In March of this year, I visited Manhattan to see the Francis Picabia retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Directions presented major works from every phase of Picabia’s shapeshifting career. Picabia never settled on a specific style and opposed any herd mentality, but central to his life’s work, and most important to me, was his Dadaist period.
Picabia was a master of Dada, and his Dada room was a gold mine of Dada history. Copies of both Tristan Tzara’s Dada and Picabia’s own 391 were present, and around the corner were copies of the Parisian Dadaist journal Littérature. The walls were covered with his mechanomorphic paintings. More like a draftsman than an artist, during his Dada period Picabia turned the spotlight on modern machinery. In these works he modified and repurposed images of machines from advertisements and catalogs. With a deadpan sense of humor, he made machines that would never be able to function in the real world and enhanced them with titles that humanized them.
The crown jewel of these mechanical works might be Amorous Parade. Picabia connected a phallic machine by way of some joints to a strange pumping device. This, in turn, was attached to a record player above it. The title, written in large uppercase letters, suggested some kind of hydraulic and kinetic orgy. Picabia, displacing the machines from their utilitarian purpose, reinvented them to serve a symbolically erotic one.
Walking around the room, I was suddenly drawn to a different kind of painting altogether. Placed on the back wall was The Cacodylic Eye. It was created in 1921 when Picabia was ill with an eye infection. As the story goes, he asked all of his Dada friends to sign and comment on the canvas. Some did, but others glued their pictures to it. At first glance, it seemed Picabia’s only contribution to the piece was the title and his own signature, both painted in an extra-large headline and byline. But he may have added the large looming eye in the lower right quadrant. Curiously, there is a contradiction in authorship with this piece. It was collectively made, but the orchestrator, Picabia, took credit. Also of importance is how Picabia presented the signatures. The piece resembled the graffiti on a bathroom wall, but when framed what was once not thought of as art was now seen as a work of art.
On the same wall as The Cacodylic Eye was a splatter of ink Picabia blasphemously named The Blessed Virgin. Another piece next to it was simply a sheet of paper with his name written across it. The title of that piece, naturally, was Francis Picabia. Walking through the exhibit I was reminded that, no matter how often his style changed, Picabia continued to play and experiment. At every turn, he fought the bourgeois concept of art. Sometimes he did it with humor, but he also brought together unexpected figures that were contradictory in color, form, or concept. And like with his mechanical works, his other periods often borrowed from popular culture. Even his earliest works, the faux-Impressionist paintings, were based on postcards, while his later Kitsch period lifted images from Hollywood.
The following morning I left my hostel in the Chelsea neighborhood and ventured through the freezing weather to the New Museum. While my main reason for visiting New York was the Picabia show, I was also there to see Raymond Pettibon’s first major survey A Pen of All Work. Pettibon is largely known as an illustrator of punk rock albums and fliers. While the show covered that period, it was broader in scope and exhibited works less familiar to punks.
I started the exhibit from the top. The first room I entered contained many of Pettibon’s political drawings. A portrait of Joseph Stalin cleverly read, “I should be president of the United States.” Another, this time of Che Guevara, was headlined, "At least I still got my own good looks.” Like Picabia, Pettibon often lifted images directly out of the mainstream. His drawing of Guevara was no different than the iconic image of Guevara. Yet, by a simple juxtaposition of words with images, Pettibon morphed the image into a provocative caricature. More than often on this floor, Pettibon’s drawings took on a less comical tone. In Untitled (To Make Him Decent), a flag was used to cover up a dead naked soldier’s genitals. The piece touched on how society’s irrational fear of sexuality can often overshadow two things that are truly indecent: war and violence.
The next floor down showcased Pettibon’s best-known material. These works centered around self-destruction, drugs, teen culture, punk rock, and suicide. A woman hung herself over Elvis’ death. A nameless commentator judged The Beatles by penis size. A teenage girl expressed her lustful feelings about Jesus to a nun. In the main room, a number of Pettibon’s zines were placed under glass, while Pettibon’s most famous publication, 1978’s Captive Chains, was posted page for page on the center wall. Throughout it were images of bondage, rage, and murder. One of these pages, an image that would later adorn the cover of Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown single, had two men fighting in what appeared to be an office. One held up a chair like a lion-tamer, and the other his fists. In a world that has criminalized our humanity all we have left is our animal anger.
Occasionally, Pettibon’s humor appeared juvenile, like drawings of Gumby with an erection. Other times, he entered the sublime with large portraits of cathedrals and surfers on giant waves. These works seemed like anomalies in his body of work. The large sweeping waves, in particular, seemed to represent an escape from the chaos of everyday social formalities. In one a surfer rode a large red and black wave. Looming above the wave like a caption in a comic book were the words: “Don’t complicate the moral world.”
Leaving the Pettibon exhibit, I passed a poster in the subway for the Picabia show. The poster had a quote from Picabia in black bold letters. It read, “Civilization invented crime.” I was taken aback by how much this quote complimented Pettibon’s work. Pettibon’s attitude doesn’t come out of a vacuum. The hypocrisy he cynically attacks in his work is the same that Picabia and the Dadaists revolted against a century ago. The common ground between these two artists isn’t just in the borrowing of images and turning them on their head. Each artist expressed contempt for a world that has remained stubbornly two-faced and toxic throughout modern times.