful monster / who shares his secrets with the wind / What I love most in others / is myself.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” which opens to the public on Monday, captures the artist’s madcap genius in all its glory. It is one of the most exciting, most vital museum exhibitions to appear in the city in the past few years, and the United States has literally never seen anything like it: it’s the first Picabia retrospective in this country since 1970, and by far the most comprehensive.
When it comes to Picabia, comprehensiveness is no mean feat. His art sprawled out—wildly, messily, and thrillingly—for more than half a century. Curated by Anne Umland, of MoMA, and Cathérine Hug, of the Kunsthaus Zurich, where the show opened earlier this year, with MoMA’s Talia Kwartler, the show presents the full range of Picabia’s practice—as a painter, a poet, a letter writer, a party planner, and (not least) an insatiable gadabout—but more than that, it definitively establishes him as one of the key artists of the past 100 years, a figure whose influence, at once comic and manic and dark, continues to reverberate.
Picabia was not yet 30 when he began his mischief. Hanging just beyond the entrance to the exhibition, alongside a handful of other pleasant enough Impressionist scenes, is one that is more than 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It shows trees with thick leaves overlooking light-blue water, sailboats off in the distance. This is Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat (Cannes), 1906. Picabia was in his mid-20s when he painted it, living in Paris, the only son of a Cuban-born Spanish father who was a diplomat and a French mother, both wealthy, and he was quickly making a name for himself in the once avant-garde, now popular style.
Some critics swooned at Picabia’s pictures, but others registered complaint, one declaring them “a studio trick done by rule, and without any real observation of or reference to Nature.” Which was pretty much true: tossing aside the Impressionists’ commitment to painting outdoors, Picabia was working from photographs, in the comfort of his studio. The resulting canvases are well painted—and decidedly unoriginal. In a superb catalogue essay, art historian Gordon Hughes shows that Picabia even copied the exact locations and angles of older paintings by other artists, like Sisley.
Picabia had stirred up trouble—and he was just getting started. “Each artist is a mold,” he would declare some two decades later. “I aspire to be many. One day I’d like to write on the wall of my house: ‘Artist in all genres.’ ” The skilled hack was about to rush to the forefront of the vanguard.
In the heady Paris art scene of the 1910s, Picabia shape-shifted into a wildly inventive abstractionist. Angular shapes and curves—like brushy Kandinsky marks somehow gone solid—dart and tumble about these canvases. They look chaotic at a glance, but one senses strange patterns, a disquieting order, beneath all their tumult. (They prefigure, to my eye, some of Julie Mehretu’s most energetic moments.) In 1913 he headed to New York for the Armory Show—he’d been hanging out with Marcel Duchamp in Paris—where he met the American modernists and proved himself something of a publicity hound. “We must devote ourselves to setting down on our canvases not things but the emotions produced in our minds by things,” he told the New York Times.
I would argue Picabia never quite painted a masterpiece—no single, grand picture springs to mind when one thinks of him—and suspect that he would take that as a compliment. Rather than struggle to create iconic showstoppers, he focused on generating a river of images—a sensibility that now makes him feel deeply contemporary. The closest he came to a chef d’oeuvre was probably a pair of large, freewheeling abstractions he made in 1913. Udnie and Edtaonisl, each almost 10 feet square, look roughly how Stravinsky’s most rhythmically sophisticated compositions sound. The MoMA show’s curators have hung them together, and they practically explode off the wall, showing how far Picabia had traveled in just a few years. In a few more, he would go even further.
The ensuing years, when he was associated with the Dada movement, are the ones for which Picabia is best known. (No art history survey of the time is complete without his 1920 combined portrait of Cézanne, Rembrandt, and Renoir as a stuffed monkey, though it has been lost, which is perhaps fitting for so elusive an artist.) He palled around with fellow Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara, writing poems, designing and publishing journals, and drawing and painting his mechanomorphs, depictions of nonsensical machines that double as witty portraits. That period receives a large room in the MoMA show, which proceeds chronologically; it is just crowded enough with artworks to convey the freneticism of the moment without quite overwhelming viewers. A sound system pipes in a voice reading Picabia’s writing, as well as his lone musical piece, The American Nurse (1920), which consists of three plunking piano notes.
Picabia’s mechanomorphs were prescient, highlighting how even supposedly cold, rational machines contain traces of the body, of personality, of sex. They are also moving, memorializing friends and colleagues. A 1918 portrait of critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire that Picabia most likely drew after his friend was killed in the war shows him as a kind of tightly locked container, and carries a caption from Horace: “Tu ne mourras pas tout entière.” (“You shall not die completely.”) Another, from 1915, has the perspicacious photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz as a sleek camera. These pieces point directly to a wide swath of artists concerned with the sneaky anthropomorphism of objects, from Konrad Klapheck to Mark Leckey to Josh Kline.
It was in 1921, when Picabia split with the Dadaists, that his art began to get truly weird. He satirized the broad move toward Neo-Classicism at the time in various works (one stunner features a urinating dog: don’t miss it), and in the mid-’20s, using commercial Ripolin paint in shocking colors, he painted figures that range from frightening to funny. In one, a green-faced figure with one huge eye and a white suit shows off some lovely pink gloves. Titled at various points as a man and a woman, the figure’s gender is uncertain, but there’s no doubt it would make a fine villain in a Marvel comic. In others, couples kiss ravenously, seeming to consume one another’s faces. Clichéd scenes are pushed beyond any conceivable extreme and then pumped up with heavy doses of hallucinogens. These are often referred to as Picabia’s “Monster” paintings, and they would seem to anticipate various “Bad Painting” moments that would come later—from Magritte’s Vache period in the late 1940s to the work featured in the New Museum’s 1978 “Bad Painting” show, to so much of what gets made by young artists today. Picabia does not so much make a mockery of taste in these works as defenestrate it.
It is tempting to read Picabia’s relentless juggling of styles as a sign of cynicism, or even nihilism, but spending time in MoMA’s show, it becomes clear that neither charge is correct. His works are at once awful and awe-inducing. He executed his silliest ideas with great panache. “He is a great painter because he refuses to be a great painter,” is how a newspaper reviewer put it in the 1940s. He edges dangerously close to sincerity, but reliably finds a way to ruin the moment. He was a skeptic, one who favored indulgence over restraint.
It is difficult to look at some of Picabia’s works from between the wars and not get the disturbing sense that he was depicting a culture in stasis, awaiting disaster. In his “Transparencies” of the late ’20s and early ’30s, men and women wearing somber expressions are painted in layers, creating dense tangles of images. These figures are borrowed from centuries of European art, as are other elements in the pictures, like plants, architecture, and the odd Lamb of the Apocalypse. The “Transparencies” are, perhaps, portraits of a psyche, illustrations of the myriad things that come to mind when one views another’s face.
As the forces of war gathered in Europe, Picabia dipped into popular culture for source material, painting movie stars from posters and models from soft-core pornographic images. In some, his figures look sunny, oblivious. The women, all white, often nude, could almost be Third Reich–approved art, the curators note. Today, these paintings unsettle. In other works, the darkness is more direct. In a 1941–42 piece, hands reach greedily for a calf wrapped in a blue cloak, a shadow falling across its face, and in a 1940–41 canvas, a woman seems to derive an erotic charge from a hanged Pierrot, the Commedia dell’arte clown; her eyes closed, head tilting to the side, she is lost in ecstasy.
Picabia yoked together sex and death, exploring the malignant corners of human nature, but as much as one might want to understand these works as overt critiques of authoritarianism, the artist actually expressed support at some points for Benito Mussolini and Philippe Pétain, the chief of state of Vichy France. He also made anti-Semitic statements, and after the liberation of Paris, a warrant was issued that accused him of “relations with the enemy,” though it seems nothing ever came of it. (During World War I, he had also used family connections to avoid military service.)
“I play baccarat and I lose, but more and more I love this empty and sick atmosphere of the casinos,” Picabia once wrote. He was reckless, tempestuous, and easily bored. These are not great qualities in a person—in an artist, though, they are a kind of engine. Picabia was hell-bent on trying out new ideas, always ready to throw caution to the wind. He questioned everything. His work is a testament to the pleasure of living in the world in that way.
In 1939 Picabia wrote in one poem, “…I am perhaps / my own disciple.” I imagine him saying that with a mixture of pride and sadness—his originality knew no bounds, true, but he also had no followers. (Who could possibly keep up with him?) Look around today, though, and Picabia is everywhere. His hopscotching practice can be seen ricocheting through those of artists like Martin Kippenberger, Frances Stark, and Brian Belott, to name just a few who have followed his lead. Meanwhile, his work still overflows with fiery weirdness for others to discover and absorb.
One image from MoMA that keeps coming back to me is, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the man himself rather than one of his works. It’s from Entr’acte (1924), the film that René Clair made based on a number of Picabia’s absurd ideas. In one scene, Picabia is dressed in formalwear, chasing with a crowd of people after a hearse that has broken free of its reins and is flying down the street. He is giving it his all, running hard, but for just a moment, he looks away from the road and toward the camera, shooting us all a little smile. He is having the time of his life.