Picabia’s La Source (The Spring) was among the paintings that marked the arrival of abstraction in Paris. Picabia painted it following a spontaneous road trip to England with his close friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in the summer of 1912. On the road back, the men heatedly discussed the possibility of non-representational painting. “Are blue and red unintelligible?” stumped Picabia, rallying against the hesitations of his friend. “Are not the circle and the triangle, volumes and colors, as intelligible as this table?” The conversation proved catalytic: shortly after their return, Picabia completed La Source, along with a number of other abstractions that were also exhibited that fall.

In its faceted planes and rose-period palette, La Source recalls the work of Pablo Picasso, only to travesty its refinement in its tremendous scale, crude paint handling, and pulsing eroticism, as well as its abandonment of figuration, which Picasso had always maintained. When Picabia exhibited La Source at the Salon d’Automne in October, it caused a sensation. Critics who had praised Picabia’s Impressionist paintings in recent years reviled the new work as “incomprehensible,” “unreadable,” and “a heap of red and black shavings” resembling “encrusted linoleum.” La Source was not the only abstraction on view: František Kupka displayed his Amorpha, fugue à deux couleurs (Amorpha, fugue in two colors) and Fernand Léger showed his La Femme en bleu (Woman in Blue).

Notably, however, Picabia’s salon participation that fall amounted to an abstraction campaign. Just one week after the opening of the Salon d’Automne, he debuted another 13 recent abstractions across town, at the Salon de la Section d’Or. Taken together, these pictures staked a claim for the promise of abstraction, with La Source, at more than eight feet square, adopting the commanding scale of a history painting.

For Michael Duffy’s essay on La Source, see mo.ma/picabia_conservation.