Mario Naves reviews Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on view through March 19, 2017.
Naves concludes that the exhibition “is an attempt at promoting Picabia up the totem pole of great artists in the cause of revamping the Modernist ‘narrative.’ As played out in the catalogue, the chief obstacle and villain in this scenario is Pablo Picasso. Once MOMA’s poster boy, the Spanish master is now being placed in direct opposition to Picabia—the upshot being very much in the latter’s favor. ‘Old-fashioned’ Pablo, don’t you know, ‘believed in his . . . godlike ability to reimagine the world.’ Picabia, by contrast, put up the good fight by being bad, upending his gifts so that we attention-deprived denizens of the twenty-first century could feel better about our lowered expectations. What Umland and Hug miss (or ignore) is that arrogance comes in an assortment of flavors. Pissing away one’s talent in the cause of nihilistic hijinkery connotes its own peculiar kind of ‘godlike’ virtuosity. And Picabia did have talent. Take into account Udnie [Young American Girl: Dance] and Edatonis [Ecclestiastic] (both 1913), monumental canvases that propel Cubism into a realm so allusive, muscular, elastic, and funny that they still startle. One can’t help but wonder if the crowning audacity of these encompassing masterworks spooked the artist. Easier to take the low road than risk anything quite so heroic again; better to fail by design than to come by it honestly. After this masterful one-two punch, ‘Our Heads Are Round’ traces forty circuitous years of squandered promise. What a long and pointless trip it is.”