Francis Picabia: Postmodern Genius or a Rich Freak?

THE DAILY PIC: At MoMA, we see Picabia decide to throw out modern styles even before modernism had gelled.

THE DAILY PIC (#1731): After three visits to “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I’m still stunned by the brilliance and originality of Picabia’s project.

My take is that Picabia was determined to be the ultimate member of the modern avant-garde, with an unrivaled will to “make it new,” as the modernist dictum would have it. The thing is, that meant that he could not simply craft the kind of radically new-looking, modern-seeming art that even great rivals like Picasso settled for. After all, that would be almost sure to see him producing un-new clichés of what modern art is supposed to look like. In fact, the more new and great his pictures looked – and some of his early work was truly both new and great – the more they would be conforming to standard expectations people had about modern newness. I think Picabia eventually had the smart intuition that he could only fight the conventions of modern art, just beginning to gel when he hit his stride in the 1920s, by returning to the old and bad in picture-making. But that could be a trap as well, since it could leave him looking stale and reactionary – anti-modern rather than more-modern-than-the-modern, which I see as his goal.

What he came up with in a lot of his best pictures – including Aello and The Clown Fratellini, in today’s Pic – was a kind of corruption or warping of earlier standards that still was not responding to the new modern ones. The result can make Picabia’s art look more insane or misguided than not – or, mostly, just plain gawdawful.

That was the price he paid for being the very first postmodernist, almost before the modern had fledged.

Or I guess there’s one other option I’m willing to entertain: That Picabia was a rich freak who did whatever the hell he wanted.

Or maybe my two options amount to the same thing. (Artworks © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

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