New York

Francis Picabia

Kent Fine Art

A line runs from Francis Picabia through Sigmar Polke to David Salle, indicating decline of significance and dilution of effect. The effect common to the work of all three is one of homeless sexuality—lurid, implicitly perverse, but peculiarly improbable, empty, and mystical in impact. In Polke, the sexuality exists as loosely erotic atmosphere, sustaining whatever happens to be adrift in it; in Salle, as the flotsam and jetsam of tired, conventional signifiers. With Picabia, we have it in full, unfashionable force: the bodily miasma itself, disrupting our inert line of vision, which expects stylized objects.

At the same time—and this is what Polke and Salle have picked up from Picabia, using it superficially, the way a poor Method actor mimicks expressivity without grasping its inner import—there is the manufactured indeterminacy of the picture as a whole, into which nothing fits exactly right, the whole point being to eliminate any sense of rightness. Here is the sophisticated beginning of what was later called “bad painting.” Transparency and solidity intermingle to coy, perverse effect; images are shredded on the pictorial husking floor, fragments embrace in fleeting mutuality. But the effect of poignancy is fake, for there is no point to the mutuality. Picabia plays a somnambulist’s game, in which every “memorable” element is a pawn of chance, that most artificial of intelligences. His sense of the spontaneous illicitness of composition and theme carries with it a carefully contrived irony.

The deliberate, provocative bizarreness of a Picabia picture, with its idiosyncratic mix of mystical effect and comic strip conventions, is particularly evident in Agneau Mystique et Baiser (Mystic lamb and kiss, 1927). A schematized contour drawing in black line of a transparent lamb is overlaid on and interlocked with another of a flatly painted, contourless couple. The crotch and tail—“erogenous zones”—of the lamb are overemphasized. The whole thing looks like a Greek vase painting gone amiss. It is transparent in more ways than one—a kind of bad joke mocking love, both sacred and profane. It seems as much antireligious as antierotic in import. Indeed, the stupidly grotesque figures of Les Trois Grâces (The three graces, 1924–27) seem antimythological, as well as anti-female. But aren’t they also anti-Picasso, and thus anti–fine art? Perhaps, after all, it is only the irreverence that counts in Picabia.

Apart from the brilliant artificiality of his compositions, the key to Picabia’s art has always been its implied misogyny. In most of these works, Woman is rendered in the mode of Pop myth—physically alluring but affectively flat: the object of overt desire, but also the symbol of covert depression. (In his early Dada works, she was converted directly into a machine, which made her at once less mythic and more inhuman.) She is freakish in her intangible longing. But most of all, she is an illusion: a populist mirage, implying the sullen hollowness of desire. The females in Myrtil, 1929, Salômé, 1930, Melibée, 1931, and Transparence, 1932, are magically haunting and potentially lurid dream images—Picabia’s use of transparency converts the conventionally solid into the diaphanous and hallucinatory—but there is a cloying, self-neutralizing sentimentality to them. They have the same necrophilic quality as the Pre-Raphaelite woman, who is their ancestor. There is no doubt justice in the charge that Picabia’s images are pornographic in intention, in that, like pornography, they split desire into love and lust, discarding the former while overestimating the latter. Picabia’s art—and much Dada and Surrealist art—is is symptomatic of this malady. It is testimony to the fact that a good deal of modern art bespeaks the failure of love, angrily and impotently idolizing lust instead.

Donald Kuspit