New York

“Francis Picabia: Late Paintings”

Way back in the twentieth century, the Lord saw that, in later life, some of the saints of early modern art had begun to commit heresy, and He decreed that at this critical point they were to be desanctified. The fall of rebel angels included, of course, such late-style dropouts as Chagall, de Chirico, and Picabia, and even embraced postwar Picasso. But around 1980, when modernism no longer seemed so modern, one blasphemer after another began to take on the lure of forbidden fruit, challenging us to flick a switch or two and to look again at what once seemed beyond the pale of aesthetic decency. Weary of familiar catechisms, I was eager to go with this flow; and in 1983, in a spirit of serious impudence, I assumed the task of writing about the later work of Picabia, as then seen at the Mary Boone/Michael Werner Gallery. This anthology of what seemed the ultimate in silly and irrelevant art turned out to be a delight and a catharsis for me, the kind of liberation that comes from sweeping dusty prejudices out of the attic.

Now, in the twenty-first century, late Picabia has come to be such a cult item that it may start to reek of the same orthodoxy that made his early work canonic. Considerable respectability has been gained, for example, by the frequent citing of the way his transparencies—one corny image layered over another—have been appropriated by the likes of David Salle and Sigmar Polke. But despite such proper new genealogies, Picabia remains disarming, and the works inaugurating the Michael Werner gallery’s new space continue to tweak one side of my brain into nothing but smiles and the other, more serious half into finding fresh ways to reshuffle his wild cards so that they fit into a reasonable game of art history. As usual, the artist’s loopy inanity can reach laughing-gas heights. My favorite here might be a little picture of nothing but three coarsely painted flowers on a blue ground, a canvas that looks like a particularly inept still life or wallpaper swatch but defies any familiar category of pattern or decoration. This blithe spirit soars even higher in a sampling culled from the twenty “pocket paintings” Picabia exhibited in Cannes in 1942, oil-on-cardboard throwaways the size of cigarette packs, each marked with an off-the-cuff parody of those scary archaic or tribal heads once synonymous with rebellious adventures in modern art. (If Picabia can be thought heartless for maintaining his comic, bon-vivant style throughout the Occupation years, just remember that at the same time Matisse and Bonnard were turning out gorgeous still lifes.) And for further chutzpah, there’s a happy/sad clown of the mid-’30s that trumps Bernard Buffet’s postwar career.

As for exalted kitsch, Picabia remains the master, especially in the recycled trashy-magazine illustrations he re-created with the beginner’s technique learned from a how-to-paint handbook. True Romance and torrid sex, ’40s style, are abundant, including a gloss on the soft-porn lesbian theme of a black and a white girl getting to know each other better, a spicy pairing that goes back to the erotic languors of French Romanticism. Other spoofs originate in different necks of the woods, art historical and otherwise. Fearful Madonnas and three-eyed monsters from Catalan Romanesque art––the kind that made Picasso flare up in the ’20s––float cheerfully through these pictorial breezes, as do Byzantine heads and classical sculpture. Of the latter, I particularly enjoyed one of the see-through double images titled Adam and Eve, ca. 1931, which turns out, however, not to be our first parents at all but a set of siblings, Orestes and Electra. And to add more insult to injury, this classical sculpture, once copied scrupulously by every art student of Picabia’s vintage, is now rendered with such mock crudeness that, in one light blow, academic pieties crumble before our eyes. Long after the movement had run its course, Picabia’s Dada spirit still reigned, and even in 1948, five years before his death, he could thumb his nose at his own history, recycling under the appropriately titled Heresy and Sorcery an inscription-filled machine fantasy that looks like one of his textbook classics from World War I. As Dave Hickey, another fan, notes in his sprightly catalogue essay, what keeps Picabia alive and well is the way he keeps ducking the mantle of legitimacy. These are works that prick every balloon of beauty and high-seriousness, making us thirst for Diet Art and giving fresh life to that old saying, “It’s so bad it’s good.”

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.