“If you want to have clean ideas, change them like shirts.”
In 1922, Francis Picabia wrote, “If you want to have clean ideas, change them like shirts.” Throughout his audacious and inventive career, which spanned almost 50 years and encompassed painting, performance, poetry, publishing, and film, Picabia lived out that prescription. Although he remains best known as a Dadaist, his work ranged from Impressionist painting to radical abstraction, from iconoclastic provocation to pseudo-classicism, and from photo-based painting to Art Informel. He relished courting controversy, making regular engagements with the press a part of the construction of his artistic persona.
Born in Paris in 1879, Picabia first made his name as a late-coming Impressionist painter in 1905. In the fall of 1912, he exhibited a group of large-scale abstractions, including The Spring and Dances at the Spring [II]. Along with František Kupka’s Amorpha, fugue in two colors and Fernand Léger’s Woman in Blue, Picabia’s canvases marked the arrival of non-objective painting in Paris. This stylistic change was the first of many abrupt reversals that would characterize his career. It also delivered his first major succès de scandale, as critics condemned the new work as “ugly” and “incomprehensible.”
While World War I raged in Europe, Picabia sought exile abroad in New York, Barcelona, and Switzerland. During this time, his activities as a publisher of the journal 391 coincided with the appearance of the machine in his visual work. As in "M’Amenez-y", hard-edged, frontal objects, often copied from scientific magazines and precisely rendered in industrial paints, took center stage. He also began to pepper his compositions with words and phrases. After the war, Picabia returned to Paris, and the Dada movement, led by Tristan Tzara, landed there soon after, inaugurating months of performances, parties, and battles in the press in an all-out assault on the culture of rationality the Dadaists held responsible for the war. Picabia made works like Tableau Rastadada, a mordant self-portrait, finding in Dada a provocative spirit that matched and extended his own.
Picabia continued to cycle through styles and experiment with unorthodox materials. Although he renounced Dada in 1921, certain tenets of that movement persisted in his work, including the appropriation of found imagery: in one of his last stylistic phases, he copied and recombined magazine photographs into new, painted compositions, as in Portrait of a Couple. Throughout, Picabia questioned the meaning and purpose of art even as he practiced it. In 1949, Marcel Duchamp described Picabia’s career as a “kaleidoscopic series of art experiences.” Marked by a consistent inconsistency, that career continues to challenge traditional narratives of modernism.
Introduction by Natalie Dupêcher, Museum Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2016