Summary of Neo-Dada
The term Neo-Dada was applied to the works of artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Allan Kaprow who initiated a radical shift in the focus of modern art during the 1950s. Neo-Dada artists are known for their usage of mass media and found objects, as well as a penchant for performance. These artists rebelled against the emotionally charged paintings of the Abstract Expressionists that dominated the art world in the 1950s. By introducing mundane subject and emphasizing performance, the Neo-Dada artists ushered in the radical changes modern art underwent during the 1960s and paved the way for Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Unlike the militant declarations of Dada artists, Neo-Dada artists provoked through covert strategies more suitable to the cold war climate. Neo-Dada simultaneously mocked and celebrated consumer culture, united opposing conventions of abstraction and realism, and disregarded boundaries between media through experimentation with assemblage, performance, and other hybrid fusions.
- Neo-Dada artists often encouraged viewers to look beyond traditional aesthetic standards and interpret meaning through a process of critical thinking generated by contradictions, absurd juxtapositions, coded narratives, and other mixed signals, rather than the internal emotions the action painters referenced in their abstract works.
- Neo-Dada artists adhered to Marcel Duchamp's premise that works of art are intermediaries in a process that the artist begins and the viewer completes. In the historical context, Neo-Dada revived this long dormant theoretical framework and provided the foundation for many of the contemporary art movements that followed.
- Encouraging the shift toward the viewer as part of the artwork, many Neo-Dada artists adhered to a notion that the viewer's interpretation of a work - not the artist's intent - determined its meaning. This was emphasized through the use of chance, found objects, and mass media, which helped eliminate the artist's predetermined significance and instead placed the focus on the viewer's reading of the piece.
Overview of Neo-Dada
The Neo-Dada movement was initiated by the composer John Cage, artist Robert Rauschenberg, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952. At the school, Cage lectured about embracing aleatory processes - the role of chance - and Eastern philosophies like Zen Buddhism in the creation of art and in daily life. A student in Cage's classes, Rauschenberg began working in less-traditional artistic processes, like using an automobile tire to create a print or painting a canvas pure white so that it would reflect its surroundings as the main subject matter. In the same context, Cunningham focused on synthesizing aspects of modern dance and classical ballet with his own natural ability and "animalistic" grace, aligning dance with performance art. While many individual works and moments contributed to the definition of the Neo-Dada aesthetic, Cage's "The Event," or Theatre Piece No. 1 (1952), performed at Black Mountain College, summarized the movement's interests in the emphasis on chance, individuality, interaction with the audience, and multiple media all combined into a singular work. After moving to New York City, Rauschenberg and Johns were neighbors and often discussed their ideas about artistic practice in their studios, further refining the aesthetic, particularly the idea that the artist's intent should not be legible or present in the final work.
Important Art and Artists of Neo-Dada
Cage's Theater Piece No. 1, also known as simply "The Event," was a seminal performance for the evolution of Neo-Dada, paving the way for the movement's signature collaborations and multimedia basis. Conceived by Cage, the piece involved several simultaneous, unscripted performance components including a poetry reading, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. While Cage set certain guidelines for which medium each performer used, he let each individual artist determine the specifics of their role within the performance, emphasizing the function of chance in determining the course of the event. The aspects were all integral to the development of the Neo-Dada aesthetic as well as later performance art, and were encapsulated within this one work in which many of the key artists within the Neo-Dada movement played integral roles.
Johns' use of newspaper and other media dipped in encaustic made each mark distinct and visually linked his work with the Abstract Expressionists, despite the very different processes that were involved. Rather than creating an abstract work like the action painters before him, Johns relied upon the images and signs common to American culture. He shifted the focus from the artist's mark to the interplay of emblems, language, and the media through his use of found objects embedded within the hardened wax "brushstrokes" that constitute the larger image of the American flag.
Furthermore, Johns emphasized his interest in semiotics through his use of this familiar symbol and relied upon the viewer's familiarity with the flag to imbue the work with meaning. Johns, who has referred to his paintings as "facts," does not provide an interpretation or critique of the media, language, or signs he paints - he instead relies upon the viewers to derive their own analyses. Through his revolutionary use of mass media and his focus on familiar signs, Johns moved the course of modern art away from formalist abstraction and towards Pop's attention to mass-produced objects, Conceptual art's focus on language, and, ultimately, to postmodernism's deconstruction of language.
In Suite for Five, Cunningham emphasized the movements of dancers in groups, specifically a duet, a trio, and a quintet. The program for the original performance introduced the work by stating, "The events and sounds of this ballet revolve around a quiet center, which though silent and unmoving, is the source from which they happen." The evolving contrasts between sound and silence, movement and stillness created a dynamic tension that guided the course of the performance. John Cage's Music for Piano was the score for the piece, and relied upon the composer's use of a prepared piano with felt, screws, and woodblocks fitted in and around the strings. Robert Rauschenberg created the costume designs, which consisted of earth-toned leotards. Both Cunningham and Cage relied heavily upon chance in the creation of this work, citing that both the score and the choreography were determined by random operations like counting the imperfections in a piece of paper. Cunningham's emphasis on choreography as an art form in its own right was highlighted through his development of the dance elements outside of the score, costumes, and stage set. This focus also underscored the importance of the individual movement of the artist/dancer, which initiated the evolution of performance art that directed the viewer's attention to the body of the performer rather than the narative or the theatricality of the dance.
Useful Resources on Neo-Dada
- Neo-Dada: Redefining Art 1958-62Our PickBy Susan Hapgood, Maurice Berger, Jill Johnston
- An Audience of Artists: Dada, Neo-Dada, and the Emergence of Abstract ExpressionismOur PickBy Catherine Craft
- Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and CunninghamBy Carolyn Brown
- Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-GardeBy Branden W. Joseph
- Happenings and Other ActsBy Mariellen Sandford
- Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-ModernismBy Thomas McEvilley
- Silence: Lectures and WritingsOur PickBy John Cage, Kyle Gann
- A Year from Monday: New Lectures and WritingsBy John Cage
- The Dancer and the Dance: Merce Cunningham in Conversation with Jacqueline LesschaeveBy Merce Cunningham, Jacqueline Lesschaeve
- Essays on the Blurring of Art and LifeOur PickBy Allan Kaprow, Jeff Kelley
- Robert Rauschenberg: CombinesOur PickBy Paul Schimmel, Robert Rauschenberg
- Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965By Jeffrey Weiss
- Robert Rauschenberg InterviewOur PickClip from the 1972 Film 'Painters Painting'
- Robert Rauschenberg on 'Erased de Kooning Drawing'Video by SFMoMA
- 'Variations V' by John Cage and Merce CunninghamOur PickVideo of the Multimedia Performance by Cage and Cunningham
- 'Dreams that Money Can Buy'Marcel Duchamp clip from Hans Richter's 1947 film, with music by John Cage
- 'Neo-Dada', 'Junk Aesthetic' and Spectator Participation' by Anna DezeuzeEssay on the Role of the Spectator in the Neo-Avant-Garde
- Allan Kaprow on Ubu WebA Selection of Essays, Lectures, and Recordings by Kaprow
- Merce Cunningham Trust: Official WebsiteFeatures Information and Videos on Cunningham and his Work
- 'Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp' at The Philadelphia Museum of Art2013 Exhibition Website, with Information on the Artists, a Discussion of Neo-Dada, and Various Multimedia Resources
- Neo-Dada: Redefining Art, 1958-1962Our PickBy Susan Hapgood, Jennifer Rittner / Performing Arts Journal / January 1995
- Art in Review: 'Neo-Dada' 'Redefining Art, 1958-1962' at the Equitable GalleryBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / February 10, 1995
- The Other Fab Four: Collaboration and Neo-DadaEssay on the Collaborative Practices of Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage, and Cunningham
- John Cage Lecture ReadingOur PickA Discussion of Rauschenberg, Duchamp, and Johns at the LA County Museum of Art
- John Cage on Ubu WebRecordings of Cage's Compositions
- Painters Painting: A Candid History of the New York Art Scene, 1940-1970Our Pick1973 Film Featuring Interviews with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Others
- The Collaborators: Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg1987 Film Featuring Interviews and Dance Performances