Home Trending News New York Dadaists made the City a 20th-Century Cultural Capital – ARTnews.com

New York Dadaists made the City a 20th-Century Cultural Capital – ARTnews.com

New York Dadaists made the City a 20th-Century Cultural Capital – ARTnews.com

Zurich, Hannover, Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Tblisi, Mantua, Prague . . . New York. On the atlas of Dada’s international spread in the mid-1910s and early 1920s sits just one outlier across the Atlantic. “We in Zurich,” writes Hans Richter in his celebrated history Dada: Art and Anti-Art, “remained unaware until 1917 or 1918 of a development which was taking place, quite independently, in New York. Its origins were different, but its participants were playing essentially the same anti-art tune as we were.”1 If this New York activity proved distinctly American in many respects, its participants had long been in contact with their counterparts abroad. This stemmed in great part from the intermittent presence of both Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp after 1913. That year’s International Exhibition of Modern Art—better known as the Armory Show—had seen Duchamp upend aesthetic sensibilities with his Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), whose succès de scandale echoed in the press for years to come.

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New York Dadaists made the City

“French Artists Spur on an American Art,” proclaimed an October 1915 article in the New York Tribune detailing a Parisian flair newly imported to America’s artistic circles. “I have not painted a single picture since coming over,” quipped Duchamp in prophetic intimation of his abandonment of painting (and, eventually, of art tout court).2 Instead of singling out American painters or sculptors, Picabia praised the country’s “vast mechanical development”—of increasing interest not merely as a subject of depiction, but as a potential replacement for aesthetic representation altogether.3 Duchamp’s readymades, Picabia’s mechanomorphic drawings, and, eventually, the assemblage objects of their friend Man Ray: these phenomena promised (threatened?) to redefine the parameters of art altogether. On the horizon was not—as with Cubism or Futurism, Fauvism or Expressionism—a revolution of form, but a less tangible recalibration of content and concept.

Dada did not spring forth fully formed in New York from Duchamp’s, or Picabia’s, or Man Ray’s head. It emerged collectively and cumulatively, gradually and fitfully. “New York Dada,” in fact, is better understood as a retrospective designation, gathering under a single name disparate encounters, events, images, and objects. Already Dada in spirit were the antics and poetics of the nomadic Swiss boxer-artist-writer Arthur Cravan, who created a small sensation during his 1916–17 sojourn in New York, mixing self-mythologization and self-effacement in ways that anticipated a range of performative practices. The Dada ethos had likewise incubated in the work orchestrated by photographer Alfred Stieglitz—first with the journal Camera Work (1903–17) and then its successor 291 (1915–16), the latter named for the Fifth Avenue address of his gallery, also called 291, which operated from 1905 to 1917. There, Stieglitz almost single-handedly introduced an American public to the European avant-garde, while sponsoring extended visits to Europe by local artists like Marsden Hartley. Picabia notably exhibited a range of mechanomorphic paintings at 291 following his own participation in the Armory show, securing in Stieglitz’s patronage a further foothold in the New York scene.

“Dada Will Get You if You Don’t Watch Out: It Is on the Way Here,” published in the New York Evening Journal, Jan. 29, 1921.

Picabia’s journal 391—a clearinghouse of Dadaist pranksterism and parody launched from Barcelona in 1917—explicitly acknowledged Stieglitz’s legacy with a variation on his publication’s name, even as Dada exchanged his Pictorialist sympathies and idealistic avant-gardism for an increasingly nihilistic irony. If Duchamp’s Nude had rankled all but the most broad-minded in 1913, his 1917 Fountain—an inverted porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” barred by the Society of Independent Artists from its annual exhibition—forswore the very norms of authorship to which art appeared ontologically bound. Aesthetics no longer inhered in the work itself, no longer issued from its visual finesse or morphological contingencies. Instead, the object became a kind of hitching post for ideas and questions prompted by its mere irreverent presence. Like Courbet’s guerrilla retrospective installed near the 1855 Exposition Universelle, or the Impressionists’ defiant Salon des Refusés eight years later, Duchamp’s submission of a piece of plumbing to an art exhibition inaugurated a new era, potentially hermetic and egalitarian in equal measure. “In art,” goes one of Paul Gauguin’s oft-cited lines, “one is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary.”4 Anticipating postmodernist sensibilities, the readymade suggested these alternatives would be reconciled in a single object.

“All members of the DADA movement are presidents,” Picabia declared in his 1920 “Manifesto of the Dada Movement”; “Dada belongs to everybody,” wrote Tristan Tzara in the one and only issue of New York Dada published in 1921, “like the idea of God or the tooth-brush.”5 At the same time, however, Tzara averred that there “is nothing more incomprehensible than Dada. Nothing more indefinable.”6 Such willful ambivalence had appeared already in the deadpan of Duchamp’s Fountain or the shovel of his In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915)—both mass-produced items like the toothbrush. By selecting and signing these objects, Duchamp liberated aesthetics from both highbrow convention and the ceremonious imprimatur of the artist’s touch. The same works, however, hinge in significance upon an expressly intangible gambit—one requiring familiarity with its intellectual stakes and metaphysical premise. Did the readymade democratize art, or further rarefy it? Did Dada’s objects open up aesthetics to a wider civic engagement, or further alienate a public loath to part with the ease and immediacy of “optical” pleasures? As various avant-garde movements squared off over the carcass of figuration in the wake of Cubism, Dada changed the rules of the game entirely.


If painting and sculpture still played a role, it was increasingly as the foil to less conventional practices. At 33 West 67th Street, the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg served not only as a nexus of gatherings throughout the late 1910s, but also as a site of display—set into compelling relief by Francis M. Naumann Fine Art’s recent exhibition “New York Dada and the Arensberg Circle of Artists.” The Arensbergs purchased six paintings and a lithograph from the Armory Show, while also during these fervent years acquiring works by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, as well as American artists like Charles Sheeler and John Covert.

More than a collector or patron, Walter Arensberg authored various literary experiments, making him ever more akin to his artist friends (Picabia described him to Tzara, in fact, as “the true Dada of New York”).7 Duchamp’s “bachelor machines” and Picabia’s object-portraits find verbal counterparts in Arensberg’s verses. Published in the short-lived Dada periodical The Blind Man in May 1917, his poem “Axiom” reads as an accretion of playfully enjambed lines invoking “a determinable horizon,” “simultaneous insularity,” and “goods opposed tangentially.” His poem “Theorem,” in the same issue, speaks of “the ascent of two waves” being “timed / at the angle of incidence / to the swing of a suspended lens” and an emotion that “assumes on the uneven surface . . . the three dimensions / with which it is incommensurate.”8

Arensberg’s language proves wayward precisely in its exactitude. Indeed, his lines recall Duchamp’s “theorem” for his own 3 Standard Stoppages
(1913–14)—a work that challenged not only the hegemony of painting but the epistemological sovereignty of geometry: “If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases [it] creates a new image of the unit of length.”9 In both instances, an axiom falls well short of the axiomatic, even, or especially, in its mock-apodictic conviction. We find a similar method in Man Ray’s “Revolving Doors” collages of 1916–17, which he adapted from Duchamp’s mechanical imagery and matched with accompanying texts.10 These “pseudo-scientific abstractions,” as Man Ray later called them, evoke figures in flattened, schematic form “without the go-between of a ‘subject.’”11

André Raffray: Chez Arensberg, 1981–84, gouache and tempera on paper, 15 by 28 inches.
Courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.

Exchanging artistic subjectivity for the anonymity of industrial modernity, the readymade and mechanomorph poked mordant holes in the sanctimony of bourgeois expression. Art history has long since canonized the readymade as the model for various critical practices of the late twentieth century, from the performative interventions of Bruce Nauman to the appropriationist strategies of the Pictures Generation to aspects of relational aesthetics today. Yet the hallowed trio of Duchamp, Picabia, and Man Ray often eclipses other individuals and activities from this same era—individuals for whom artistic subjectivity was never something to give away, precisely because it was, for them, already so precarious and marginalized.

Striking in this regard is the prominence in the Arensberg circle not only of émigrés from Europe’s wars, but of numerous women artists and authors, including Beatrice Wood, Katherine S. Dreier, Gabrielle Buffet, Juliette Roche, Mina Loy, the Stettheimer sisters, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. As then independent art historian and curator Francis Naumann first demonstrated in his groundbreaking exhibition “Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996, women were not ancillary to the development of New York Dada but active creators in their own right—a fact that Amelia Jones and other scholars have further detailed.12

A German national and brazen provocateur, the Baroness pioneered aspects of sound poetry, produced multimedia assemblages, and made her body into a makeshift nexus of artistic attention. Dressing in outlandish costumes wrought from street debris and cheap jewelry, she flaunted her sexual avidity and flouted gender norms in ways arguably more transgressive—and consistently aggressive—than Duchamp did in his famed Rrose Sélavy drag persona.13 To Man Ray’s New York (1917), with its clamped wooden slats evoking a stepped-back skyscraper, the Baroness’s equally architectural Cathedral (ca. 1918) offered an organic alternative, its splintered wood shaft suggesting not the anonymity of industry but the worn fragility of the body.14 Beatrice Wood, a lover and protégée of Duchamp, experimented with her own readymade objects, inserting a real bar of soap into the crotch of a glazed figure and titling it Un peu d’eau dans du savon (A Little Water in Some Soap), 1917. She showed the piece in the same Independent Artists exhibition from which Fountain was excluded (a rejection which she pointedly, though anonymously, helped denounce in The Blind Man).15 Duchamp’s travails with Fountain proved institutional and intellectual; Wood’s experience was of a different order. Convinced that any young woman exhibiting a nude like Un peu d’eau must be sexually accommodating, men inserted their business cards into the work’s frame. In addition to any critical resistance they might encounter, women faced an abiding chauvinism on the level of vocation itself.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven: Limbswish, ca. 1917–19, metal spring and curtain tassel, 18 inches tall.
Courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.

If such sexism has receded, it has hardly disappeared. Reviewing the 1996 “Making Mischief” exhibition, critic Hilton Kramer took umbrage at what he deemed “the plethora of amateur art produced by the girlfriends and mistresses of the male artists who dominated New York Dada.”16 With the exception of a couple of works by the Baroness, even the massive traveling survey “Dada,” which premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 2016, framed New York’s contributions as the fruit of a few (anti-)heroic men. Leaving aside Kramer’s inscrutable benchmark of quality, and the insulting presumption that a woman could not be an artist and a companion, the male dominance of New York Dada in fact belied all manner of intervention and exposition by women, whether behind the scenes or in plain sight. As Naumann crucially demonstrated, the cast-iron assemblage God (1917)—long attributed to the New York Dadaist Morton Livingston Schamberg—was in fact a collaboration with the Baroness.17 A trained painter who exhibited at the Armory Show, Dreier helped establish the Society of Independent Artists before cofounding the Société Anonyme with Duchamp and Man Ray in 1920—the first American venue devoted exclusively to exhibiting modern art, a subject on which Dreier would later lecture tirelessly. And, as art historian Bradley Bailey has established in a recent article, Louise (Norton) Varèse not only penned her own defense of Fountain in The Blind Man, but also had a hand in the work’s very conception and submission.18

Such recognition is not merely the consequence of retrospective acknowledgment. In 1922, Jane Heap, editor of the prominent journal the Little Review, declared the Baroness “the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada.”19 Walking the Greenwich Village streets with a live canary strapped to her head in a cage, and writing verse no less concerned with the messy contingencies of embodiment, the Baroness defied the cool detachment of her male Dada peers. “The machine,” Picabia had announced already in 1915, “has become more than a mere adjunct of human life. It is really a part of human life—perhaps the very soul.”20 The Baroness, by contrast, insisted upon the unruliness of the flesh, in both its eroticism and its scatological functions: “If I can eat I can eliminate—it is logic—it is why I eat! My machinery is built that way. Yours also—though you do not like to think of—mention it.”21 “America’s comfort,” she writes elsewhere, in words evocative of her and Schamberg’s God sculpture, “[is] sanitation—outside machinery—has made America forget its own machinery—body!”22 The Baroness and her work help us to take stock of how the studied uselessness and waywardness of Dada objects, texts, and apparatuses—including the body itself—remained bound to an abidingly human (though not humanist) dimension.

Marcel Duchamp: Roché, 1917, pen and ink on paper, 8 7/8 by 5 3/4 inches.
© Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP/ARS.

Like the Baroness, a great number of those involved with New York Dada were of German extraction (including Arensberg, Dreier, and Schamberg)—origins bearing upon their experience in wartime America, rife with anti-German sentiment. As art historian Michael Taylor has noted, the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition coincided with America’s belated entry into the war alongside the Entente Powers. However distant that reality, the habitués of New York Dada did respond obliquely to its hostilities.23 Hans Richter writes of Duchamp’s activity at the time that the artist “reversed the signposts of value so that they all point[ed] into the void.”24 After 1914 the abyss had taken on historical—rather than merely conceptual or existential—dimensions. Teeming with rats, fleas, and corpses, the trenches threading from Flanders to Verdun and beyond opened up a very real chasm across Europe’s Western front. If accident came to play a vital role in Dada experimentation, it is no coincidence that novelist Erich Maria Remarque would describe the basic condition of life in the German trenches as one of mere “chance”; if the mechanized body obsessed the Dadaists, this cannot be separated from the world of “automatons” into which the war—as Remarque would remind us—had plunged an entire generation of young men.25 In the service of senseless death, the highest advancements in Western technology revealed themselves to be in fact the most abject, giving the lie to any narrative of culture’s civilizing progress. It was that lie to which Dada responded, whether from atop the “volcano” of politics in post-WWI Berlin—as the German Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeack put it26—or across the Atlantic in less direct registers.

Huelsenbeck’s 1920 Dada Almanach excluded New York contributions from the movement’s running history, as did some other subsequent volumes. Richter, by contrast, went so far as to declare Man Ray’s (accidental) invention in Paris of the cameraless rayograph as belonging to New York Dada.27 “Dada in New York must remain a secret,” Man Ray wrote to Tzara not long before decamping—like Duchamp—for France in the summer of 1921.28 The Arensbergs moved to California that same year. Though others remained, things had changed in America’s lone Dada outpost. The January 29, 1921, edition of the New York Evening Journal admonished readers “Dada Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out: It Is On the Way Here.” The warning arrived too late. The announcement of Dada’s arrival in fact witnessed its departure.

In spite—or perhaps because—of its protean and hybrid development in New York, Dada left behind what Amelia Jones has called a “seemingly insurmountable mountain of archival and secondary materials.”29 In many ways, secondariness was the primary drive of Dada. For it was at the margins of the “fine arts” that its adherents aimed many of their interventions—in quips to local newspapers or even more ephemeral improvisations, long since turned into archival relics. “New York Dada and the Arensberg Circle of Artists” rightly insisted on the Arensberg apartment as, first and foremost, a site of interpersonal exchange. To be sure, painting and sculpture abounded among the Arensberg set, far more than in Zurich or Paris—something the Naumann exhibition put into relief with works by John Covert, Clara Tice, and Jean Crotti. But even more striking, precisely in its offhandedness, is a work like Duchamp’s “portrait” of Henri-Pierre Roché—a paper dinner placeholder bearing a few seemingly abstract lines. When held up to the light, visually converging recto and verso, it reveals the eponymous subject’s last name in elongated half-letters.

Katherine S. Dreier: Stonington Harbor, 1923, oil on canvas, 24 by 43 inches.
Courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. Photo Noel Allum.

The history of New York Dada transcends its particular corpus of works. It offers a lesson about art history more broadly, concerning the hazards of slotting phenomena into aesthetic categories that are too rigid. Though associated with the Italian Futurists, Joseph Stella proved an enthusiastic accomplice of Duchamp; known chiefly for their subsequent contributions to Precisionism, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler were also fellow travelers of the Arensberg set; Florine Stettheimer remained active in the same circles while disavowing any explicit affiliation. Duchamp set about disenchanting and ironizing the revered procedures of aesthetics; the historicization of that disenchantment has birthed numerous museological objects and replicas. The artist himself anticipated that inexorable fate with his Boîte-en-valise (1936–41), a portable suitcase containing miniature reproductions of his most (in)famous works, including Fountain.   

Dada’s most incisive legacy endures not in any material artworks, however, but in the ideas attendant upon them—a reflexivity that, at the very least, still promises to challenge the seemingly unequivocal legitimacy of aesthetic commodification. The dematerialized and politicized practices of the 1960s neo-avant-garde, and whatever remains of its successors today, owe an incalculable debt to Dada in America and abroad. “All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival—will not notice dada,” May Ray confessed to Tzara.30 The absurdities teeming day-to-day in New York often outstrip what any artist might dream up. Yet part of Dada’s achievement here was to go at least partly unnoticed, even as it changed the very substance of art itself.


1 Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, New York, Thames and Hudson,
1965, p. 81.
2 Duchamp quoted in “French Artists Spur on an American Art,” New York Tribune, October 24, 1915, section 4, p. 2.
3 Picabia quoted in ibid.
4 Gauguin quoted in Susan Ratcliffe, ed., Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations, Oxford University Press, 2011, §21, p. 30.
5 Francis Picabia, “Manifesto of the Dada Movement” (1920), reprinted in Francis Picabia, I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose and Provocation, trans. Marc Lowenthal, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2007, p. 179; Tristan Tzara, “New York-Dada,” New York Dada, April 1921, p. 3. Tzara wrote in response to the request by the New York group to name its periodical “Dada.”
6 Tristan Tzara, “New York-Dada,” p. 3.
7 Cited in Michael Taylor, “New York,” in Leah Dickerman, ed., Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 2005, p. 281.
8 Walter Arensberg, “Axiom,” and “Theorem,” Blind Man, no. 2, May 1917, n.p.
9 See the Museum of Modern Art’s gallery label (2006) for Marcel Duchamp, 3 Standard Stoppages, moma.org.
10 Man Ray, “Revolving Doors,” reprinted in Man Ray: Writings on Art, ed., Jennifer Mundy, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, p. 35.
11 Man Ray, Self-Portrait, New York, McGraw Hill, 1963, p. 68; Man Ray, “Explanatory Note: March 1916,” reprinted in Man Ray: Writings on Art, p. 35.
12 See in particular Amelia Jones, Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2005, and Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, ed., Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1999.
13 Jones, Irrational Modernism, pp. 4–11. Jones insists upon the “lived Dada” of the Baroness’s art, over and against the more conceptual interventions of Duchamp and Picabia, who she argues led more or less bourgeois lives.
14 Ibid, pp. 192–95.
15 Beatrice Wood (in conjunction with Marcel Duchamp), “The Richard Mutt Case,” Blind Man, no. 2. On Wood’s authorship of the text see Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1985, p. 31, and Francis Naumann, New York Dada 1915-1923, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1994, p. 185.
16 Hilton Kramer, “Here Comes the Whitney, Now That Dada’s Dead,” New York Observer, Dec. 2, 1996, pp. 1, 32.
17 Naumann, New York Dada, pp. 128–29, 171–72.
18 Bradley Bailey, “Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’: The Baroness Theory Debunked,” Burlington Magazine, no. 161, October 2019, p. 805. Louise Norton’s contribution to Blind Man, no. 2, is titled “Buddha in the Bathroom.”
19 Jane Heap, cited in Dikran Tashjian, “From Anarchy to Group Force,” Women in Dada, p. 279; emphasis mine.
20 “French Artists Spur on an American Art,” op. cit.
21 Else [sic] von Freytag-Loringhoven, “‘The Modest Woman,’” Little Review 7, no. 2, July–August 1920, p. 37; cited in Jones, Irrational Modernism, p. 156.
22 Von Freytag-Loringhoven, “‘The Modest Woman,’” pp. 37–38.
23 Taylor, “New York,” p. 277.
24 Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, p. 91.
25 Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front [1929], trans. Brian Murdoch, London, Vintage, 1996, pp. 72, 83. While Murdoch translates the latter phrase as “dulled and ever-moving automatic actions,” Remarque’s other English translator, Arthur Wesley Wheen, renders it as a “gloomy world of automatons” (New York, Ballantine Books, 1986, p. 115). The latter evokes a trope familiar from a wide swath of avant-garde work in the wake of the Great War, from Fernand Léger’s abstracted figure drawing Card Game (1917) to various Dadaist depictions of soldiers outfitted with prosthetic limbs, more machines than men.
26 Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991, p. 52.
27 Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, p. 98.
28 Man Ray, Letter to Tristan Tzara, June 8, 1921, reprinted in Man Ray: Writings on Art, p. 65.
29 Jones, p. 30.
30 Man Ray, Letter to Tristan Tzara, June 8, 1921, reprinted in Man Ray: Writings on Art, p. 65.

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