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Comedian Groucho Marx once said, “I refuse to join any club that has me as a member”, as an apt summary of Dada (which takes its name from the French for “hobbyhorse”) like any other. Tristan Tzara, the co-founder of the movement, put it a little differently in his Dada manifesto. “The real dadas are against DADA,” he wrote. “In principle, I am against manifestos, as I am against principles.” Along with Hugo Ball, Tzara was the leader of a small group of poets and artists who met in February 1916 at a nightclub in Zurich called the Cabaret Voltaire. There, for several weeks, they mounted evenings of performative mayhem that often involved absurd costumes and absurd recitals. Europe was at war and a whole generation of young men were nurtured in the wood chipper that was the Western Front. The old order was crumbling, “ruined” as Ball put it, “by the dirty hands of capital”, and for Tzara and company the only sane reaction was to revel in the absurd, for which Cabaret Voltaire offered a outlet. Soon, what began as a series of nihilistic pranks spread to become a set of precepts that reoriented the course of art history in the 20th century and beyond. How it happened is the subject of our list of recommended books below. (Price and availability in effect at time of publication.)
1. Francis M. Naumann, New York Dada 1915–23
If Dada was born in 1916 in Zurich before spreading to Hanover, Berlin, Cologne and Paris, no city has echoed its anarchic spirit like New York. “Father [is] . . . no match for the wild and chaotic streets of New York,” wrote artist Man Ray. “All of New York is Dada and will not tolerate a rival.” As Francis M. Naumann notes in this seminal story on the subject, Man Ray was among a group of American and European avant-gardes working in the city who were retroactively given the label New York Dada because they shared a similar iconoclastic attitude. Chief among them was Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude descending a staircase and ready-to-use urinal, Fountain, created an uproar at the 1913 Armory Show and the 1917 Society of Independent Artists Exhibition, respectively. Originally published in 1994, Naumann’s book is based on interviews with surviving members of the scene; it also contains rare newspaper clippings and photographs, including archival images from exhibits and collections.
To buy: New York Dada 1915–23 from $34.95 (new) on Amazon
2.Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art
Originally published in 1964, Dada: Art and Anti-Art offers a vivid firsthand history of the movement by one of its notable participants, the German artist Hans Richter (1888-1976). A painter and graphic designer, Richter was best known for his avant-garde films, such as his abstract animation Rhythm 21 (1921); in the book, he follows the journey of Dada from its origins in 1916, in Zurich, until its dissolution during the following decade when it was supplanted by surrealism. Richter recalls the various manifestations of Dada in Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Paris and New York, focusing on the work and interactions of its main actors, including Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray, among others. Richter’s account is supported by documents, illustrations and texts by other Dadaists, making the book a primary source on this fascinating chapter of modern art.
To buy: Dada: Art and Anti-Art $23.95 (new) at Amazon
3. Dadaglobe rebuilt
In 1921, the poet Tristan Tzara planned to publish Dadaglobe, a definitive compendium on the movement he did so much to create. The plan was to include over 100 works by around 30 artists from seven countries, with the idea of documenting Dada as an international phenomenon. Dadaglobe was also a kind of swan song, since many of its artists had by then defected to the surrealist circle of André Breton in Paris. Tzara was helped by Francis Picabia, but a lack of funding forced them to abandon the project. Based on extensive research by art historian and curator Adrian Sudhalter, Dadaglobe rebuilt accompanied an exhibition of the same name in 2016 which opened at the Kunsthaus Zürich before traveling to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. This posthumous realization of Tzara’s ambition to codify Dada is complemented by the drawings, artwork photographs, self-portraits and layouts that had been submitted for the original.
To buy: Dadaglobe rebuilt from $63.90 (used) on Amazon
4. Leah Dickerman, et al., Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, Paris
Dada was misunderstood in mid-century America, where art critics dismissed it as an avant-garde lark. This was due, in part, to the Dadaists themselves, who never wanted their work to be co-opted by the establishment. This began to change in the 1960s when the rise of Pop Art and the counterculture took on the tone of absurd anarchy of Dada. Yet no museum in the United States hosted a Dada inquiry until 2006, when a major exhibition organized by the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris traveled to the National Gallery in Washington and MoMA. This companion catalog to the show follows the latter’s comprehensive approach to unpacking the development of Dada in the titular cities, giving each its own chapter containing essays and color plates. There is a section devoted to artist biographies and another providing a chronology of the movement, making this volume the most comprehensive of its kind.
To buy: Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, Paris $29.95 (new) at Amazon
5. Robert Motherwell, ed., Dada painters and poets: an anthology
The youngest member of the post-war New York School, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) is generally known as the abstract expressionist painter behind the monumental “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series. Yet it was also a writer who published this book on Dada in 1951, at a time when it was still considered incidental to other modernist movements such as Cubism and Surrealism. It was also at the time when some of the major figures of Dada – Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp and Max Ernst among them – were still alive and able to collaborate with Motherwell in gathering material for this study, one of the first of the kind. The result is a collection of essays, manifestos, and primary source illustrations including photographs of Dada’s principal participants—poets and artists—as well as reproductions or facsimiles of their efforts. Motherwell’s book remains a landmark in divining the historical significance of Dada art.
To buy: Dada painters and poets: an anthology $41.29 (new) at Amazon
6. Jed Rasula, Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and Twentieth-Century Destruction
Professor of Modernism at the University of Georgia in Athens, Jed Rasula defines the history of Dada as unique among the avant-garde movements of the 20th century in that it has remained relevant to contemporary art from a way that other modern isms do not have. According to Rasula, this is because its participants refused to have their efforts cataloged, which effectively inoculated Dada against becoming an officially canonized genre. Rasula’s account begins with the early days of Dada in Zurich, but just as Francis Naumann does in his book, Rasula cites the key role New York played in providing a stimulating environment for the movement – noting, for example, how the improvisational structure of American jazz may have influenced Dada’s own frenzy. It also covers developments on the continent, exploring how Dada differed in France (where it was more sensational) and Germany (where it was more politicized). As the title of her book suggests, Rasula contextualizes Dada as an ur-expression of creative destruction.
To buy: Destruction was my Beatrice $26.66 (new) at Amazon
7. Rudolf Kuenzli, hobby
Rudolf Kuenzli, Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Dada Archive at the University of Iowa, has teamed up with art book publisher extraordinaire Phaidon Press for this introductory survey. on Dadaism, which will acquaint any reader with the significance – and the continuing impact on today’s culture – of this avant-garde revolutionary movement. It provides a comprehensive examination of Dada’s myriad activities in writing, performance, social experimentation and (of course) art. The works of art are particularly well served by the oversized format of the book, which accommodates lavish reproductions, each accompanied by a description explaining the work and its place in the larger framework of Dada. Kuenzli himself provides an introductory essay on the movement and the larger social and political context from which it emerged. He writes in an easy-to-follow style, which makes this book a must-read for anyone interested in 20th-century art.
To buy: hobby from $51.63 (used) on Amazon