Monday, September 25

Some Dada Thumbnails, City by City...

What follows is an attempt to take the premise behind the Dada show at the MOMA at face value.

Dada in New York revolved around the readymade and the machine aesthetic. The scene also revolved around three figures: Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia. New York Dada is, in part, about social connections. There is, on the one hand, Alfred Stieglitz (who was not just an important photographer but a major player in New York during the early part of the twentieth century). And, on the other hand, there is Walter Arensberg. This, it seems, is when Duchamp became friends with Arensberg. Would it be wrong to say that their relationship had an incredibly important impact on the shape of twentieth-century art in the United States (not to mention Duchamp’s legacy here)? Duchamp was a great artist and also a great pal to many rich people who turned out to be important figures behind the scene. It was nice to see the Morton Schamberg’s work included here. God is often reproduced in books. His work is interesting, but some might argue that it owes a bit too much to Picabia’s machine paintings. New York Dada in a way might have been the least political version of Dada but the most aesthetically radical.

What surprised me most about Zurich Dada, in terms of the examples on display here, was how much it made me think of Bauhaus. This was exemplified by Sophie Taeuber’s marionettes and needlepoint work. And then after that, what surprised me was the Matisse connection. I'm seeing this in Jean Arps’s reliefs. I’ve seen them many times before, but for some reason this connection never registered with me before. And then after that, there’s this Constructivist thing (Arp and Taeuber). I am left with the impression that Arp and Taeuber dominated the scene in Zurich. Is this correct? In Arp’s recollection of it, “Dadaland,” he mentions this: “The big stars of the dada movement were Ball and Tzara.” That’s Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara.

Berlin Dada is the political version. In the other cities social commentary was, in general, implied. In other words, the shocks were more in terms of aesthetics. With Berlin Dada, though, much of the best work operated more in terms of socially relevant messages. There was a huge interest in collage in Berlin, and much of the painting is on some level driven by it. And in this way—and it’s exemplified by Hannah Hoch's work—Berlin Dada was aesthetically and formally radical. But in terms of the preoccupation with socially relevant messages and mostly representational painting, Berlin Dada, I am inclined to argue, may be the most aesthetically and formally conservative version of the movement. Social realism and American Scene Painting come to mind. In a way, Otto Dix and George Grosz are creepy, dark versions of Thomas Hart Benton. Did this work presage the emergence of the Neue Sachlikeit style?

Hannover Dada is all about Kurt Schwitters. We might even call it Merz Dada. What strikes me about Schwitter’s work is its debt to Cubism. Merz is a stylistic extension of Cubism. But there’s a deep connection to Malevich’s early work as well (not the Suprematist paintings). It’s amazing how much Schwitter’s Merz Picture 32 A, The Cherry Picture (1921) makes me think of Malevich’s Lady at Advertising Column (1914).

If I had to choose one of these cities as a favorite, I think it would be Cologne. Cologne Dada is all about Max Ernst. And Ernst, especially for this early work, is one of my favorite artists. What struck me here was how much Ernst’s early work, his collages and rubbings, the way he borrows from technical catalogues, his rather casual (bedroom as studio) means, and the mind-bending images he produced, inform (or, in the very least, explain) the current style typically referred to as the “slacker aesthetic” (there are some nastier appelations). As obvious as the connection is, and despite the fact I like both Ernst and much slacker work, I hadn’t made the link. In fact, there is much about Dada in general that informs the slacker style. Some might argue that this reflects badly on Dada.

Paris Dada is a bit thin in terms of visual art. I like the work by Picabia in the New York section better. But that said I found the work of Jean Crotti and Suzanne Duchamp, with whom I am entirely unfamiliar, intriguing.

I’m not going to bother going into it except to say that Robert Motherwell’s famous book about Dada is called The Dada Painters and Poets. Yes, there were a bunch of examples of the “little magazines” produced under the Dada umbrella. But, in a museum its the design of these literary ’zines that come across. Dada and design is a topic for some other time.

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