There is one painting that makes Gagosian Gallery’s Nude: From Modigliani to Currin a worthwhile show — one dissonant note that makes the entire gallery come alive. On the whole, the exhibition is like to listening to your older cousin’s Monsters of Rock CD: it’s an almost exclusively white, male affair, and the pieces in it make up a very familiar rotation of famous naked-lady paintings worth collectively more than the GDP of Central America. Almost every artist you studied in your undergrad course on art history is here: Bacon, Hockney, Munch, Basquiat, Picasso, Cézanne, Koons, Prince, Lichtenstein, de Kooning, Magritte, Duchamp, Schiele, Freud, Matisse, Warhol, and on and on and on — all are represented. This is the bluest chip, safest investment, cock-rock show on right now.
But then, on the fourth floor, something remarkable stands out. It’s Francis Picabia’s “Nu de Do” (1942–44), and seeing it in the middle of Nude is like hearing the Germs played in between Steely Dan and the Eagles.
Unlike the other works in the show, the painting is brutally ugly and comes with an unsavory history. It’s slapped off on paperboard and shows a naked, blown-out bottle blonde in her 30s sitting with her fleshy back to the viewer. Her garish red lips express distain and boredom. She is backlit and framed by a pure black background that wishes it were velvet. The painting is copied from a photograph printed in an old Parisian girlie magazine.
“Nu de Do” comes from a body of Picabia’s work that was used to decorate brothels in occupied North Africa. Was it a commission, or did the Algerian merchant who distributed the series see the works and then decide they would be a perfect fit for places where tired Nazis and Italian Fascists would buy sex? Gagosian offers no story behind the work, which is a shame.
Regardless of provenance, Picabia captures the nude in a way that none of the other paintings in the show do. The latter are “art” in the safe, academic, distant sense — nudes that are acceptable to gawk at. “Nu de Do” perfectly illustrates Lacan’s idea about the unsettling feeling created by objects that one really looks at: not only do they look back at the viewer, but they trigger anxiety.
There’s no reason Picabia should have made “Nu de Do.” He was a superlative painter who supposedly got his start by forging his father’s art collection and selling off the originals as a teen. He was a respected pal of the big guns of Dada and Surrealism. He was a star.
But in the 1930s, Picabia got bored. He started spending more time with his hot rods and with unfashionable, figurative styles of painting. By the 1940s, he was so uninterested in the thrust of avant-garde contemporary art that he started producing tacky nudes. The current spin is that these paintings are ironic takes on kitsch. I think this idea is too knowing and doesn’t fit with what we understand about Picabia. To me it seems more likely that he was cynically producing work to finance his car obsession. But, unlike the late-19th-century demi-porn art movement, there was no effort to make “Nu de Do” or the other paintings in the series classy and comfortable for collectors. As such, it’s especially amazing to see it at Gagosian, a place that seems to contain more guards at any given time than works of art.
A Picabia show is coming to the Museum of Modern Art next month; it will be his first major US retrospective since the 1970s, when the nudes were edited out. In the meantime, I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting Gagosian’s Upper East Side space to see “Nu de Do” subversively mixed in with the classics. It makes the surrounding paintings seem sharper. And the fact that this work of economically produced decorative porn most likely saw some seriously lewd activities unfold underneath it gives Gagosian Gallery an unexpected edge.
Nude: From Modigliani to Currin continues at Gagosian Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 29.
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