Francis Picabia: Art in Review
The New York Times
Roberta Smith
31 March 2006

The bad-boy painting style that Francis Picabia (1879-1953) evolved in the 1920's and 30's combined thin glazes of color with outlines of mostly female faces or nudes in a gamut of cloying illustrational styles. Brazenly kitschy and cornily erotic, these works were called transparencies and earned Picabia a place in the postmodernist pantheon that emerged in the 1980's. 

The paintings -- in effect large, tinted drawings -- bespoke a lifelong involvement with pen, pencil and watercolor that is explored in the first large show of Picabia works on paper in this country. Both an unqualified treat and a challenge, as well as oddly personal, it indicates a marked indifference to notions of style, consistency, skill or progress. 

A few especially impressive large drawings appear to rehearse the layered images of the transparent paintings. Much else alternates between the scrappily amateurish and the generically suave. Picabia could have drawn the old Breck girl advertisements if he chose to (or perhaps he copied them). And his interest in toreadors and dark-haired women in mantillas wears decidedly thin. 

But there are tantalizing exceptions. In the 1920's, an interest in neo-Classicism similar to Picasso's yielded a rose-tinted male nude whose pose suggests someone winding a watch, although the figure could almost be Narcissus peering into a small handheld mirror. Around 1949, Picabia's doodles included crouching nudes and leg-high cancan dancers rendered in a few heavy black lines and blots that evoke Paris in 1900, the year Picabia turned 21. My personal favorite is a small scrap in lavender ink from around 1918-20 whose overlapping images include several male heads (one resembles Duchamp), a possible self-portrait and scatterings of pattern and spills. It might have been tossed off during a picnic or a day at the beach. Luckily it wasn't tossed out.