Francis Picabia, Untitled, 1935, Oil on canvas, 45 1/2 x 35 inches (116 x 89 cm)
Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London
miart 2017, Booth B32
Fieramilanocity, Viale Scarampo - Gate 5
The president-elect’s favorite term of abuse is “loser” – lobbed more than 200 times from his toxic Twitter account, at victims from Jeb Bush to Rosie O’Donnell. When people like him are winners, “loser” might be an insult worth reclaiming. There’s a photo-collage from 1920, the first Francis Picabia ever made, in which the French artist tears apart his face, sutures it with hastily pasted papers, and brands his chin with the all-caps word RATÉ: a loser, a failure, a man defeated. And yet he flashes a crafty smirk, peeking out from under one of those pasted scraps. A “loser”, claimed Picabia in the years after the first world war, was the finest thing you could be; it meant you had failed to obey the dictates of a society that had lost its collective mind.
Picabia, who stayed in southern France during the war, made some blandishments to Marshal Pétain in the press, and he spoke less than kindly about Jews. Yet if his late girl-on-girl paintings make us uncomfortable today, it’s not because they’re actually propaganda; it’s that they’re slippery enough that, in another context, they might be. For an artist who hated consistency, even the wickedest of styles was worth picking up for a time, if you could dismantle its preconceptions by doing so. That, this historic show affirms, was how Picabia thought of style: not as an outgrowth of his own creation, but as a readymade set of procedures that he could fiddle with, turn inside out, and finally break apart. His fraudulence was his greatest genius. He was the loser who won it all.