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«Toward the end of the 1950s in New York, an odd word surfaced to label Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and a handful of other young artists whose ...»

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New York Dada? Looking Back After a Second World War

Catherine Craft

“Representing Dada,” The Museum of Modern Art, 9 September 2006

Toward the end of the 1950s in New York, an odd word surfaced to label Jasper

Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and a handful of other young artists whose work seemed sharply

at odds with those of their elders: Neo-Dada. Although the term often seemed less an

indicator of an historical relationship than a sort of insult, there were nonetheless two points

of reference taken for granted as deserving the credit, or blame, for a renewed interest in the movement. One was a book, The Dada Painters and Poets, published in 1951 and edited by the artist Robert Motherwell.1 The other was an exhibition devoted to Dada held in 1953 at the Sidney Janis Gallery and organized by Marcel Duchamp.2 Although both projects are regularly mentioned in histories focused upon the development of art in New York after 1945, they have received comparatively little attention in Dada studies proper, even though both were groundbreaking achievements. Motherwell’s book was the first anthology in English devoted to Dada and even today has few rivals in any language as a collection of primary documents on the movement. Similarly, the Janis show was the first serious, retrospective exhibition devoted solely to the movement. Both projects also presented visions of Dada that have proved remarkably persistent, lingering even in aspects of the current exhibition.

We can begin by thinking about these two projects not as points of origin for a renewed interest in Dada in the 1950s but as culminations of a process that actually began several years earlier, in the midst of World War II. In New York in the 1940s, as a community of émigrés gathered for safety, Dada began to get a history that it hadn’t had before, as former participants talked among themselves and with a younger generation about the actions that the First World War had prompted them to take. Among those with memories to share were not only present-day Surrealists André Breton and Max Ernst but also Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter and Duchamp himself.3 Listening carefully to them was Motherwell, a young artist who was also the editor of a series of books called the Documents of Modern Art.4 The idea for a book about Dada had its origins in Motherwell’s interest in Surrealism; as far as he could tell from his conversations with Breton and others, Dada had been Surrealism’s “older brother.”5 And so in 1945, Motherwell started with a simple plan: to publish in translation the full text of Georges Hugnet’s L’Esprit Dada dans la peinture.6 Issued as a series of articles in the early 1930s, Hugnet’s work was an historical account of the movement that tracked its development in major urban centers, with Paris receiving most of the attention. Then Motherwell learned of Richard Huelsenbeck’s 1920 memoir-cum-manifesto En avant Dada, MOMA Dada talk.doc 10/5/2006 1 which offered an impassioned account of the movement’s development in Zurich and Berlin.7 Motherwell’s decision to include this text as well set the book on the road to being an anthology. In the months that followed, as word of his project spread, Dada’s “old warhorses” would charge into his publishers’ bookstore to contribute texts and images, information and advice.8 Eventually, the anthology would contain more than two dozen pieces by a score of different writers. To our eyes, its contents lean heavily toward French contributors, but at the time its international character was an achievement not to be underestimated. For this, we have Motherwell to thank. As the Documents of Modern Art amply prove, Motherwell was an unquestionably talented editor, but his sensitive handling of Dada’s complex history was an accomplishment of another sort, a triumph over his own assumptions. Predisposed toward a certain sympathy to Surrealism (and French culture generally), he nonetheless came to recognize the limitations of Dada seen through Parisian eyes. 9 Motherwell’s willingness to challenge his own preconceptions about Dada as he worked on the anthology would result not only in a broadly international, historical presentation of the subject not seen previously.

Instead of merely the ashes from which Surrealism rose, Dada would also emerge from Motherwell’s anthology as a vital and important avant-garde movement in its own right.

Its jazzy dustjacket aside, The Dada Painters and Poets was not an especially striking book, visually. Heavy on text, its black-and-white same-size illustrations were mostly reproductions of pages from Dada periodicals and photographs of the movement’s various participants.10 Its visual pleasures took another form. The anthology’s contents, arranged in a rough geographic and chronological sequence with little to link one contribution to the next, were matched by a collaged introduction of information and anecdotes created by Motherwell. The anthology was not a linear chronicle or an authoritative compilation but was instead, as he modestly put it, an “accumulation of raw material.”11 Its format encouraged readers to take the initiative, flipping through the book at random, stopping wherever an image or bit of text caught the eye.

Motherwell credited his editorial achievement to the fact that he was personally distant from Dada’s concerns: “having no axe to grind,” he explained, he could afford to be “detached and scholarly.” 12 This was, however, not quite the case. It took six years for the book to reach publication, years that coincided with the development and emergence of


Expressionism and also with Motherwell’s own growth into artistic maturity. Subtly but unmistakably, the anthology would become enmeshed with his own concerns as an artist.

Motherwell summed up his accomplishment by commenting in the book’s Introduction: “I believe it does succeed in its main objective, that it is not possible to read this book without a clearer image of Dada forming in one’s mind.”13 It comes as no surprise that as an editor and artist Motherwell made decisions about the shape of the anthology that MOMA Dada talk.doc 10/5/2006 2 would effect the type of “clearer image” readers would be likely to form. Among the most conspicuous choices he made were those regarding the question of Dada’s relationship to politics, especially communism.14 Berlin Dada is a shadowy presence in The Dada Painters and Poets for reasons that seem attributable less to a Parisian bias than to a discomfort with its program of radical social critique. Similarly, although Ernst’s work was prominently featured, little attention was otherwise given to the activities of Cologne Dada. Motherwell devoted special sections in his Introduction to Dada in Zurich, Paris, and New York, but not to these two cities. Likewise, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield receive little mention, with the reproduction of only a handful of their works, and Hannah Höch was omitted altogether, leaving Huelsenbeck – who was by the 1940s a vehement anticommunist – as virtually the sole representative of Dada’s political voice.15 Here it may be useful to recall what was happening simultaneously in the Abstract Expressionist work of Motherwell and his peers. From the mid- to the late 1940s, overt signs of specific political or social content were slowly but inexorably being purged even as the artists insisted that their work was nonetheless primarily concerned with issues of protest, commitment, and moral courage. Motherwell’s series Elegy to the Spanish Republic had its genesis during this period, when questions of Dada’s relation to politics was a pressing concern in the anthology’s preparation. Motherwell was adamant throughout his life that his series contained no political message, only the insistence that “a terrible death happened that should not be forgot....”16 As with Abstract Expressionism, the image of Dada that emerges from the anthology is thus not entirely apolitical. Instead, even as specific political commitments and activities were omitted or pushed quietly to the side, Motherwell lauded the ethical passion with which Dada’s participants responded to World War I. But for him, Dada’s soul rested not in Berlin or Paris but in Zurich. As a young artist emerging from a disastrous Second World War, disillusioned by the political entanglements enveloping much of the art he saw around him, Motherwell found himself especially drawn to the “touching” protests of Dada’s first participants, whom he described as those “few sensitive and intelligent men, hardly more than boys, insisting on the shame that all of Europe ought to have admitted.”17 For Motherwell, the most significant effect of Dada’s passion could be found in the area of greatest importance in his own life. Dada created not a society-changing revolution but rather in his words “a healthy feeling that gave a new vitality to European painting by everyone who felt it, Dada or not.”18 Painting per se is certainly not what we associate with Dada, whose participants singled it out for repeated attacks (also prominent in the anthology).

Linking the two, however, was key to Motherwell’s image of Dada and his attraction to the form it took in Zurich. His assessment of Dada was the result of more than thirty years of hindsight, and the image that had formed for Motherwell as a result of time’s passage was one MOMA Dada talk.doc 10/5/2006 3 of Dada not only as art but as painting – and not merely as painting but as abstract painting.

As he put it: “Yet now, a generation later, the works of Dada appear more at home alongside abstract works than they do beside Surrealist ones.....”19 Aligning Dada with abstraction by recognizing a formal resemblance suggestive of shared processes enabled Motherwell to defuse Dada’s destructive energy. In turn, the realm

of abstraction provided a constructive explanation for it:

In one of his last letters, the late Piet Mondrian wrote... : “I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art.” Both Dada and strictly non-objective art are trying to get rid of everything in the past, in the interests of a new reality.20 If Mondrian’s example demonstrated to Motherwell that strategies of negation could fruitfully enter into the act of painting, Dada provided an important counterbalance, its raucous energies enlivening what was commonly perceived by the 1940s as abstraction’s sterile intellectualism. In making a connection between Dada and abstraction, Motherwell placed himself firmly in opposition to the French Surrealist stance typified by Hugnet, whose text contains a number of derogatory references to abstraction and who saw inclinations toward it as a central flaw of Zurich Dada.21 If Dada provided a boost to abstraction, it also presented Motherwell with a sort of alternative to Surrealism itself, embodying some of its most appealing elements, such as a rebellious dissatisfaction with the status quo and a supportive community of participants, but without the unpleasant consequences of Surrealism’s devotion to illusionistic modes of painting and its increasingly academic status as a movement.22 Getting a distance on Surrealism may also have been on Duchamp’s mind in the 1940s. As is well documented, his connections to Dada proper were technically somewhat tenuous to begin with, as most of the works by him that are associated with Dada were conceived and executed before he was ever aware of Dada’s existence. While Duchamp recognized in Dada parallels to his own interests, he kept a careful distance from the movement at the time, reluctant to relinquish his independence, especially as he saw Dada shape itself into a movement like any other, its members bickering over control and fighting with other cliques in the art world. From Paris, he had ruefully assured a friend in New York: “From afar, these things, these Movements take on a kind of appeal they don’t have close-up, I can assure you.”23 But in the 1940s, with Dada barely remembered except as Surrealism’s nihilistic forerunner, Duchamp began to associate himself with Dada as he had never done in the past.

In one of his most well-known statements of the 1940s, he emphasized his identification with

Dada, in turn shaping it to fit his own interests:

–  –  –

Motherwell also observed that Duchamp was the only participant in Dada he had met who claimed “still to be a Dada.”25 The connection seemed so powerful that in Motherwell’s estimation, “Duchamp is to this day a Dada. He gave his life to it, as André Breton is giving his life to Surrealism.”26 It seems rather more likely that Duchamp turned to Dada in the 1940s in order, once more, “to get free.” In New York’s small community of émigrés, Surrealism pressed much closer than it had in Paris. Sympathetic with many of its concerns but deeply uneasy with its group agenda, Duchamp participated in a number of Surrealist exhibitions and activities but also tried to distance himself from its intrigues and rivalries. Identifying himself as Dada – past and present – caught Duchamp up in no political games, group pressures, or professional compromises. Dada was a way to fit into the history of modern art without conforming to it, to belong without joining. As Abstract Expressionism emerged toward the end of the decade, Dada would further offer Duchamp an anti-painterly position of subversive resistance against what he privately described to a friend as a “debacle in painting.”27 At first, Duchamp’s unprecedented embrace of Dada attracted virtually no attention;

there was almost no one in New York sufficiently familiar with both Dada’s history and Duchamp’s oeuvre to realize that a shift had occurred. The 1952 profile in Life magazine entitled “Dada’s Daddy” signaled an association that would become almost seamless over the next two decades, with Duchamp and Dada becoming almost interchangeable terms in popular culture as well as contemporary criticism.28 Duchamp contributed to this process quite actively at first, largely by making himself available as he never had before to interviewers, researchers, curators and gallerists.29 For The Dada Painters and Poets alone, he examined proofs of the book as it progressed, made suggestions for the inclusion of pieces, and helped Motherwell mediate conflicts between former participants.

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