Danse de Saint-Guy, Francis Picabia, 1919
For a number of artists, writers, museum curators, and others concerned with the way we think about contemporary art, few exhibitions have been as anticipated as the current Francis Picabia retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In recent decades, not many historical figures have seemed as ripe not only for reevaluation but simply to have her or his work seen fully.
When the French artist died, in 1953, at seventy-four, and in the years that followed, Picabia was thought of (when he was thought of at all) as a figure of the past. He had been a leading light of Dada—that irreverent, short-lived, and happily uncoordinated movement that grew directly out of fury over the meaningless slaughter and destructiveness of World War I. Through writings (often nonsense writings), artworks (often created with parts put in place by chance), and the way one behaved in public (wild parties were the order of the day), Dada was about undermining, disrupting, or at least satirizing the traditions and proprieties, and the sheepish adherence to them, that presumably helped bring on the war in the first place.
Picabia’s chief contributions to the Dada spirit were drawings and paintings of machines, or elements in engines, which stood in part, in Dada’s upside-down thinking, as new ways of looking at people. But after the movement’s demise in the mid-1920s, Picabia continued to make art, and it was these later works that, beginning to be seen more widely during the 1970s, mostly in Europe, called out for attention. They included abstractions, but most were representational images and it wasn’t clear how they were all by the same artist. Some were of overlapping images, or multiple exposures, and seemed to presage by decades what, in the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Sigmar Polke and David Salle, among others, were doing.