DADA'S GOT A BRAND-NEW BAG
The term "neo-Dada" was used in a very negative sense by art critics, and only for a short time at that. Hence, it's somewhat surprising that Susan Hapgood has pressed it into service as the title of the exhibition she has curated at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.
"Neo-Dada: Redefining Art, 1958-1962" attempts to provide a historical context for work produced internationally after the final period of abstract expressionism and before the fully realized movements of pop art, performance and earth art, minimalism and conceptualism. In branding this work "neo-Dadaist," Hapgood has created more confusion than clarification.
In fact, the label "neo-Dada" has been rejected by many of the artists to which she has applied it, including Claes Oldenburg. In an interview with Hapgood in the exhibition's catalogue, Oldenburg told her pointblank: "I don't remember the term 'neo-Dada' being used by anybody. I must have known about it, and probably reacted against it. Any artist would react against an attempt to take a label from the past and put it on what they're doing." The term brands as historical scavengers artists who were conceptual pioneers in a period that was probably one of the most dynamic and provocative in art history--a time that gave birth to the prototypes from which the most important art movements of the last 50 years have sprung. But you could never tell there had been even a flicker of excitement attached to the period from looking at this show. While some work is capable of standing alone, most suffers from the lack of action and spectacle critical to its life. Hence, the exhibition catalogue, which is well-written and lucid, is absolutely mandatory, if the museumgoer wants any real information about the work.
The glue that bonds the art pasted together in Scottsdale is Dada, a European-based movement encompassing both the visual and literary arts. Founded in Zurich by French and German artists who had fled there to avoid the draft, Dada flourished between 1916 and 1922 in response to the horrors of World War I. Against the backdrop of ten million war dead, Dada quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually to New York. The movement aimed its sights at society--its use of scientific technology to destructive ends, its hopelessly conventional middle-class morality and its treatment of art as a consumer commodity. In response, Dada championed work that was decidedly irrational, intuitive, random and nihilistic, if not deliberately meaningless at times. It aspired to toppling both art and artist from their pedestals with its irreverent, "anything can be art" attitude. In fact, the word "Dada," which means "hobby horse" in French and "yes, yes" in a number of languages, was chosen for the movement by poet Tristan Tzara, who supposedly stuck a knife into a dictionary at random.
Kurt Schwitters, one of whose assemblages appears in the Scottsdale show, was among the first artists to use junk and discards for making art. Old tickets, newspapers and other flotsam and jetsam of everyday life were the building blocks Schwitters used to create assemblages, and even total environments composed of trash.
But the dada of all Dada was Marcel Duchamp, whom New Yorker art critic Calvin Tompkins christened "the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century." Duchamp was the champion of a sort of twisted Descartesian logic--"I think it's art; therefore, it is art." That label included Duchamp's first ready-made in 1912, a bicycle wheel stuck unceremoniously to the top of a stool, and his notorious "Fountain," an ordinary urinal. "Why should it be so revered?" Duchamp wondered about art. "The onlooker is as important as the artist."
But while it may be true that some of the artists around 1960 may have appropriated Dadaist techniques and forms, and maybe even some of its attitude, their philosophical and aesthetic concerns were often completely different. Said pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, who was dumped into Hapgood's neo-Dada bag, "Dada was anti; I am pro." However anyone tags the teeming art activity from 1958 to 1962, most of the work produced then was in direct reaction to the angsty action painting of the abstract expressionists, the ruling nobility of the international art world.
Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still were busy getting in touch with their unconsciouses by flinging paint and using violently gestural brushwork, accompanied by a lot of psychic hand-wringing. "There was a lot of philosophical rhetoric that accompanied abstract expressionism by this point," said Susan Hapgood in a lecture at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. "These artists, I think, were a little tired of sitting in bars and listening to these titans of abstract expressionism tell their war stories. [The younger artists] were trying to find a way out."
One who did was Jean Tinguely, whose "Metamatic #13," included in "Neo-Dada," is an obvious spoof on abstract expressionistic technique. This noisy nonsense machine is fashioned from salvaged parts and operates by the drop of a token, which causes the machine to scribble a drawing.
But besides reacting against abstract expressionism, the work produced during the period covered by the "Neo-Dada" was noteworthy for blurring the lines between the visual arts, music, literature and the theatre. A work of art could encompass any or all of these disciplines, an important feature that, for the most part, goes unaddressed in "Neo-Dada." Collaborative events among artists also became the rage in that era, such as dance performances by Merce Cunningham, with music (or the lack thereof) by John Cage and stage sets by Robert Rauschenberg. So did Happenings and environment pieces, such as Daniel Spoerri's "Les lunettes noire (Black Glasses)." From that piece come the exhibition's eyeglasses with collapsible needles attached to the inside of the lenses. But how are we supposed to know that hundreds of these glasses hung from a gallery ceiling as part of the environment Spoerri created? Or that Piero Manzoni's "Merda d'artista (Artist's Shit)" was a part of an ongoing performance in which the artist quite literally produced and canned 90 tins of his own excrement and sold them to willing collectors? To many of the artists included in the show, the concept behind the work was as important or, at times, more important than the object created. The act of creation was itself the real work of art in many instances. In the case of what we now call performance art, there was no object created, just an ephemeral experience for participants and spectators alike. For examples, in the Nivea Cream performance piece by Alison Knowles, directions call for massaging the hands with lotion in front of a microphone. Sometimes, not even the experience occurred--one conceptual musical composition by La Monte Young consists of the following: "Composition 1960 #15 to Richard Huelsenbeck: This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean." But "Neo-Dada" fails to convey the real significance behind the objects it so reverently displays, like Nam Jun Paik's "Hommage John Cage: Music for Tape Recorder and Piano," a plastic bag filled with audio tape that has disengaged from its spools. Nor does it even come close to capturing the philosophical or conceptual Zeitgeist of the time, which was so critical to the creation of the work showcased.
Lumped under the clumsy rubric of neo-Dada is the work of Yves Klein, one of the seminal figures in the Nouveau Ralisme movement in Paris. While not particularly well-received in either Paris or New York during his relatively short life--Klein died abruptly of a heart attack at the age of 34--the artist is enjoying an unprecedented rediscovery. Three separate museums in Germany are currently showing his work.
There is no question that Klein was an artist whose intentions are 180 degrees from Dada. In fact, he was vociferous in denying there was any link between his work and that of any of the Dadaists. Applying the term "neo-Dada" to him underscores curator Hapgood's sloppy, often baseless categorization of every artist working between 1958 and 1962 under this heading. And, in the case of Klein, it does an immense disservice to the artist, and to the vast body of work he produced in just seven short years.
"Dada had nothing to do with Yves," says Rotraut Klein-Moquay, a German artist who lived with Klein during those years and was married to him when he died. During an interview in her Paradise Valley home, she says, "The intellectuals, they never did get it; they could never get what Yves meant and what the work was about." Yves Klein's concerns were connected to the spiritual, the occult, the mystical and the transcendent, with which he was intensely involved. His work, surrounded by ceremony and spectacle, was completely devoid of the mordant humor and cynicism so characteristic of Dada. This is equally true of his "action spectacles," in which he created his "Anthropometrie" imprint pieces by having nude female models slather themselves with his famous blue paint and roll across canvas or paper laid on the floor, as a well-heeled crowd looked on. "Dada did not think about sensibility, or spirit, or the universe, or the immaterial, these kind of staircases that bring you to something else, to something totally spiritual," says Klein's widow.
There is an abundance of very good work in "Neo-Dada: Redefining Art, 1958-1962"; but Hapgood's attempt to jam every important non-abstract expressionist working between 1958 and 1962 into a tidy, little neo-Dada bag was doomed to fail from the git-go. The exhibition manages to sap all the vitality from work that is still very much alive.
Or maybe I just don't really want to believe that German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno was right when he said, "Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are the family sepulchers of works of art.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.