New York Dada 1915–23
by Francis M. Naumann, Abrams, 256 pages .
In a letter to the poet Tristan Tzara, a founder of the Dada movement, the artist Man Ray commented: “All New York is dada and will not tolerate a rival.” New York Dada makes a strong case that 1910s New York, bursting with chaotic and often insolent creative attitude, was an ideal haven for the eccentric Dada movement, which was born of just such urges. Dada, founded by a group of European artists who fled to Switzerland during World War I, was based on the idea of rejecting all restraints to achieve complete artistic freedom. The movement made its way quickly to New York, bringing along modernists like Joseph Stella, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp, who was so enchanted with New York’s skyscrapers that he declared them more beautiful than anything in Europe and was disappointed that he couldn’t live in one.
The modern-art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg nurtured the group by turning their apartment into an allhours salon for the artists, and Dada made a startling impact on the city with works that used machinery as subjects and had joyously wry puns for titles. Though many critics saw the movement as indulgent and were baffled by nowfamous works like Stella’s moody paintings of the subways and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase , the Dadaists thumbed their noses and continued to play. Francis Naumann re-creates this brief period in the city with charm and authority and many alluring pictures; it is hard not to want to be among this provocative group as they lead their lives according to Dada, a word from French baby talk that means “a project one endlessly toys with.”