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BWW Review: The Overpowering Modernity of Francis Picabia

First step to viewing Francis Picabia at the Museum of Modern Art: prepare to be blown away.

It would be a shock, both in terms of overall presentation and in terms of the goods on display, if MoMA's retrospective of the whimsical, mercurial French artist wasn't at some level remarkable. After all, no museum can pull off headline shows of modernism's old masters quite as well. 2011's survey of de Kooning was a vortex of shape and color that nonetheless did much to orient its subject's achievement, 2014's Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs and 2015's Picasso Sculpture are almost beyond words in their cogency-and I reviewed those last two.

This, however, is something else. Drawing together over 200 artworks and uniting them under the subtitle Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction-an aphorism of Picabia's own-this motley retrospective achieves a surprising, almost blinding unity. It is helped along in some ways by the structure of Picabia's own artistic career, which began just after 1900 and ended at midcentury. After working in a post-impressionist style at the very outset, he went on to create gigantic specimens of machine-age Cubism, roughshod images of numinous spheres and targets, and fearsome surrealistic figures of colorful smiles and twisted limbs. In roughly that order. Organizers Ann Umland and Catherine Hug are thus left with a show that delivers an explosive middle third almost of its own accord, though the lead-in and the lead-out crackle with their own force and light.

MoMA begins its presentation with just enough of Picabia's early output-paintings in the style of Gauguin and Pissaro-to make what comes immediately after appear exactly as radical as it is. Derivative work gives way to the calibrated chaos of canvases such as Udnie and Edtaonisl (both 1913), which in turn give way to the coldly ironic machine images and diagrams that became a Picabia specialty between 1915 and 1920. While abjuring color of most sorts and scenery of any, Picabia's style grew to encompass experiments in typography, some of them undertaken alongside Dada poet Tristan Tzara.

The Picabia who is present in most art history books continues a gallery or two beyond the mechanomorphic images on which much of his fame rests: the menacing silhouettes of Spanish Night (1922) and Animal Trainer (1923) reveal Picabia as a master of mood, and the film Entr'acte (1924), which he created alongside director Rene Clair, shifts the atmosphere of the entire exhibition towards joviality and kineticism. None of it prepares you for where he turns next. Around 1925, Picabia re-situated his entire manner of painting back in the human figure-but in human figures squeezed, twisted, and conceived with hideously huge almond eyes. Creatures such as Man with Gloves and Woman with Monocle were then replaced by personages from the bible and from Greek myth-yet these were drawn in delicate outlines one on top of the other, scene on top of scene, their expressions melancholy, their usual narratives reduced to a strange simultaneity.

If Picabia's accompanying geniuses in the early to mid segments are Picasso and Duchamp, his companions in spirit towards the very end are figurative painters such as Rene Magritte and Louis Michel Eilshemius, the last of these men a painter of famously God-awful classical nudes and landscapes. By the onset of World War II, Picabia could one-up even Eilshemius in pushing realistic technique towards gruesome sentimentality. There aren't many other good explanations for the uncomfortable Portrait of a Couple (1942-43) or for the strange-perspectived female nudes upon female nudes of the same period. Actually, the other explanation is that Picabia was thumbing his nose at the realistic painting of fascist propaganda. Nowhere may this be more true than in The Adoration of the Calf, with its solemn dark colors and its array of hands, all of them raised towards that calf, its teeth bared and its features twisted into the perfect symbol of monolithic, empowered idiocy.

Despite these gestures of engagement, the final gallery of Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction is mostly a flitter of anticlimax. Picabia's postwar output is too often whimsy without much of his tempering and elevating darkness: some good and at times haunting abstractions in oil on wood, smutty illustrated letters, and oil-on-canvas compositions in which heavily-textured brushwork surrounds coinlike dots. None of this is revelatory, and perhaps that's for the best, after the weight of revelation that MoMA's showcase delivers so early and then so often. As Picabia might put, it's quite simply the must-see show of 2016 now that 2016 is over, or the best show of 2017 even though 2017 is only three days old.

Penultimate step to viewing Francis Picabia: stand there for a couple minutes and wonder how a whirlwind of Mardi Gras colors, kitschy nudes, pointless machines, hypertrophied Cubism, leering outlines and not-quite-right titles and film scenes that lead nowhere settled into something this glorious.

Final step: keep wondering.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy