The problems of sincerity and focus have plagued Picabia’s reputation. Looking around Tibor de Nagy, you see such a variety of styles that you might think you’re looking at a group show. At the very beginning of his career, Picabia painted conventional subjects, such as landscapes, in a mode influenced by impressionism and Fauvism. He quickly moved on to join the cubist Puteaux group, which included Fernand Leger and Marcel Duchamp, and displayed a Futurist-inspired fascination with movement and the mechanical.
While at the forefront of modernism, Picabia took a turn. In 1916 he began publishing the Dada periodical 391, which published provocative pieces by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. “Art must be unaesthetic in the extreme, useless and impossible to justify,” Picabia wrote. He published a book of poetry, appeared in a film, and made a ballet. For his 1920 Dada sculpture, “Nature Morte: Portrait of Cézanne/Portrait of Renoir/Portrait of Rembrandt,” Picabia attached a stuffed monkey to a wooden board and crudely painted the title around it. Painting is old-fashioned and silly, he seemed to be saying. Yet he kept painting.
Ever an iconoclast, in the mid-1920s Picabia left behind Dada and and began painting the figure. He started his “Transparencies,” in which different transparent images are painted over each other until they form a dark jumble of lines from which we catch glimpses of form. Then he moved to the south of France and in the 1940s began painting tasteless takes on girlie magazines.
Like de Chirico’s midlife conversion to classicism, Picabia’s later paintings baffled critics. What to make of an avant-gardist who seems to be retreating into safer territory? A 1938 review says Picabia’s landscapes from the ‘30s look like they are painted by “a talented schoolgirl” and took the artist to task for “intellectual shenanigans.” Some of the ‘40s paintings feature women in garter belts disrobing next to cheesy props. They were dismissed for a long time as kitschy and ham-handed, as if he were painting on black velvet for a roadside audience.
Rather than let Picabia languish on the side of the road, painters Julian Schnabel and David Salle have proclaimed the painter’s influence. After an exhibit of Picabia’s late paintings in 2000, a museum exhibit in 2002 called “Cher Peintre” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris declared Picabia the poster boy for postmodern painting. The show highlighted a strain of painting that goes beyond its ostensible subjects and instead creates a critical dialogue about the process of making meaning itself. Picabia wasn’t making bad paintings, the current critical reevaluation goes, he was making “Bad Painting” 40 years ahead of its time.
The Paris show included painters such as Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger, Luc Tuymans, John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton, all of whom use images from the mass media and create stylistic rebuffs to high art. Tuymans has done paintings of Disney World the size of a billboard; Currin bites the style of Norman Rockwell and American magazine illustration; Peyton cuts her subjects out of Rolling Stone magazine. Like the critical appreciation of these artists, the postmodern resuscitation of Francis Picabia is ultimately a guilty defense of pleasure – as if style needed an explanation.
Like Currin’s balloon-breasted caricatures, Picabia’s later work at Tibor de Nagy can seem tittillating and cheesy, like laughing at an erotic cake and eating it, too. Despite their sensual content, “French Can-Can” (1942-43) and “Femme neu” (1938) were already old-fashioned at the time the recovering Dadaist put paint to canvas. The old story was that Picabia had lost his bearings and was making ridiculous work; the new story is that Picabia was being clever and tongue-in-cheek, ushering in critical sophistication about image-making.
But let’s be honest: nothing could be less provocative than painting about painting. Despite art historians’ attempts at rewriting the Picabia story, Picabia knew what every other artist knows: the work doesn’t unfold as a story. Sometimes you don’t choose the work you make. It doesn’t necessarily come from a critical urge. You are simply compelled to make it.
Time magazine scoffed at Picabia explanation for his ‘30s landscapes; he said “I painted them because I wanted to.” It’s a wisecrack; it’s glib; but no one could doubt that Picabia, who was a wealthy heir and never had to make paintings for his living, was telling the truth. The story of Picabia could be the story of modernism: a wealthy European creates more and more images in a compulsive search for new forms of telling the truth, discovers himself at a void, and winds up coming back to old ways of making images but with a new appreciation for the limitations and possibilities. But that would just be a story, wouldn’t it?
Francis Picabia, “Funny Guy,” at Tibor De Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York. Through January 23.