“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” which opens to the public Monday at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, presents a fascinating account of the chameleon painter’s shifting styles over four decades, from his pointillist pastiches of Camille Pissarro to his idiosyncratic innovations on Hollywood movie-poster kitsch. The latter work, and its subsequent influence on painters who play with mass-media imagery, was the subject of a 2003 essay by Brooks Adams. Now that New Yorkers have a new opportunity to appreciate Picabia’s legacy, we offer Adams’s take on it here. —Eds.
LATE PICABIA has overtaken early Picabia as a subject of consuming interest. The change began around 1980, when younger artists such as David Salle and Julian Schnabel started to imitate the overlapping, "non-compositional" imagery of Picabia's '20s and '30s "Transparencies." Even more popular over the last few years have been his female nudes of the 1940s, with their kitschy, cheesecake imagery appropriated from soft-core porn and fashion magazines. These paintings' twisted Neo-Classicism, their Ingresque backlighting, their intimations of lesbian couplings, not to mention the physical-culture allure of their 1930s photographic sources, combined to make Picabia's '40s nudes the paradigm of a new kind of pictoriality which has proved very powerful for contemporary artists.
Furthermore, late Picabia has become implicated in our revisionist ideas of postwar European art as a whole, for it turns out that his "Transparencies," not to mention his cheesy nudes and heavily impastoed '50s dot paintings, were scrutinized by the young Sigmar Polke as he began to deal, in the early '60s, with picture-postcard imagery and hackneyed abstraction. Most recently, the changed status of late Picabia has allowed us to see the virtues of other postwar European painting previously dismissed as being mostly kitsch. Bernard Buffet, for instance, has long been held up as the lowest common denominator in French painting, but, as the current exhibition "Cher Peintre: Painting the Figure since Late Picabia" reveals, a lineup of Buffet's anguished stick figures and sloe-eyed gamines can look quite marvelous in the company of Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin.
Jointly curated by Alison M. Gingeras, Sabine Folie and Blazenka Perica, "Cher Peintre" succeeds precisely because it wears the Picabia mantle so lightly. (The show's three venues are the Centre Pompidou, the Kunsthalle in Vienna and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt; for the latter two stops "Cher Peintre" is known as "Lieber Maler, male mir…," which the English-language edition of the catalogue renders as "Dear Painter, paint me…".) It takes a kind of romp through current figuration, casting sidelong glances at issues such as the conversation piece (and how painted subjects seem to address the viewer), society portraiture and new allegories of the self. (To this extent, it rather closely parallels the recent show of contemporary drawing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and contains several of the same artists.) The show is relentlessly trendy and suggests lots of curatorial agendas that have little or nothing to do with late Picabia, but that's why I liked it. You can feel the curators straining to find some French contemporary art that will fit the mold; you can see them succumbing to their infatuations with the latest art stars (even if they are only tangentially associated with later Picabia); and you can witness them sometimes losing the thread entirely. All this paradoxically makes for a better show: a grab bag in which the visual lineages are manifold, rather than single track, a show in which Picabia's '40s nudes, while given a place of honor in a dark, red hemicycle at the Centre Pompidou, were nevertheless treated almost as they were the offspring of the recent art on view.
HAVING LOVED "Cher Peintre" last summer, I raced to the Picabia retrospective currently at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. "Francis Picabia: Singular Ideal" is a more typical full-dress affair, loose-limbed and a bit shaggy in its constituent parts, yet very strong and forceful in its cumulative impact. Picabia, the painter with the anti-painting stance, the uniquely light yet heavyweight temperament who challenged singularities of authorship and style, the gag artist/impostor engaged in surprisingly steady production—each of these Picabia personae still carries weight. Today, much of his work seems both classic and underknown: the Cubist sex machines, the Dadaist concrete poetry, the early appropriation work, the '20s film and ballet designs and the whole Côte d'Azur lifestyle—the fast cars and bohemian theme parties—seem at once seductive and stringent, the product of a formidable temperament that through it all somehow stuck to painting. Picabia emerges from these combined efforts as every bit the supreme Dadaist jokester and dandy I thought I knew, but also as more of a contender in the shapeshifter sweepstakes of late 20th-century and early 21st-century art than I'd ever imagined. The Picabia fan club has long numbered artists such as Salle (strangely not included in "Cher Peintre") in its ranks, but until this retrospective, who knew that Barry Flanagan, Verne Dawson, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss (each afforded a say in the catalogue) were all on board, too?
The rather narrower painting proposition of "Cher Peintre" is enunciated cogently by Gingeras, a young curator at the Pompidou, in her catalogue essay. She asks rhetorically: "Is figurative painting intrinsically traditional, politically conservative, and the enemy of the avant-garde?" Although Picabia might have shouted from the audience, "Yes, guilty on all counts," the intense visual evidence of the show, which was full of great juxtapositions (Buffet with Polke, John Currin with Glenn Brown, Kai Althoff with Luc Tuymans), would be a resounding no. "Cher Peintre," Gingeras notes, "stakes the claim that figurative painting is not necessarily a 'return to order,' a regressive retreat into traditional forms of mimetic representation." In fact, Gingeras writes that all of the artists in "Cher Peintre" would defend the "dissident" nature of their work.
The exhibition takes its name from a 1981 series by Martin Kippenberger, who is pegged in the show as a "historical" figure (he died prematurely in 1997). This seems a strange sleight of hand in that other "historical" figures in the show include Alex Katz, Buffet and Polke, all notably senior to Kippenberger. Again, to view Kippenberger as predominantly a painter, let alone a figurative one, could seem a preposterous misreading of an artist well known for his sculptures, installations, collaborations and performances. Yet from the mini-survey of his often klutzy-looking figurative paintings on view in "Cher Peintre," I sensed a full-tilt Kippenberger retrospective might be in the offing at the Pompidou, and Gingeras has said, in fact, she would like to do such a show. (A Kippenberger survey is on view in Karlsruhe at the Museum für Neue Kunst, through Apr. 27.)
The fact that Kippenberger entrusted the execution of his 1981 soft-focus New Realist works to a group of commercial painters would seem like an eminently Duchampian idea, since Picabia's friend and colleague was one of the first to predate his works and assume other artistic identities. Here, Kippenberger is presented both as a journalistic raconteur, in his early portraits of political and media figures, and as an almost tragic martyr figure (one of his last works situates a self-portrait amid the doomed figures in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa). This is only one of many strange, off-kilter resonances in "Cher Peintre," where the curators rather too easily assigned the label "historical" to both living and recently deceased figures.
YOU HAD to see it to believe it, but in my estimation, Buffet beat out Polke in the "historical" section, and Buffet may have even stolen the show entirely, not least because his inclusion succeeded in making the French press go crazy. The problem appears to be that his work is still widely considered not worthy of being hung in a French museum, which alone would have prompted Picabia and the other Dadaists to hang his work immediately. But in fact Buffet, who committed suicide in 1999, is one of the great commercial success stories of postwar French painting, and his work is, in a sense, as Pop as it gets. In "Cher Peintre" he is represented by a 1949 grimacing self-portrait and a taut grisaille standing female nude from the same year. Both have just the right mix of stick-style anguish and existentialist punch. These early works feel self-consciously tough and deliberately unlovely, even if they also look excessively indebted to '40s Picasso and contemporaneous Giacometti. The duo of 1960 portraits of Buffet's wife, Annabel (a dead ringer for Anouk Aimée), reed-thin in blue jeans and T-shirt, also have a kind of fashion-icon presence and Nouvelle-Vague allure. In Paris they stole fire from the three rather wimpy-looking '60s works by Polke in the same pale pink room, including Couple (1967), with its ballpoint-pen rendering of lovers' heads floating above a tropical sunset on a blank white ground, which is closely linked to a late Picabia composition, Portrait of a Couple (1942-43), which was in the Paris version of "Cher Peintre" as well as in the Picabia retrospective.
The biggest painting in the Buffet-Picabia room was Buffet's Femme Couchée (1965), a takeoff on Manet's Olympia, with the reclining odalisque and her attendant in pointy period brassieres and garter belts. This work made good visual sense on the same wall that segued into the Alex Katz gallery, with its enormous February 5:30 P.M. (1972) in which the three central female figures wear fuzzy red and pink sweaters. In the context of Picabia's skewed classicism, Katz's '70s muses—all with long, unkempt hair and split ends—looked like a disguised allusion to the Three Graces. A recent painting by Katz, Saturday (2002), played out this Three Graces idea on a beach, with the added compositional trick that there is a fourth figure only partially visible behind the central woman wearing a vaguely '40s-style two-piece bathing suit. Thus were Picabia's conventions of truncated anatomies, vintage bathing beauties and eternalized vacation cultures refracted through "Cher Peintre." Later in the show, Katzian affinities also spun out into the strange landscape paintings of Peter Doig and the disaffected slackers of the young Los Angeles artist Brian Calvin.
Vintage subjects and outmoded styles played an implicit, and somewhat uncharted role in "Cher Peintre," where the very keynote works were literally 1940s period pieces. For instance, Portrait of a Couple has a kind of old Hollywood movie-star allure—the male and female figures in the foreground even seem to have modeled themselves after some fanzine couple. What a coup de théâatre, then, to come upon Kurt Kauper's meticulously rendered nude portraits of Cary Grant later in the show, just as we'd almost come full circle, back to the Picabia hemicycle. Kauper's monumental nudes looked especially apt in the city of Jacques-Louis David, and the standing portrait of a full-frontal Cary leaning against the mantelpiece seemed like the dream come true of David's ambition to paint Napoleon nude.
Other works seemed to address the old-fashioned look of Picabia's '40s paintings with equivalently old-fashioned idioms and iconographies. Neo Rauch's paintings evoke a kind of Socialist Realist comic book, full of high-modernist architecture and vernacular flourishes. To my mind, Rauch is fascinating as an example of a figurative painter who was schooled and still practices in the former East (he lives in Leipzig); his work really suggests a kind of belated reverie of how great Eastern-bloc painting might have been. The most Picabiaesque work by Rauch on view was Die Wahl (1998), with its figure of the two-headed, almost Siamese-twin artist going about the act of painting a huge polka-dotted abstraction (or is it a depiction of a head?). On the other hand, we were greeted by the strange miniaturist refinements of Kai Althoff, who made a very powerful impact with a group of small paintings and drawings, some of them abstract. The most memorable are those from the series "Impulse" (2001), which illustrate, in patchy, almost children's-book fashion, scenes of Prussian brutality, such as one in which an officer in a greatcoat appears to violate a clump of dead soldiers in the snow. This looked like a collective World War I fantasia being excavated for the first time. Scenes from contemporary life, ever so slightly dated, played out in banal landscapes, both lost in time and relentlessly modern.
The French artist Carole Benzaken's very long canvas scroll Painting Roll, begun in 1989 and still ongoing, depicts what look like film clips of little appropriated painting scenes—aerial freeway views, electric guitars, billboard close-ups, excerpts of TV imagery and scenes from her own life (the artist divides her time between Paris and Los Angeles). This diminutive work, exhibited only partially unrolled (it's less than 2 inches high, though over 147 feet long), looked both novel and inventive, if not particularly Picabiaesque. Her ceramic floor mosaic depicting similar scenes, alternating with flat colored tiles, was the most unusual incarnation of painting on view, far more compelling than Bruno Perrament's stacked canvases on the floor or his multicanvas Dessous dessous maintenant/toujours plus (1997), with its gee-whiz central image of a young guy looking into a slide viewer while surrounded by other images of light—chandeliers, stained glass and motel-style table lamps. Here the intimation of a boy-inventor allegory on modernity looked a bit too close in spirit and style to Rauch's cartoonish artist-inventors types.
MELANCHOLIC landscapes peopled with disaffected figures seem to obsess both Doig and Sophie von Hellermann. Hellermann is a relative newcomer in London (all the works on view are owned by the Saatchi Gallery). Her brushy allegories of girl subjects looked fresh and breezy, like takeoffs on Chagall or Ludwig Bemelmans's illustrations for the "Madeline" books. When he came… (2001) is particularly memorable: another update on Manet, this time Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, with a young, naked female laid out on a picnic blanket between two men who look like they are going to eat her.
Hellermann's work seemed very much in the spirit of late Picabia and Surrealism. Doig's contributions, on the other hand, brought an alienated, outsider's aspect to a show that could otherwise seem relentlessly cosmopolitan. His 100 Years Ago (2001), bought by the Centre Pompidou, was a great penultimate image for an exhibition about time warps. It depicts a bearded hippie type in a long red canoe that spans almost the entire width of the canvas. Reminiscent of both Katz's vacationers and Picabia's lone dandy personas, the figure suggests at once a '60s dropout and a 19th-century man in the wilderness and, as such, was the perfect antidote to the very cultural confections that characterize so much of the show.
"Cher Peintre" is especially strong on small paintings, and this emphasis on scale, which to my mind has nothing to do with Picabia, has a lot to do with how the contemporary art world construes value and cachet. Little paintings hung far apart are an effective way to radicalize an enormous white wall with disruptive nuggets of color. Thus the presence of Peyton's paintings is somewhat predictable, even as they seem to incarnate new forms of portraiture, new society painting and, best of all, new male odalisques. The tiny Nude Tony (2001) looks just as fluffy on his white sheets as do some of Picabia's '40s girls in white fur. (None of the latter were in the Beaubourg show, but one, Femme á la Toque, 1942, is a standout in the retrospective.) An early series by Tuymans, "Das Diagnostische Blick" (1992), though beautiful and subtle in its way, had, as far as I could see, little to do with Picabia; the inclusion of Tuymans seemed more like an attempt to historicize, and give some historical precedence, to a much lionized European figurative painter.
Far more successful, in my opinion, was the juxtaposition of Currin's and Brown's small and exquisitely crafted paintings. Yes, I did find myself thinking old-masterish thoughts in front of Brown's The End of the Twentieth Century (after Fragonard and Baselitz) of 1996, with its immediately legible, upside-down rendering of a little Rococo lad done in Brown's signature style of flat and gelid brushiness. Nearby, Currin's ode to Dutch fishwife pictures, The Moroccan of 2001 (also recently acquired by the Centre Pompidou), looked like a symphony of white embroidered fabric and scumbled fish scales. That emblem of a smiling figure's head balancing three flapping fish, their skins shining against the lushly painted wood grain of the background, was unforgettably weird. "Cher Peintre" was strongest in this kind of pairing: the glossy facture of the Browns next to the culinary impasto of the Curries, both of them tropes of expert technique being used to unaccountably subversive and twisted ends, all the figuration somehow familiar yet alien, all of it haunting, hackneyed and yet somehow original.