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Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.

Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction

Museum of Modern Art | New York, New York | November 21, 2016-March 19, 2017

For many artists, scholars, critics, and curators of twentieth century art, few presentations have mobilized so much anticipation as the recent retrospective of the Franco-Cuban painter, poet, and polemicist Francis Picabia (1879-1953) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Titled after one of the artist's catchiest aphorisms, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction was the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist's work in this century, allowing many viewers to assess the full breadth of his career and the rich variety of styles, media, and affiliations that characterize this elusive avant-gardist's production for the first time. A collaboration between Catherine Hug, Curator at the Kunsthaus Ziirich, and Anne Umland, The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, the exhibition employed a traditional chronological model. The viewer was guided through Picabia's work in a manner that revealed the scope of the artist's career without diluting the slippery and contradictory aspects of his ever-changing visual practice. Thus, the exhibition was one that rewarded repeated viewings, inviting one to uncover the many linkages, motifs, appropriations, and questions hidden in plain sight across the duration of Picabia's oeuvre. And yet, as much as this retrospective presented the artist as an agent of aesthetic fecundity, it also forced any critic working on Picabia to confront the thick, monotonous rhetoric that has surrounded his work from the beginning--rhetoric that often complicates, "like so many gargoyles," any attempt to engage anew with Picabia's practice in the twenty-first century. This is the case with more recent criticism, which repeats the same vapid concatenation of adjectives that often reveal only the sparkling surface of his personality and extravagant lifestyle rather than a true engagement with the works on display. Picabia's aristocratic background and decadent addictions to sex, alcohol, opium, luxury travel, and expensive automobiles found a rough visual match in the extreme forms of insincerity, mockery, and travesty that form the crux of much of his work. However, these modes of negation and emptiness are also deeply intentional gestures that manifest in an expansive variety of visual styles and media. And they connect with a complicated constellation of political strategies embraced by artists and thinkers of both the left and right--something that many critics of modern art of the 1970s and 1980s Left find to be indicative of Picabia's aesthetic and political regressiveness rather than evidence of his understanding of the rapid commodification of modern art. Alternatively, as Umland suggests in the introduction to this exhibition's catalogue, Picabia's "irrepressible, unruly, nonconformist genius" and his "desire to be consistently inconsistent" are what makes his work such a significant contribution to the history of twentieth-century modern art.

The exhibition began with his first forays into the French avant-garde at the turn of the century and ended with works made in the year of his death (1953). First up was a series of monumental canvases of sunny, picturesque outdoor landscapes, such as Les Pins, effet de soleil a Saint-Honorat (Cannes) (1906), completed during Picabia's brief participation in the circle surrounding the great anarchist Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro. One was struck immediately by the sheer scale of the works, the electric color palette of yellows, indigos, and greens that display the blinding quality of light that covers the French countryside at the height of summer, and the thick brushwork that exaggerates the Pissarro commune's emphasis on impasto. The shock continued when one realized that the canvases were probably direct copies of picture postcards sold in small shops in the South of France, likely painted in the comfort of Picabia's studio and thus devoid of any engagement with Pissarro's anti-capitalist politics (fig. 1). Picabia's anarchism always remained an individualistic one; and so, the transgressions continued.

By the 1910s, Picabia was fully involved in the Parisian avant-garde circle that surrounded the poet and champion of Cubism, Guillaume Apollinaire. Through his friendship with the great poet and critic, he expanded Apollinaire's Cubist-Orphic ideologies into paint. These massive canvases, presented together in the second gallery, were some of the most powerful in the exhibition. Works such as La Source and Danses a la Source II (both 1912) dispense with gallery Cubism's complex matrices of monochromatic depth and volume to achieve a dynamic world of earthy colors, lyrical movement, and suggestive bodily forms collapsing in orgiastic collusion that are overtly erotic--most likely emboldened by Picabia's introduction

to Marcel Duchamp in 1912. But soon World War I thrust his practice into new modes of social critique. Escaping the front lines for New York City in 1915, Picabia turned to a new "mechanomorphic" style of sleek, hard-edged machine portraits of close collaborators such as the American photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz (who published many of Picabia's works in his periodical, 291) and sexually promiscuous jeune filies americaines (1915) that eroticize the machine and disembody the human form simultaneously (fig. 2).

By 1919, Picabia--recovering from addiction to alcohol and drugs in Switzerland and now inspired by the emergence of Dada and its leaders in Zurich--was eager to found a Dada chapter in his hometown of Paris alongside his new pen pal and future collaborator, Tristan Tzara, beginning the most famous moment in Picabia's long career. While the life of Parisian Dada was brief, with participants of various intensities of commitment to the movement entering and exiting constantly, Picabia's engagement with Dada was highly productive and saw him abandon painting in favor of writing essays, manifestos, poems, and aphorisms, editing and printing publications, and fighting with his fellow Dadaists. L'Oeil cacodylate (1921) is a large graffiti collage of signatures, doodles, and sayings of Picabia's circle of friends, lovers, collaborators, and French celebrities. Completed while Picabia was recovering from an eye infection in the hospital, it captures the immediacy and spontaneity of bourgeois cultural life in 1920s Paris as well as Dada's continual willful manipulations of the aesthetic and conceptual expectations that had ruled European art before the war (fig. 3).

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, after an explosive collaboration with the Ballets Suedois and the filmmaker Rene Clair on the ballet Relache and the film Entr'acte in 1924, Picabia abandoned Paris and the radical new guard forming around Andre Breton and his Surrealist movement for the sun and fun of the Cote d'Azure. With this move to the Mediterranean, Picabia immersed himself in oil painting and a series of more representational aesthetic styles that he worked in until the last years of his life. The MoMA exhibition moved the viewer carefully through this constellation of realist styles connected only by Picabia's employment of a strong graphic line used to outline forms and figures. The lack of subtleties between light and shadow in these series, from the Carnival-inspired oil-enamel Monstre works (1924-27), to the cinematic Transparences (1927-30) of superimposed figures and art historical appropriations, holds the viewer at arm's length by limiting the visual field to the surface of the image. This refusal of depth seems not only formal but conceptual, too.

By the beginning of World War II, Picabia pushed his representational style into ambiguous territory, with his style falling somewhere between neo-classical kitsch and soft porn--references that by the 1930s had become linked with fascist aesthetics. L'Adoration du veau (1941-42) (fig. 4) presents a re-working of an Erwin Blumenfeld photograph of a cow's head on a pedestal surrounded by hands raised in unthinking adoration that was created during the German occupation of France and the establishment of Vichy. It constitutes a powerful confrontation with the rise of totalitarian dictators and fascist populist politics that had already changed Europe's course. For Picabia, it seems, the forms of political radicalism and aesthetic independence that had marked the early twentieth century--crucial to the ideological foundations of so many of the pre- and post-war movements of avant-garde cultural production--had by 1933 become accommodated by fascist organizations and their politics of aestheticization. Following MoMA's chronological narrative, the final galleries of Picabia's late work indicated a cultural darkening and cold, systematic emptying of the rigor and aesthetic power of painting in the decades of National Socialism.

However, Picabia's continual regeneration of painting by underscoring its impotence and loss of auratic power--to "Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better." in the full Beckettian sense--is perhaps the greatest achievement of Picabia's career. In the last years of his life, the artist retreated into a sparse style, leaving behind the monumental scale of his early work for a repetitive series of small, simple canvases with thickly applied painted backgrounds of unmixed colors interrupted only by a few small, scattered dots (fig. 5). Emptying painting of the figure, the ground, and the relationships that hold subjects securely within the space of a picture, Picabia ended his career with an appeal for a spatial-temporal language terrifyingly empty, yet beautifully open.

It is no wonder these works were so appealing to those artists associated with Neo-Expressionist painting of the 1980s. The painter and critic David Salle stated in his own initial engagements with Picabia's late work that it was often difficult to tease out the significance and import of Picabia's final modes, for Salle "had never before seen painting as untethered to notions of taste or intention; there was no way of knowing how to take it." For Salle and so many other painters, the fact that "the work was so undefended" was precisely what rendered it "exhilarating" in the postmodern era of advanced high capitalism. Picabia's mordant critique of bourgeois traditions and embrace of personal extravagance and radical anti-authoritarianism sits strangely in our current moment, resonating ambivalently with the forms of unpredictability, decadence, and ruthless individualism that have come to define our current political context. How Picabia's work will be understood in relation to an era structured by egotism and transgressions of a more dangerous kind remains to be seen.


(1.) My deepest thanks to Sara Beth Walsh, Senior Publicist for the Museum of Modern Art, for her help and support in the writing and researching of this review.

(2.) Much of the commercial criticism and scholarly response related to the recent presentation of Picabia's work at MoMA restricts assessment of the artist's biography, as the extravagance of his persona is emphasized at the expense of true engagement with the works on display. One of the few critics to acknowledge the breadth and depth of the curatorial narrative is Ara H. Merjian, who reviewed the first iteration of the exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich for on September 23, 2016. See article/francis-picabia-O.

(3.) By "critics of modern art of the 1970s and 1980s Left," I mean certain scholars and critics associated with October in that period, who felt Picabia's work to be a direct representation of his career-long engagement with ideals and values associated later with the birth of fascism in Europe in the early twentieth century. See, for example, Yves-Alain Bois' short book Picabia (Les Maitres de la peinture moderne) (Paris: Flammiron, 1975) and his article "Francis Picabia: From Dada to Petain," October 30 (1984), 120-27. See also Benjamin H.D. Buchloh's discussion of Picabia's "regressive" art and politics in "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression," October 16 (1981), 39-68.

(4.) Anne Umland, "Francis Picabia: An Introduction," in Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, exhibition catalogue (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2016), 12-24.

(5.) The famous line is from Samuel Beckett's prose-poem, "Worstward Ho," in Nohow On: Company, III Seen III Said, Worstward Ho," ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove/ Atlantic Inc., 2014), 75.

(6.) David Salle, How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), 35.

(7.) Ibid.

Jordan Amirkhani

University of Tennessee-Chattanooga

Caption: Figure 1. Installation view of Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 21, 2016-March 19, 2017. (Photo: Martin Seek, [C] 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

Caption: Figure 2. Installation view of Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 21, 2016-March 19, 2017. (Photo: Martin Seek, [C] 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

Caption: Figure 3. Francis Picabia, L'Oeil cacodylate (The Cacodylic Eye), 1921, oil, enamel paint, gelatin silver prints, postcards, and cut-and-paste papers on canvas, 58 1/2 x 46 1/4 in. (148.6 x 117.5 cm). (Photo: [C] Centre Pompidou, NMAM-CCI/Georges Meguerdtchian/ Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York. Courtesy of the Centre Pompidou, Musee nationale d'art moderne-Centre de creation industrielle, Paris. Purchase in honor of the era of Le Beouf sur Le Toit, 1967. [C] Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGR Paris)

Caption: Figure 4. Francis Picabia, I!Adoration du veau (The Adoration of the Calf), 1941-42, oil on canvas, 41 3/4 x 30 in. (106 x 76.2 cm). (Photo: [C] Centre Pompidou, NMAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York. Courtesy of the Centre Pompidou, Musee national d'art moderne-Centre de creation industrielle, Paris. Purchase with assistance from the Fonds du Patromonie, the Clarence Westbury Foundation, and the Societe des Amis du Musee national d'art moderne, 2007. [C] 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGR Paris)

Caption: Figure 5. Francis Picabia, Lachete de la barberie subtile (Carte a jouer) (Cowardice of Subtle Barbarism [Playing Card], 1949, oil on board, 30 x 20 1/2 in. (76.2 x 52.1 cm), private collection. (Photo: Courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Markisch Wilmersdorf, Cologne and New York, [C] 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGR Paris)
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Author:Amirkhani, Jordan
Publication:Art Inquiries
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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