Wednesday, 21 December 2016


MOMA  New York:  21st November 2016 - 19th March 2017

MOMA returns to prime Modernist territory with this expansive survey of 241 examples drawn from the artist’s paintings, drawings, designs, publications and movies, although curiously, not his sculptures. Titled ‘Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction’, the whimsical appeal to freedom is typical of his poetic turn of phrase and a reminder that his writings are no small part of his oeuvre. Like its sister show, at the Kunsthaus in Zurich (July-September 2016) it commemorates the centenary since the appearance of the Dada movement, but Picabia is of course, dear to New York for much more than that. Since his visit and participation in the Armory Show of 1913, together with colleague Marcel Duchamp, he is also associated with the advance of Cubism toward greater abstraction, both artists invoking motion to forms, pacing Futurism somewhat and dedicated to a thoroughly urban, industrial sensibility. Duchamp soon found unusual alternatives to painting while Picabia pursued a mechanical or machine aesthetic to a Dadaist celebration of the absurd that embraced text, satire and scandal. Throughout the twentieth century his contribution was seen to peak there but MOMA’s aim at this point is not only to consolidate his reputation through reappraisal of his later, often ignored work but to redefine Modernism as a movement to some extent. 

This is hardly an idle or academic undertaking, but rather the steady summation of market forces and their increasing co-ordination with public galleries. A glance at the secondaries market confirms the rising frequency and prices for the late work of Picabia. There is, inevitably, an official Picabia website tracking the wave of shows dedicated to connecting his later work with subsequent developments and galleries from Hauser and Wirth to Michael Werner and David Zwirner have variously obliged. But at stake is really a version of Modernism dominated by the achievements of Duchamp and in counterpoint to the painting of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The show is meant to indicate other routes accompanying this divide, to broaden the brief of Modernism, but the model itself is so flawed as art history it renders any reassessment of Late Picabia futile. Before considering the issue of Modernism however, it is worth looking at precisely how Picabia is seen as supplementing this supposed schism. Illustrations have been drawn from across the web for convenience.

The curators emphasise the artist’s versatility, his irreverence, variations on art historical sources, experimentation with collage and paint, use of photography from the popular press and return to abstraction at the end of the forties. But while all of this is true, none of it serves to distinguish him from much of his generation. Any number rapidly switched styles in the quest from progress, accepted design commissions, worked in the theatre or film, revelled in commercial imagery particularly in collage, constantly plundered forgotten corners of art history for inspiration and continued Cubism’s introduction of novel supplements to pigment. He is in the mix certainly, but by no means a front runner. Picabia’s late work covers the period from the mid twenties to his death in 1953 and marks his abrupt disengagement from the Paris avant-garde, as it moves from Dada to Surrealism, as his prominence is eclipsed by that of Andre Breton. His retreat to his villa in Provence coincides with the post-war ‘Return to Order’, amounting in most cases to a pseudo conservatism but in the case of Pablo Picasso, the opportunity to juggle multiple styles and demonstrate still greater latitude to what is called Synthetic Cubism. It is unquestionably Picasso’s example that once more inspires Picabia, this time to greater focus on the figure, something hitherto rarely found even amongst his student work.

Picabia launches into his own spree of versatility but ultimately lacks the resources to rival Picasso. He commences with a series of restrained sketches of Spanish ladies wearing traditional mantillas, which are certainly an abrupt shift in gears, probably prompted by his various travels in Spain throughout World War One. Yet the delicacy of touch to the faces seems almost to defy the artist’s signature, and from a professed forger and Dadaist there must always remain some suspicion. To be sure, later work can rarely sustain such naturalism, even when required. More or less in parallel with the senoras, he produces a series of large silhouette figures, the most famous being The Fig Leaf (1922), deftly merging commercial graphics with the style of classical Greek vase figures. While mischievous, as with so much of his career, it remains an isolated insight he soon abandons. This is largely why the later work has previously been ignored or condemned. Too much of it remains the skittish whims of the dabbler or dilettante. Picabia next turns to blatant Picasso parody or pastiche with a series of monstrous figures, complete with broad planes and crude patterning. But this only announces the reluctant follower; hardly a feat of versatility. It is not until the later twenties that he devises the more original and intriguing ‘Transparencies’; in which two or more pictures are superimposed. Without question these deserve greater recognition. But they are essentially a variety of Surrealism, understandable given the artist’s close acquaintance with many of the official members of Breton’s club.

Little research appears to have been done on the derivation of the Transparencies within the expansive MOMA catalogue and they are by no means an obvious or predictable move. By the twenties superimpositions are commonplace as multiple exposures in photography and dissolves or overlapping exposures in the cinema, but surprisingly, Picabia has little interest in photography, despite acquaintance with Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz. Tonal superimpositions play little part in his painting, presumably because they limit the imagery by tonal range or involve too much ambiguity or abstraction. Instead Picabia prefers a severely linear style and this too soon tests his drawing, confines his subjects. One possible reason for the turn to superimposition is as rival to Synthetic Cubism’s multiple and alternating picture planes, something given greater emphasis over the tonal and volumetric fragmentation of Analytical Cubism. It is unlike Picabia to dwell upon these theoretical points, but he had encountered them before, in his ‘Orphic’ phase, along with Duchamp, as they sought to transcend Cubism. Why Picabia should take up multiple picture planes at this point has everything to do with the pursuit of chance associations and literal ‘re-vision’ of traditional tastes urged by Surrealism.

There are some precedents for transparent outline in certain works by Max Ernst from the time, such as The Fair Gardener (1925) and overlapping linear planes are a feature of Paul Klee’s figurative work throughout the preceding decade. Klee’s work was available through a number of publications by then and was introduced to the Surrealist group by Ernst. The Swiss artist was invited to join, but declined. But beyond these, Transparencies undoubtedly present a notable departure. There are initial works such as Mask from around 1925 that toy with schematic animals in a way strongly reminiscent of Klee (indeed, the mask is an abiding motif for Klee) but what is missing is any fluent or convincing grasp of line. It is not that Picabia misunderstands the ideas, but that he simply fails to give them a compelling presence or identity as drawing. They do not look naïve or primitive, they just look inconsequential or inept compared with a Picasso or Klee, a Matisse or Jean Cocteau. The primitive soon carries its own standards. The Yellow Beast (1927-8) is slightly more successful, where a range of stylisation or realism is demonstrated but the real problem is that line can never deliver enough realism to truly rival the pictorial conundrums of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte or Max Ernst, which effectively challenge the picture plane for coherence in equally radical ways. Then again Picabia’s line can never stylise boldly enough without suggesting Picasso or Klee on the one hand, Matisse or Cocteau on the other. As a project it falls between stools, simply fails to project given the competition.

The Transparencies do not last much beyond the early thirties but represent an unexpectedly sustained body of work. While there are remarkable examples as he simplifies his subjects and finds smoother, more confident line, eventually the artist tires of art historical compilations and ghostly allusions and looks to more contemporary sources, more direct means. The contemporary is no longer urban or industrial however, but maintains a retreat to nature or domestic interiors, for fashionable young folk photographed for popular magazines, especially when nude. Yet the contemporary and photographic hardly solves the problem of style for Picabia. While indifferent to greater realism, he has no appetite for stylisation once freed of outline either and the work retreats to the cautious stylings shared by the later works of Giorgio de Chirico, Andre Derain, Balthus, Otto Dix and George Grosz, among others. It has a place in Modernism but it is as the rear guard. Picabia was quite aware of the position and embraces a deliberate mediocrity, in some cases, resorting to how-to-paint instructional booklets to summarily transcribe his photographs of contemporary free spirits. The result is basically thrift store paintings. The idea seems to have been that the amateur or dabbler represented a suitably contemporary counterpart to the primitive. The primitive was something sought in both Expressionism and Surrealism and sets in train a path to abstraction in Modernism. Picabia merely pursues these noble savages to their last refuge, the hobby. But this sophistry fails to find traction for the same reason his drawing fails; it dwindles into triviality as either primitive or Modernism, outsider or sophisticate. This is why Later Picabia is routinely dismissed as a sad decline into self-indulgence and decadence.

In order to bolster the artist’s reputation, the MOMA curators stake absurd claims for the later work’s anticipation of Pop Art and much that follows, based on derivation from magazine photographs and prominence given to distinctly photographic qualities - ‘In transferring printed sources to painted compositions, Picabia often chose to highlight the works’ photographic origins. In Portrait d’un couple, for example, specific details, such as the high-contrast “studio” lighting and compositional distortions typical of those produced by the camera’s lens, are carried over in the painting itself, pointing to the artificiality of what some have described as Picabia’s “painted collage.” But this is frankly nonsense. If we look at the work in question, the figures are handled so broadly in terms of planes, modelling and outline, in treatment of eyes and mouths in particular, that to claim studio lighting or a long lens distortion are foremost is to deny the latitude granted style, its negation of the niceties of modelling or perspective necessary to discern such traits. Nor is it true of any other works from the period. The work takes no more than a composition of a modern, respectable couple from the source and that only for foreground. Even if it were specifically derived from a Hollywood publicity still of Andrea Leeds and Joel McCrea, as claimed, plainly the painting does not portray them recognisably and nuances of studio lighting and camera lens are equally so generalised the content is merely styles of dress and grooming for the period, these arranged before the constants of nature. If the artist had seriously wished to draw attention to photographic qualities of publicity stills, the salient characteristics would surely have been colour tinting and retouching - to teeth in particular - which are a feature of the era and genre. Routine studio lighting presented a strong rim light to shoulders and head to distinguish it from backgrounds in an era of predominantly black and white photography, a frontal key light and discreet fill light, softening shadow, are the accompanying standards. None of these are conspicuous in Portrait of a Couple (1942) because Picabia’s interests are far broader. 

Indeed, why would he focus on lighting styles at all? He showed little or no interest in photographic technique and had been using photography since his Post Impressionist days, solely for its content. The claim for persistent treatment of kitsch is equally unpersuasive simply because the artist neglects so many areas of abundant kitsch, in treatment of children, animals and stereotypes for example. While the work unquestionably has a comic tone to some nudes, the artist’s stylistic grasp is so weak it hardly allows a deliberate display of kitsch illustration, in the way that say, John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage can. Nor is kitsch properly consistent with a position that advocates a multiplicity of pictorial standards. How is a Modernist to identify kitsch when they have pointedly abandoned the very standard that enables such judgements? Kitsch is neither a priority nor strictly a possibility for Picabia, and in as much as some of his works appears in bad taste, they do so only by current fashion. Claims for the artist’s prescient ‘appropriation’ of art historical imagery are similarly unfounded and ignore significant alternations to sources. His use is simply and traditionally that of paintings based upon prints in certain ways. Nothing in this merits recognition as Post Modernism or anticipates the issue of plagiarism taken up in the eighties. 

The final abstract works, often on the theme of ‘Points’, are just as undistinguished. It is not so much that even when returning to Paris and encountering a younger generation pursuing notational or calligraphic abstraction or the use of dispersed fields of shapes as compositions, he remains indifferent; but that his own formulations in their clogged, laboured facture offer little beyond the kind of Bauhaus exercise Klee or Wassily Kandinsky would have promptly passed over twenty years earlier. Again, the work is of marginal interest as abstraction and Modernism gains nothing by desperately seeking to rehabilitate these final wayward tangents. Picabia’s real contribution lies with his ‘Orphic’ abstractions such as The Spring (1912) and I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914). These are his masterpieces. His Transparencies are fascinating as a path for Surrealism otherwise untaken, but encounter technical limitations. If any re-evaluation of Modernism is suggested by this show it surely concerns a more formal analysis of Surrealist painting, detaching it from matters of club membership. The real issue is whether Modernist painting can be entirely identified with the course of abstraction in painting and if so what time frame best serves this definition? As it is, Modernism sprawls to unmanageable lengths as period or movement and only begs questions of Post Modernism as a consequence. The emergence of Surrealism strongly suggests painting’s formal resources for the period were not exhausted by the pursuit of pure abstraction, indeed that such purity may be illusory. Multiple and alternating picture planes become of interest, almost at the same time as full abstraction emerges as a project for painting. It is with Surrealism, as practiced by the likes of Joan Miro and Andre Masson that a formalised automatic writing or notational line and biomorphic shapes supplement and soon undermine the geometric purity of abstraction. 

The conventional pairing of Picasso and Matisse as partners of The School of Paris fails to do justice to the full breadth of Modernism. Modernism launches into pure abstraction with the work of Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian, Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, amongst others. Paris is cosmopolitan but by the twentieth century communication and travel diffuses the influence of a single centre and Modernism needs to reflect this. Matisse’s work remains anchored in an Expressionism he can refine through colour relations and an open sweeping curve, but he has none of the versatility or ambition of Picasso, none of the range of themes or treatments. Where Modernism finds a more able exponent is with Paul Klee. Yet in temperament he contrasts with Picasso in almost every way. His work tends to be small scale, intimate, effortlessly shuttles back and forth between pure abstraction and more stylised figuration or Expressionism, yet boldly experiments with pigments and supports, anticipates and assimilates biomorphic shapes, the gestural and calligraphic, ranges in theme from the comic to heroic, the absurd and literary. All of this is integral to Modernism and again suggests a time frame. Little wonder Surrealism recognised a kindred spirit, just as they recognised a vital precedent in the work of Giorgio De Chirico, with its skewed perspectives, jumbled scales and appeal to models and plans on the same stylistic level as surroundings. The picture plane does not exactly alternate here but rather struggles for coherence in accommodating disparate and puzzling content. This undermining of a deliberately prosaic or academic realism is carried further by Magritte, Dali and Ernst and it is this counter swing to Expressionism that needs more recognition in Modernism. 

Finally, the influence of Duchamp in present accounts is exaggerated. In particular, extravagant claims are made for his Ready-mades that beg greater context. Duchamp’s inspiration is ultimately the use of collage materials in the (Synthetic) Cubist works of Picasso and George Braque. There, three-dimensional objects, such as cane chair weaving or actual wallpaper or tablecloth are presented for conspicuously two-dimensional (that is, pictorial) properties, usually in contrast with drawn or painted outlines and volumes. Sculptors quickly adopt the idea, so that works such as Rock Drill (1913-15) by Jacob Epstein use an actual rock drill as the base for an ominous robotic figure, giving the drill a new metaphorical meaning. But for Duchamp the three-dimensional object may equally be displayed for overlooked or unlikely sculptural qualities by itself, merely by concealing or denying more practical or familiar functions. It is a bold extension of the idea of using material that is already a recognised object, or as collage, but it brings with it severe constraints. The re-orientation depends upon shrewd selection of manufactured items that otherwise conceal some elegance to shape or as an abstraction. In other words, Duchamp’s standard for such abstraction is tethered to a particular ‘machine aesthetic’, shared with the Futurists and Constructivists as well as to prior standards of manufacture. As geometric abstraction gains greater acceptance and gradually extends to applied design in centres like the Bauhaus, those qualities to manufactured goods that may have at first seemed mere engineering, increasingly reflect a Modernist aesthetic, so that the Ready-made has a distinct shelf life as such reorientations become more anticipated and are outflanked by the very appeal to abstraction that inspired it. 

There are no obvious figures to this assimilation of abstraction in applied design since it is no longer properly the concern of fine art. But the integration itself with not just applied design but the performing arts and literature, engender new flexibility and hybrids. These influence the subsequent development of Conceptual Art, as events, installation and performance, just as much as Duchamp. This too needs more emphasis in a view of Modernism. Figures like Picabia are of little help in such a reassessment, but his relation to Surrealism surely accounts for much of his later work, his rejection of an industrial, machine aesthetic, his interest in alternating and conflicting picture planes, in the absurd and comic. If the current show accomplishes anything it confirms the need to reconsider the role of Surrealism in the broader period of Modernism.