Neo-Dada

NEO-DADA—1950-1960

Neo or new Dada was named after Marcel Duchamp who, in the fifties, began to emerge from the underground to the surface of cutting edged art in New York. Neo-Dada did not come neatly “after” the leading movement, Abstract Expressionism, instead the new approach to art appeared suddenly in the midst of the celebration of America’s seizure of European modernism. The reason for the clash of these two styles was the generational lag experienced by the Abstract Expressionist artists. At the very moment when they were experiencing success, these artists were near or close to retirement or “master’s” age—forties or fifties—-but their careers had been retarded by the slow development of an art scene in New York. After the decade of recovery after the war, money entered into the art world, just in time for investors to snap up the newest art—-not Abstract Expressionism but Neo-Dada. And keep in mind that the Color Field group had yet to emerge. The Abstract Expressionists were angered but, suddenly, their time had passed.

Neo-Dada was a New York phenomenon of the underground art world consisting of a group of performers, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and painters, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Neo Dada can be dated from late 1940s to late 1950s, from the early works of Cage and Rauschenberg, who worked together at the famous Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Cage and Rauschenberg were influenced by Marcel Duchamp and by his idea of redefining. The younger artist inspired the musician with his “redefinition” of painting. Rauschenberg covered four canvases with white paint and put them together into a four part square that changed and altered according to changing light and shadows and interactions with the shadows of passing viewers. The result was a painting that changed through ambience. Rauschenberg’s white painting is less famous than what it inspired: Cages’ experiment in ambient sound, 4’30” a piano recital in which the performer allowed the sounds of the environment to become a new kind of sound or “music.”

Upon return to New York, Rauschenberg and Cage continued their collaboration, such as the print of an inked tire driven over sheets of paper. The idea was that of Rauschenberg and the driving was that of Cage and the resulting new definition of “print”—Automobile Tire Print (1953). Then Rauschenberg met Jasper Johns who had come to New York after a stint in the army of occupation in Japan, unsure of whether he wanted to be an artist or a writer. Although Johns did not know him well in the beginning of his career, Duchamp’s ideas were circulating in New York at the time and he probably absorbed Duchampian thought from Rauschenberg who did know Duchamp. Johns was not well educated in art history and later he destroyed some of his early works when he learned that they resembled the Merz collages of Kurt Schwitters.

Using the inspiration of Duchamp, Johns and Rauschenberg began to challenge the rules of High Art. Cage re-defined music as sound and silence, Cunningham re-defined dance as movement through space, Rauschenberg re-defined art as life, Johns redefined art as an intellectual proposition, art as language according to the ideas of philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like the original Dada, Neo-Dada challenged the separation of art from life, so important to the definition of a Modernist work of art. At a time when abstract art dominated, Neo-Dada reintroduced the ordinary object and the figurative image and cultural or social meaning back into art. The significant contribution of Neo-Dada was the return to representation. But the representation of Neo-Dada artists was of a new kind: they did not copy what they saw, instead they simply appropriated, borrowed, or quoted images already available and already circulating in the culture.

Neo-Dada incorporated what the art historian and artist, Brian O’Doherty, called “the vernacular glance”—a kind of casual scanning of random glances. Inspired by the concept of the found object, Rauschenberg literally picked up objects he found discarded on the streets of lower east side New York and put them into collaged paintings or “combines.” The result of Rauschenberg’s collection of pre-made images from popular throw-away images and the way he pasted or posted them onto an upright canvas was termed “the flat bed picture plane” by art historian Leo Steinberg. Johns also used what he called “things the mind already knows” but these “things” were infinitely more banal and more famous than the discards picked up by Rauschenberg. Johns appropriated Flags and Targets and turned them into paintings, which had an ambiguous and hybrid nature. Was it a flag or a painting of a flag or a painted flag?

The result of the strategy of Rauschenberg and Johns, to borrow rather than to create, was a work of art that was hybrid on many levels, blurring the boundaries between sculpture and painting and art and life, and also an object in its own right. Unlike a Modernist work of art, which was pure, a Neo-Dada work is impure. Not only does the Neo-Dada artist use non-art materials and non-art images, the meanings of each object are non-art meanings. In addition to its anti-modernist hybridity, Neo-Dada was deeply involved in Performance Art, due to the presence of Cage and Cunningham. The most famous artists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, both performed with Cage and Cunningham and lived in the Pearl Street studios in New York, sharing space with performance artist, Rachael Rosenthal.

Performance Art is not theatrical in the sense of a traditional play, which is scripted and acted and performed regularly as repeated performances. Performance Art is planned but not scripted, cannot be repeated precisely, and, in contrast to the “theater,” involved the audience as participants. During the Fifties, performances were called “Events” or “Happenings,” many produced by Allan Kaprow. Kaprow was interested in the experiments of John Cage of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which foregrounded unplanned situations and audience participation. The development of art out of action, related back to the principles of collage, construction, and assemblage in that the Happenings were simple events that used everyday situations, just as a collage used everyday materials. Cage’s experiments re-examined the nature of art, for he saw art not as separate objects in museums but as an experience in any physical or social context. Happenings stressed audience over artistic experience and audience participation and interaction, joining the artist, life, and society.

Neo-Dada was also referred to as Proto-Pop, from 1955 to 1960. Other artists who could be termed Neo-Dada included the elusive and legendary, Ray Johnson and Larry Rivers, both in New York, and Jess, from Long Beach, who was working in San Francisco as an important gay artist. That said, the art history of Neo-Dada is usually focused on the work of Rauschenberg and Johns, both of whom were in the gallery of a new dealer named Leo Castelli, who would make them both famous or infamous. Although it was a secret at the time, the two men were lovers and were a well-known couple on the New York art scene. Their relationship was put under stress when Leo Castelli, who preferred the work of Jasper Johns, gave Johns the first show in his new gallery. Rauschenberg, an older, more experienced and better known artist than Johns, was hurt that he had to come second to his lover whom he had discovered working in a book store. Rauschenberg, who died spring of 2008, spoke only once of the “affection” he and Johns had of each other; Johns never spoke of their relationship at all. The two went their separate ways by 1963 and never spoke to each other again.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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