Picabia’s Big Moment

Schwartz_2-022317Sanford Schwartz at the NYRB:

He was an ironist and a contrarian by temperament. In an era when writers and artists saw received opinions and all proprieties as so much sham, his contribution was the thought that diversions were what mattered. Independently wealthy, chubby, possessed of a wad of lustrous, dark hair (he was Spanish and of aristocratic descent on his father’s side), Picabia was known for his appreciation of showgirls, racing cars, and life with the party set. After he moved to the Riviera, in the mid-1920s, his appreciations also included gambling and yachting. (In snapshots of the era, he often has a tan.) When he wasn’t acting as a playboy, though—he supplemented his income in the 1930s by being an organizer of fetes and soirees—much of his energy went into producing and designing pamphlets and little magazines. He was often dashing off poems and aphorisms, and he wrote a novel but was unable to get it published.

The Modern has chosen one of his epigrams, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction,” for the subtitle of its exhibition, and uses others, including “Every conviction is an illness,” to advertise it. Picabia’s words show him to have been as much an agent of disillusionment as he was a cultivator of frivolity. Sometimes, though, his words are no more than ordinary quips, and there being no selection of his writings in the catalog one assumes that in general they are slight. How assured and magnetic he could be as a person comes out in an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of him from 1915, in which he wears a bowtie and leans toward us, a slight smile on his face. (It is not reproduced in the catalog.) Picabia was often in New York between 1913 and 1917, and here Stieglitz, a good friend, caught a figure of considerable sensuous handsomeness. He looks like what might be called a Mediterranean banker prince.

more here.