MoMa Houses Francis Picabia Retrospective

MOMA’s latest rotating retrospective is the life’s work of Francis Picabia, “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” (the title based on one of Picabia’s many witty aphorisms). Put together by The Modern’s Anne Umland, the retrospective showcases the many stylistic periods of the Dadaist, who deserves to be every bit as recognizable as contemporaries like Picasso.

The exhibition tracks Picabia’s rise chronologically, with each room representing a major change for the artist. After trying his hand at the tail-end of impressionism, a young Picabia would move to Paris, experimenting with abstraction early and and becoming the defacto ambassador of Dadaism in America. These early works are some of the most fascinating, as they show the roots of what would become Picabia’s distinctive mix of cubism and realism later in life, but are often neglected in favor of the artist’s more well-known and perfected paintings.

Post-WWI, Picabia was still defining his style, switching between formal composition and an abstract minimalism. In fact, his experiments mirror the exhibition of Russian minimalism only a few floors below, another must-see if one visits the MOMA. During this period, Picabia also delved into the then-new medium of film with his ballet Relâiche and well known short Entr’acte, which can be viewed in full inside the exhibit. An obscure musical composition, American Nurse, is also on display, showcasing the artist’s full range of talents.

The works that will be most familiar if you’re not an art historian come in this later period, spanning just before and after World War II. This is when Picabia developed his transparency techniques, by layering paint and lacquer, allowing the viewer to see all the individual compositions at once. Using this method, Picabia was able to combine the styles of all his different periods, in effect “showing his work.”

Post-war, Picabia continued to experiment with new materials, but his time in the spotlight was largely over. He became reclusive and would die of illness in Paris, 1953. The last room, however, is truly the crown jewel. In these later years Picabia had gone even more abstract and non-representational, his experimentation seemingly culminating in this. The exhibition closes with another aphorism, “Where art ends, where life begins, I am the poet of my life,” a fitting encapsulation for an artist that drove his life with a restless experimentation.

“Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” is on display through March 19, on the MOMA’s 6th floor. Discounted tickets are available for seniors, students, and children on moma.org.

Words by James Johnson