Sarah Crowner: I use art history in my work as a template or, in some cases, a pattern—cutting it up or reorganizing it. I like the idea of using a medium as a medium, something we use to approach ghosts or spirits, something between the living and the dead.1 Sherrie Levine has said that if art history has a voice—conscious or unconscious—then her approach is to listen to these voices and invite them to speak again, through a different means. To me, the means is an end itself: Art making is a continual process, a negotiation between past and present, and not necessarily oriented around a final product.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Dada Head from 1920 is a small-scale polychrome sculpture made from turned wood, which is commonly used in the manufacture of table legs and other furniture. Taeuber-Arp was one of the few women artists in the Zurich Dada scene and was the partner of Hans Arp, with whom she often collaborated. She started her career as a dancer and went on to make abstract paintings, prints, stage sets, marionettes, sculptures, and architectural designs; she embroidered pillows (which she had framed and hung as paintings) and designed costumes. Taeuber-Arp identified this work as a portrait, like the three other Dada Head works that she produced in 1920; Hans Arp once remarked that the Dada Head looks as if it could be used as a hat stand. The work can be read both ways.
Hannah Whitaker: The choice of the object is really clever: A hat stand is literally a stand-in for a head and so, by definition, can’t actually be a head.
William Smith: The beaded wires dangling from the Dada Head seem to gender the object. I know that another Dada Head—the one Taeuber-Arp identified as a portrait of Hans Arp—lacks these wires. The wires refer mimetically to earrings, but they may also signify decorative art in general. These materials are an accessory or supplement to the work’s otherwise pure, mechanically produced forms.
SC: Part of the reason I keep returning to Taeuber-Arp’s work, and to other female modernist artists like Lygia Clark and Bridget Riley, is that I’m interested in understanding this connection between female abstractionists and the applied arts.2
Unknown speaker: Zurich Dada was a very aggressive male group. Women did not fit in that well. To me the strength of the piece is in its subtlety.3 Its miniaturized scale belies the serious questions that it raises about gender relations in art. It’s lyrical; it’s humorous. Its potential for play is Dada.
SC: There’s something funny about the Dada Head. Is it the way it’s painted? Is it the conflation of a human with an object? Is it that it’s potentially useful? Or that being placed on a pedestal negates its usefulness? I’ve been thinking about humor in relation to my own work. Transforming a hard-edged abstract painting into a soft piece of sewn fabric requires a sense of humor—a playful attitude, not irony, as in a critique.
Alexander Provan: Doesn’t a lot of what’s funny in Taeuber-Arp’s sculpture have to do with its specific historical context, which is the tragedy of World War I? What she’s doing is taking an object that is, in some ways, characteristic of Western industrial society and extricating its use value, turning the object against itself. That kind of appropriation was characteristic of Dada; it was a rejection of the highly rationalized, industrialized culture that had been so widely trumpeted but had then led to WWI.4 Obviously, that’s black humor, which complements the pun of the object and its title. But to me that’s always seemed to be the essence of Dada humor: to highlight the absurdity of advanced industrial society and its products.
SC: But the humor is also visceral. Another artist said to me that abstract art could be funny when you insert the body into it. There’s something pathetic about the human body struggling within, for example, an abstract costume designed by Taeuber-Arp.
SC: Now we’re looking at The Blind Man, a magazine copublished by Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, the French novelist who wrote Jules and Jim, and Beatrice Wood, a New York Dada artist. The first issue was meant to be sort of a press release for the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in Manhattan in 1917, to which Duchamp submitted his urinal. The second issue was a reaction to the exhibition and focused on the rejection of Fountain. The issues you’re looking at are actually copies I made as part of a project in 2008; I sold them for the original prices, ten cents and fifteen cents, respectively. Part of the impetus for doing that project was to question how fine artists use graphic design and the medium of the magazine. Can an artists’ publication double as graphic design in the same way that Taeuber-Arp’s sculpture doubles as a hat stand?
Jenelle Troxell: In many ways, graphic design—or, specifically, the little magazine—is like a hat stand. The Blind Man isn’t a vehicle for distributing formal visual experiments so much as a readymade.5 Its two issues exist to promote and justify the fountain, which became legible as it was mediated by and circulated within the particular context of the little magazine. Other Dada and proto-Dada publications of the time—Rongwrong, Man Ray’s TNT and Ridgefield Gazook, and New York Dada, the 1921 collaboration between Duchamp and Ray—were similarly short-lived. Publication of The Blind Man allegedly ceased after a chess match between Roché and Picabia—Picabia won and so was permitted to begin publishing 391, while Roché lost and so had to shut down his magazine. (Duchamp, the chess maestro, opted out of the match, likely because The Blind Man wasn’t meant to outlast the Independents exhibition.)
The contributors to such journals regularly read and edited one another’s work and often offered one another financial and literary patronage; they created a rich discursive network, with conversations begun in one little magazine often spilling over onto the pages of others. One of the most notable publications was The Little Review, a strong supporter of avant-garde movements started by Margaret Anderson in Chicago in 1914 and published until 1929. Anderson founded The Little Review explicitly as a means of instigating conversation and eliminating boredom.6 She promoted an “art of response” and regularly closed the journal with a prominent “Reader/Critic” section. Readers didn’t always deliver, though: Thirteen pages of the September 1916 issue were left blank because readers “didn’t send in the content.”
WS: The Blind Man suffered a similar problem: a failed intervention. It had an open editorial policy that echoed the Independents exhibition’s mantra of “No Jury, No Prizes.” The cover features the somewhat-sad plea to “submit your work.” But with few exceptions it’s the same five people writing every article in the magazine. The imagined community didn’t materialize.
JT: It seems like you’re renewing the challenge to have a particularly responsive kind of art, which in turn encourages a response on the part of the viewer—but what kind of response?
SC: I see my work as a conversation with art history. I found out about The Blind Man while doing research on Beatrice Wood. Although raised in a wealthy family, she supported herself as a potter in California in the 1930s. She led a fantastically interesting life: She was friends with Duchamp, she knew Picabia, she was close with Edgard Varèse in New York. She later immersed herself in Eastern philosophy and theosophy and became close with Jiddu Krishnamurti. I did a project where I created unglazed hollow ceramic vessels using the coil technique, which became portraits of Wood’s friends and lovers. I was using clay as a medium to get to her ghosts. Whether through paint or wood or clay or magazines—that’s my way of communing with the ghosts of people like Taeuber-Arp and Wood. For me, the response is the process of making the work, which I hope inserts these figures into a contemporary conversation from which they may have been excluded.
Calvin Rocchio: What’s interesting to me is how you can, through your practice, take this conversation and use it to spatialize histories, integrating references and materials that are external to them, at least temporally, rather than treating them as chains of events.7 I think of what you’re doing as spatial-historical diagrams.
SC: With Primary Information, I’m working on an artist’s book, which involves going through a variety of art historical material from the MoMA Library, focusing in particular on the history of modern dance. I’ve xeroxed these sources, cut them up, painted over them, and silk-screened them. I am juxtaposing seemingly unrelated references in a way that makes sense to me, kind of creating the spatial-historical diagrams you just mentioned. Perhaps I am creating my dream art book using this found material. I’m using the library itself as a medium.
Tiffany Malakooti: But if you represent this in a purely visual manner, even if there’s a depth of research, doesn’t the history tend to become just another surface, a design element? Don’t graphic designers recycle art history like this all the time by employing formerly avant-garde styles, forms, and typography in advertisements?
Peter Russo: I think the formal aspect of the work alludes to the difficulties of working with art historical material in such a way. Take the collages for the Primary Information book: You see the spine of one magazine running horizontally across the top of the page, another spine running along the bottom of the page. Sarah may be flattening the material, but there’s still a lot of friction; she’s not reducing the various media to a single uniform surface.
James Hoff: I think this question becomes more complicated in artists’ books: The book itself is meant to be an art object but necessarily involves elements of graphic design and typography. Sarah’s collages show a responsiveness to the relationship between these sources and the historical figures who made them.8 Through the design elements—the style of the book and its surfaces—Sarah channels the ghosts she has been describing.
AP: But so much of the meaning of those materials depends on the historical context in which they were originally received—and from which they’re now being removed. Of course there’s value to recovering correspondences between these historical materials, but that inevitably leaves out how they acted on the world beyond this narrowly circumscribed area of art history. Talking about the wonderful interactions between various modernist projects reminds me of how these modernist graphic traditions were considered, employed, and transformed by third world revolutionary magazines like Cuba’s Tricontinental, which used avant-garde forms that had been incorporated into American commercial design to combat imperialism and advocate communism. Only by consuming—and then ejecting—these influences could Latin America develop its own form of modernism, one that also incorporated the region’s own histories and traditions.9
The world’s single law. Disguised expression of all individualism, of all collectivisms. Of all religions. Of all peace treaties.
Tupi or not tupi, that is the question. …
The spirit refuses to conceive a spirit without a body. Anthropomorphism. Need for the cannibalistic vaccine. To maintain our equilibrium, against meridian religions. And against outside inquisitions.
Oswald de Andrade, “Cannibalist Manifesto,” trans. Leslie Bary, Latin American Literary Review 19, no. 38 (July–December 1991). Originally published as “Manifesto Antropófago” in 1928.
WS: It’s fairly common these days for artists to undercut modernism’s overblown pretensions. It’s easy to assume an ironic distance to art history and then attack. But you seem fully invested in the historical work that you engage in your practice; there isn’t any condescension towards the past.
SC: No, I love art history, it’s the most fascinating medium. And I’m not a very ironic person.