'Picabia's paintings were greeted with ponderous silence only when they didn't receive open hostility'. This observation, made by R. Santos Torroella over a decade ago, was never more apt than during Picabia's 1922 exhibition at the Dalmau gallery in Barcelona. Comprising mechanical diagrams, optical studies and kitschy portraits, the show was misunderstood by the public, scorned by critics and ignored by collectors. Perceived as enigmatic and contradictory, it was, in short, a total fiasco. The current exhibition at the Pompidou, brainchild of Jean-Jacques Lebel (Parisian enfant terrible known for organising frenzied happenings in the 60s), reconstitutes that infamous show, offering us an opportunity to re-evaluate the original and avenge its failure.
Unhappily, this highly focused exhibition remains incoherent. But, since the crux of the show is its lack of a centre, its weakness becomes a strength. A metaphor for a moment of rupture, the show marks Picabia's split from Dadaism, which he had been instrumental in founding, and ushers in his involvement with Surrealism. Duchamp referred to Picabia's multi-faceted creativity as his 'indefatigable imagination' and the show mirrors the anti-conformist, avant-garde, pluralist aesthetic he was proposing.
Having fled to New York to escape what he referred to as 'war's hideous waltz', Picabia shared Duchamp's disgust for 'retinal' painting and replaced it with an art that was cold and cerebral. Precursors of Picabia's later 'Transparencies' series, optical works such as Optophone II (c.1922-5) and Volucelle II (1922-3) stemmed from geometric abstraction. In these pieces, vivid spheres of bubblegum pink, robin's-egg blue or buttercup yellow, and floating female silhouettes superimposed on diminishing, solid-black stripes or rotating around a giant eyeball, create a bizarre kaleidoscope effect.
The most compelling works in the show are the Constructivist-style watercolours that Picabia published in 291, the magazine of the Steiglitz circle. Executed in dusky blacks, soft whites, rust-toned reds and delicate greens on brown cardboard, these pale, elegant paintings depict machines such as the Hache-paille (wheat-cutter), Presse hydraulique (hydraulic press) or Pompe à combustible (fuel pump). Linking circles, rods, pistons, pins and tubes, they have the same quiet beauty that touches the work of Malevich. They also feel antiseptic. Smooth, flat and almost imperceptible, there is no trace of the artist's touch in these anti-painting paintings. Faithful copies or calques (tracings) from technical reviews such as France's popular La Science et la Vie, the pictures are subversive acts: Picabia's depictions of banal gadgets are his own Readymades. Challenging a conventional conception of content, they communicate a sense of distance, exploring notions of appropriation and intentional artificiality.
Yet artificiality was perhaps nowhere more present in the Dalmau show than in the array of fantasy portraits Picabia had been painting since 1902. These pretty-as-a-picture-postcard images depict voluptuous Spanish women and elegant toreadors. In one painting, Espagnole (1921-2), a cigarette dangles from the lush mouth of a sexy señorita (complete with sensuous brown eyes, kiss-curl, black mantilla crown and a perfectly positioned beauty mark above her lips) who exhales a faint question mark of smoke.
While Picabia exaggerated the seeming falseness of these kitsch paintings by denying his authorship, sometimes claiming they were outright 'fakes', he perversely hung his 1922 exhibition in a way that deliberately emphasised their fantasy-born beauty. Appearing to turn their backs on his machine-inspired paintings, the portraits seduce the eye with their alluring glances, drawing you away from the works that Lebel describes as 'essential' to the show.
In a minor but enlightening piece of self-mythologising, Picabia drew his own portrait: an arrow tangled in a knot, its two spiked ends pointing in opposite directions, with the explanation that he always attacked himself. This contemporary reinstallation of the Barcelona exhibition is no less a portrait of the artist, one that clearly underlines Picabia's iconoclasm.
If, some 75 years later, the show has lost some of its capacity to shock a generation breast-fed on appropriation and multiculturalism, it nevertheless continues to pose biting questions and to indicate to what extent Picabia's work pinpointed Postmodern artistic anxiety. Its deliberate disorder is still disturbing, and, as Susan Sontag once said, real art has the capacity to make us nervous.