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Estera Milman:
Pop, Junk Culture, Assemblage,
and the New Vulgarians

Dada tried to destroy, not so much art, as the idea one had of art, breaking down its rigid borders ... humbling art ... subordinating its values to pure movement  which is also the movement of life ...Was not Art (with a capitol A) taking a privileged position on the ladder of values, a position which made it sever all connections with human contingencies. [Tristan Tzara, “Dada vs. Art,” 1953]

In 1953, Marcel Duchamp organized Dada 1916—23, a retrospective exhibition of two hundred and twelve historical Dada works for the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. Tristan Tzara’s “Dada vs. Art” manifesto was reproduced in the poster/catalogue for the show. The tissue-paper-thin, oversized flyer was then crumpled into a ball. Were they so inclined, visitors to the Janis exhibition could retrieve a copy of the “catalogue”  from a large wastebasket located in the gallery.  Luckily, a few uncrumpled “posters” survived and have since entered both collections of Dada and Neo-Dada materials.  Tzara’s manifesto would, in the early 1960s, be cited by William C. Seitz as an essential link between historical Dada and contemporary composite, or assemblage art and, soon thereafter, be refashioned by George Maciunas into an “Art [versus] Fluxus Art Amusement” polemic, wherein the collective’s master of ceremonies describes Fluxus as “the fusion of Spike Jones. Vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp.”  Tzara had served as historical Dada’s primary impresario and was, in the late forties and early fifties, in the midst of an angry battle with Dada cofounder, Richard Huelsenbeck who was then living in New York City and working as a psychiatrist and part-time artworld provocateur.

Legend has it that in the late Summer/early Fall of 1947, Harold Rosenberg, Robert Motherwell and John Cage were looking over Huelsenbeck’s shoulder he was busily editing and refurbishing his En Avant Dada: 1920 into a debate between Poe and Dada in preparation for its inclusion in the proto-Abstract Expressionist journal, possibilities I.  Huelsenbeck’s excerpted personal history insistently defines the Dadaist as a man of action, an individual “who has fully understood that one is entitled to have ideas only if he can transform them into life—the completely active type, who lives only through action, because it holds the possibility of achieving knowledge [emphasis mine]”

In 1965, Motherwell would recall: “In the mid-forties ... I was editing “Dada” proofs of Huelsenbeck’s which ultimately appeared in the anthology as “En Avant Dada.” It was a brilliant piece ... Harold came across the passage in the proofs in which Huelsenbeck violently attacks literary esthetes, and says that literature should be made with a gun in hand, etc.  Harold fell in love with this section, which we then printed in the single issue that appeared of ‘Possibilities [sic].’ Harold’s notion of action derives directly from that piece.”As was projected in possibilities I, Huelsenbeck’s history of the World War I era movement appeared in its entirety in Motherwell’s influential The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (1951).  Although Motherwell has stated that his editorship of the anthology was initially undertaken to “teach himself Surrealism [for which] Dada was the older brother,” it was historical Dada that would capture the imagination of the next generation of radical artmakers. 

Rosenberg’s pivotal, anti-formalist essay, “The American Action Painters,” wherein the critic asserts that “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act ... what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event,” was initially published in the December 1952 issue of Art News.”  more

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ABOUT ESTERA MILMAN: Founding Director, Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts (ATCA), 1982 through 2004. Composed of artifacts, performance relics and archival material of the post-World War II avant-garde, ATCA attained an international reputation as both a groundbreaking repository for contemporary artworks and a research program. Funded, in part, by a series of grants from Federal and State agencies, the project successfully generated a host of acclaimed topical workshops, exhibitions, publications and interdisciplinary symposia. Charter Member Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO) and Project Leader, CIAO Fund-raising Subcommittee, 1997-2000. Participants in the CIAO consortium included Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts/The University of Iowa, Berkeley Art Museum/The University of California, The Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College, the Getty Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Franklin Furnace (New York), the National Gallery of Canada, the Tate Gallery (London), and the Walker Art Center. She curated in 2000/1 the first North American retrospective of early works by the NO!art cooperative of artists active in New York since the early 60s at Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston. more

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