Who, really, was Francis Picabia? What kind of man painted the strange and often perverse works, currently on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, that are so perfectly encapsulated in the exhibition’s title: “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”? What sustained his willful inconsistency and aversion to commitment?
One thing’s for certain: The Picabia we meet in this show—curated by Ann Umland, Cathérine Hug, and Talia Kwartler, and on view through March 19—isn’t the one who would have been familiar to those of us who took our art-history lessons from MoMA in the 1970s and ’80s. The Picabia who counted then was a sometime abstractionist, sometime Dadaist; if not at the forefront of modern art, he was a close associate of those who were. He painted some of the earliest abstract paintings, such as La Source and Danses à la Source [II], both from 1912, which seem to marry the energy of Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s “orphism” with the somber, almost grisaille palette of Braque’s and Picasso’s early Cubism, but on a grandiose scale. Joining forces with the Dada movement, Picabia turned to painting deadpan diagrams of machine parts, spark plugs, and other such objects, adorned with legends designed to bring out their figurative associations—works like L’Enfant carburateur (1919). While the prewar abstractions, with their evocation of dance and its dynamism, possess infectious high spirits, these later “symbolic representations of man and human situations,” as Picabia scholar William Camfield calls them, contain a derisive power, interpreting feelings and personalities as merely hydraulic or electrical systems. One thinks of Henri Bergson’s famous observation that we laugh when we notice a mechanical element in human behavior. Picabia, eerily, leaves the laughter out.
But how Picabia occupied himself after the early 1920s and the dissolution of Dada as a movement was hardly known, at least to habitués of the major museums. Only in the 1980s, long after the artist’s death in 1953, did they begin to accord much honor to his later works. Before that, they were interesting primarily to a few fellow artists; Richard Hamilton, for instance, co-organized a 1964 exhibition at London’s ICA that included a few of Picabia’s later works. It wasn’t until 1976 that an exhibition at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris finally attempted to show the full range of work by a man whom the museum’s director, Pontus Hultén, could still rightly call “the most obscure of the great modern artists.”
By 1983, when another big Picabia retrospective traveled from Düsseldorf to Zurich and Stockholm, the influential critic Laszlo Glozer could proclaim his work “the bible of the young generation.” The ascension to prominence of artists like Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger in Germany and David Salle and Mike Kelley in the United States—to name just a few—suddenly threw a spotlight on Picabia as an unexpected precursor. He came to be seen (as the Swiss artist Peter Fischli remarks in an interview for the catalog of the current MoMA show) as a “pre-postmodern,” thanks to that same stylistic inconsistency and attitudinal contrariness that had previously made him impossible to digest. Picabia “never set out to create an authentic, unique artistic persona” and “was a master of le bien mal fait—done badly in a good way,” as Fischli says.