Francis Picabia, "Gabrielle Buffet elle corrige les moeurs en riant", 1915, acrylic, graphite crayon

The almost splendid retrospective exhibit "Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal" just opened at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville Paris. This is the first presentation of Francis Picabia's oeuvre in Paris since the Grand Palais retrospective of 1976. Picabia (1879-1953), of course, was principally a jocund painter - but he also was a poet (in 1918 he published a book of poems and drawings entitled "Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mère" ("Poems and drawings of the girl born without a mother")), pamphleteer, enfant terrible, and avant-garde publisher of such reviews as 391 and Cannibale.

Picabia (born François Marie Martinez Picabia) became friendly with Guillaume Apollinaire and Marcel Duchamp, associated with the artistic group which met in Jacques Villon's studio in the village of Puteaux in 1911-12, and later (1918) was allied with the Zürich Dadaists, specifically associating with Tristan Tzara. 1915 saw the emergence of Picabia's machinist period when he discovered industrial design as a pictorial source. See for example the painting in the show from The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice called "Très rare tableau sur la terre" ("Very Rare Painting on the Earth") (1915).

Picabia eventually blended this machinist aesthetic with representations of the human body, creating his significant auto-erotic (and dea ex machina) mechanomorphic period - the strongest work in the show. By this artistic amalgamation, prevailing cyber-sensations were admirably hypothesized in advance. Indeed, one immediately thinks of the contemporary paintings of Gerwald Rockenschaub, with their hard-edge metallic geometric renderings of computer scenes and/or creatures. Yes, through Picabia we may trace the movement from mechanomorphic art into infomorphic art.

Painting in a dry but radiant, even combustible, style (for example in the painting "Parade amoureuse" (Love Parade) (1918)) Picabia raises the issue of a bottomless contemporary dilemma - the interface/dialectic between body and machine. If in cyberspace our ontologies are adrift vis-a-vis how personal subjectivity was once understood, Picabia's central idea in "Parade amoureuse" leads us right up to that slippery elocution between mechanical embodiment and subjectivity - between physical embodiment and machine assistance/circumvention - where we viractually teeter this very moment. Undoubtedly, with the Dada mechanomorphic period Picabia illustrates nicely our spatialized digital paradigm by mixing implied bodies with mechanical schematics. Here the cyborg body receives an ecstatic capability through the repetitions of machinery. Of course what "disappears" or is "disembodied" is not the material body but an abstract notion of the self. This de-presentation is followed by a reconstruction of embodiment into what is now commonly known as the posthuman condition.

But after viewing at length "Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal" one wonders; should belief in the body's semi-obsolescence as depicted in the mechanomorphic period be theorized as an expression of narcissistic cybernetic post-flesh - or, rather, as a refusal of technocratic control in that the intractability of the body would no longer be so central an issue? Still not sure, but what we recognize in his mechanomorphic paintings is that by entering into the repetitions of the machine the subject may fuse into gyrating repeats in a complex and cryptic way. Here flesh is no longer the grounds for subjectivity. At the same time the subject is licensed through a décadent extension into self-motorized possession as the subject achieves disembodiment within high technology. Persuasive simulated worlds can exist for us as "real" because we can perceive them through the techno-apparatus of our body spliced into the cybernetic circuit. I understand this anti-materialist lurch towards liberty in terms of self-transcendent race and gender collapse.

Even without citing the efficacious theoretical influence of Donna Haraway's cyborg-theory, the depictions of post-flesh in "Parade amoureuse" and "Magneto anglaise" (English Magnet) (1922) seem to courageously facilitate an inebriated subjectivity by constructing an imaginative space of accommodation for an intensely onanistic existence. Here flamboyant self-reliant relationships between the protoplasmic body-image and mechanic spatial conceptions are visualized as self-prosthesis. This makes Picabia's mechanomorphic avant-garde period impressive in philosophical terms, as fairly recent contemporary thought has been concerned with the poststructuralist deliberation on the notion of the subject in order to question - and unlasso - its traditionally privileged epistemological status. Particularly in respect to the techno realm there has been a sustained effort to question the role of the subject as the intending and knowing autonomous creator - as coherent originator. Again, Picabia's mechanomorphic period informs us here. In fact, for me, this period of his work has become emblematic of this rigorously scrutinizing of the subject which Jacques Derrida has described as 'logocentrism': the once held distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity; between public and private; between fantasy and reality; and between the unconscious and the conscious realm.

Today we understand that these distinctions are breaking down under the pressure of our speeding and omnipresent computer communications network technologies. We are now part of an automated technologically hallucinogenic culture that functions along the lines of a dream, free from some of the classical strictures of time and space; free from some of our traditional earthly limits which have been broken down by the instantaneous nature of electronic communications (particularly with its crown jewel, immersive virtual reality). The modernist existential concept of the singular individual has been supplanted by the electronic-aided individual, in a way liberating the body from linear time and vaporously placing it in a technologically stored eternity (simulacrum-hyperreality). This quality of phantasmagorical and perverse displacement has for some signified a tightening spiral which formulates a new vision of existence - a vision which Jean Baudrillard has called 'pornographic'.

But too, I think that what interests me in the mechanomorphic Picabia as harbinger was his connection to Raymond Roussel's mechanical line of thought (in 1912 Picabia, along with Duchamp and Appollinaire, attended a performance of Roussel's play "Impressions of Africa"). With them, it seems to me the post-bachelor machine was already there, waiting for Deleuze and Guattari to hook it up to the body-without-organs, to plug it into the logic of the desiring machine so as to achieve a calculated interconnectivity with the infoworld through schizo-capitalism. Yes, Raymond Roussel too because in his work he invents crazy machines that produced ecstatic results through the use of repetitions and combination/permutations. An obsessional machine-like logic provided his art with a seemingly pure spectacle of endless variety of textual games and combinations flowing in circular form. I see this trend in the Dada mechanomorphic Picabia also.

I think that Roussel relates to Picabia's search for a self-machine-location beyond genital-identification because Roussel's themes and procedures involved cryptograms and torture by language - all formally reflected in his working technique with their inextricable play of double images, repetitions, and impediments; all giving the impression of the pen running on by itself through the dreamy usage and baroque play of mirrored form. Picabia's mechanomorphic technique and the process he developed also lends itself well to the creation of unforeseen, automatic and spontaneously inventive movements which give me the feeling of prolonging action into eternity through the ceaseless, fantastic constructions of the work itself, transmitting an altered, exalted and orgasmic state of mind which after the initial dazzling creates one predominant overall effect - that of creating doubt through mechanical discourse.

Also, like Roussel, the image of mechanic enclosure is common with Picabia in his Dada mechanomorphic period where a secret to a secret is held back, systematically imposing a formless anxiety through the labryrinthian extensions and doublings, disguises and duplications, which makes vision undergo a moment of annihilation. For me, Picabia presents to us the model of silent perfection of the eternally repetitive mechanical machine, which functions independently of time and space - pulling us with the artist into a logic of the infinite. Yea - Picabia is the mastermachine because his mechanomorphic human-machines map out a mental infospace which is circular in nature and thus an abstract attempt at eliminating time.
In Picabia's mechanomorphic period the body - through a dismemberment of traditional narrative subjectivity - is undone by a proscribed clamor it cannot contain. Here trans-crystalline notions of the self reflect the formational effect of webbed high technology. Here the kind of top-down logic (with which we are all too familiar) is opposed by an intricate interplay of complexity. There is no Debordian spectacular society where all people are advertisements for the status quo portrayed here. Rather, Picabia traces the tensions between human narrative and the mechanical spectacle. Thus Picabia is the mythic oracle pointing us to an indeterminate but artistic resolution between the two competing categories of being today - the mechanic and the organic. For Picabia, mechanical penetration achieves and performs direct bodily engagement. The subject's existence is enhanced by his/her disappearance into technology-induced realms. The body's dissolution may be empowering then.

But is Picabia just being Dada disingenuous by proposing this posture? Given the period's death, or explanation of, the mythic Father/God - alongside the enduring wish of Western modern thought to trundle exterior reality - I think not. Here, in the mechanomorphic operation, the paradoxically simultaneous experiences of death and immortality that is fundamental to Western religious practice is laid bare. Having explained God, Picabia creates a post-flesh art by virtue of a relocation of body/machine/consciousness. Actually, Picabia seems to address here how technological consciousness infects people like a virus. That such a semi-programmed Dada philosophy engages our contemporary fixations today is not remarkable. All told, Picabia remains quite formidable in his versatile span; a span which leaves many current cultural producers looking dismally ethnocentric.

Joseph Nechvatal

New York, New York 2003


Francis Picabia, TRES RARE TABLEAU SUR LA TERRE, 1915, oil, metallic paint, wood