New York Times
December 2, 2016
“Paintings are made for dentists,” Francis Picabia declared in Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère, a manifesto (one among many he wrote) that offers ample evidence of this avant-garde artist and poet’s subversive, disdainful sensibility toward art and art making. Still, the very next line — “So what! Let’s get on with it!” — aptly characterizes the eager, if not promiscuous approach to his own career, one that spanned the first half of the 20th century and engaged nearly every movement of that period. From his earliest Impressionist efforts, through Cubist, Dadaist, Surrealist and realist work, to the abstract iterations that marked the years before his death in 1953, Picabia shifted fluidly with the cultural moment, all the while vigorously denouncing the style he’d just left behind. His leave-taking was often as cryptic as it was vehement: “I separated from Dada because I believe in happiness and I loathe vomiting; the smells of cooking make a rather unpleasant impression on me.”
With copious illustrations and 16 essays, this hefty catalog for the current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art attempts to chart a zigzag career that made up in energy what it lacked in depth of exploration. Anne Umland, one of the show’s curators and an editor of the volume, notes in her introduction that unlike Picasso’s “stylistic pluralism,” Picabia’s “style-switching involves extremes that exude — and provoke — skepticism and doubt.” She goes on to quote the art historian Benjamin Buchloh, who observed a “specter of derivativeness” in the artist’s work. This imitative quality and its attendant “pluralism” (noted to some degree or another by most of the critics assembled here) doesn’t only bother art historians; it’s readily apparent to those less schooled. In a single year, 1922, Picabia produced geometric abstractions, figurative silhouettes (La Nuit Espagnole is perhaps the most notable), and conventional, vaguely impressionistic watercolors of women draped in floral fabrics. It can be hard to reconcile such aesthetic dissonances.