New York

“Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York”

Curated by Francis Naumann with Beth Venn, “Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York” was the first major attempt to assemble the works and documents of New York Dada. Over two hundred paintings, sculptures, photographs, magazines, books, and letters by some twenty European and American artists, who participated in that group between 1913 and 1923, filled the third floor of the museum. Well-known works by Duchamp surrounded Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s never previously exhibited or reproduced readymade Limbswish, ca. 1917–20. The biggest surprise was the large number of early Man Rays—over fifty works dating from 1914 to 1921—which tended to dominate each of the nine sections of the exhibit. Based on Naumann’s twenty-five years of archival research on these artists, this show represented a painstaking attempt to re-create New York Dada.

The center of the exhibit consisted of a reconstruction of Walter and Louise Arensberg’s main studio in their apartment at 33 West 67th Street, which served as a nightly gathering, drinking, and partying place for European artists who had sought refuge from World War I in New York (Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Jean Crotti, Albert Gleizes and Juliette Roche, Edgard Varèse, Henri-Pierre Roché, Arthur Cravan) as well as for young American artists (Man Ray, Charles Demuth, John Covert, Arthur Dove, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, and Beatrice Wood). The accompanying catalogue to the exhibitioneven includes Steven Watson’s fictional account of the conversations of these nightly visitors, “Midnight at the Arensbergs’: A Readymade Conversation.” In Naumann’s preface to his 1994 book New York Dada 1915–23, an indispensable history of this group and a blueprint for this exhibition, Naumann writes how much he regrets not having been part of the Arensbergs’ gatherings. This exhibition was in many ways an effort to give himself and all visitors a chance to breathe the atmosphere of that extraordinary salon—to commune with the Picabias, Duchamps, Cézannes, and Picassos that hung on the walls, and to partake in the ideas and works of those who gathered there.

While the organization of Naumann’s 1994 monograph emphasizes his interest in each member of the Arensberg circle by according each a chapter, the exhibition itself was arranged thematically around the reconstructed salon. Though the dividing walls separating different sections seemed randomly placed, the show was arranged in almost too orderly a fashion. Exiting the elevator, the visitor noted the title of the exhibit, accompanied by two works by Duchamp—the suspended snow shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915 (1964 edition), and Tu m’, 1918, his last painting, which he regarded as a “sort of résumé” of some of his previous works—that clearly emphasized Duchamp as the central figure of the Arensberg circle. Most of the works in this exhibit were selected because of their relationship either to Duchamp the person (numerous portraits, Wood’s whimsical drawings, Stettheimer’s La Fête à Duchamp, 1917) or to his art, giving literal form to Henri-Pierre Roché’s remark that “Duchamp was the toast of all the young avant-garde of New York.”

The first thematic grouping, entitled “Proto-Dada,” included Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, and early works by Picabia and Man Ray. The next section, “Dada Portraits,” was followed by “Visual Poetry and Cryptography”; “The Readymade and Related Works”; “Machinist Imagery”; Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23, the Swedish reconstruction of 1991–92) and related pieces on glass; Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, and documents of the Independents Exhibition; and New York City as the subject of film (Manhatta, 1920, by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler), painting, collage, and photography.

The last section, tucked modestly in a corner, was surprisingly entitled “Dada Invades New York.” Was this not the title of the whole show? Or was everything up to the last section proto-Dada? In any case, it hardly seemed accurate. This section included documents indicating that some members of the group first used the term “Dada” to describe themselves in 1921, and then only for a few months—which would hardly constitute an invasion. Thus the title could only be taken ironically, since Man Ray’s I921 letter to Tristan Tzara, prominently exhibited in this corner, states that “dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival—will not notice dada. It is true that no efforts to make it public have been made . x. . but there is no one here to work for it. . . . So dada in New York must remain a secret.”

Man Ray was correct in emphasizing the private, even secret nature of the Arensbergs’ circle. After all, the movement took the form of nightly parties at a wealthy patron’s apartment. The participants’ preoccupations with chess, playful mischief, and questions of art could hardly have been further from the public Dada demonstrations and manifestos in Zurich during World War I, and in Berlin, Cologne, and Paris right after it. The group in New York did not distribute revolutionary pamphlets at factory gates, they did not provoke large audiences in concert halls and cabarets, they did not even write manifestos. Most of their works could only be seen in the artists’ studios or on the walls of the Arensbergs’ apartment. This exhibition seemed bent on making the secret activities of this group public. In this sense, the title of the show, “Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York” was meant to indicate that this exhibition, which threw open the doors of the Arensbergs’ salon, was the real occasion for Dada’s invasion of New York. Of course this begs an important question: Why Dada now? In defining New York Dada as “style with a smile,” Naumann’s answer seems to be that art needs more humor. It is indeed remarkable how many of these seminal readymades and assemblages, especially the ones by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, still look very contemporary and provocative, but merely humorous they are not.

By confining “Dada” or “proto-Dada” activities in New York to the Arensberg circle, Naumann privileged the works of certain artists simply because they were part of a social group (Clara Tice, Stettheimer), neglecting those of others who infrequently or never joined the nightly parties. Naumann’s construction, and it is always an interested construction, was to a certain extent limited by the period of the Arensbergs’ residence in New York—1915 to 1920. Necessarily left out was the continuing impact of refugee European artists on their American compatriots in the ’20s. Stuart Davis, who was represented by only two works in this show, wrote that these new ideas were alive in New York long after the Europeans’ departure: “Duchamp’s suggestion worked slowly. Unesthetic material, absurd material, non-arty material—ten years later I could take a worthless eggbeater, and the change to a new idea would inspire me.”

This show’s most significant omission was its failure to articulate the real impact of Duchamp and Picabia on young American artists. After exhibiting Cubist and Futurist works at the Armory Show in 1913, the pair rejected these European art forms two years later, encouraging Americans to develop their own. In 1915, having just arrived in New York, Duchamp, in an interview published under the title “French Artists Spur on an American Art,” wistfully remarked: “If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead—and that America is the country of the art of the future, instead of trying to base everything she does on European traditions!” There should have been space in such a show for another meeting place, such as Alfred Stieglitz’s galleries; space for Robert Coady’s visions of a new American art and American popular culture; and space for writings, from William Carlos Williams’ to Hart Crane’s, from e.e. cummings’ verses to von Freytag-Loringhoven’s readymade poems, from The Little Review to Bruno’s Weekly and many other small magazines. Yes, this would have made for a messier show; it would not have been easily confined to the Arensberg circle, to “style with a smile,” but it would have included artists and writers who did not keep their activities secret, but attempted to intervene publicly in American culture.

Rudolf Kuenzli is professor of comparative literature and English at the University of Iowa. He is director of the International Dada Archive.