By Valery Oisteanu, December 19, 2013
Dada and Surrealist Objects at Blain|DiDonna Gallery encompasses a selection of 85 works by key figures from the early avant-garde years. With an assist from curator and dealer Timothy Baum, they are displayed in an elaborate installation spanning the majority of the Upper East Side gallery. Inside, I feel as if I had entered a candy store of the avant-gods. Anti-art objects are ironically enshrined on the altar of cerebral irreverence. A series of vitrines are filled with puzzle-like wonders exuding humor and eroticism. I feel like touching them, playing with them, moving some of the elements. In short, it’s an orgy of voyeurism.
The origin of dada objects can be traced back to the props and masks used by Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Marcel Janco in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Across the pond, Man Ray’s “Self Portrait” (a 1916 assemblage of found objects including a handprint, a doorbell and wood scraps) and Marcel Duchamp’s "Fountain”—a porcelain urinal signed and exhibited as a work of art in the 1917 Society of Independent artists exhibition in 1917) scandalized the New York public.
While Dada objects were an antagonistic response to the First World War and were loaded with anti-war, anti-art, and anti-esthetic totems such as skeletons, prostheses, military uniforms, Surrealist objects invoked a Freudian narrative of erotic dreams and repressed desires. Andre Breton advocated more complex and mysterious invocation of the “found object,” citing Isidore Ducasse’s now-famous passage from “Les Chants de Maldoror”: “as beautiful as a chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on the operating table.”
Breton first spoke of the fabrication of a special kind of object in his “Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality” (1924), where he speculated on poetic testimony “brought back from [the artists’] expeditions, voyages into the unknown of human psyche." For Breton, the flotsam and jetsam of mass production and consumption—retrieved from flea markets and rearranged in uncanny assemblages—had the potential to awaken repressed desires, to tap into the unconscious, and to forge on assault on reality itself. “The elaboration of dream objects” he wrote, “was, above all, a means to depreciate objects that were reputed to be real and to unleash the forces of invention.”
The show’s narrative begins about 100 years ago, with Duchamp's initial discovery of the concept of assisted readymade: a mass-produced object transformed into a work of art via subtle modifications. In 1912, accompanied by Fernand Léger and Constantin Brancusi, Duchamp expressed his wonder at the Salon de l'Aéronautique in Paris. "Painting is finished.” He declared, “Who can do better than that propeller?” This rhetorical question was never answered, but its anxieties were probed in the industrial, anti-retinal aesthetics of his readymades, such as a bicycle wheel mounted on a chair (1913) and the as-it-was-found bottle drain rack (“Egouttoir,” 1914). “The strange thing about readymades is that I’ve never been able to come up with a definition or an explanation that fully satisfies me," the artist later wrote in 1962. He noted elsewhere that the readymade “doesn’t need to be deeply studied. It’s simply there. The eyes notice that it exists [and] simply take note.”
Duchamp and Man Ray dominate the exhibition with 25 artworks. One enters the first room to find Man Ray’s “Les Grandes Vacances” (The Long Holidays, 1936): an old bottle rack with three wooden men climbing up the side. The assemblage, with its winking nod to Duchamp’s famous assisted readymade, evidences the two artists’ long friendship and conspiratorial collaboration. However, rather than hinging on the absurdity of an object taken out of context (à la Duchamp), Man Ray’s wooden men can be read an expression of Sisyphean absurdity and existential struggle. Other elusive and disagreeable objects by Man Ray in the exhibition include a readymade metal iron painted red (“Red Iron,” 1966); a baguette painted blue (“Blue Bread—Favorite Food for Blue Birds,” 1958); and a pair of gold-plated silver earrings in the form of mini-lampshades once worn by Catherine Deneuve (“Pendants Pending,” 1960-67).
Nearby, a large glass cabinet displays Duchamp’s “A Bruit Secret—With Hidden Noise” (conceived in 1916, executed in 1964), a ball of twine sandwiched between two brass plates joined by four long screws. The work on view is actually a replica of the 1916 original, in which American poet, collector, and salonniere Walter Arensberg planted a “hidden noisemaker.” In this later edition of the work, Alexina (“Teeny”) Duchamp, the artist’s wife, surreptitiously planted a secret small object inside the ball of twine that makes noise when you shake it. To this day, no one knows what it is.
Salvador Dalí is represented by two sensual sculptures familiar to New Yorkers from the Metropolitan Museum’s 2002 show, “Surrealism: Desire Unbound." “Venus with Drawers” (1936, edition of six produced in 1964), made in collaboration with Duchamp, is a painted bronze replica of the Venus de Milo adorned with mink pompoms and inset with drawers. Dalí riffs on Duchamp’s notion of the “reciprocal readymade”: an artwork repurposed as a utilitarian object. While Duchamp, in his 1961 lecture “Apropos of Readymades,” flippantly suggested using a Rembrandt painting as an ironing board, here, a classical icon of female beauty is demoted to the status of cabinetry. Dali’s “Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically” (1930-1973)—an assemblage composed of a red high heel once worn by the artist’s wife, Gala, a photograph of a naked couple, a cup of milk, a cube of sugar with a shoe painted on it, a wooden spoon scraper, a ball of pubic hair and some soft paste the color of excrement—encourages viewers to recognize their repressed sexual desires.
Another pioneer of the surrealist object, Alberto Giacometti, is represented by the diminutive sculpture, “Pocket-Tray,” (1930-31). Twin sculptures—one a phallic cone and the other a cone-shaped mould—lay side-by-side on a tray, inviting connotations of sexual penetration. In keeping with the theme of unchained libido is Duchamp and Enrico Donati’s “Priere de Toucher” (“Please Touch”). The three-dimensional book cover, decorated with soft foam-rubber breast falsies in hand-colored pigment and glued to a ragged piece of black velvet, decorated the deluxe edition of “Le Surrealisme en 1947,” the catalogue accompanying the first European exhibition of Surrealist art after World War II.
Marcel Jean’s “The Specter of the Gardenia” (1936-68) is a plaster head with zippers instead of eyes. Draped around its neck is a film reel containing images of Dora Maar. Its disquieting, sadistic overtones prefigure the eerie treatment of shop mannequins by various members of the group in their display for 1938’s Exposition International du Surrealism in Paris, documented here by Raoul Ubac in five photographs depicting works by Oscar Dominguez, Max Ernst, Marcel Jean, Man Ray and two by Dali. These mannequins evoke the Surrealist automaton and the Freudian uncanny. Read as an alter ego or parodic subversion of the artist, the mannequin elicits contradictory and ambivalent associations of sadism, sexual trauma, transgression, and desire.
As is evident here, many of the original dada and surrealist objects and assemblages at some point perished and were re-made in small editions in the 1960s and ’70s. Recreations of dada objects were made by the artists themselves or by latter-day surrealists such as Joseph Cornell, whose own work is generously represented by four round “Pill Boxes” (1933-40) and other mysterious, jewel-like box-works. A standout is “Untitled,” (1958), a backlight box containing a tiny taxidermy bird. Man Ray's “Indestructible Object” (1923)—a metronome embellished with a photograph of Lee’s Miller’s eye—was conceived as an “Object to Be Destroyed.” Decades after the artist obliterated it with a hammer, he replicated the work in an edition of 40 (1970-71).
Made after a 1921 drawing of a miniature window surrounded by a brick wall, Duchamp’s die-cut print, “La Bagarre d'Austerlitz” (The Brawl at Austerlitz, 1936), was used as an illustration for Breton’s poem, "Au Lavoir Noir.” Evincing Duchamp’s penchant for wordplay and semiotic games, the print’s title hinges on the sonic resemblance between “gare,” “Bagarre” and “bataille,” connoting both the Gare d'Austerlitz—a large railroad station in Paris—and the Bataille d'Austerlitz, a famous Napoleonic battle. Another punning work is Jean Arp’s “Head: Object to Milk" (1925), a collage composed of fabric on painted cardboard. It resembles, at once, an abstracted human face and a cow’s upside-down utter, playing on the false cognates teat and tête, the French word for head.
Baum in collaboration with the gallery has assembled an impressive collection of exquisite dada and surrealist work. In its design and conception, the exhibition resembles a cabinet of curiosities, easy on the eyes but challenging to the mind. Because so many of the objects are newer editions of lost originals, most of the works don’t look musty or old, but luxuriously pristine. Long undervalued and seldom exhibited, surrealist objects are suddenly “hot.” This show is in tune with major museum and gallery exhibitions of Surrealist work, including “Magritte: Mystery of the Ordinary” at MoMA, “Surrealism and la rue Blomet” at Eykeyn Maclean, “The Surrealists” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and “Surrealism and Objects” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Unfortunately, however, the women of Dada and Surrealism are represented with only two token artworks: Claude Cahun’s “I Would Give My Life” (1936), a black and white photograph depicting flowers and human hands growing together, and the small bronze of a stylized ear by Meret Oppenheim (“The Ear of Giacometti,” conceived in 1933 and executed in 1977). Despite the entrenched misogyny of these movements, the contribution of women to Dada and Surrealism was far more prolific, varied and significant than Blain/DiDonna’s exhibition would suggest. Missing in action are Elsa von Freitag Loringhoven’s “God” (1917), a found plumbing trap affixed to a block of wood; Dorothea Tanning’s erotic textile bodies; Leonora Carrington’s hybrid feline clay figures; Maria Martins’ abstract biomorphic sculptures, and Eileen Agar’s junk assemblages, to name just a few.
An alchemical combination of creative irreverence and sublimated desire, Surrealist and Dada objects have finally achieved recognition and institutional validation from academics and collectors. As a practicing dada-surrealist, many of these works have influenced my own visual poetry, collages and sculptural assemblages from the beginning, and they still have plenty of mystery to reveal upon close inspection.