Dada in New York: Artists in Exile

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) arrived in New York for his second visit early in 1915, a few months before the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in May 1915. Born in Cuba to a wealthy family, a Spanish father and French mother, Picabia, early twentieth century Euro-trash, was a rolling stone who drifted through his life and roamed the art worlds of Paris and New York, sampling many styles and expressing multiple moods. Much of his butterfly art was derivative and only mildly interesting but he had an eye for the main chance and hung about some of the bigger players in the very interesting new game called “Dada” during the Great War. It can be argued that, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and his old friend Marcel Duchamp, Picabia enjoyed a brief flowering as an interesting artist. As Michael Gibson wrote for The New York Times on the occasion of yet another exhibition in 2002 attempting to sort out his complex oeuvre: “The exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris demonstrates with dazzling clarity that Francis Picabia was, in fact, a pretty awful artist.” In November of 2016, the Museum of Modern Art received a traveling exhibition, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, which has a section on his machine drawings, products of his Dada experiences. Moving past Picabia’s Impressionist, Post-Impressionsit, Cubist works, Roberta Smith concentrated on the most famous segment of the artist’s work: “The Mechanomorphs line the walls of the show’s largest gallery while vitrines of Dadaist material occupy its center, reflecting the artist’s activities from 1915 to the early 1920s, during which he abandoned painting for drawings, prints and magazines and pursued Dada first in New York, with Duchamp, then in Switzerland with Tristan Tzara, the movement’s founder, and finally in Paris.”

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Picabia à dada (1919)

Picabia who had come to New York in 1913 for the Armory Show was already a character in Paris, who cut a flamboyant figure with his penchant for fast cars and fast women and an accomplished wife. New York in 1913 was not exactly a frontier of avant-garde art, but there was one gallery in the city and one man who was interested in contemporary artists: Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz held parallel exhibitions of cutting edged European artists in his gallery, 291, and Picabia wisely made his acquaintance. Stieglitz showed two of Picabia’s early abstract paintings, Udnie (1913) and Edtaonisl (1913) at his gallery, adding to the shock of the provincial New Yorkers. Looking back on this famous exhibition that changed American art, Life Magazine noted in 1959 that Picabia’s painting, Dancers in the Spring, was a close rival in shock effect to Duchamp’s nude.” Like Marcel Duchamp, Picabia became well-known on New York as a result of the Armory Show and this fame beckoned once the Great War began. Like many of his peers, Picabia was drafted into the Army. Sent on a mission to America, Picabia managed to disembark in New York in 1915 and simply did not return to his military life. New York was now home to Parisian artists in exile: Albert Gleizes, the famous Cubist painter and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who had given up painting, thanks in small part to Francis Picabia. Thus Picabia had a small part in the fold of the career of Duchamp, who was shocked by the rejection of his 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase from the Salon des Indépendants. Smarting over the betrayal of his brothers, who failed to back him or protect him with their colleagues of the Salon, Duchamp joined Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on a road trip through the Jura Mountains in the fall of 1912. Already, the artist had decided to exit the art world and to take another path–whatever that might be–towards being a different kind of artist.

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Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (June-July 1914)

During this weekend journey, Duchamp began making notes on his future conceptual direction, scribbling down ideas that would eventually become The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, The Large Glass. Roaring along the mountain road with Francis Picabia at the wheel of one his large and elegant cars, Duchamp imagined what Richard Hamilton described as “a prose fantasy. A machine, with an animal component, is describe as absorbing the long, straight empty road, with its comet-like headlights beaming out in front towards a seemingly infinity.” One hundred years later it is hard to recognize just how novel such an experience would be in these early years of automotive traveling. Surely it was one of the eventsthat shifted one’s attention towards all things mechanical–the machine, upon which one was totally dependent in the mountains. Already Picabia was fascinated with the motor car, an object of desire that drove him, so to speak, to collect one hundred twenty seven of them during his life time. But there is more to this experience–driving at night on a road then innocent of highway markings with the headlights attempting to penetrate the dense darkness, like comets streaking across the sky–an idea that make a tremendous impression on Duchamp.

Speeding over the mountain roads, hardly suited for the fragile cars and their thin tires, there was a sense of not seeing and not knowing what was ahead. While Picabia was driving, Duchamp was writing: “On one hand, the chief of the five nudes will be ahead of the four other nudes towards the Jura-Paris road. On the other hand, the headlight child will be the instrument conquering the Jura-Paris road..The term ‘indefinite’ seems to me to be more accurate than infinite. The road will begin in the chief of the five nudes, and will not end in the headlight child.” Later Duchamp, thinking of glass, wrote, “Use ‘delay’ instead of a picture or painting: picture on glass becomes delay in glass–but delay in glass doesn’t not mean picture on glass..” This delay could be seen as the “delay” in seeing that happens when one drives in a fast car, approaching a new sight but not quite there yet–a scene that lies ahead but is delayed in time and space but is always being anticipated by the passenger. Picabia and Duchamp, then, had a history of being outsiders and iconoclasts in the Parisian art world and it was to be expected that they would reconvene in New York in 1913 and again in 1915 in with anarchy on their minds. Casting around for like minded artists, equally alienated for whatever reason, they met the American Man Ray, who was still painting in his pre-Dada phase, and joined cause with John Covert and Morton Schamberg and the collector and collaborator, Walter Arensberg. For lack of a better name, this “group” was later called “New York Dada,” because it was supposedly “anti-art.”

However characterizations and definitions came later, often after the Second World War. In 1966 fifty years after the fact Hans Richter stated of New York Dada, “..its participants were playing essentially the same anti-art tune as we were. The notes may have sounded strange, at first, but the music was the same.” The term anti-art is a broad idea that is not only an anachronistic historical determination but is also an umbrella for all the different manifestations of Dada. But, if one thinks of Dada emerging in a number of cities, more or less sequentially, then the fact that Dada may have arisen avant la lettre in New York, emerged full blown in Zurich a year later and ended with a few clever gestures in Paris before being absorbed into Surrealism, signals that there were different artists thinking different thoughts in different cities under different conditions. The New York group shared in common with the Zurich artists the condition of exile but they were visual artists who were fascinated with the mechanical. This interest in mechanics suggested an anti-aesthetic or a non-sensuous approach in traditional artmaking procedures. Machines were the way “out of” art, the path that allowed them to think beyond the hand and the “talent” of the artist, and this fascination with machines, learned in Paris before the war. was only enhanced in the most modern city in the world–New York City. Picabia, in particular, was struck by the modernity of a city sprouting skyscrapers, elevated by machines that hoisted steel beams agains the open sky. Duchamp was fascinated by the products of the city and one of the first Readymades he purchased was a shiny new snow shovel, the like of which did not exist in Paris. Both artists were anti-art in the sense that they were pro-machine or pro-mechanics and they understood well that an old way of making art was coming to an end.

For the artists who had fled the war, the stalemated trench warfare, the modernity of suffering, the mechanization of death made it imperative to rethink the role of art and, even, what “art” would or could be in this conflagration. In an interview for The New York Tribune, probably conducted in French, in 1915, Duchamp predicted a new “severe, direct art,” suitable for the beginning of the twentieth century. He continued, “One readily understands this when one realizes the growing hardness of feeling in Europe, one might almost say the utter callousness with which people are learning to receive the news of the death of those nearest and dearest to them. Before the war the death of a son in a family was received with utter, abject woe, but today it is merely part of a huge universal grief, which hardly seems to concern any one individual.” Duchamp was speaking in this, the second year of the war, which had already defined itself as a simple bloodletting. Although the myths of the Great War have tended to emphasize the high casualties on the British side, especially those of the highly educated classes, it was the French who were nearly wiped out in the first month of the war. In November 1918, once again, it was the French who, at the end, suffered the greatest losses, an entire generation was simply gone. Duchamp, who was in France in that terrible first year, would have been well aware of the high cost the French Army had paid in holding the German Army at the Marne. Duchamp was deemed unfit for military service but his brothers Raymond and Jacques were in service, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, while he was a bystander observing the unfolding of random mass death without “glory.”

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Paris, Place d’Alma 1915

Duchamp describe the deserted art scene in Paris: “Art has gone dusty,” he said, referring to the stalled creativity. “Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. One’s friends are all away at the front. Or else they have been already killed.” He noted the toll the War took on creative and artistic thinking: “Nothing but war was talked about from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived that existence was heavy and dull.” Once he came to New York he noted, he had stopped painting altogether. Therefore as a wanderer, who did not depend upon cultural nourishment, he wryly asserted that “it is a matter of indifference to me where I am.” But this posture of indifference was used, as it often would for the rest of his life, to elide a more significant truth. For Duchamp and Picabia, New York was a no-place, a private place, a refuge away from the hard critical eyes of the art world they had left behind. Here in this new city, leaping skyward, one could become a new person and one could make new art. Here there were no rules. Here there was only freedom. Both artists thrived in this open minded milieu and produced, in the middle of a nihilistic war, a new way of making and thinking about art. Part Two will discuss the individual ways in which Picabia and Duchamp broke with the art of the past.

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

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