New York

Francis Picabia

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

It has become possible to speak about Francis Picabia’s later work only in the light of the current postmortem on Modernist values, since what was previously unspeakable was its apparent subversion of one of Modernism’s most sacred canons: the artist as unique individual engaged in a problem-solving activity from which would develop an original “style,” a heroic myth that is currently enjoying a revival. Picabia’s work is not original in this sense; it stylistically defeats attempts to determine a unified “vision,” confiscating the image in favor of the signature as the sign of authorship. Indeed, one of the artist’s most “characteristic” works, L’Oeil Cacodylate, 1921, is literally more inscribed with his friends’ than with his own handiwork.

Picabia’s profligate range of pictorialism is such that a good deal of current work could be given a superficial credibility in relation to it, except that the “art at any price” attitude contains little of Picabia’s Dadaist an-esthetic irony. As a body of work this is an art of parole, not langue: immediate, sensuous, discontinuous, seemingly indifferent to the puritanical strictures of Modernist syntax, it offers a lexicon of representational quotations from a multiplicity of visual sources, which plays off art history, his own work as well as that of his contemporaries, and popular kitsch. Picabia is the joker in the Modernist pack—irresponsible, capricious, juvenile, dealing the cards from the bottom but never revealing his own hand. If there is a content other than parody it is elliptical and opaque in meaning.

Picabia’s apparent resistance to building a progressive (historical) identity may nevertheless be of interest to us now for what it reveals of a dilemma in the construction of time and history, for we are currently faced with the recognition that while linear time, defined by a cause-and-effect interpretation of events, seems no longer a satisfactory model for life, it cannot be rejected in favor of pre-Hegelian alternatives of ahistoricity and the myth of the eternal return. Like Duchamp, Picabia was involved with concepts of simultaneity and nonlinear time, of which the “Udnie” sequence of paintings, 1912—concerned with time, movement, and memory—are an early example. Picabia’s transhistorical borrowings and pastiches of vernacular ephemera tend to confirm a desire to express the moment free of obligations to the past or the future. The “transparencies” of the late ’20s, multiple superimpositions of cartoons referring to arcane mythic themes, attack the problem differently, but also remind us that Picabia participated in the making of the film Entr’acte, 1924. The condensation of space and the quasi-narrative quality of these works, together with the melodramatic pulp-fiction scenarios of the ’40s, suggest that the artist had sensed cinema as the primary metaphor of 20th-century reality; one wonders why he did not pursue film as a medium. Perhaps, ironically, it was his own attachment to the auratic myth of painting that precluded him from following this path.

Jean Fisher