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Back to Features 96




















 

Marcel Duchamp,
Fountain, 1964. 

































 

Charles Sheeler, 
Living Room of 
New York Apartment
of Louise and Walter
Arensberg (East 
Wall from Above), 
1919.


































 

Man Ray, Flying 
Dutchman, 1920. 































 

Francis Picabia, 
Le Fiance, 
c. 1916-17.































 

Marcel Duchamp, 
Place Card for Carl 
Van Vechten, 1917.
























 

Charles Demuth, 
Spring, c. 1921.

































 

Joseph Stella, 
Collage, Number 21, 
c. 1920.


































 

Beatrice Wood, 
Dieu Protege les 
Amants (God Protects 
Lovers), 1917.































 

Clara Tice, 
Insect Frolic, 
1923.































 

Florine Stettheimer, 
Portrait of 
Duchamp, 1923.



dada invades
new york

at the 
whitney museum


by Alan Moore 
"Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York" at 

the Whitney Museum is a feast of objects 

made by both the big fish of the movement 

and the smaller fry. There are treats for 

fans, surprises for connoisseurs and 

cognitive bedazzlement and healthy 

bewilderment for newcomers to the complex 

and manic Dada movement--which while best 

known for its manifestations in Zurich, 

Berlin and Paris, also constituted New 

York's first real claim on the 20th-century 

art vanguard.


The Whitney installation is flashy and 

exciting, with the space cut up in 

eccentric diagonals. At the center of the 

show is a life-size recreation of the salon 

of super-patrons Walter and Louise 

Arensberg, who during 1914-20 served as 

hosts to the New York Dada group and a 

stream of charmed, outraged or simply 

drunken guests. Plugged into a giant black-

and-white photo-mural of two walls of the 

Arensburg salon, showing the couples' art 

collection "in situ" (it is now housed at 

the Philadelphia Museum), are several of 

the art works themselves, including Henri 

Matisse's uncomfortable Mlle. Yvonne 

Landsberg (1914), a radical schematic, 

almost insect-like defamiliarization of the 

human form.


With this heart-of-the-show ersatz salon--

even the wood-plank floor is recreated--the 

curators quite literally attempt to mount a 

museum exhibition in the fictional space of 

the archive--a space of remnant texts, 

manuscripts and photo albums displayed in 

vitrines, along with vintage drawings, 

paintings and sculptures, as well as 

reproductions and later recreations done by 

the artists themselves. Yet this is a 

bloodless space, evoking ghosts who 

experienced, created and lived in a way now 

very remote.


This conceit of installation belongs to 

Francis Naumann, the curator of "Mischief." 

An avid and generous scholar of Dada, 

Naumann has devoted himself to building 

this archival space, a monumental and 

dusty heart of a show which makes an art 

historian's argument that will probably 

be lost on most visitors--that the 

Arensberg circle was the real center of 

New York Dada. (The other arguable center 

of New York Dada is the circle of Alfred 

Stieglitz at his gallery 291, and his 

magazine Camera Work. ) 


But the show makes other forceful visual

arguments. The most comprehensive is for 

the importance of Man Ray as a painter, a 

curatorial intention baldly broached by 

mounting Man Ray's early works opposite 

major paintings by Marcel Duchamp and 

Francis Picabia. Man Ray was last seen this 

well in New York at his New York Cultural 

Center retrospective in 1974. Since then 

the dish on his work has been: great 

photographer, bad painter; his readymades 

are second rate, eclipsed by the master. 


In "Mischief," hoever, Man Ray comes across 

as a painter of daring originality. Before 

expatriating to Paris in 1921 he had forged 

a fully elaborated mode of geometric 

abstraction using the hand-denying 

technique of air brush. Man Ray did not so 

much "derive" from Duchamp as he folded 

Duchamp's ideas into the production of 

paintings and photographs, something the 

Frenchman refused to do. Man Ray made the 

actual art objects his friend would not, a 

body of painting that is brave, inventive 

and ceaselessly original.


Man Ray's painting Flying Dutchman (1920), 

in which bright white peaked shapes ride 

above an area striped black and yellow, 

strikingly resembles `50s color 

abstraction. It was modeled after Man Ray's 

photograph of sheets on a clothesline. The 

loose handling of brushed paint seems 

unusual; this work is a brilliant 

inexplicable blind alley, uncapitalized 

within the artist's oeuvre both in style 

and method. I'd love to believe Man Ray was 

thinking of Albert Pinkham Ryder (d. 1917), 

very much a presence in the American art 

world of Dada's day. (The painting hangs 

by a vintage photograph which needs low 

light; a mixed-medium historical exhibition 

like this can be an unhappy compromise 

between visibility and protection.)


Francis Picabia ia is presented as an artist 

insistently working out a set of machine-

derived icons. Here he is at heart an 

abstract painter, an ancestor first of 

Halley, then Salle. The small size of most 

of Picabia's machine paintings surprised 

me, their iconic aspect more striking given 

their dinkiness. Picabia it seems intended 

his machines to be coequal with the 

universal and spiritual forms of abstract 

painting, and thereby to present the 

machine as the "very soul" of human life.

 
Duchamp's pieces in this show seem dull, 

occluded by their canonical sheen. But a 

work I've never seen, placecard portraits 

he'd made for his birthday banquet, was 

positioned near the end of an alleyway of 

inventive, diverse Dada portraits. These 

1917 placecards, double-sided line drawings 

(rather ostentatiously framed to enclose a 

square), were excitingly inscrutable. They 

elicited from me the famous "hunh?" 

reaction of one who just a moment before 

thought he knew what was going on. These 

works that appear abstract are very 

clearly drawn by some plan; they're slight, 

appealing and totally cryptic--in short, 

they're Duchamps. (Naumann told me later 

that the drawings held up to the light show 

the full name of the party guest. They are 

displayed in the cryptography section of 

the show.)


Duchamp is present in "Mischief" partly in 

prosthesis--his Large Glass, Fountain, and 

many other works represented by 

reproductions. With so many Duchamp works 

present only in replica, graphic 

reproduction and object multiples are a 

major theme of the show. The movement of 

Dada work from conception to reproduction 

provides delectation for bibliophiles and 

connoisseurs of print media. Reproduction 

as a condition of the artwork is important 

to Warhol and to the neo-Dadas of Fluxus. 

But the question of reproduction--present 

in the Dada moment and later in the 

museumification of Dada--is not directly 

addressed. 


But this is a historical, not a theoretical 

show. The best thing about "Mischief," 

is its broad view beyond the canon, and 

behind those historians' paper screens 

called art movements. With the long-term 

critical emphasis upon the genius Duchamp, 

and the re-evaluation of artistic process 

and ontology of the artwork which his Dada 

entailed, the broader aspects of the moment 

have been ignored. This exhibition begins 

to correct that, recuperating fascinating 

minor figures without denigrating the 

majors. The mainstream consideration of 

New York Dada could not have a better start.


This is truly a secret history, of a "New 

York chaos" obscured by the more orderly 

narratives of American painting, like 

"Precisionism," and Surrealism under the 

generalship of Andre Breton. The Dada 

catalyst went to work on the currents 

comprising American modernism--not as 

another formal system but as a regime of 

experiment, not as a hypothesized ideal 

esthetic realm, or even as an 

estheticization (or "artistification") of 

modern life, but as a way of being an 

artist within modern life itself, and using 

modern life as at once the materials and 

object of art. Dada meant discovery and an 

innovatory spirit that in its exuberance 

and rush recalls the nearly contemporary 

Russian moment--except that it is without 

social purpose and broad participation. 

(New York Dada as "capitalist 

constructivism" . . .)


So, how did Dada play out with the American 

modernists? It hyped up their practice, 

spurring them to free play with Cubist 

pictorial conventions. Charles Demuth's 

painting Spring (ca. 1921) may be a trompe 

l'oeil painting of fabric samples laid out 

upon a table--it is also an overt and total 

abstraction. In his Business (1921), a 

graphic progression, like on a desk 

calendar, is superimposed over the image of 

a Pennsylvania factory. John Covert 

literalizes the planes of Cubist 

abstraction, producing formally inventive 

shallow reliefs in a kind of intarsia of 

Cubist space. Joseph Stella's 

Prestidigitator (1916), a tiny painting on 

glass, returns the machinist abstraction to 

a realm of pictorial space, depicting a 

cone that rains brilliant colors.


This "playing out" process is crucial to 

the notion of American Dada as one in a 

procession of styles, and accordingly the 

Dada-inflected works of Demuth, Stella, 

Stuart Davis and Charles Sheeler are well-

known to students of American modernism. 

But Dada is disfigured when considered only 

as a style of visual art. It is an 

inadequate label, as ill-fitting as "post-

modernism," and does as little to explain 

an attitude toward cultural production that 

foregrounded poetry and disallowed reason 

and representation.


Still, as Dada has worked its way through 

modernist and post-modernist art, it 

increasingly makes sense to talk about the 

inventory and thematics of Dada form. The 

ubiquitous springs, strings, waves and 

spirals, the planes opaque and transparent--

these are pictorial motifs shared by many 

artists. One of several sensitive 

watercolors by Beatrice Wood, Dieu protege 

les amants (God Protects Lovers, 1917), is 

very revealing about the "style" of Dada 

painting as Wood, who had only recently 

turned to painting under the tutelage of 

Duchamp, smoothly incorporates broken 

planes and serpentine strings of letters 

into her spare composition.


It is the women artists of Dada who provide 

the most surprises as they step out of the 

shadows in "Mischief." With total disregard 

for the orthodoxies of a male-dominated 

modernist artworld of serious painting and 

sculpture (as in the oft-heard critic's 

phrase "our men of art"), they produced 

work with heterodox content and radical 

technique.


Clara Tice, a long-forgotten caricaturist, 

whose cartoons of free-spirited nude 

females offended bourgeois morals and 

delighted Greenwich Village, is present as 

an overt sign of the bright strain of sexual 

adventure that was so much a part of 

the times. The poet Baroness Elsa von 

Freytag-Loringhoven is one of the great 

revelations of the show, producing work in 

anything-but-traditional media. Her best-

known sculptures look like cocktails and 

the underside of toilets. Baroness Elsa's 

exquisite woven/beaded/painted portrait of 

Berenice Abbott (owned by MOMA) is 

included here, as is a fascinating group of 

objects once owned by Jane Heap of the 

Little Review (not in the catalogue).


The Dada women emerge at the discursive 

beginning of "Mischief" as the show's 

narrative opens with a gallery of 

portraits. This mini-show sets up the 

central argument of the exhibition, that 

Dada is in large measure a set of 

communiques exchanged between members of a 

coterie. Within this gallery hang Picabia's 

well-known mechanical portraits of Marius 

de Zayas and Alfred Stieglitz, as well as 

de Zayas' lesser known "absolute 

caricatures," abstract portraits evolved 

from the impact of analytic Cubism upon de 

Zayas' practice of theatrical caricature. 

The little-known Katherine Rhoads work 

Mental Reactions in 291 magazine of April 

1915 is included as part of this discourse. 

Also included in the portrait section are 

the cannily naive watercolors of Beatrice 

Wood, the exotic, insect-like visages 

emerging from the Baroness Elsa's 

"beadwork" portraits, and two portraits by 

Florine Stettheimer of Duchamp that in this 

show seem exceptionally incisive and 

revealing. 


Stettheimer depicts Duchamp once as a 

floating head, radiating vibes like Kahlil 

Gibran, and again as two slim, rubbery 

figures, one reclining twisted and 

enthroned, and the other spiralling 

exuberantly aloft as Rrose Selavy in a pink 

cocktail dress. (The claim by her 

biographer that Stettheimer was a better 

painter than O'Keeffe struck me as extreme, 

but her eloquent presence in this exhibition 

easily certifies her as the capital history 

painter of the elite avant-garde.) In the 

portrait section, of course, Duchamp is 

shown cross-dressed in Man Ray's famous 

photo of Rose Selavy (1921). This 

identification, bold and insouciantly 

radical in the then heterosexist New York 

art world, marks at least one explicitly 

political arena for New York Dada--the 

sexual.


In this brief review I have ignored the 

infamous "Dada attitude," be it hilarious 

or ironic. Instead I formalize and valorize 

the movement's remains, a tack that led 

French students to shoot up two of Man 

Ray's works in a 1958 Paris exhibition. But 

if Dada and it's partisans resisted 

museumification, we are today primarily 

engaged with these works as formal 

sources, reflected in innumerable 

subsequent artists' productions. Naumann's 

curation nods to this resistance by evoking 

the Arensberg salon as privileged site, 

exhumed from the archive, a zone of 

discourse and display, not of worshipful 

spectation. This intention, not mere 

antiquarianism, is the real significance of 

recreating a social space within the 

museum. Not all of this art is revealed 

to the eye; it also has to be read, and it 

has to be thought through. Towards this 

end, "Making Mischief" brings together 

works that, like all artworks of a moment 

and style, illuminate and comment upon one 

another. It is an extraordinary address to 

the eye and the intellect alike, opening 

possibilities of relation and increased 

understanding--or perhaps a more 

enlightened incomprehension. 


Catalogue: Making Mischeif: Dada 

Invades New York, Francis Naumann & 

Beth Venn, eds. (Whitney/Abrams, 1966). 

The guts of this book is a 100+ page 

chronology; it also includes breif essays 

by Rosalid Krauss, Steven Watson, and 

several other scholars.


ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art 

historian.