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Review: Francis Picabia at Patrick Painter Inc.*

April 10, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Picabia1 Francis Picabia never rose to the level of Picasso, Matisse or even Duchamp. And that’s part of his charm.

Unburdened by the heavy-duty seriousness that accompanies their works, his light-handed art invites viewers into an unsentimentally whimsical world of deft reverie, where lighthearted idylls often lead to unexpected discoveries — some fun, some haunting and all fresh. It’s easy to feel as if you’re on a first-name basis with Picabia (1879-1953), whose casual urbanity is both gracious and bracing, out of step and up to the minute.

At Patrick Painter Inc.’s Melrose Gallery, 24 paintings and drawings Picabia made mostly from the late 1920s to the early ’50s provide a thumbnail sketch of his proto-Pop art. To scan the show chronologically is to see fleshy figures dissolve into linear outlines, which sometimes become abstract patterns and at other times become translucent forms.

Picabia stacks these ghostly silhouettes atop one another, like colorful palimpsests, conflicting memories or tough choices. In a nutshell, he streamlines Surrealism by compressing its psychological depths into the snappy graphics of Pop.

Many of his drawings from the 1920s have the tender tentativeness of Warhol’s drawings from the ’50s and ’60s. Wispy lines, suggestive stories and mythological eroticism give these page-size studies breathless delicacy.

Picabia By the ’40s, Picabia’s lines got more decisive, less jittery and tenuous. Shading disappeared in favor of stark contrasts. Figures got simplified, often becoming cartoons. And their postures were pushed to extremes, their limbs sometimes forming letter-like emblems or abstract designs.

Picabia’s easel-scale paintings also shifted from a sort of Cézanne-inspired solidity (in which bodily volumes are carefully built up), to overlapped, transparent forms defined by their contours.

But where Picabia’s drawings developed from one style to another, his paintings flipped back and forth between the two. Simplified images of a trio of nude bathers (1937), a cat (1941) and a cancan dancer (1943) are interspersed with such complex, multilayered paintings as “Pa” (1937), “Composition Abstraite” (1938) and “Reve” (1947).

These sneaky knockouts show Picabia at his best, making strangely ravishing masterpieces without fanfare or bombast, but with just the right touch of irreverent wit. It’s his first solo show in Los Angeles and not to be missed.

-- David Pagel

Patrick Painter Inc., 7025 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 934-5986, through April 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *[UPDATE: An earlier version of this post contained an incorrect phone number.]

Top: “Composition Abstraite”; bottom: a 1950 sketch. Credit: Patrick Painter Inc.

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