Ab-Ex Dada


At New York’s Stable Gallery in 1953, Marcel Duchamp examined a wooden container studded with iron spikes and containing four loose stones. The sculptural oddity, now lost, was Robert Rauschenberg’s Music Box (1953). Shaking the object and recalling his own mysterious jingling ball of twine, With Hidden Noise (1916), Duchamp quipped, “I think I recognize that tune.” This charmed encounter of Dada with Neo-Dada provides a coda to Catherine Craft’s An Audience of Artists: Dada, Neo-Dada, and the Emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Craft, the author of volumes on Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, explores in this impressive new study how their forebears in the New York School engaged abstraction, negation and the perceived postwar necessity of beginning art anew. Intriguingly, she shows that the term “neo-Dada” likely originated with Robert Motherwell, and that when it first appeared in print in the early 1950s it applied not to early works by Johns, Allan Kaprow, George Maciunas or Rauschenberg but, mirabile dictu, to paintings by Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. No wonder this particular use of the descriptor fell away. How artists such as these could have aligned with an historical movement so suspicious of painting is a conundrum, evident in the dubious title of Motherwell’s 1951 anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets.

Filtered through its editor’s personal passion for painting and his largely apolitical approach to art, that collection of manifestos and revisionist reminiscences inaugurated Dada’s historiography in English. As he penned the preface, Motherwell thought he detected “a real dada strain” in the minds of his fellow painters in the New York School. This elusive strain is the subject of Craft’s narrative, which begins with Duchamp’s arrival in New York in 1915 and ends with the installation of his Etant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1969. In between are chapters focusing on key moments in the creative lives of Motherwell, Pollock and Newman; the initial reception of Abstract Expressionism as anti-art; and the atmosphere of rivalry, camaraderie and gossip in which the new tendency in painting took shape. In this small social world, Craft reminds us, artists formed a crucial component of each other’s audience. She doesn’t worry much about the exclusions enforced in this coterie of white men or in the canon they entered, 1 except briefly to mention what we already know—that while Lee Krasner was Pollock’s most supportive viewer, “he seldom offered comparable feedback, and their many visitors rarely went up to her studio.” Adeptly, however, the author probes her protagonists’ insecurities, as she investigates the ways Dada might have resonated with their Cubist- and Surrealist-inspired project. Obsessed as they were with originality, these artists suffered a profound anxiety of influence and a chronic proprietary paranoia. Hence Mark Rothko’s nervous insistence: “You develop something and it’s yours, it’s your territory. Once a territory is taken, there’s no reason for somebody else to take that territory. And to emulate one by imitation would be ridiculous.”

Of course, emulate they did, despite such rhetoric. Craft notes Pollock’s heroic models in Siqueiros, Benton, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró, Matta, all the usual suspects, and, quite convincingly, she adds a fresh one: Jean Arp. His Dadaist works on paper and painted-wood reliefs, exhibited in the 1930s and 1940s in New York, offered inspirational examples of automatism, biomorphism and collage practices for the Abstract Expressionists, Pollock and Motherwell in particular. Pressed about how he had arrived at his drip technique, for instance, Pollock once showed Tony Smith a reproduction of Arp’s Automatic Drawing (1917-18) in the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 survey “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism.” With its sinuous black-ink lines and puddles, this early organic abstraction does seem premonitory. Craft hails Arp’s wood reliefs, tense with abstract and quasi-representational shapes (hammer, shoe, fork), as precedents for Pollock’s cut-out paintings of the late ’40s, and cites the latter’s 1948 composition with a hobbyhorse head stuck onto the canvas as “a distant echo” of Arp’s assemblages. This last claim may seem something of a stretch—then again, as Pollock could have learned from Motherwell, dada means “hobbyhorse” in French.

Although Arp was not among the European émigrés residing in the U.S. during the war, he communicated with Motherwell about the Dada anthology, contributing a poem in memory of Sophie Täuber-Arp and an essay, “Dada Was Not a Farce.” Motherwell was also editing the Documents of Modern Art, a multivolume collection that includes Arp’s On My Way: Poetry and Essays 1912-1947 (1948). One of the works reproduced therein was a collage Arp created in 1947 out of his old Dada-style drawings, torn up and recycled to produce what the artist called his papiers déchirés. 2  The destructive violence Motherwell sensed in this process—”tearing the paper,” he stated dramatically, “is like killing someone”—distinguished it from the elegant aesthetic of Cubist papiers collés and conveyed an expressivity that impressed him greatly. Collage became essential for Motherwell, above all as a relational procedure, giving him a strong sense of “operating on the world.” Craft likens his art to his editing: both entailed excising and discarding as well as constructing and unifying.

Counting The Dada Painters and Poets among Motherwell’s greatest works in collage, Craft devotes a whole chapter to it, detailing how erstwhile Dadaists came out of the woodwork to insist on their version of the story once word spread of Motherwell’s interest. An Audience of Artists traces the imperfectly developing American conception of what Dada had been. Thirty years after its rebellious wartime eruption in Europe, Dada was subsumed in museums and galleries, and Motherwell made of it something congenial to his love of art, sidelining the politicized photomontages of Berlin Dada in favor of Arp’s abstractions, and valorizing Duchamp’s readymades as “beautiful sculpture.” Craft outlines the construction of what we now think of as New York Dada, a retrospective invention that handily insinuated a place for the U.S. into the history of the radical avant-garde. Though appointed its leading light, Duchamp never publically identified with Dada until averring in an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in 1945 (!) that it was “a sort of nihilism to which I am still very sympathetic.” In 1953, Duchamp curated the group show “Dada 1916-1923” for New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery, giving the movement a definitive lifespan and including only those of his own works coinciding with that seven-year period, thus omitting the iconic bottle rack, bicycle wheel and snow shovel, all predating Hugo Ball’s foundational activities at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Duchamp had curated his own miniature retrospective in the Boîte-en-valise (1935-41) during his ostensible retirement from art-making, then surreptitiously began Etant donnés (1946-66), with its spread-eagled, lamp-bearing nude cast from the body of his then lover, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. Craft adds an entirely new dimension to our understanding of this provocative tableau seen through peepholes in an ancient wooden door, arguing that Duchamp came to think of the work as a period room, like other period rooms in the Philadelphia Museum, where he installed his Large Glass in 1954. “You have invented a new kind of autobiography,” Duchamp’s friend and collector Walter Arensberg had marveled of the Boîte-en-valise, “you have become the puppeteer of your past.”

The deeply personal meanings Etant donnés held for its aging puppeteer are poignantly revealed in Craft’s sensitive analysis of it as a kind of mausoleum of passion and art, reflecting the artist’s devastating losses while it was under construction: first of the beloved Martins—who never left her husband for Duchamp but became, like that other mariée of the Large Glass, permanently inaccessible—then of his devoted audience of intimate viewer-confidants Mary Reynolds (d. 1950), Katherine Dreier (d. 1952), Francis Picabia (d. 1953), Louise and Walter Arensberg (d. 1953 and 1954, respectively).

Craft undertakes similarly empathic investigations of the emotional crises experienced by Motherwell as he began his “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” painting series in 1948 and by Pollock as he poured No. 29 on glass while Hans Namuth filmed him at the Springs, on Long Island, in 1950. Motherwell conceived the very first “Elegies” in an almost fatal mood. His wife had just abandoned him for another man; desperate, he chose painting instead of suicide. Pollock’s turning point, as we know, had an unhappier outcome as he plunged back into his alcoholism, and Craft struggles to get to the root of his problem during that fateful day of filming. It was, she speculates, Namuth’s intrusion as a figure into Pollock’s work, emerging not from the artist’s unconscious but, literally, from beneath the glass that proved so unsettling. Just as keenly, she appreciates Newman’s heartfelt search for a “moment of communion” between artist and viewer in paintings such as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), and his bitterness over their reception as “neo-Dada.” He considered it a smear.

At such moments of existential agony for individual Abstract Expressionists, Dada’s relevance seems remote. Periodically in Craft’s intricate account, “neo-Dada” emerges as code for anything problematic or misunderstood, and Motherwell’s claim for a “dada strain” gets strained indeed. Assembling his anthology, the painter and his nostalgic Dada eyewitness collaborators became, like Duchamp creating his mini-museum and his period room, puppeteers of the past, animators of history. Craft plays such a role too, as do all art historians; in her case the performance is engagingly instructive and, at its most compelling moments, full of compassionate insight.