FRANCIS PICABIA is famous above all for his flamboyant stylistic and ideological diversity. This diversity has created a legend. The legend has to do with freedom: Picabia is heraldedespecially by artistsas the insouciant trickster deity of modernism, the Aquarian hero of artistic self-determinacy in the face of all sorts of orthodoxies, even (especially) the right ones.
The legend is productive and, given the pictorial efficacy of so many of his best works, deserved. It does, however, confuse the central problem of Picabia’s career. It mistakes the symptom (the artist’s matchless stylistic diversity) for the cause, which is philosophical. What made Picabia, among all the artists of the historical avant-garde, so apparently immune to stylistic and ideological coherence and codification? And what, if anything, separates his project from mere decadence (however attractive)
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