New York Dada -- New York Dada: 1915-23 by Francis M. Naumann

Article excerpt

Francis M. Naumann. New York Dada: 1915-23. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994. 256 pp.; 42 color ills., 178 b/w. $60.00

Of all twentieth-century movements, Dada may be the one that was most assumed out of historical imperatives. In responding to what was perceived as nothing short of the failure of Western European culture, the deterioration of its cultural myths and ideologies, the impoverishment of its languages, the depravity of its moralities, and the self-destructive ramifications of its norms and conventions, the early (wartime and immediately postwar) stages of Dada tried to chart a course in the transaction and negotiation of a world that no longer made sense. Mounted out of a setting that no one could measure and that defied conventional contextualization--World War I, the "war of wars"--Dada committed itself to the deconstruction of lethal culture and its reconstruction according to more humane principles. Its success was constituted in the intensity and scope of its critique. Its efforts to organize and network itself were designed to guarantee, as best Dada could, the dissemination of its critique. Even following the war, the critique flourished, especially in Paris, where Andre Breton and company welcomed Dada as a useful means of critiquing, and putting behind them, a French modernism incapable of responding, in a meaningful way, to the horrors of the war.

Although such brief definitions, or defining principles, of Dada rarely satisfy, something like them is required, as reference point, in historiographically locating and introducing any discussion of New York Dada. This may be especially the case with New York, where one is compelled to maintain that (1) New York's was the "primal Dada" to which the European centers manifested affinities; (2) New York Dada was dependent on the example of European Dada, where the demonstration of real relationships is required; (3) history experienced at this time on of its cases of simultaneous invention; or, (4) in a way that is related to the third point, there existed a "zeitgeist," accounting for both New York and European Dada, which assumes that they shared some kind of causal base that should have resulted in related or parallel effects.(1)

Within the larger field of Dada studies, New York has understandably presented scholars with a series of special problems, which, stated in their extreme forms, address its priority in the movement (New York was Dada before Dada),(2) its rather tenuous relationship with European Dada (dependent on its distant cousins Paris and Zurich, largely by virtue of the presence of Marcel Duchamp--Francis Picabia arrived before Dada and left before one can reasonably date it to New York its embeddedness in the unfolding of history, or its virtual nonexistence (it was a historiographic invention of more significance to the Europeans than it was to the Americans).(3) Various authors' respective responses to these positions are based on their conclusions concerning the "spirit" of Dada, to which New York artists bear a significant (or insignificant) affinity; on the persuasive (or unpersuasive) evidence of links between New York and Paris Dada; on the sensitivity of New York artists to the pulse of history; or on the success or failure of New York artists to organize themselves into anything like a comprehensible Dada movement. Navigating a course between these positions (the author is clearly aware of the problematics of all of them), Francis Naumann provides a book of considerable merit without, however, directly responding to the basic question: Was there such a thing as New York Dada? From the evidence presented, it is not clear that we possess the basis for legitimately historicizing the New York group as a bona fide expression of Dada (this, it should be noted, does not change the fact that Naumann probably knows more about this New York community than anyone else).

What Naumann's book does achieve is impressive. …