Therefore it is not difficult to predict a great future for Dada. Dada will experience a golden age, but in another form than the one imagined by the Paris Dadaists.
- Richard Hülsenbeck, Dada Lives!, 1936
We will be speaking here only of the American art that has been called neo-Dada. The difficulty in finding an appropriate name for this group of artists is illustrated by the title given by the Pasadena Art Museum to its recent exhibition of Dine, Dowd, Goode, Hefferton, Lichtenstein, Roscher, Thiebaud and Warhol. The show was finally called "New Paintings of the Common Object," a conservative but more accurate title than the misleading "neo-Dada," a term invented by an unsympathetic critic to derogate the works in question.
"Dada est mort, vive Dada," wrote Max Ernst in 1921. No one today will claim that Dada, as it captured the imagination of Europe's most daring young men after the first World War, is still a vital art style. Yet the term has been resurrected to describe the work of some younger American artists. In addition to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, such disparate talents as Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Tom Wesselmann and Robert Whitman, among others, have been tagged "neo-Dada." So have the artists known as the sign painters, the pop artists or, more recently, the new realists, who include Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud.
Neo-Dada may be a misleading label, but by now it is obvious there exists a group of artists who have chosen the middle way out of Abstract Expressionism (the path between a kind of simplified abstract image and new figure painting). This season enough of their efforts have been exhibited in galleries and museums for us to begin to consider who they are, where they come from, what they have in common and how and if they are indeed "neo-Dada."
Almost half a century, a depression, a world war and the subsequent polarization of East and West, separates the madcap Dadaists of Paris and Berlin from their American descendants. What once seemed vanguard invention is now merely over-reproduced cliche. Anti-art, anti-war, anti-materialism, Dada, the art of the politically and socially engaged, apparently has little in common with the cool detached art it is supposed to have spawned. We shall see in fact the new Dada owes little to European Dada, save an interest in the collage technique of Schwitters and in the ready-mades of Duchamp. The term "neo-Dada" unfortunately is charged with associations, often causing us to misun derstand the objectives of the new art through the reading-in of what we know about past Dada: One popular misconception is that new Dada is an art of protest; another is that it is anti-art.
Although it is certainly debatable whether the Dadaists succeeded in creating antiart, they at least pretended to want to. Zealously and quasi-religiously they set about to destroy old art, whose traditional forms they thought must be rendered impotent before new ones could be created. They felt bound and impaired by convention and taboo in a way that today's artist, liberated by the total victory of the Surrealists over subject matter and of the "action painters" over technique, can hardly understand.
Not only is neo-Dada not anti-art, it is very seriously pro-art. The only reason for saying, as one art historian did, that Rauschenberg's work is never "pretty," is that pretty is pejorative when we mean beautiful. Today's artist, in his attempt to elevate and transform the ordinary and the banal into art, is constantly composing and arranging, often in the most self-conscious fashion. What is characteristic of all new Dada works, from Johns' exquisitely brushed targets to Whitman's rubbish heaps, is a preoccupation with formal relationships. Neo-Dadaists, far from being anarchic, are the first to acknowledge that the artist's task is to order.
In matters of technique, the neo-Dada artists are - as is anyone painting today - the inheritors of Abstract Expressionism. The way Johns, Rauschenberg, Dine apply paint, the way Oldenburg's drips run, even the way the sign painters fill in broad areas, depends on the technical innovations of Abstract Expressionism. To Abstract Expressionism they owe also the size of their Pictures, and the sometimes vast spaces of emptiness. Dadaists of the 'twenties were essentially cabinet painters: most were happy to work on a scale that to artists living in the country of the Rockies and the New Jersey turnpike seems insignificant.
With the treble freedoms of means of expression, media and subject matter, the post-Abstract Expressionist artist no longer fears the tyranny of the masterpiece.The Mona Lisa is no more enemy than Rembrandt, whose paintings Duchamp once suggested be used as ironing boards.
If the masterpiece is no longer enemy, neither is the machine (nor is it god or hero, but closer to brother, as we see it taking on more and more human characteristics, thus reversing Ortega's prophecy). Conventional morality, which the Dadaists sought to undermine, is tacitly understood, despite the daily protestations of Mary Worth and daytime TV, to have ceased to exist. The bourgeoisie that formerly worthy adversary, is the shock-proof patron of the new art.
In Ezra Pound's time, the experimenters hated "Kulchur"; today's artist, like the American intellectual in general, views with mixed horror and fascination the popular culture which surrounds him. The enemy may once have been the Classics, now the threat is classic comics. In the face of the Vulgarization and mass diffusion of what was once the highest level of culture, artists have resorted to the lowest for inspiration. Since Jasper Johns first transformed Alley Oop into a work of art, comic strips have enjoyed the place as models formerly held by Michelangelo's cartoons. The success of Roy Lichtenstein, creator of the billboardsize cartoon, has prompted others to work in the same direction. And which of us, able to recite the myths of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman as unfalteringly as Homer sang of the gods, can fail to experience the shock of recognition upon seeing Mel Ramos' lurid, grinning Joker, or Oyvind Fahlstrom's Bat-Man (as viewed through the eyes of Gorky and Matta)?
As the line between art and advertising becomes obscured, so the two tend to invade each other's domain for inspiration. The result is what the detractors of abstract painting have clamored for: the image has returned to painting, but in a form they never imagined. It has come back via the TV, magazines, highway billboards, supermarkets and comic books, and not byway of Salon painting or socialist realism. This has proved a disappointment for some and a cause célébre for others. Thus, when we look for the common denominator which unites the new Dada artists, we find it is a dedication to the image, the recognizable object as we encounter it in everyday experience. By this definition, painters like Stephen Durkee and Dick Smith, who alter or do not refer to the image at all, are not neo-Dada, and to describe them as such is to misunderstand their work, as it is to misconstrue the sculpture of Chamberlain and Stankiewiez, who use the material but not the images of the real world.
Objective and factual in their means, though their ends may be poetic or evocative, the neo-Dadaists expropriate from the world around them commonplace items - forks, hangers, umbrellas, furniture, old clothes and rubbish. Sometimes instead of borrowing, they completely recreate these objects, as when Andy Warhol paints a soup can or Claes Oldenburg makes a plaster cupcake. What is important is that no matter how they combine, remake or transform the objects of the real world, these objects retain that property which relates them to life and everyday experience.
Neo-Dada art, for the most part, is being produced by the generation, now aged 25 to 40, that achieved maturity in affluent post-War America. Variously this generation has been called "beat," "silent" and "uncommitted." Its attitudes are very unlike those of the generation that created Abstract Expressionism: These latter were literally men of "action" who fought in the War and lived through the Depression. They had a sense of personal freedom and of the efficacy of the individual will. Many were immigrants or sons of immigrants, who still felt more part of than at odds with Europe.
In contrast, the generation of the neo-Dadaists is native born. The young artist's problem is coming to terms with America; in Fitzgerald's words, he is "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." Sidney Tillim (in a review of Oldenburg's store: ARTS, Feb., 1962) was the first to correctly identify the subject matter of new Dada as the American Dream. Rosenquist's billboard fantasies, Lichtenstein's cartoons, Robert Indiana's pinball machines, Wesselmann's nostalgic collages, Rauschenberg's coke bottles and Johns' American flags and maps illustrate a longing for and recognize the betrayal of that unobtainable dream.
This generation is in love with the American Dream they see commercialized, exploited and fading before their very eyes ("the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us"). Their formative years were spent in a very different fashion from those of the generation that invented Abstract Expressionism. The action painters, growing up in the heady atmosphere of Henry Miller's Paris, the idealistic togetherness of the W.P.A., and the early days of the Art Student's League, developed the active, dynamic way of looking at life reflected in their paintings; but younger artists, experiencing the war years as children and adolescents, learned to accept in a dispassionate manner what would outrage and inflame a generation that had known something else. Playing a passive role from the start in the events that shaped our world, they are passive, acquiescing and accepting still. Every generation to some extent feels itself the inheritor of a world not of its making, but this feeling usually engenders protest. In this case, however, the futility of protest and the early acceptance of the horrible, the atrocious and the insane as objective facts of life led rather to detachment and non-participation. Thus it is ludicrous to think of a new Dada artist painting Ban the Bomb posters, as Grosz once illustrated the antiwar pamphlet, Nie Wieder Krieg. Artists are no longer political, nor is art a vehicle for propaganda. The neo-Dadaist, though he uses the content of life, stands apart from it amused, detached. Through his attitude toward what we take for granted, he puts an even greater distance between us and it.
If the artist is no longer actor or participator, but detached spectator who reports, in an uneditorialized fashion, on what he sees, then his desire to express his individual will, to assert himself in some way, even if capricious or arbitrary, is so much the greater. To the question "Why is this - this goat's head, this rubber tire - Art?" the artist answers, "Because I tell you it is." (When Robert Rauschenberg was asked to do a portrait of Iris Clert, the Parisian art dealer, he complied by sending a telegram which read, "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.")
Sometimes an artist exercises his will by choosing not to be understood; then, using his own private vocabulary of images, he creates works described as "personal," a word often used by critics when they do not or cannot understand what the artist has in mind.
Artists exercise their will as well by isolating an object from its context, as Duchamp did with his ready-mades, thus forcing the viewer to see it new and to re-evaluate its meaning in the new context. By relentlessly focussing the attention of the spectator, the new Dada artist requires him to think again about what he is seeing. While we paper our dining alcoves with Toulouse-Lautrec wallpaper, this is not bad training.
Unlike Duchamp, who merely selected an object from the outside world and set his stamp on it, today's artist seeks more often to recreate the object from scratch in his own terms, making appearance resemble reality only to that degree which causes us to reflect on just what the reality is. Thus Johns' cast and painted beer cans duplicate the real ones, but in a more perfect form, and Oldenburg's inedible pastries lead us back to a redefinition of what real pastries are like.
Sometimes the artist feels he m ust tell us what we are seeing (so blind and witless have we become that we need help), even though it is often something so familiar as to be contemptible. Jim Dine labels his ties and apples and rainbows and Jasper Johns solemnly stencils in the words "red," "yellow" and "blue" over those colors, so that we may know what they are. They are asking: Do you know what you are seeing, do you really, know? Oldenburg, when he changes the scale of familiar objects, making a foam rubber ice cream cone the size of a car, adds an additional dimension of ambiguity. Feeling a little like Alice after she has swallowed the contents of the bottle marked "drink me," we begin to wonder where we are.
Although the new Dada artist does not protest his environment, he is as acutely aware of it as writers once were. He is constantly reporting on and referring to it. Thus he reflects the temporariness of our wildly fluctuating surroundings by making things which look as if they will not last. Flimsiness and perishability are inherent qualities of Whitman's constructions and Kaprow's environments. The Happenings are assembled, transpire and then are gone (unless they are recorded, as some have been, on film). Objects made of materials like chicken wire, plaster and cardboard are, unlike the tombs of the Pharaohs, not intended for the ages; they must be enjoyed on the spot for they may not last much longer. Impermanence is a fact of our existence; a building we see today may not be there tomorrow.
Time is approached again from the angle of the frozen moment, the allusion (analogous to John O'Hara's fictional use of the hit tune to fix the year) is to something that smacks unmistakably of today: a newspaper clipping of a public figure, a headline, a postmark. The obsession with the "contemporary" (any object wrenched from, and unmistakably marked by today) may represent the artist's desire to take hold of a reliability which moves too fast to be apprehended by ordinary means. It is as if the artist senses the present so quickly becoming the past that he already feels a nostalgia for it. When Rauschenberg snatches from today's paper (already yesterday's) the grinning head of Ike, his intention is not caricature or satire, but the effect of the "time capsule" buried at the 1939 World's Fair for posterity to unearth, which contained bits and pieces of everyday life as it was lived then and as it is, incidentally, no longer lived now.
For Rauschenberg, speed and change are especially important. More successfully than the Futurists perhaps he has indicated velocity, the speed of change. In his transfer rubbings, where the rapidity of the gesture is recorded, what is expressed is not so much movement (which is what the Futurists tried to capture by a series of simultaneous images), as velocity, in images that remain static behind a blur. Larry Rivers, too, gives us this blur in series of images that emulate the action of the movie camera as it pans from scene to scene.
New Dada, like the Dada of Max Ernst and Picabia, is interested in the irrational, the seemingly unrelated which, when juxtaposed, takes on new meaning. In the 'twenties the discoveries of Freud and Jung were uppermost in the minds of the Dadaists as they sought to involve the subconscious of the viewer, sometimes in spite of himself. The source of the irrational element in new Dada, however, is rather the existential concept of the "absurd" than the workings of the subconscious. Thus they equate the trivial with the essential, elevating the ridiculous to the level of the sublime. (Thiebaud paints a slice of cake with much the same care and craftsmanship that once went into a Crucifixion or a Madonna.) The sign painters are in reality icon painters, if we consider the figures in our pantheon to be empty coke bottles and soup cans.
There are references in new Dada as well to problems of "existence." A used quality is characteristic of many of the objects the artist now chooses to work with; they have the air of a previous existence and the effluvia of life still clings to them. The nausea Sartre's hero feels when he suddenly becomes physically aware of the mortality of the flesh, his consequent disgust toward his own flesh and its processes accounts for our revulsion at Lucas Samara's gift-boxed fingernails and "breakfasts" of rusty steel wool and bent, grimy silverware. Oldenburg's bedside still-life of the contents of a trouser pocket dumped on a chair has the truth of the voyeur's vision. George Segal's life-size plaster mummies sitting at their dressing tables painting their plaster fingernails are a page from our own Book of the Dead.
In Oldenburg's most recent work (the "store" and the last show at the Green Gallery) there is another implicit theme, understood although never referred to directly: The leit-motif is money. The stuffed and painted sailcloth jockey-shorts, the plaster shirts, the overgrown hamburger are all for sale in a dual sense, which is part of their ironic effect.
Money, the real goal of the American Dream, as Fitzgerald so accurately defined it in The Great Gatsby, is a great problem for the young artists because, for the first time in America, they are making it. (A number of painters, including Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol and the Detroit artists Dowd and Hefferton are making it in a more specific sense by painting soft pastel French franc and crisp American two dollar bills.) The status of the American artist has radically changed and the artist, once scorned and starved in this country, is now the darling of the White House and the fashion magazines.
A certain amount of guilt is attached to the money the artist receives because it is both the symbol and product of what he simultaneously loves and hates - American materialism. It would be attractive to simplify the situation by saying the artist no longer protests in the old ways, but that he is protesting something else. The case unfortunately is more complicated than simple, unequivocal protest against the materialism of America. Often the nature of the aggressive, hostile content of new Dada has more to do with the artist's personal relationship with the patron, who today is as frequently collecting artists as art. Thus the ironic edge to works made of rags, scraps, dirty odds and ends - the discards of any poor neighborhood - which the artist forces the collector to take home and install in his immaculate white living room. It is as if, having so totally sanitized and sterilized our lives, we need to bring a little dirt back into it, to convince ourselves we are still alive.
Today the artist knows exactly whom he is painting for; he is as sure of his audience as he is sure that he does not share its values. This is where new Dada most closely resembles old Dada, in its antagonism toward the bourgeoisie. However, the artist can no longer hope to shock or alienate the very group who purchase his work as rapidly as he can turn it out. So he embraces what he probably hates the most, exalting into icons the consumer products (what Rilke called the "life-decoys from America"). The soup cans, the money, the movies stars, the Good Humors (in your choice of six delicious artificial flavors), the beer cans, are the altarpieces of our religion. The artist, after a century of abstaining from painting the saints, once again turns to religious subjects. The store, as Oldenburg knows, is the temple of money.
The attitude of worship is as common to new Dada as the attitude of negation was to the Dada of the past. Thus new Dada does not protest the contemporary reality in the old sense, but embraces it with the irony of determination. Unlike Moses, who destroyed the Golden Calf, the artist today, sensing the inadequacy of protest, multiplies the idols and joins in the ceremony.
To view a moment historically is to kill it. As soon as Abstract Expressionism was taught as a seminar in the graduate schools, the end was in sight. However, let us, now that we have seen what new Dada is and what it means, look (without homicidal intent) to its development in America. That European Dada did not bear root in America, and that the American experience was not describable in Dada terms, is illustrated by the fate of the Dadaists who came to settle in this country: Duchamp, still the revered pontiff of the avant-garde, paints no more; Grosz, the fervent "Prop agandada " experienced a breakdown in America and returned to Germany to spend his last days: Hülsenbeck, credited with bringing Dada from Zürich to Berlin, is a psychiatrist in New York. That brief Dada flowering which took place after the Armory Show was essentially a transplant, and everything related to it could as easily have taken place in Paris or Berlin. We must therefore try to find an American and not a European source for new Dada. Strangely enough, the two leading American Dadaists of the older generation, Joseph Cornell and George Ortman, had little effect on the development of Dada in this country. The fact is, American new Dada has its source outside the visual arts.
Although we may perceive two distinct trends: the elegant, painterly achievement of Rauschenberg, Rivers, Johns and Dine, and the rag-and-bone-shop art of the Environments and Happenings, they have a common origin. It is in the ideas and experiments of the avant-garde composer, John Cage. Cage, although familiar with the work of the European Dadaists, evolved theories about music that were very original, very American and very adaptable to the visual arts. Younger artists came into contact with these revolutionary ideas through articles he published and lectures he delivered at Black Mountain College and at the New School in New York. Although it is doubtful if the artists here mentioned would agree, it is Cage, the musician, who has come closest to stating in so many words the common aesthetic of new Dada. In Silence, his recently published lectures and papers, we find the seeds of many, if not all, new Dada concepts - the use of the ordinary and the commonplace, the familiar and the banal in art, the consecration of the unique, unrepeatable moment, the juxtaposition of anomalies. Part of his text for 45' for a Speaker could serve as the motto for new Dada:
... Our poetry now
is the realization
that we possess nothing.
is a delight
(since we do not possess it) ...
Tracing new Dada's genesis to Cage, we point to his organization in 1952 at Black Mountain College of an "event" involving works by Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham and films and slides. (Since then Rauschenberg has at various times collaborated with Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely in producing such "events.")
Although Cage's ideas were germane, their application to the visual arts was the invention of Rauschenberg, Johns and Kaprow. The three, though their works vary enormously, have in common that they introduce into art the stuff of life. Rauschenberg shares with Cage an interest in chance and co-incidence - chance in that he uses what he happens to find (there is no fixed or preconceived idea to begin with, as Cage points out in a most useful essay on Rauschenberg) and co-incidence in the duplication of images (the two Eisenhower combines, duplicated to the last detail are a good example).
Johns, whose effects are more calculated and clearly conceptualized before they are executed, shares with Cage a debt to Zen. Much of his imagery which critics have found obscure or unintelligible - the doors which open to nowhere, the sinister hands and heads, especially the targets (a crucial Zen motif) - has the absurd logic and suspended irony of the Zen koan, the riddle without an answer. Kaprow's debt to Cage is clearest of all. His environments, which incorporate, without distinction or precedence, objects from the outside world, are parallel to Cage's use of noise as a factor in musical composition. (At one point Cage asks if the sound of a truck in the street is less musical than the sound of a truck in a music school. Kaprow, in a sense, is continually asking this question.) In Cage's remarks about the theater are the first hints of what the Happenings will be.
John Cage was one of the first to understand the deadness of Europe, and to try to find some way out of it. New Dada, which relies heavily on his ideas, is a peculiarly and often chauvinistically American solution to the problem of where we go from here. We can probably pinpoint its beginnings in the 195T publication of what is now the most thumbed book in art school libraries, Robert Motherwell's anthology, Dada Painters and Poets, which first gave wide circulation in this country to the words and works of the Dadaists. It is interesting to remark that American artists are now ready to adapt Dada to their own ends, as they were not in 1936, when the Museum of Modern Art held a large exhibition of Dada and Surrealist art. It was in the 'fifties, then, that new Dada got its start.
Duchamp, who exhibited in 1952, '53, '56, and '59 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, has been a constant source of interest for younger artists, who view him as something like the patron saint of the movement. (It is fitting that Janis, who showed Dada art in New York throughout the 'fifties, should now exhibit new Dada works.) Allan Kaprow's environments were first seen at the Hansa Gallery in 11957 and were an important step in the development of the Happenings, although Red Grooms is usually credited with organizing the first theatrical performance resembling a Happening. (Kaprow has set the record straight for future historians in a detailed history of the Happenings.)
In 1958 Rauschenberg and Johns held their first one-man shows at the Leo Castelli Gallery; included were such now historic pieces as Rauschenberg's bed and Johns' colored targets. Since then new Dada works have turned up in galleries, museums and private collections all over America and Europe.
We have seen that American new Dada is not European Dada. It borrows certain techniques from the latter, but its attitudes and content are vastly different. Unlike European Dada, it seeks neither to criticize, to satirize nor to scandalize. It does not affirm, like socialist realism, or protest, like Expressionism; it suspends judgment in a passive, detached fashion. Having none of the cult-religion aspect of Dada, it is against nothing and for art. Perhaps its goals are most clearly articulated by Cage, in the introduction to a performance given in 1956 by Merce Cunningham:
The novelty of our work derives therefore from our having moved away from simply
private human concerns towards the world of nature and society of which all of us are
a part. Our intention is ... simply to wake up to the very life we're living ...
Here he speaks only for himself and Merce Cunningham, but he could speak as well for the generation of new Dadaists, who, turning from the inner world of Abstract Expressionism, look outside, and make art of what they see.
What they see is America, its glitter, its vulgarity, its carnival-like excitement and constantly changing face. By transforming the commonplace and the ordinary into the poetic or the arresting, they force us to look freshly, to correct our corrupted vision.
But is this art serious? Yes, insofar as it is at all possible to be serious now. By investing the trivial with importance, it mirrors our dislocated sense of values. Apolitical and unprogrammatic, new Dada is not without humor, but its humor is what Duchamp called the "irony of despair."
Do we inflate its meaning, as Oldenburg himself blows up a hamburger to Brobdingnagian proportion? No, not when we realize, no matter how attached we are to the old ways, Munch's Scream is no longer the valid expression of anguish in our time. It is as outmoded as the cliches the new Dadaists serve up to us; and perhaps these artists, giving us back in the form of art the sights and sounds of everyday experience, are creating an iconography as serious, as profoundly disturbing as the infernal tortures of Bosch's Millenium.
Art lnternational, January 1963: 23-28