Francis Picabia, Master of the Avant Laggard

(Click on photo above for link to MoMA’s page for the exhibition. Copyright of the photo belongs to MoMA.)

Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.

I’m often of the opinion that exhibits that simply chronicle a timeline of an artist’s works are often trite and hacked together, cutting corners around what is now a lost craft and an art in its own right – that of thoughtful curation. Most times I leave with no new substantive knowledge about the body of work and occasionally I can even point out major failings. MoMA’s Magritte exhibit many years ago was one such example – perhaps the most complete collection of his life’s masterpieces ever assembled, but certainly the most incomplete curation ever put on.

But Francis Picabia: Our Heads are Round so our Thoughts can Change Direction, despite being a linear exhibit, stands apart from the rest. The reason? Well, the linearity works!

Walking into the first room, we are immediately greeted by works reminiscent of Sisley or Pisarro. Delicate brushstrokes of pastel dance on the surface of the canvases emulating the ever-changing reflections of light. The technique is superb, the execution flawless. One would think Picabia a true Impressionist. That is, until the realization dawns that the centerpiece of this section, Les Pins, effet de soleil à Saint Honorat (Cannes), is perhaps the antithesis of Impressionism. Painted not en plein air but rather in a studio, Picabia makes a bold declaration to the art community: not only can he appropriate a style, he can become successful by doing so. And he did. Les Pins became the iconic work that lifted him from anonymity and the work that would shape his identity.

This all became clearer soon enough. Divisionism, cubism, Dada, surrealism, photorealism. What movement that spanned the late 20th and early 21st century was Picabia not a part of? Sometimes he would salute the old masters such as Goya as seen in Adoration of the Calf. Other times his masterpieces, in particular those during his Transparencies phase, were masterful hacks of pieces that spanned time. If I didn’t know this was a Picabia exhibit, I would’ve thought I was walking through the decades of modern art. Was it Picabia or was it Braques? Was it Picabia or was it Duchamp? Honestly hard to tell without the labels. It wasn’t that he committed little, he simply chose not to commit at all: even between two schools of opposing thought, Picabia would never pick sides. From another perspective, he was perhaps all too committal and picked every side.

But like the typical New Yorker who would pick only after every option was put in front of him, Picabia was never the first, never at the fore-front, never the avant-garde. In many ways, Picabia preferred to remain an avant laggard. He didn’t simply partake in spear-heading any particular movements. Taking the role of a sustaining innovator rather than an inventor, he rode the crest of every wave that came his way and before it crashed, jumped to the next one, one-step behind, but always catching the upward momentum to the peak. And yet despite his apparent infidelity to any particular genre or style, Picabia is perhaps most true to himself and his craft.

I did have fun. Like a child takes pleasure at making sandcastles at the seashore. He makes them as carefully as possible, but takes joy in knocking them down. But he enjoys making them.

He was an explorer, a thrill-seeker, constantly dabbling and experimenting in new methods and techniques. Why be so confined to any particular school? Surely when a new tool is developed, the engineer will test it out? So should an artist too, and in the process learn and prosper from it. Movement is perpetual, the world in flux. While engaging with what’s in vogue with the public, Picabia, at the same time, disengages completely.

I don’t think a painting should be made with the public in mind. For my part, a painter should always do a painting as if no one will ever see it. That is the one and only way he should express himself.

And he has expressed himself: as both a creator and a destroyer in constant change, Picabia shows that his thoughts can indeed change direction, an insight that became evident through the linearity and chronological nature of the exhibit. Rather, the exhibit is not linear at all. It’s circular and round. Picabia had never been going in a straight line; he was constantly getting lost and finding himself again and again in an infinite loop.

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