reconsidering picabia

ArticleDavid Lewis at Artforum:

FRANCIS PICABIA is famous above all for his flamboyant stylistic and ideological diversity. This diversity has created a legend. The legend has to do with freedom: Picabia is heralded—especially by artists—as the insouciant trickster deity of modernism, the Aquarian hero of artistic self-determinacy in the face of all sorts of orthodoxies, even (especially) the right ones.

The legend is productive and, given the pictorial efficacy of so many of his best works, deserved. It does, however, confuse the central problem of Picabia’s career. It mistakes the symptom (the artist’s matchless stylistic diversity) for the cause, which is philosophical. What made Picabia, among all the artists of the historical avant-garde, so apparently immune to stylistic and ideological coherence and codification? And what, if anything, separates his project from mere decadence (however attractive) or dilettantism?

The fullness, clarity, and informative depth of his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art allowed us to revisit such questions. Picabia, who was born into wealth and privilege, lived in a world in which everything was possible because nothing had any meaning or purpose. He experienced freedom as a curse—the curse of a man falling forever in endless space—and sought desperately to escape it. The curse is best called nihilism, and was diagnosed most famously by Nietzsche, whom Picabia adored: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.”

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