Vol.1 / Issue 3

Between Music and the Machine:

Francis Picabia and the End of Abstraction

by Roger I. Rothman



Alongside Buffet's observation one needs to consider two, clearly abstract works from Picabia's time in New York: Fantasy (Fantaisie) (Fig. 11) and Music is Like Painting (La Musique est comme la peinture) (fig.12). The former, now lost, was reproduced in the December 1915-January 1916 issue of 291 and later exhibited by de Zayas in February 1916 along with two mechanomorphs and two abstractions from 1914; the latter was first seen in a group exhibition at The Society of Independent Artists in 1917, along with the 1913 abstraction, Physical Culture.

Click to enlarge
Figure 35
Illustration of a beam steam engine, mid-19th century

Camfield has demonstrated that both abstractions, like the various mechanomorphs of the period, derived originally from illustrations of modern technology. (65) Fantasy, for example, was drawn from an illustration of a nineteenth-century steam engine (Fig. 35). Here we find the furnace, wheel and supporting architecture transformed into a composition of ruled lines (with one exception vertical and horizontal) and a small, precisely rendered circle and a much larger arc. Comparing the final drawing to the original illustration reveals a series of strategic eliminations and reorientations: the furnace to the left has been removed, leaving only the supporting beam in front, rendered as a single, thin line. The wheel remains intact, in the form of a thick arc, but the oblong structure that joins it to the furnace has been transformed into a circle. In addition, Picabia has rotated the dark, rectangular form at the bottom of the machine clockwise ninety degrees, so that it forms a vertical rectangle behind the large arc. These alterations, as well as the extreme degree of abstraction, make it clear that the particularities of original illustration were not meant to factor into the viewer's interpretation of the work. Unlike the various mechanical portraits published in 291 just six months earlier--works whose interpretation demands a correlation between the final drawing and the original illustration--Fantasy calls for a reading more in keeping with that of Picabia's abstractions from two years before.

Click to enlarge
Figure 36

Illustration of the effect
of a magnetic field on
alpha, beta and gamma particles, ca. 1905

Music is Like Painting makes the same case all the more explicitly, especially in light of its title. Here, as Camfield again points out, the painting was drawn from a scientific illustration of the effects of a magnetic field on alpha, beta and gamma particles (Fig. 36). Translated from a black-and-white diagram into a multi-colored watercolor, the painting serves as a clear demonstration of Picabia's continued commitment to the ideals of a musically inspired abstraction. (66)

Yet another indicator of Picabia's continued relation to the fundamental themes and ambitions of abstract painting is found in the February 1916 issue of 291, the last of the nine issues of the magazine. In it is a statement by Picabia that in fact reads as if it had been written during his first stay in New York. Its distinction between the world of "appearance" and that of "absolute reality," along with his critique of "conventions" fit fully within the context of statements made to the New York press three years before. The same is true for Picabia's insistence on the "absolutely pure medium of form," the notion of "the abstract idea," as well as the distinction between the "objectivity" of the painting and the "subjectivity" of the painter's "will." (67) Scholars have never addressed these recollections of 1913, and in so doing, have overlooked yet another link between the mechanomorphs and the earlier abstractions. Whether or not it was written in 1913 or 1915, the fact that it was printed in 291 in February of 1916 indicates its relevance at that moment--the very same moment as the mechanomorphs themselves appeared in public for the first time (at the Modern Gallery, January 5- January 25, 1916).

Picabia's statement, alongside both Buffet's comment and the two works, Fantasy and Music is Like Painting, suggest that abstraction hovers alongside all of Picabia's work of this period. They suggest, in fact, that Picabia understood his mechanomorphs as in some sense in dialog with the ideals and practices of abstract painting. And that dialog, as it appears in the context of Picabia's works and statements, turns on the relation between the promise of modernism and modernity--between the promised unity, autonomy and plenitude of abstraction and the fragmentation, dehumanization and artificiality of the machine.

Soon after Picabia arrived in New York, he, Duchamp, Crotti and Gleizes were interviewed for an article on the influence of French artists on the New York art scene. In it, Picabia offered his opinion of the modern machinic world, of which New York was for him a prime example: (68)

Almost immediately upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression…I have been profoundly impressed by the vast mechanical development in America. The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life. It is really a part of human life--perhaps its very soul.

It is a perplexing statement--more perplexing than it has been taken to be--and as such deserves considerable attention. To begin with, it needs to be seen in relation to a contemporaneous statement in the pages of 291. The September-October issue was only three pages and included only one image, Stieglitz's famous declaration of photographic objectivity, The Steerage. The photo was sandwiched between a pair of short texts, both of which were published in English and French so as to draw the attention of as many European artists as possible. One was written by de Zayas, the other by Haviland. Haviland's text reads, in full:

We are living in the age of the machine. Man made the machine in his own image. She has limbs which act; lungs which breathe; a heart which beats; a nervous system through which runs electricity. The phonograph is the image of his voice; the camera the image of his eye. The machine is his "daughter born without a mother." That is why he loves her. He has made the machine superior to himself. That is why he admires her. Having made her superior to himself, he endows the superior beings which he conceives in his poetry and in his plastique with the qualities of machines. After making the machine in his own image he has made his human ideal machinomorphic. But the machine is yet at a dependent stage. Man gave her every qualification except thought. She submits to his will but he must direct her activities. Without him she remains a wonderful being, but without aim or anatomy. Through their mating they complete one another. She brings forth according to his conceptions.

Photography is one of the fine fruits of this union. The photographic print is one element of this new trinity: man, the creator, with thought and will; the machine, mother-action; and their product, the work accomplished.

As Picabia used the phrase "daughter born without a mother" as the caption to his drawing from the June issue of 291, scholars have been drawn to interpret the painter's perspective on the implications of the machine with that of Haviland. (69) On the surface, the two statements resemble one another quite nicely: in both we find not only a consideration of the machine as a fundamental part of modernity, but also the necessity of incorporating this fundamental part of modernity into artistic practice, as well as the association of the machine to the human body, its parts, its functions. Yet to treat the two as analogous, as like-minded in their perception of these considerations of the status of the machine, is to overlook the significant differences of inflection, differences that turn on the particular manner by which the human and the machine were understood to relate to each other. In Haviland's case, the machine is that which "submits to [man's] will." It is "dependent… without aim or anatomy." Exemplified by the camera--Stieglitz's camera in particular--the thoughtless machine is put to use by "man, the creator" so as to give birth to the modern work of art.

Picabia's comments suggest something quite different, indeed almost entirely opposed to those of Haviland. For to suggest, as Picabia does, that the machine is man's "soul" is not to place the machine at man's service, but very much to the contrary, to place the machine inside man, to replace the creativity of human "will" with the mindlessly repetitive back-and-forth of the piston. Indeed, on closer inspection, Haviland's view is precisely that which Picabia rejects--which is to say, the understanding of the machine as an "adjunct" to human life, servant to man's will. Of course, it would be putting too much pressure on this one, likely hyperbolic, media-savvy comment by Picabia to insist that it be used to divide these two perspectives with absolute conviction. Still, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Picabia and Haviland hold very different, if not altogether opposed, interpretations of the man-machine nexus. To look at Picabia's six mechanomorphs of 1915 is to find, again and again, this suspicion confirmed.

The work that exemplifies this most obviously is A Little Solitude in the Middle of Suns. As Camfield demonstrates, the basic format was likely drawn from an illustration of an automobile engine, of the sort that included labeled arrows that point to different sub-parts of the machine. (70) The final painting is coordinated around five circular units, each of which is labeled, in a manner likely drawn from the example of Duchamp's 9 Malic Moulds. (71) Here, however, we are looking not at nine "men" but five "suns": "Soleil ecclésiastique"; "Soleil interne de lycée"; "Soleil maître supérieur"; "Soleil officier artiste." The manifestly parodic element of these labels, as well as the indication that the machinic diagram should be related to the stars in a galaxy suggests that we are far indeed from Haviland's sincere and fully confident embrace of the machine's vast potential.

According to Jean Hubert Martin, Duchamp's presence can be felt in a number of the mechanomorphs, in the form of much less literal borrowings than we find in A Little Solitude in the Middle of Suns. For example, Martin sees Reverence as a variation on the Chocolate Grinder, Duchamp's object echoed in the pair of striated forms joined by a thin horizontal rectangle. (72) While this may perhaps be the case, what seems more relevant here is the manifest difference between their treatments of the machine. For one, Picabia's insistence upon respecting the two-dimensions of the picture plane suggests that he, unlike Duchamp, was unwilling to give up this most crucial and distinctive component of modernist painting. Indeed, it was expressly against the modernist commitment to the integrity of the flat space of the canvas that Duchamp "rehabilitated," as he put it, the system of scientific perspective. (73)

No less significant than Picabia's insistence upon maintaining the flat space of the picture-plane is the fact that his chocolate grinder--if it is a chocolate grinder at all--has been so fully transformed that it no longer leads the viewer in any direct fashion toward the original illustration from which the painting was drawn. (In fact, a critic at the time insisted that the painting depicted "the chief parts of an aeroplane." (74) ) Very much unlike Duchamp's chocolate grinder, Picabia's Reverence demands to be seen as existing in a suspended state between representation and abstraction, a state that works to frustrate the location of the now absent referent. As such, the painting speaks not so much of the machinic as through the machinic; it is not so much a painting of an absent machine, but a machine of absence. Which is to say it is a painting that manufactures loss--the myriad, unflappable attempts to find the hidden referent is perhaps the most poignant demonstration of its very effectiveness.

I want to stress this experience of loss, of absence and its attendant frustrations, because it is an experience that in different ways inflects not only Reverence, but almost all the mechanomorphs of the period. Indeed, in Machine without a Name, one is drawn to this experience straight away, in the title itself. (75) No less explicit is the painting itself, in which the machine depicted is the most skeletal of the group. For one, the diagrammatically rendered machine is drawn in outline alone, with no solid core, pictorially without substance. And the outline itself is deprived of any consistency by virtue of its division into lines of red, black and white. Even as an outline, the parts don't hold together. What remains is thus little more than an indication of a machine; it depicts what is almost, but not yet, a machine--not yet substantial enough to fully deserve to be called a machine; it does not yet deserve its own name.

Paroxysm of Sorrow evokes this experience of loss in a slightly different manner. Here the experience is not one of insubstantiality, but of incompleteness. Duchamp's counter-example is again of use, for unlike the Chocolate Grinder, where the machine is represented as whole, fully functional, here we find only a detached, isolated, and therefore non-functional fragment. And it is in this context that the douleur of the title begins to resonate with a certain clarity. (76)

Alongside the loss of referentiality implicit in Reverence, the loss of substance in Machine without a Name, and the loss of integrity, completeness and functionality in Paroxysm of Sorrow, the mechanomorphs speak of yet another: the loss of the past, the sense in which the modernist embrace of the new is forced to confront its dialectical other, the loss of the old--the production, within the fashion-structure of modernity, of the outmoded. This third instantiation of loss appears in fact at the crossing of two works, at the intersection of the phrase written in an arc along the outer circle of Reverence and the title phrase of This Thing is Made to Perpetuate my Memory, written, again in block-type, along the top of the painting. The former reads: "Objet qui ne fait pas l'éloge du temps passé"; the latter: "Cette chose est faite pour perpétuer mon souvenir." Together, the two work to undermine each other, to embrace and at the same time resist the anamnesis of modernity, the former in triumphalist terms, in support of the instantaneity of the present, the latter in melancholic terms, with reference to that which such instantaneity abandons. With regard to the latter painting, the implicit nostalgia is all the more relevant as the four, record-like shapes, joined together by four connecting tubes suggest an experience of cacophonous sound, uninterpretable noises. The subtitle, "Il tournent… vous avez des oreilles et vous n'entendrez pas," makes explicit the implication of lost reception, of that which goes unheard.

In a sense then, these works function as peculiar icons of modernity. For the properties of these works intersect in many places the formal properties of the religious icon: not only in the process of morphological simplification, coloristic separation, as well as the insistent flatness, frontality, and symmetry, but also, and perhaps most suggestively, in the use of metallic pigments. (77) They are icons of the fragmentation, dislocation, dehumanization and anamnesis that, by the early teens, were manifesting themselves more clearly than they had to Baudelaire some fifty years before. Indeed, they have about them something of the quality of the allegorical as Benjamin defined it, for they operate at the intersection of a semiosis of absence, a fixation on the fragment, and the melancholic gaze. Such a reading, although speculative, is all the more resonant by virtue of their having developed out of an extended commitment to abstraction, to the promise of unity, plenitude and instantaneity--all attributes of the symbolic. (78) Torn between abstraction and the machine, between the fullness of the symbol and the fragmentation of the allegory, Picabia's mechanomorphs thematize a tension peculiar to the rupture of 1912, to the end of "the long nineteenth century."

None of the mechanomorphs thematizes this condition more fully than Very Rare Painting on Earth, the largest of the six major mechanomorphs, and the only one to include three-dimensional protrusions--two large, symmetrically placed cylinders on the upper half, one thin cylinder between and below. The title, "Très rare tableau sur la terre," is, like the other mechanomorphs, derived from a phrase in the pink pages of the Larousse: "rare oiseau sur la terre," a translation of Juvenal's "rara avis in terris," (Satires, VI, 165). We should pause over the uniqueness of the transposition here. Whereas other mechanomorphs involve the replacement of the original word with a word that refers to the object depicted in the painting ("voilà Elle," from "voilà l'homme"; "machine sans nom," from "la foule sans nom"; "objet qui ne fait pas l'éloge du temps passé," from "celui qui fait l'éloge du temps passé"), here the original is replaced by a word that refers to the painting itself. It is not a very rare machine, but a very rare painting. And insofar as it is the only mechanomorph that bulges off the surface, perhaps it is indeed a rare painting. But more important than its claim of rarity is the fact that what is at stake here, at least from the point of view of the title, is the painting's status as a painting--not as a depiction of something, but as a thing in itself.

Very Rare Painting on Earth has always struck me as the most awkward, even grotesque, of the mechanomorphs. The cylindrical protrusions are unconvincingly integrated into the flat space of the canvas, in particular the thin rod at the bottom, which, unlike the two at the top, has not been sliced down the middle; it sits on the surface of the painting as if it had been slapped on at the last minute. Although there is a suggestion that the rod is connected to the system of pipes beneath it (through the use of a similarly colored metallic pigment), at the bottom it extends beyond the lower pipe-structure and remains entirely detached to the otherwise interconnected system of tubing around it. It's also strangely top-heavy. The two gold-painted half-cylinders push so far off the surface that the painting seems on the edge of falling off the wall. And given Picabia's frequent references to eroticized encounters between man and machine, it is not too much to see in this work the suggestion of two enormous testicles and a long hard penis, replete with a tangle of seminiferous tubules--a suggestion that only adds to the work's parodic quality.

A closer examination of the composition reveals other oddities. While the two gold-painted protrusions at the top give this section of the work an obviously aggressive quality, the unmodulated black space between them appears as a vacant field, a view into an indefinite space behind the machine. Two hulking cylinders are supported by nothing more substantial than the thin white tubes between them. This contradictory juxtaposition of solids and hollows--the play of literal mass and depicted vacancy--only adds to the more obviously awkward elements and, in the end, gives one the sensation of a machine divided against itself. No less disjointed are the structures at the very bottom of the painting: the pair of wheel-like forms and their attendant system of shafts and tubes. The gold-colored wheel (or is it a bell?) appears homeless, crammed as it is in the far left corner. Indeed, it seems as if it were placed there only to fill the space--a compositional decision at the expense of representational consistency. And the same seems to be the case with the right-angled form on the far right. While it works to fill the space, it is unconvincingly integrated into the differently colored tubing that meets it. (79)

But perhaps the most systematic attempt to dismantle the conventions of pictorial representation appears in the wide grey rectangular form that lies beneath the centrally placed gold rod. This, the only section modeled in three dimensions appears no less flat than the unmodeled space around it. In part this is caused by the white lines that zigzag across the modeled form, thereby flattening it. But it is also caused by the entirely arbitrary application of light and dark that undermines any sense of a cogent light-source. The one form that could be expected to provide a convincing representation of three-dimensionality ends up negating itself. What is most strange about this work is the way in which the formal devices--culled from the language of abstraction--and the forms of modernity--culled from the language of the machine--work only to undermine each other. As such, the work seems to thematize the failure of modernism in the face of modernity. The work seems to suggest that painting, if it is to continue, if it is not to migrate to glass or find itself replaced by the readymade commodity object, would have to take place within the context of irony, of the internally contradictory, the vulgar, the silly, the absurd. It is as if the only way to regain the promised plenitude of modernist painting was to paste a pair of huge blocks on the surface. For, as the black gap between the two cylinders suggests, such plenitude was no longer possible. That this experience of impossibility should be thematized as absurd, if not grotesque, suggests a certain frustration, if not melancholy--a sign, perhaps, of the strange ambivalence detected by Buffet.

page 1 2 3 4 5


65. The illustration used in preparing Fantasy appears in Camfield, Francis Picabia (1979), no page
number. The illustration used in preparing Music is Like Painting is illustrated both in Camfield's 1979 text
as well as in his essay for the 1970 exhibition catalog of Picabia's work at the Guggenheim Museum. William
Camfield, Francis Picabia (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1970) 102.

66. Picabia must have taken this work--and by implication, its manifest declaration of a continued
adherence to his pre-1915 aesthetic ambitions--quite seriously, as he was to remake the painting five years
later for a 1920 booklet on his work. Marie de La Hire, Francis Picabia (Paris, 1920). Camfield dates this painting
to some time between 1913 and 1917, when it first appeared in exhibition. He considers the work's direct
recollection of Picabia's pre-1915 understanding of painting as like music to suggest that it may have been
painted as early as 1913. Yet Camfield's own convincing demonstration of its derivation from a scientific,
technological illustration--a procedure not used by Picabia before his arrival in New York in mid-1915--places
the work to the same time as Fantasy, a work whose date is secured by its reproduction in 291. Camfield's
unwillingness to imagine that Picabia would have maintained some of his most fundamental pre-1915 commitments
during his period in New York prevents him from recognizing that which is far more likely: Picabia never did abandon
his earlier commitments, at least not in the definitive manner that Camfield--and others--have insisted. For
Camfield's assessment of this work see Francis Picabia (1970) 102; Borràs suggests that the work was painted
during Picabia's subsequent stay in Barcelona between mid-1916 and mid-1917, when he returned to New York
for the third and final time. She offers no evidence to support this claim. (Borràs, Picabia, p. 175); The fact that
the work was shown at an exhibition that opened just four days after his arrival in New York, suggests that it
was most likely painted the year before, during his second trip to New York. But even if Borràs is correct, this
does not undermine my claim that Picabia's commitment to abstraction worked alongside his interest in the mechanomorphs. Indeed, if the painting had been done some time between mid-1916 and mid-1917, this would
only confirm the notion that Picabia's fixation on abstraction remained, now two years after his apparent

67. Still other indicators include Picabia's reference to "the metaphysical and invisible world," the
"invisible symbol of the painter," as well as the notion of a "sublime and superior language." 291 (February
1916), no page number (printed on the final page of the magazine).

68. Anonymous author, "French Artists Spur on an American Art," New York Tribune ( October 24, 1915),
section IV: 2, 3. It is also the one source cited in the defense of the claim that Picabia's 1915 works mark an
absolute break. "Francis Picabia, for example," notes the unnamed reporter, "admits to having put all former
things behind him and to having grasped the genius of American machinery as the new medium through which
his art may be expressed." I believe this remark is best treated as an exaggeration/misrepresentation by an artist
who, understandably, was drawn at the moment to focus on the manifest differences rather than the less
obvious yet underlying continuities.

69. See, for example, Camfield, Francis Picabia (1979) 80; Borràs, Picabia, p. 156; Naumann, New York Dada,
p. 61. In this reading, Picabia's interest in "la fille née sans mère" is a sign that Picabia perceived himself like
God: just as God created man, so man created the machine. The machine is therefore "the daughter born
without a mother," the daughter born by man alone. In other words, Picabia's turn to the machine is part
of a larger affirmation of the powers of creation, powers which run alongside those of modern production,
likewise affirmed as the manifestation of God-on-earth. (See Camfield, Francis Picabia (1979), pp. 81 n. 30; 82;
138; Francis Picabia: Máquinas y Españolas, exhibition catalog (Barcelona: Fundació Antoni
Tàpies, 1996) 174, 176.

70. Camfield, Francis Picabia (1979), figures section for chapter six, no page number.

71. Duchamp labels his Nine Malic Moulds: "Cuirassier", "Gendarme", "Larbin", "Livreur", "Chasseur", "Prêtre", "Croquemort", "Police-man", "Chef de Gare".

72. Jean-Hubert Martin, "Ses tableaux sont peints," Francis Picabia (1976), p. 45.

73. Duchamp, in Cabanne, Dialogues with Duchamp, p. 38. Duchamp's use of glass as an alternative to canvas was driven by the same agenda, and given the obvious eccentricity of this medium, it is impossible that
Picabia would not have asked him about his reasons for using it. He would have heard straight away that the
glass was among a number of devices for doing away with the values and implications of modernist painting.

74. Unnamed reviewer, "Picabia's Puzzles," The Christian Science Monitor (January 29, 1916).

75. For Picabia, the titles are absolutely crucial to the understanding of his work. They are that which "the painting… is the pantomime." (Statement in 291, no. 12 (February 1916), no page number).

76. Attempts have been made to locate the source for this machine part, in one case suggesting that it was
drawn from a diagram for an electric vibrator--hence "paroxysm," a word used at the time as a euphemism for
orgasm. See Naumann, New York Dada, p. 64.

77. Transposing an argument made by Arturo Schwarz with regard to the role of alchemy in Duchamp's work
(see, for example, "The Alchemist Stripped Bare in the Bachelor, Even," in Marcel Duchamp, eds. d'Harnoncourt
and McShine, pp. 81-98). Ulf Linde suggests that Picabia's use of metallic pigments may be seen as a similar
reference to alchemy. Ulf Linde, "Picabia," in Francis Picabia, exhibition catalog (Grand Palais, 1976) 24. With
only the analogy to Duchamp to support it, Linde's suggestion is even more suspect than Schwarz's.

78. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1977),
especially pp. 159-189; 223-226.

79. In addition, the lower apparatus of wheel and shaft, while more credibly machine-like, nonetheless
appears as if its components are in fact attached only internally, thereby preventing the wheel from spinning and
shafts from cranking back-and-forth.