Lajos Tihanyi, Portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1927, oil on canvas.
In the contemporary digital world, where it seems everything has been said, done, and made instantly available, one word might prove to be a useful corrective: Dada. Born in 1916, the anti-art movement continues to influence critics, poets, artists, and tastemakers. Sustained by its many paradoxes, Dada challenges staid institutions with questions that provoke debate and spur artistic production. In the poetic realm, Dada is no less contradictory or revelatory, offering ways of opening up language that have not yet been exhausted. The volumes here are recently published (or translated) doses of Dada's frenzy; small salvos aimed to disrupt the pervasive data of everyday life.
By following a fictional chess game between Dada founding father Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu's wide-ranging book reveals the influence that leftists had on Dada in the early twentieth century, while also managing to cover contemporary topics like the development of the iPod (among other gadgets). Whether it was the typographic experiments carried out by Tzara and others in Dadaist publications like 391, the "poster poems" composed by Raoul Hausmann, or Duchamp's experiments with book design (as in La Boîte verte), the Dadaists' projects grappled with the position of the arts in a world remade by the modernization of everything from the printing process to the hand grenade. Codrescu's analysis of the chess game is written with attitude—itself a Dada-like performance—balancing critique with reinvention, aiming to reveal Dada's place in "posthuman" life. This guide is true to its title, fitting comfortably in a pocket, ready to be deployed at the slightest provocation.
Named after Schwitters's poem "ppppppppp" (ca. 1923), this 2004 collection brings together the work of the artist whose tendency to collage became both mantra and modus operandi—"I did this in order to erase the boundaries between the arts," he declares early on in the book. Schwitters navigated the rocky social and political terrain of his time by reconstituting his surroundings in a striking constellation of new sounds and art objects. His insistence that all the arts were mystically unified was expressed in paintings that resembled poems and in musical scores filled with phonetic absurdities rather than notes. Schwitters was influenced by the material detritus he saw in the streets, as well as by new technologies such as the typewriter; one wonders what he would create in today's globally connected reality of trash islands and iPads.
In the work of Francis Picabia, the words of fellow Dadaist Hugo Ball come into crystalline focus: "The word and the image are one. Painter and poet belong together." Friend of both Gertrude Stein and Duchamp, Picabia was "a self-declared funny guy, failure, alcoholic imbecile, and pickpocket." He was as interested in "thoughts without language" as he was in the "hateful business [of] selling art at high prices." Though some of his poems contain an unmistakable affinity for (if not outright borrowing of) Nietzsche's texts, Picabia was not the Nietzschean nihilist that Tzara is often labeled as. Marc Lowenthal's editing reveals a striking self-consciousness in Picabia, exposing many of Dada's paradoxes in ways that provide fodder for further artistic exploration and critical reflection.
Michel Sanouillet's monumental 640-page work, originally published in France in 1965, brings together fifteen years of research on "the most gifted and sensitive representatives of a generation sickened by the stench of a bygone belle époque . . . intent on expressing in every possible way their abhorrence for compromise, and seeking to find, at any cost, an escape to a new way of living, writing, and feeling." He charts French Dada's evolution from Hugo Ball's Cabaret Voltaire thorough the 1921 revival. An appendix of more than two hundred original documents fortifies this engaging history. Finally available in English, Dada in Paris will prove indispensible for scholars of the historical avant-garde and for those seeking new artistic strategies.
Alan Lucey recently graduated from Bard College and is an intern at Bookforum.