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Francis Picabia at Michael Werner
Art in America
Jonathan Gilmore
September 2000

Although Francis Picabia's paintings of anthropomorphic, often sexualized, mechanical forms from before and just after World War I are routinely exhinited alongside the art of his contemporaries, his subsequent work from the 1920s until his death in 1953 has received only infrequent public exposure, and rarely comprehensive at that. This remarkably representative exhibits of 42 oils and gouaches from that later period suggest why. Picabia was a chameleonlike artist, instantly adopting and as readily discarding one artistic vocabulary after another. His early work passed though the styles of impressionism, Orphism, Dada,Surealism, and verbal and visual collagel his later art extended from composition that superimpose linear painted figures upon one another (and, sometimes, several of those on apinted ground), to painting based on pinup nudes and commercial illustrations and, finally, to coarse, heavily textured canvases that depict totems, masks and shields. 

Yet this restless, quicksilver proclivity for change came to suggest not so much a continual transformation in artistic premises--as it would with another protean artist such as Picasso--but the absence of any artistic commitments at all. For Picabia, it was as if only the appearance of the style mattered, but not the imperatives that initially gave the style its urgency. Too early for his practice to be regarded as an ironic stance toward all forms of visual representation, and burdened with a rich inheritance and playboy sensibility, Picabia struck high-minded modernists (such as high-minded modernists (such as his friend Duchamp) as insufficiently principled in both art and life. 

Paintings rendered with the Overlay technique-mainly from The 1920s and `30s-predominated In the show at Michael Werner, perhaps because that Style became more genuinely Picabia's own than any of the others. It appears to prefigure a similar compostional strategy in postmodern art. Indeed, in its affinities with the work of Sigmar Polke and David Salle, Picabia's late Work often looks Strikingly contemprary. But whereas the work of those artists achieves a meaningful dissonance through a sundry aggregation of disjunctive motifs, Picabia's layered images serve to reinforce one another within each painting, coalescing in their signification into a unified expression or theme: in one case it is the seductive menace of his Portrait of Kiki (ca. 1938-40), a demimonde figure painted in lurid yellows and greens with a spider form imposed over her face; in another it is the cheesy eroticism of Reve (ca. 1935), an image of a sleeping woman about to be kissed imposed over a nude standing (like Botticelli's Venus, but with arms upraised) on the surface of the waves. Some of these overlay works reflect an interest less in an image's expressive power than in its status as a visual cliche (the dark-eyed women with flawless lips drawn in the unmodulated line of romance comic-book or movie-poster illustrations, for example). Other works, painted from magazine photographs and snapshots, such as the Portrait d'un couple (ca. 1942-43), blandly reproduce their borrowed artificial compositions wholesale, definitively neutralizing any of the meaning the image in its original form may once have yielded.