About a decade ago, back when I was still in college and had free entry to MoMa whenever wanted, there was an amazing exhibit on Dadaism at MoMa. alixtii
memorialized the exhibit in a Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist fic
, which is bizarre since by their account they never went to the exhibit, but I went. I enjoyed getting the wide angle on Duchamp's work, as I've loved Duchamp since Pinkwater first exposed me to Dadaism in Young Adult Novel
. It was neat seeing the elements of Dada that don't usually show up at museums- posters and homemade magazines and so on, the community of Dadaists. But the most revelatory aspect of the exhibit for me was my initial exposure to the paintings of Francis Picabia.
There wasn't much Picabia in the exhibit, maybe four or five paintings, but they were spellbinding. They were electrifying. One of those paintings, Parade Amoureuse, particularly moved me.
It depicts a sort of Rube Goldberg device, mechanical linkages ostensibly capable of transforming linear motion to rotary motion, rotary motion to linear motion, and linear and rotary motion to eccentric cam motion. Love Parade! The colors, the haphazard splash of red leaping out amidst the dull browns and tans! The off-kilter perspective: the flatness of the foreground evoking a draftsman's projections set against a background with an asymmetric axonometric projection of a room! It is an engineer's love parade, the mechanical transforming into the emotional by means of a fantastic mechanism. It is transfixing.
MoMa is now staging a special exhibition on Picabia's whole career, and I went to see it today. It was fucking amazing.
Apparently Picabia began his career as an Impressionist- his first show was a set of paintings in clear imitation of Monet, and they are good Impressionist paintings- not quite as technically subtle as Monet, but elegant and attractive. Though apparently Picabia cheated- rather than involving himself in the process of the Impressionists, of painting outdoors "en plein air", he took photographs and then created his Impressionist works from those references. From the beginning, there was this engagement with the way technology was changing art- this would seem to have been one of the only constants in Picabia's career.
After that initial show, Picabia reinvented himself for the first time with a set of sort of Cubist paintings that moved into full abstraction. "The Spring" is one of the paintings that MoMa's curators keyed the exhibit around- it is striking in its size and energy, and in the muted earth tone palette that Picabia reused several times in this period.
This paintings are interesting, and attractive, in their intricate geometries, but they are probably mostly notable as early attempts at Abstraction. Picabia's next transformation, though, is where it's at. The curators suggest a connection between Picabia's early experience with a letter press and his new aesthetic interest in mechanical objects, but it's not entirely convincing. Be that as it may, Picabia's next period, which coincides with the rise of Dada, was characterized by figurations known as 'mechanomorphs' - machine shapes. There are a several different types of these. Some are direct takes on machinists' prints, sometimes doing little more to reinterpret them than giving them a new, fanciful Dadaist title- the print as the Readymade in place of the object produced. Some use the techniques of mechanical drafting toward more creative ends, combining mechanical objects in unexpected ways.
Here's "Reverence", with the angled white line off-balance not in a pictorial way, but in a mechanical way, recalling a cam shaft in motion, on top of circles arranged like a planetary gearset.
Here's "Fuel Pump", a colorized, stylized rendering of a schematic of a fuel pump.
And here's Picabia's take on a carburetor, in a painting with the legend "L'Enfant Carbureteur", the Child Carburetor.
And of course the centerpiece for me was seeing Parade Amoureuse for the first time in a decade. I probably stood in front of it for ten or fifteen minutes total- I kept coming back to it again and again. Even after I left the exhibit and saw a few more things in the regular collection that I always go to see at MoMa, I went back to see Parade Amoureuse one last time. I just love it so much.
I love the mechanomorphs because they recognize the art of the machine, the art that comes from designing something to be useful, but also the art that comes from representing this beauty on the page. Much of my job involves sitting at a CAD station, and my greatest moments of joy in the job come when a functional design emerges with an unexpected beauty. Picabia's mechanomorphs draw this phenomenon out and brings it to the gallery. It was electrifyingly exciting to see an Atwood Machine in an art gallery.
Everything after that in the furious reinventions of Picabia was a letdown for me, but that doesn't mean there weren't some amazing things anyway. Picabia was apparently involved in the creation of Rene Clair's avant garde film "Entr'acte", which I was forced to watch in a film history class. He followed this with a period in which he used garish commercial paints to create monstrous portraits of grotesque lovers.
Often in this period Picabia was using these commercial enamel paints to paint over his previous, more classical paintings. The contrast between the oil paints and the enamels is fascinatingly strong in a way that photos on the internet do not communicate. Also, the way the contrast uses remix as a way to overlay new ideas over old without losing sight of the old.
Picabia exceeded himself in this respect with the next set of paintings, which I don't think I should even bother posting any photos of, because you need to see them to believe. He took older oil paintings of his and layered a clear resin on top, and then painted new grotesque mythological images on top of the resin, sometimes layering four or five layers on top of each other. I've never seen anything like these paints. You've almost certainly never seen anything like these paintings. They're amazing and they have to be seen to be believed. in one painting, a putative self portrait, he took a realist portrait of himself painted by another painter and painted over it a series of odd figures- faces, hands, bodies. It is without question Picabia in a nutshell.
One way to see these paintings is as Picabia doing Photoshop before there was Photoshop. I would love to see what Picabia would have done with Photoshop; I feel certain he would have been one of the first artists creating art with computers if he'd had the chance. Picabia's lifelong interest in photography saw another resurgence in the 1940s, when he did a series of paintings directly taken from magazine photographs, often pornographic magazines, retaining the lighting and costuming effects that make these photographs live in the unsettling uncanny valley that is 'photorealism'. Of these, I do want to mention one in particular as puzzling but interesting to me, a painting titled "The Wandering Jew".
I don't know what to make of this painting, which has in its upper right corner a misspelled Hebrew attempt to write "Lech Lecha"- the injunction from God to Abraham to become a wanderer and leave Ur for Canaan. The male figure, presumably the eponymous wandering Jew, is in lurid action magazine style, but he somehow doesn't seem negatively caricatured to me. His face is worn and stressed, but there is life in it. And there is the naked woman, his seductress companion. What is she doing? What is her connection to the wandering?
After this final period of figuration, Picabia's last decade was devoted to the rise of Abstract Art, a movement he'd pioneered decades early only to find he had been, as usual, ahead of the curve. Again, I see no value in posting any photographs of these paintings- they are so texturally dramatic that they need to be seen in person to be appreciated.
SO AMAZING, Y'ALL.