That headline needs some ‘splainin’, as Ricky Ricardo used to say. First, Dada—————-the more radical offshoot of Surrealism. Dada was thought up after World War I by a bunch of punk writers and artists in Europe. Okay, they didn’t use the word “punk.” But they were rebels. They flirted with nihilism. They wanted to shock.
The Dada artists liked collage———especially Kurt Schwitters. He wrote a manifesto in 1920 called “Merz” (no relation to I Love Lucy–Schwitters invented the word to describe his style).
Dada used everyday materials as art. When they used them “as is”———-Marcel DuChamp exhibited a Paris urinal that way——–it was called a “readymade.” As for Dada writers, they used words “as is,” relying on chance and the irrational to create their poetry.
Fast-forward to New York City after the Second World War. Neo-Dada was the new art movement. Robert Rauschenberg exhibited a stuffed goat with a tire around it, perhaps one-upping DuChamp’s readymades. The influence took root in the fifties, along with a new interest in collage.
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was at the center of Neo-Dada. He made his first collages on request——-Peggy Guggenheim was holding a collage show in 1943 and gave him a deadline. Collage soon became his primary art form. “It was here…” he said later, “…I found my identity.” Motherwell’s early collages are the subject of a current show at the Guggenheim (till January 4, 2014 in NY).
One of the unusual features of these collages was Motherwell’s use of words. Although Picasso had done it, American painters of the era didn’t put words in paintings. Were Motherwell’s words like notes from his diary? Probably not. His later “Je t’aime” series is an example.
“People used to think I must have fallen in love and that’s why I was painting these. It was the exact opposite; it was really a cry that I would like to love…” It must have worked. At the end of the four years during which he made this series, he married the painter Helen Frankenthaler.
In 1951, Motherwell published The Dada Painters and Poets, a collection of Dada texts translated into English. It had a big impact on New York painters of the fifties. In spite of his key role in Neo-Dada, Motherwell lost cred with the “High Priest of Surrealism,” Andre Breton, who had come to New York from France in the early 1940’s.
Breton fired Motherwell from a surrealist publication. Why? The American had sent hand-etched Christmas cards! Too, too bourgeois! As if in agreement with Breton, Architectural Digest featured Motherwell paintings as decor in a 2007 issue.
Breton never got very American. He went back to Paris and always upheld his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism. Breton defined surrealism as: “Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”
That was the premise behind the Exquisite Corpse game, a Dada invention. Even after being dissed by Breton, Motherwell would host weekly parties to play the game. Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, William Baziotes, and Roberto Matta were among the guests.
The artists pulled words and/or images out of a paper bag and used them in the order they came out. Called “chance aesthetics,” it was a kind of artistic creation by the unconscious. Try it yourself with the instructions below from Tristan Tzara, a Swiss Dadaist.
EXQUISITE CORPSE INSTRUCTIONS (1920)
TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
My Collage Version:
I put a heap of collage papers, painted and found, in a plastic bag. I pick one at a time blindly out of the bag and glue it onto the paper.
I’ll post my Exquisite Corpse collage in a later post.
If you try it, send me the results: firstname.lastname@example.org
Then you can be an infinitely original artist of enchanting sensibility, even though your collage doesn’t go viral on Twitter.
1) Jeune Fille
4) Je t’aime