The president-elect’s favorite term of abuse is “loser” – lobbed more than 200 times from his toxic Twitter account, at victims from Jeb Bush to Rosie O’Donnell. When people like him are winners, “loser” might be an insult worth reclaiming. There’s a photo-collage from 1920, the first Francis Picabia ever made, in which the French artist tears apart his face, sutures it with hastily pasted papers, and brands his chin with the all-caps word RATÉ: a loser, a failure, a man defeated. And yet he flashes a crafty smirk, peeking out from under one of those pasted scraps. A “loser”, claimed Picabia in the years after the first world war, was the finest thing you could be; it meant you had failed to obey the dictates of a society that had lost its collective mind.
This week the Museum of Modern Art in New York opens its monster Picabia retrospective, six years in the making – a boisterous, scruffy feat of a show, and one that should help refashion the reputation of Dada’s trickiest misfit. (The show is co-organized with the Kunsthaus Zürich, where it first appeared this summer.) It is the first major show of Picabia in the US since 1970, and it includes not only his early Cubist works and his collaborations with Dada buddies Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, but also wayward later paintings of pin-up girls and biblical babes, abhorred in their day.
With more than 120 paintings, plus a film, recordings, magazines and even a couple of carpets, you may at first get the impression that Picabia was clowning around – that he jumped from one style to another so wantonly that he couldn’t have had any convictions. That isn’t true, but you’ve got to look past style to see why. His discordant, self-contradicting art, in which wispy watercolors and hi-tech pistons could hang side by side, had a clear conviction: to crush distinctions between high and low, elegance and kitsch, and to force us all to the limits of taste.
He was born in Paris in 1879, to a Cuban father who made a killing on a sugar plantation and a French mother with her own fortune. (Though he was happy to play up his “exotic” heritage if it served his career – a New York Times critic in 1912 called him “the Cuban who out-cubed the Cubists” – it was the family money that really helped.) His early paintings, of Notre-Dame cathedral or of some wind-bent trees in Cannes, are Impressionist-lite renderings in the manner of Monet, Sisley or Pissarro. But they’re flat, unresponsive pictures, and if you find them insincere, you’re on to something. Where Monet and his colleagues worked en plein air, Picabia painted these early works from postcards – taking a readymade landscape and translating it into a readymade style. He wasn’t following Monet; he was bootlegging him.
As Europe tipped into war, Picabia began to paint large-scale Cubist canvases that rendered women, couples and dancers as interlocking curved planes. By 1914, he had been conscripted into the French army, but with his father’s help he got a plush assignment in Havana – and then went Awol in New York. The Big Apple, like the Dada capital of Zurich, was a haven for European artists in no mood to fight, and here Picabia met Duchamp, Man Ray, and also the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose avant-garde magazine 291 featured Picabia in yet another style. A “portrait” of Stieglitz takes the form of a metal contraption featuring a retractable metal grille. A “nude American girl” appears as a hydraulic cylinder, drawn with the exactitude of a technical diagram. Bodies that Picabia once depicted as planes of color now appeared as complex machines, kitted out with pumps and valves, greased by desire.
“Francis Picabia always attacks himself,” the artist wrote in 1920, the height of his Dada years, and those attacks were merciless. That chopped-and-screwed self-portrait, the one in which he designates himself as a “loser”, also proclaims him a “joker” and, in a complex pun, a rastaquouère: a nouveau-riche foreigner. (The photograph itself was probably shot by Man Ray.) A printed handbill shouts that “Francis Picabia is a stupid Spanish professor”, a “funny guy”, and simply “nothing!” And when he exhibited, he was more likely to shoot himself in the foot than to aim for approval. The best gallery of this show recreates much of a 1922 solo exhibition in Barcelona, in which Picabia hung wholly abstract drawings of circles, rings and oblongs alongside delicate, campy portraits of Spanish women, included to undercut the abstracts’ credibility. For some of his contemporaries, non-objective painting was a holy thing. For Picabia, it was just one style among many, and hit hardest when he deflated it most.
Dada fizzled by the early 1920s, and when Picabia took up painting again he went as far as his bad taste could take him. Instead of oils he used commercial house paint, and his “Monster” paintings of this time feature embracing lovers or carnival characters covered in garish zigzags and polka dots. (There’s also a landscape of the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, whose palm trees are rendered with glued-down macaroni.) Even more vulgar were his so-called transparencies, in which trashy biblical figures are overlaid with outlines of other bodies. If you’re really attached to Picabia’s great Dada years, you may try to justify these garish paintings as yet another imposture – as a decades-long ironic commentary on the fiction of originality. The more likely explanation is that he was so restless, so unwilling to stick with a single style, that ugliness offered the most space to run wild.
Me, I love the Monsters; those Picasso-mocking ladies equipped with extra pairs of eyes have the hell-for-leather disarray of his best Dada works. But the transparencies, with their layered figures in dreary browns, are harder to esteem. And as for his nudes of the 1940s – unloved in their day though now, in this era of scrambled high and low art, more appreciated – what else is there to say except that they look like Nazi porn? Working from soft-core magazines, Picabia painted a whole series of buxom blondes in the altogether, sometimes with men, in one case chilling in bed with a bulldog. Their photographic sources put them in a lineage that stretches all the way back to those postcard-sourced landscapes, but their icy flesh and kitschy poses rhyme, defiantly, with the fascistic painting of the day. One quintet of bathers looks disconcertingly like the marmoreal Aryan nudes of Adolf Ziegler, Hitler’s favorite artist.
Picabia, who stayed in southern France during the war, made some blandishments to Marshal Pétain in the press, and he spoke less than kindly about Jews. Yet if his late girl-on-girl paintings make us uncomfortable today, it’s not because they’re actually propaganda; it’s that they’re slippery enough that, in another context, they might be. For an artist who hated consistency, even the wickedest of styles was worth picking up for a time, if you could dismantle its preconceptions by doing so. That, this historic show affirms, was how Picabia thought of style: not as an outgrowth of his own creation, but as a readymade set of procedures that he could fiddle with, turn inside out, and finally break apart. His fraudulence was his greatest genius. He was the loser who won it all.