New York

Francis Picabia, Jacques Villon, John Seery, Don Lewallen

Various Locations

One either sees the Picabia Retrospective as a fragmented sequence which has no internal logic or stylistic cohesion––“We are not responsible for what we do; we are ignorant of our acts until we accomplish them”––or, one attempts to view Picabia’s development as a logical outgrowth of a central predeterminant. The first way is easier. You don’t have to know anything and everything Picabia painted after 1926 can be dismissed. The latter method, that of Dr. William Camfield, the Curator of the exhibition and the author of its expert catalog, involves a lot of wrangling and hard relooking at what has long passed for incompetent daubing, and, I am afraid, which will continue to appear to us in this blighted manner. Had Dr. Camfield’s selection succeeded, we would be able to reassess late Picabia, but no fundamental shift in our views concerning this work has been instigated.

Breaking things down roughly, Picabia’s career may be said to be played out in four main episodes. The first, from about 1902 to 1909, amalgamates elements of Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism. The pictures are representational, tasteful, modern, but not distinguished above other modern painting of the day which stemmed from Neo-Impressionist color theories. At moments they are wretchedly inferior to this production. A Fauve Picabia is decimated beside a Matisse and the straight Divisionist landscapes, while eminently sellable, only flicker beside late Signac or any original Divisionist who made it to the turn of the century. Picabia, in this respect, was born a generation too late.

Between 1909 and 1913–14, Picabia succumbed to the appeals of Section d’Or Cubism, with its intermixtures of flattened and static Futurist elements and its inability to relinquish representationalism, couching this timidity within a seemingly complex and arcane theory.

The conclusion of this period is marked by Picabia’s participation in the Armory Show to which he came as a kind of Hierophant of Modern Art without portfolio but with an intimate association with New York City’s elite modernists––Stieglitz, the Arensbergs, de Zayas, Marcel Duchamp. Clearly, at this “moment, Picabia is a painter of major Section d’Or rank. The titles of the latter paintings of this period bespeak the genius he will bring to the work of the third phase, about 1913 to 1924, when Picabia is, without question, one of Dadaism’s greatest activists and artists. Everything after this, however, until his death in 1953, is marked by bitter alienation from Surrealism, that is, of a Dadaism usurped and transposed by Breton from the art of an individual for the amusement of an elite clique into that of a communal exertion aimed at social and psychic liberation. Although dependencies of Surrealist automatism and superimposition, Picabia’s later pictures are attenuated and depressing. No longer a creative force, Picabia aimed at making Modern Art (capital letters). The exquisite aphorism, ”When I have finished smoking, I am not interested in the butts," is an insufficient defense for us to reinvestigate the last phase with relish.

Dr. Camfield does. His premise runs like this: Whatever the external stylistic pressures––Neo-Impressionism, Futurism, Dadaism––Picabia’s work was an “Art . . . conceived not as the representation of the appearance of nature, but as the equivalent of one’s emotional experience of nature––an equivalent secured by orchestrating the autonomous and symbolic properties of form and color.” To say, however, “Though hardly new, these late 19th-century Symbolist-Synthetist concepts merit emphasis for they formed the basis of Picabia’s esthetic convictions the remainder of his life” is quite a limb to be out on, considering that it is so circuitous a path of arriving at Dadaism (let alone the late work), a movement heretofore regarded as brutally divorced from such late 19th-century commonplaces. Moreover, the view is explicitly denied in the artist’s Aphorisms, with which Dr. Camfield gratefully precedes his text.

Yet, there may be justice in the scholar’s take, since the argument was first put forth, as Dr. Camfield indicates, in the three exhibition catalogs written by Roger-Miles for the work of 1907–09, at which time Picabia was uniting aspects of Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism. The critic in question was then a considerable figure in support of retardataire artists whose compositions imitated the soul-states thought to be quintessentially realized in the classicizing figure-groups and schematic landscapes of Puvis de Chavannes. It startles me that Picabia should initially find apology among Nostalgic and Idealist adepts. It is another indication of the wide support which timid forays into established modernism always find. Likewise, during the years of the toughest work by Picasso and Braque, Picabia elected to exhibit with the Rouen-based Société Normande de Peinture Moderne (turf of the Duchamp Mafia) which, with the so-called painters of Puteaux, coalesced into the various Cubisms most alienated from the abstract considerations of Picasso and Braque, during the heroic years of 1908–1911. Apollinaire’s cant about La Flamme or Alexandre Mercereau’s Peladanish turns of phrase sustain Dr. Camfield’s original insights into the Symbolist hangover, so to speak, which Picabia felt as necessary to a modernist apprenticeship.

Certainly, Picabia’s Cubist painting, when, at last, he got there, the Dances at the Spring, the Procession Seville, the extravagant Edtaonisl and the various Udnies rank among the most rewarding of all Cubist paintings. In his desire to present the arguments connected with the logical meanings of these paintings, Dr. Camfield glosses over their complex relationship to Futurism, particularly of the crazy-quilt croppings of Severini’s Paris period, and focuses our attention on the fascinating speculations of the painter, Philip Pearlstein, adumbrated in an unpublished master’s thesis for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, 1955. Pearlstein, in a rich intuition, opened up the question of a classic pooling of thematic material; Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is none other than Picabia’s Udnie (“nudie”). Both artists were to embroider on the adventures of this heroine in a private mythomorphism. The Edtaonisl of Picabia was really an anagram interlace of Star Dance (“etoil[e]” and “ dans[e]”). Duchamp saw her erotic career culminate in the violation of the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, while Picabia envisioned her as the Young Girl Born Without a Mother, that is, spawned by the machines of the supreme machine-style of New York Dadaism. And here the question still hangs fire. We tend to think that the influence stems from Duchamp. This superb exhibition and its scholarly presentation counters, if not openly refutes, this attitude. Redress for the many is hinted at; it may have been, after all, Picabia who, in the first instance, imposed his views on Duchamp and not the other way round.

Apart from sheerly visual delights, several issues mark Lucien Goldschmidt’s survey of more than 120 prints, including unknown ones and unknown states of known prints, from Jacques Villon’s masterly production. The fact that so numerous a body of rare and unique impressions should be revealed is cause enough to make a scholarly event as well of the installation. Certainly, the wholeness of the catalogue raisonné of Villon’s prints compiled as recently as 1950 by Auberty and Perussaux is now open to question. That such a trove could come to light this soon after the artist’s death in 1963 hints that still other impressions also may appear. The Goldschmidt catalog, then, with its scrupulous checklist, makes for a small corrective to the basic reference work.

The introductory essay by Riva Castleman, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings of the Museum of Modern Art, treats Villon’s graphics in an easy way, touching on his period affiliations, but avoiding the ramifications inherent in these hints. Villon’s relationship to Helleu is an instance in point. Also, a certain conviction about the excellence of these prints is absent; what the exhibition demonstrates is the transformation of a talented artist of conventional sympathies into a graphic figure of major rank in the 20th century, one whose production in this branch is perhaps only superseded by the springlike elegance of his later painting.

Villon, at the turn of the century, was responsive to the fashionable, an attitude which took nourishment from the appurtenances of the Norman bourgeoisie as he knew it from his own close family life. The note of contentment struck in the broad nature of his familial subject matter was at moments open to social, and thereby, self-criticism. The jagged and expressive variations of pushcart vendors, the Marchands de quatre saisons, for example, illustrates this possibility. (I wonder whether, in this connection, the social prints of Steinlen, although realized with only an empty flourish, are not in part a model for this comparatively unusual subject matter in Villon.)

From this vantage, Villon gained access to the thrilling modernism of the Puteaux group and the Section d’Or, doubtless through his brothers, Marcel Duchamp and the sculptor, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, all three of whom were drawn, for example, by the striking theme of the nude in the forest, Villon in his graphics as early as 1909. My qualifications are based on the fact that, the body of Duchamp and Duchamp-Villon scholarship notwithstanding, the stylistic interweavings of these brothers (and sister, too, Suzanne Duchamp-Villon), remain hazy, not just in terms of the fraternal adaptations of common motifs, but more importantly, in terms of ideas. A microscopic example of actual collaboration between Marcel and Jacques is recorded in the Menu de Première Communion although actual collaboration is hardly the point. The issue is one of influence and inference. The stylistic cohesion of the family group broke down during the First World War. Marcel, expatriated in New York, envisioned the anarchistic ploys of Dadaism but Villon remained faithful to the syncretism (Cubism plus nature) of the Section d’Or, a pictorial attitude which sufficed to carry him to the coloristic heights which, for me, epitomize what in America is meant by the term “French Painting,” particularly in the years immediately following the Second World War.

To retrace: one is first struck by the orbit of fashionability of the early work through about 1909, a tastefulness dominated by the drypoint portraitist, Helleu, or similar figures such as the boulevardier playwright-artist, Henry Bataille, or the now wholly forgotten but delightful color etcher, Alfred Le Petit. The flourish of this graphic tradition revived the gaiety of 18th-century masters such as the Saint-Aubin. It was Helleu, for example, who, even before 1900, decorated his walls with Louis Quinze picture frames hung one within the other. Ambitiousness and tastefulness went hand in hand. Villon turned to the female members of his family for his themes, their elaborate garments and coiffures, their tea-time conversation in imitation of English life––one points to Jacques-Emile Blanche in this connection––or to sausage curled little girls in gauzy pinafores playing dolls. Each of these themes provides variations in composition and delicate color quite unlike the heavy touch of a Sargent in his portraits of professional beauties and quite different too from the arch mannerism of a Boldini.

The technical aspects of these prints, refined inkings and subtle overprintings, lead to impressions of first quality and, at moments, veer to portraits of psychological persuasiveness. A heretofore unknown portrait of Villon’s father, executed in 1904, is intriguing by virtue of its allusion to the symbolist proclivities of Carriérre’s painting and lithography. It appears that Villon’s smoky modulations attempt to devise a means within a recalcitrant technique of paralleling the easy sfumato of the then vastly admired master of maternal themes. In short, the conflict between means and effect stimulates me and suggests in this connection that a once-wide admiration for the colored drypoints of Raffaëlli may be pointed to as a conceivable bridge between such otherwise patently disparate sensibilities.

John Seery is responsive to the changes in field painting, particularly those shifts made in the last two years. He begins squarely in the immediately antecedent vanguard and this more than anything dates his canvases. Only an unusual, depleted range of color allows for the possibility for a wider reading and indicates that Seery may have been studying older, offbeat work by such as Roger de la Fresnaye or Orphist painting generally. He uses just contrasts of limpidity and turgidity, spurt and sprawl, transparency and opacity. His subdued expressionism is primed by the tender cast and tinting of his color and an idiosyncratic stroke that sets up erratic passages of overlapped scallops and rickrack shapes, especially when he composes in large horizontals.

These compositions recall the recent work of William Pettet although it is possible that Seery is unaware of Pettet’s pictures. It seems unlikely, though, that Seery avoided the past year’s worth of exhibitions at the David Whitney Gallery say, or those of his own gallery, the places at which the artist’s particular kind of sensibility is formidably sustained and at which many of the new criteria of field painting are put out for public consumption and then quickly reduced to cliché.

Reservations similar to those evoked by Seery’s pictures seem
equally applicable to the new work of Don Lewallen. The present
painting, in comparison to what has been shown to me throughout the past year, is more avowedly dripped and bled, and the clotting is thicker. Lewallen’s fresher brightness is conjoined to a revocation of the grid system which formerly had been the scaffolding on which the artist could hang a love for amorphousness and disembodied color. The present roseate, fruity oranges mottled with lavender or sprinkledwith dry acrylic reveal a reassessment, not only of early Abstract Expressionist usage as it might stem from Pollock or Hofmann, but also of the Mattas and Ernsts of the internalized dreamscapes.

Robert Pincus-Witten