Magazine article Artforum International

"Francis Picabia: Late Paintings"

Magazine article Artforum International

"Francis Picabia: Late Paintings"

Article excerpt

Way back in the twentieth century, the Lord saw that, in later life, some of the saints of early modern art had begun to commit heresy, and He decreed that at this critical point they were to be desanctified. The fall of rebel angels included, of course, such late-style dropouts as Chagall, de Chirico, and Picabia, and even embraced postwar Picasso. But around 1980, when modernism no longer seemed so modern, one blasphemer after another began to take on the lure of forbidden fruit, challenging us to flick a switch or two and to look again at what once seemed beyond the pale of aesthetic decency. Weary of familiar catechisms, I was eager to go with this flow; and in 1983, in a spirit of serious impudence, I assumed the task of writing about the later work of Picabia, as then seen at the Mary Boone/Michael Werner Gallery. This anthology of what seemed the ultimate in silly and irrelevant art turned Out to be a delight and a catharsis for me, the kind of liberation that comes from sweeping dusty prejudices out o f the attic.

Now, in the twenty-first century, late Picabia has come to be such a cult item that it may start to reek of the same orthodoxy that made his early work canonic. Considerable respectability has been gained, for example, by the frequent citing of the way his transparencies--one corny image layered over another--have been appropriated by the likes of David Salle and Sigmar Polke. But despite such proper new genealogies, Picabia remains disarming, and the works inaugurating the Michael Werner gallery's new space continue to tweak one side of my brain into nothing but smiles and the other, more serious half into finding fresh ways to reshuffle his wild cards so that they fir into a reasonable game of art history. As usual, the artist's loopy inanity can reach laughinggas heights. My favorite here might be a little picture of nothing but three coarsely painted flowers on a blue ground, a canvas that looks like a particularly inept still life or wallpaper swatch but defies any familiar category of pattern or decora tion. This blithe spirit soars even higher in a sampling culled from the twenty "pocket paintings" Picabia exhibited in Cannes in 1942, oil-on-cardboard throwaways the size of cigarette packs, each marked with an off-the-cuff parody of those scary archaic or tribal heads once synonymous with rebellious adventures in modern art. …

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