Back in the salad days of the 20th century, when artists in Paris were setting off the firecrackers that detonated abstract art, Picasso and Braque were the good cubist boys. Duchamp and Picabia, with their eroticized machine fantasies, were naughtier. As the trajectory of modern styles arced across the century, circling the globe and fizzling out, Duchamp—who claimed to have stopped making art—was gradually and grudgingly anointed renegade guru. Picabia, however, having turned unforgivably retrograde, long ago became the modern flock’s black sheep.
Never mind that the avant-garde suffered a general crisis after the end of World War I, when the work of de Chirico, Picasso, and a number of other artists went genteel for a while. Picabia painted tacky lovers like those on movie posters or true-romance book jackets. He layered sleazily poetic double exposures of transparent faces and flitting figures with Grecian pretensions. He made equally disreputable opaque modernistic abstractions of African masks. He mocked the stylizations of Dufy and Cocteau. And he kept at it, thumbing his nose at radical and popular art alike, churning out deliberately bad pictures, and never explaining why. For decades, his very unmodern paintings of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s—which infuriated the formalists—were hidden in the modern closet.
We began hearing about them when they influenced Sigmar Polke and David Salle, but rarely caught a glimpse of one. This show finally offers a generous array of these perverse pictures in all their puzzling and hilarious glory. Was Picabia staging a prescient attack on the whole modernist enterprise as it devolved into a succession of styles and stylizations, or just selling himself short? We may never know. Even now he’s not exactly the right role model for artists like John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton. But while playing the dancing fool, he managed to subversively outstylize everyone.