An Audience of Artists: Dada, Neo-Dada, and the Emergence of Abstract Expressionismby Catherine Craft
The term Neo-Dada surfaced in New York in the late 1950s and was used to characterize young artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns whose art appeared at odds with the serious emotional and painterly interests of the then-dominant movement, Abstract Expressionism. Neo-Dada quickly became the word of choice in the early 1960s to designate/i>
The term Neo-Dada surfaced in New York in the late 1950s and was used to characterize young artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns whose art appeared at odds with the serious emotional and painterly interests of the then-dominant movement, Abstract Expressionism. Neo-Dada quickly became the word of choice in the early 1960s to designate experimental art, including assemblage, performance, Pop art, and nascent forms of minimal and conceptual art.
An Audience of Artists turns this time line for the postwar New York art world on its head, presenting a new pedigree for these artistic movements. Drawing on an array of previously unpublished material, Catherine A. Craft reveals that Neo-Dada, far from being a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, actually originated at the heart of that movement’s concerns about viewers, originality, and artists’ debts to the past and one another. Furthermore, she argues, the original Dada movement was not incompatible with Abstract Expressionism. In fact, Dada provided a vital historical reference for artists and critics seeking to come to terms with the radical departure from tradition that Abstract Expressionism seemed to represent. Tracing the activities of artists such as Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Jackson Pollock alongside Marcel Duchamp’s renewed embrace of Dada in the late 1940s, Craft composes a subtle exploration of the challenges facing artists trying to work in the wake of a destructive world war and the paintings, objects, writings, and installations that resulted from their efforts.
Providing the first examination of the roots of the Neo-Dada phenomenon, this groundbreaking study significantly reassesses the histories of these three movements and offers new ways of understanding the broader issues related to the development of modern art.
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An audience of artistsDada, Neo-Dada, and the emergence of abstract expressionism
By Catherine Craft
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMARCEL DUCHAMP'S AUDIENCE OF ARTISTS
When Duchamp spoke to Seuphor about open country, he was drawing on not only some thirty-five years of familiarity with New York but also the profound changes his earliest experiences there had on him. He had first arrived in 1915 with little more than sketches, notes, and preliminary studies for a large work to be made on glass. Skeptical of the war, uncomfortable with displays of patriotism in France, and increasingly disgusted with the Parisian art world, he defined his voyage negatively: "I am not going to New York, I am leaving Paris." Nonetheless, as this chapter will demonstrate, the circle of friends and associates he developed in New York provided him a wholly different way of envisioning himself, his art, and their relation to those around him.
He left behind a relatively solitary life. Before the war, he often lived in his studio for long periods in self-imposed isolation, times when, as Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia later put it, "he 'took a trip' to his room and vanished for two weeks from the circle of his friends." It was this studio that his younger sister Suzanne, also an artist, visited in the first months after his departure, in order to clear it out. There she would have found an upended bicycle wheel bolted by its fork to a stool (fig. 3) and a bottle rack, a multitiered, cylindrical armature of galvanized iron bristling with spikes (fig. 4). Duchamp left no explanations about these things, and since there was no reason for her to think they were worth saving, she disposed of them.
The necessarily speculative quality of accounts regarding what are now considered the first readymades involves more than the futility of trying to recapture an artist's intentions: it is also an indication of these objects' intensely private nature. Duchamp's habit of withdrawal had been an observable characteristic for quite some time (Buffet-Picabia first met him in 1910), but by 1913, when the bicycle wheel entered his studio—followed by the bottle rack a year later—this tendency had become strategic. By then, Duchamp had come to question everything in his life: what it meant to paint, what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to be—or not be—part of a community. The grammatical peculiarity of a note he wrote in 1913 offers a glimpse of what was at stake: "Can one make works that are not 'of art'?"
He had previously given few signs that something so radical would overtake him. His initial involvement with the art world was rooted in family connections, with his two older brothers having already established themselves as artists, ready and willing to aid their considerably younger sibling. By 1911, Duchamp had found himself in a circle of artists that included Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Frantiek Kupka, and Buffet-Picabia's husband, Francis Picabia, who were interested in Cubism as well as new developments in science and mathematics. Gleizes and Metzinger's 1912 tract Du "Cubisme" began with Courbet, and their fulminations against his and the Impressionists' reliance on the sensations of mere physiological vision resonate strongly with Duchamp's later criticisms of "retinal" painting.
The young Duchamp gained enormously from this milieu, and at first he shared its values. As modern painting's various formal revolutions generated a liberation from academic representation, he and other members of the group sought to reclaim painting's role as a medium expressive of ideas and, for Duchamp especially, capable of an intelligent and playful relationship with language. One of his first fully realized presentations of these interests was Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912). He planned to show the painting in the 1912 Salon des Indépendants, but Gleizes, Metzinger, and others developed qualms. They disliked the inelegance of the painting's subject matter and its Futurist display of interest in movement, and moreover detected an element of parody. The day before the salon's opening, they dispatched his brothers to deal with the problem.
Anyway, my brothers came to my studio the day before the show was to open and said, "The Cubists think it's a little off beam." They asked, "Couldn't you at least change the title?" They thought it was too much of a literary title, in a bad sense—in a caricatural way. A nude never descends the stairs—a nude reclines you know. Even their little revolutionary temple couldn't understand that a nude could be descending the stairs.
Anyway, the general idea was to have me change something to make it possible to show it, because they didn't want to reject it completely.... So I said nothing. I said all right, all right, and I took a taxi to the show and took my painting and took it away. So it was never shown at the Independents of 1912, although it's in the catalogue.
Duchamp must have been shocked by his brothers' suggestion that simply changing or removing the Nude's title might render it acceptable. He had thought that his fellow artists were interested in going beyond mere physicality in painting, but their insensitivity to the title's centrality in this work indicated that their approach was perhaps as retinal as the artists they criticized. Yet Duchamp did not break with his brothers, or with the painters behind their visit. In fact, he showed the Nude in the important Section d'Or exhibition they organized later the same year, with no objections at all. In retrospect, the episode seems like a small historical ripple, an overreaction prompted by nervousness before the opening of an important exhibition.
But Duchamp never forgot it. He would later speak of it as the moment when he realized that he could not fully trust the community he had thought of as his own, and as the moment when he saw that his identity was as much threatened as it was sustained by such groups. He explained the impact of the event toward the end of his life: "It helped liberate me completely from the past, in the personal sense of the word. I said, 'All right, since it's like that, there's no question of joining a group—I'm going to count on no one but myself, alone."
From that day forward, Duchamp began to rethink everything. Shortly after his withdrawal of the Nude, he went to Munich for two months (less to go to Munich, perhaps, than to leave Paris). By the time he returned from Munich, he had made two decisions. He would work as a librarian so that he would no longer have to depend on having a career as an artist to make a living, and he also returned with plans for an ambitious work on glass. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23; also later known as The Large Glass) would marry erotic content with the latest developments in science, bringing the play of language into a punning, equivocal relationship with the materials and processes Duchamp would devise as alternatives to painting. The Large Glass and the notes he made as he worked on it over the next three years spawned additional ideas and questions: can one make works that are not "of art"?
The bottle rack and the bicycle wheel might be described as early answers to this query. Duchamp may not at first have defined their status as objects to anyone but himself, but he appears to have had specific ideas about them. In French a bottle rack is an egouttoir, a "de-dropper," in reference to its function in removing drops of moisture from bottles. Contained within this word is gout (taste), and thus the bottle rack would have operated as a remover of taste, all that convinces viewers—and artists—of their capacity to judge good and bad, ugly and beautiful in works of art. As for the bicycle wheel, its purpose was quite different, as he later explained.
In a way, it was simply letting things go by themselves and having a sort of created atmosphere in a studio, an apartment where you live. Probably, to help your ideas come out of your head. To set the wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day. I liked the idea of having a bicycle wheel in my studio. I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. It was like having a fireplace in my studio, the movement of the wheel reminded me of the movement of the flames.
The passage from enjoyment to enlightenment, an "opening of avenues," is a common theme in writings on art, but the actual means of his object's operation complicated Duchamp's experience. Normally an upended bicycle wheel is at rest, motionless. A simple movement set the wheel turning, susceptible to the contemplative gaze usually devoted to watching flames flicker and leap in a fireplace. Gradually the wheel would slow down, the spokes emerge from their blur of motion, and the wheel would be still again. Duchamp's experience would have been divided subtly, perhaps also pleasurably, between spinning the wheel and looking at it, between being near enough to touch it and sufficiently distant to be soothed by watching it go around and around, a spatial give-and-take echoed in the temporal rhythm between the instant of action and the indeterminate duration of looking at the result.
Duchamp was rarely so open about his own pleasure in any other object he made, and he considered the bicycle wheel in his Paris studio to be private: "It was not intended to be shown," he later commented, "it was just for my own use." A few months after he arrived in New York, he got another stool and another bicycle wheel and again joined them together. By this time, his life had begun to open up in ways he could never have expected. The bicycle wheel was no longer just for his own use.
* * *
Had the rejection of Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) from the Salon des Indépendants been the end of this painting's curious effect on observers, Duchamp might have contented himself with the somewhat solitary path he began in Munich: intensely querying himself and his activities, privately experimenting with the definition of art, and protesting the restrictions of the art world by refusing to depend on the sale of future work as a source of income. But a surprise awaited him in New York. Duchamp had sold four paintings out of the Armory Show, the landmark exhibition that introduced American audiences to modern art, and Picabia's reports after his 1913 visit to New York likely relayed a sense of the show's impact. Thus Duchamp may have already known that Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) had become the Armory Show's most notorious star, featured in numerous reproductions, commentaries, and editorial cartoons. Yet New York seemed so far away that he had little idea of what to expect: "I hadn't considered the importance this success could have in my life. When I arrived in New York, I realized that I wasn't a stranger at all."
This was an understatement. As a friend later put it, a "pre-fabricated fame awaited" Duchamp, and he found himself sought out by reporters, collectors, other artists, and the curious. The irony could not have escaped him that the very painting that had brought him disapproval from one of the most enlightened corners of the Parisian avant-garde had now also catapulted him into a primitive form of celebrity in New York, where he and the Nude unexpectedly became the very embodiment of modern art. Same painting, different meaning. Same person, different artist. A camouflage of recognition at once welcome and disconcerting, his new reputation suddenly granted him an authority he had never known in Paris.
If before leaving Europe, Duchamp had struck most as a quiet, intelligent, and rather withdrawn young man, New York quickly effected a transformation. Visiting the United States a few months after his arrival, Buffet-Picabia was surprised by the change in him.
We had found Marcel Duchamp perfectly adapted to the violent rhythms of New York.... Leaving his almost monastic isolation, he flung himself into orgies of drunkenness and every other excess. But in a life of license as of asceticism, he preserved his consciousness of purpose: extravagant as his gestures sometimes seemed, they were perfectly adequate to his experimental study of a personality disengaged from the normal contingencies of human life.
Correspondingly, if in Paris Duchamp had regarded his studio as a private retreat, his New York studio was now open to a multitude of visitors. Reporters wanting to interview the artist who had created the Nude met him there. Romantic liaisons occurred. Friends gathered, talked, and joked, and at times he also shared the space with other artists.
The spectacle of a shy man shedding his inhibitions and remaking his life when removed from his usual circle of family and friends is nothing unusual— in particular, it's part of the mythology bound up in Duchamp's subsequent invocation of open country. Indeed, he later described New York as "a second wind." However, the systematic quality implied in Buffet-Picabia's description also suggests a willful strategy, one Duchamp pursued in his work as well as his life. He proceeded with The Large Glass, but other thoughts began to flourish alongside it. With the large sheets of glass, lead wire, foil, and other unconventional materials needed for The Large Glass, Duchamp's rooms resembled a laboratory or inventor's workshop as much as an artist's studio, but he complicated this impression by the additions of such curious objects as a hat rack nailed to the floor and an upended urinal above a doorway (fig. 5). As they began to populate the space—where they would be tripped over, bumped into, and remarked on by visitors—their careful dispersal was documented in photographs that would survive long after one space after another had been abandoned, and one object after another had been given away, thrown out, or lost.
In New York Duchamp found a name for these objects: readymades. Most definitions of the readymade center on the power of artistic volition, the artist's capacity to create a work of art not by physically making an object but by the mental process of selection alone. Yet at first, readymades were not quite the coherent intellectual category of objects they seem today; as Duchamp later explained, "[When] I did it, it was not at all intended to have an explanation." In part, readymades were a radical means of escaping from the physicality of painting that Duchamp had come to despise. But they were also open-ended interrogations, not definitive answers. Each one was different, specific to a particular idea or group of ideas, sharing only Duchamp's determination to preserve them from habits, assumptions, and repetition.
The objects left behind in Duchamp's studio in Paris were not quite yet readymades themselves, although the seeds of the idea were contained in the bottle rack's prosaic near-invisibility and in Duchamp's twofold experience of the bicycle wheel—its intersection of acting and watching, of motion and stillness, of the roles in fact typically assigned to artist and viewer. In coming to the idea of what a readymade was, Duchamp would strip away as much as possible (the pleasure, the movement, even the small amount of labor required to construct such an object), but he did not eliminate such aspects entirely. Instead, he set them in operation nearby, usually by getting someone else involved.
It is no coincidence that there is a readymade marking time and place, as if proposing a rendezvous: "FEB. 17 1916 11 A.M.," reads the inscription on Comb. Although they have been seen as granting unprecedented authority to the artist, readymades were born and flourished in the context of exchanges between Duchamp and others, exchanges resulting from his new status upon his arrival in New York, a situation made possible by a single painting. The artist's intentions, the resulting object, and the subsequent, utterly contradictory responses of viewers—this temporal extension from creation to reception, embodied in the Nude, insinuated itself into Duchamp's thoughts. It found a territorial equivalent in the spaces that contained and shaped such experiences, especially the suddenly more sociable space his studio had become: "I was considered an artist in New York, and I accepted it; they knew I was working on my 'Glass,' I wasn't hiding it; people came to see me at home."
Within this environment, readymades' existence as important objects worthy of preservation mattered little. Of greater importance was the way their momentarily specific, tangible presence placed what was usually called viewer and artist in relation to each other within an actual space. The artist's studio had long been understood as a social space as much as a zone of isolated creativity (recall Courbet's grand tribute to his own studio), but in New York Duchamp began to consider more closely the connections between artwork and studio, the way each reciprocally made the other and how the site called "artist's studio"— eventually to be followed by "gallery" and "museum"—defined the activities and objects within it as much as they in turn had traditionally granted this space its privileged status.
Excerpted from An audience of artists by Catherine Craft Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Catherine A. Craft is an independent scholar, curator, and lecturer specializing in modern and contemporary art. She is adjunct assistant curator for research and exhibitions at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, and the author of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
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