Rice Art Historian Publishes His Magnum Opus

William Camfield will discuss the first installment of his four-volume Francis Picabia catalogue raisonné at the Menil on Wednesday.

By Michael Hardy February 17, 2015

Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1, 1898–1914
Feb 18 at 7
Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross St. 

In 1953, art historian Christopher Gray published Cubist Aesthetic Theories, his classic study of the revolutionary movement pioneered in the 1910s by Picasso and Braque and subsequently developed by painters like Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Robert Delaunay. But it was the artists Gray left out of his study that caught the attention of William Camfield, then a doctoral student in art history at Yale.

The French avant-garde artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia had been favorites of Camfield since he first discovered them in his junior year of high school in El Paso. But Gray dismissed their work in his book, arguing that neither was a cubist. “That bothered me,” Camfield recently told me. “They’re not Picasso, they’re not Braque, but they’re significant.”

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Dominique de Menil and Dr. William Camfield

On Wednesday evening, Camfield, now a professor emeritus of art history at Rice, will discuss and sign copies of his new, four-volume catalogue raisonné of Francis Picabia, the first volume of which will be published in March. (A fifth volume dedicated to Picabia’s drawings is also planned.) A catalogue raisonné is a comprehensive collection of information about every known artwork, in every medium, by a given artist—an essential resource for future art historians, and an important step in securing an artist’s historical legacy. It’s also a massive scholarly undertaking. Camfield, along with a team of French art historians, and in close collaboration with Picabia’s family, has been working on the catalogue since 1992.

Camfield had been studying the restless, mercurial painter since graduate school, where he wrote his dissertation about Picabia. “I thought he was very interesting, and at that time nobody had done a serious study of Picabia,” Camfield told me. Fortunately, his advisor was friends with Marcel Duchamp, one of Picabia’s closest associates. Before he knew it, Camfield was sitting down in New York with the enigmatic proto-conceptualist, who began opening doors for him in the French art world. “[Duchamp] was a person who was restrained, intense, but also very helpful,” Camfield remembered. “He was very concerned about the intelligence of the person questioning him. If he liked you, he helped.”

After earning his Ph.D., Camfield was recruited to the University of St. Thomas by Dominique de Menil, who was assembling a world-class art program at the small Catholic university. He stayed there until 1969, when de Menil, after clashing with the St. Thomas administration, shifted her support, and her scholars, to Rice. In 1979 Camfield published his first book, a monograph about Francis Picabia that established him as the world’s leading authority on the artist.

Francis Picabia

So it wasn’t a surprise when, in 1992, Picabia’s widow Olga asked Camfield to lead the team assembling a catalogue raisonné. Olga imagined the project taking about five years; Camfield told her it would likely take 20, an estimate that turned out to be low by several years. Throughout the ’90s, Camfield divided his time between teaching at Rice and working on the catalogue; after retiring in 2001, he devoted himself to the project full-time, constantly traveling to Europe to view works in museums, galleries, and private collections—around 400 of them in total, he estimated. 

Although some catalogues raisonnés include no text other than annotations of the listed works, the first volume of Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonné, which covers works created between 1898 and 1914, features a major scholarly essay by Camfield, as well as critical texts by other art historians. And Camfield’s labor isn’t finished: there are still four more volumes to publish, which he expects to happen at about the rate of one a year until the entire endeavor is finished around 2019.

Even still, the goal of comprehensiveness remains elusive. “People are calling up and saying, my painting’s not in here! And it’s like, we’ve been doing this for 20 years—why didn’t you say something earlier?” As for why Picabia retains his interest over a half-century since he first started studying him, Camfield attributed it to the painter’s experimental energy, which never let him rest very long in a single mode of painting.

“He never went very long with the same style, and he usually had more than one style going. He moved from abstract to figurative, back to abstract. It was always changing.”


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