New York

Francis Picabia, Montparnasse, ca. 1941–42, oil on board, 41 1/2 x 30 1/4".

Francis Picabia, Montparnasse, ca. 1941–42, oil on board, 41 1/2 x 30 1/4".

Francis Picabia

Michael Werner | New York

Francis Picabia, Montparnasse, ca. 1941–42, oil on board, 41 1/2 x 30 1/4".

In 1983, Michael Werner and Mary Boone mounted the first survey of Francis Picabia’s post-Dada work to be seen in New York. The essayist for that occasion was the late Robert Rosenblum, who pointed out that while Picabia had a determinant place alongside Marcel Duchamp in the development of Dada and the picaresque adventures of the Mechanomorphs, his career had more or less petered out around 1924. Thirty years ago, such was the received truth of modern art history. Not only did the bracing shower of Picabia’s midcareer “Transparencies” speak to the artist’s own flight from a curdling Dadaism, but his “bad painting” also underscored his rejection of the affably decorative Synthetic Cubist style of his day. To be sure, the genius of Dadaism is literary, not painterly—and so, despite the occasional delights when Picabia yet again picked up palette and brush, his mediocre hand betrayed him at every turn. “Yet again,” since, after all, Picabia did begin as an aspiring if third-tier salon Impressionist at the turn of the last century.

But in New York during the late 1970s and ’80s, “bad painting” was something of a Good Thing—what with the appearance of David Salle’s version of the “Transparencies,” Julian Schnabel’s paintings clotted with broken shards, the East Village phenomenon, and the market resurrections of late Picasso and late de Chirico. In 1978, Marcia Tucker even organized a show called “Bad Painting” at the New Museum. Context is everything.

The present exhibition of twenty-five works suggests that, in the long run, we may have been too rash in our appreciation, and that Picabia’s “bad painting” of the ’20s and ’30s got really bad by the war years. The show contains two “Transparencies,” including the mediocre Edulis, 1935, and two kitschy nudes from the ’40s. Of the latter, Montparnasse, ca. 1941–42, which depicts a disheveled artist holding a painting of a nude, is the better example. (The images for Picabia’s girlie paintings, the best things he painted later in life, were culled from the pages of soft-core, “ooh-la-la” publications, in this case those in Paris Sex Appeal.) Printemps, ca. 1942–43, a composition split between a windblown, draped pinup and a Tarzanish barrel-chested male, is another rare work of note in the show. Most of the other paintings shown—quite a few of them pocket-size—are marked by a labored, uningratiating surface wherein indigestible images meld into dank protozoan forms or vaguely primitivizing patterns.

Arguably, Picabia’s failing hand as he aged was worsened by the moral duplicities necessary to his residence in the “Free Zone,” a division of territory in the South of France worked out between the German government and the vile Maréchal Pétain during World War II. The artist’s wartime world was one of privileged, eroticized fiction—a Free Zone Riviera still clinging to the glittering myths of swank casinos fallen on hard times, of music-hall stars whiling the day away in sunlight by the Bay of Angels, just a brief yacht excursion up from Monte Carlo.

Nevertheless, Picabia believed in the existence of an inculpating “Dossier Picabia” that could lead to his arrest, as Maria Lluïsa Borràs, author of the fundamental 1985 book Picabia, tells us in her chapter on the artist’s war years. Though I find scant redemption of this work vis-à-vis young painting today—as audiences were able to in the ’80s—my obduracy in no way blinds me to the possible effects of his dread. To make bad paintings merely as bad paintings—works not to be resurrected sans the campy quotation marks—is not the worst of possible consequences of so reasonable a fear.

Robert Pincus-Witten