May 25, 2018

Douglas Messerli | essay "New York Dada: The Blind Man, rongwrong, and The Ridgefield Gazook

by Douglas Messerli

The always surprising Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn issued late last year a multi-volume 100th year anniversary set of reprints of the two original volumes of the 1917 magazine The Blind Man, edited by Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, as well as the single issue of Duchamp’s rongwrong, published the same year, Man Ray’s flier The Ridgefield Gazook, from two years earlier, a copy of Beatrice Wood’s flier for The Blindman’s Ball along with a small side-stapled volume with translations of the French Texts, by Elizabeth Zuba, and an excellent essay, “The Blind Man Sees the Fountain” by young scholar Sophie Seita. This package, which arrived at doorstep several months ago, came as a delightful surprise.
     Published after the rejection of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” (Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of which was featured in the 2nd issue) from the 1913 Armory Show, The Blind Man magazines, as Seita argues, was more of a venue of “information” than a presentation of new art and writing. In fact, the major contribution of the first issue was a manifesto of sorts, in 4 of the magazine’s 5 pages, outlining what the “Independents” (a loosely formed network of writers and artists who widely varied in their allegiances—among them Mina Loy, Walter Conrad Arensberg, Gabrielle Buffet, Francis Picabia, Allen Norton, Clara Tice, Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth, Charles Duncan, Alfred Frueh, Robert Carlton Brown, Louise Norton, Frank Crowinshield, Frances Simpson Stevens, and, of course, the editors themselves) believed.
     Some of that blustering manifesto, signed by Roché alone, is almost funny in hindsight, such as proclamations IV. And V.:

    New York will catch the Indeps’ fever. It will rush to see what its children are painting, to scold them, laugh at them—and laud them.

     New York, far ahead in so many ways, yet indifferent to art in the making, is going to learn to think for itself, and no longer accept, mechanically, the art reputations made abroad.

Although, one might argue, both of these precogitations may have turned out to be true, there is a sly undermining of those statements and their own art in the process, which stands out against the manifesto’s later predictions and complaints:

….The Indeps insist that art is a thing of today.

      American artists are not inferior to those of other countries.
      So, why are they not recognized here?  Is New York afraid? Does New York not dare to take responsibilities in Art? Where Art is concerned is New York satisfied to be like a provincial town?

And the piece’s final tribute to Walt Whitman (“May the spirit of Walt Whitman guide the Indeps.”) is quite touching.
     Three charming short prose pieces by Beatrice Wood follow:

Why I Come to the Independents
     I want to see some one stand enraptured before a certain soft bronze, then I want to turn my head and watch the moving shadows on the wall. May be I go to the Indeps more for a sense of superiority than of Art.
     After all, the painter for me is the man who says “Damn,” and goes ahead. BUT, it is the most expressive word in the English language—delicious, bold and stupid.
     Again I am not searching four soul-yearnings—

The final short piece, by Mina Loy, is a sort of contradiction of Roché’s insistence on the education of the public:

     I do not suppose the Independents “will educate the public”—the only trouble with the public is education.
     The Artist is uneducated, is seeing IT for the first time; he can never see the same thing twice.
     Education is the putting of spectacles on wholesome eyes. The public does not natural care about those spectacles, the cause of it quarrels with art. The Public likes to be jolly; The Artist is jolly and quite irresponsible….

She ends her seemingly comical piece with a kind of feminist-like swipe: “You might, at least, keep quiet while I am talking.”
     Issue 2, its cover bearing the image of Duchamp’s “Broyeuse de Chocolat,” was edited by Wood, with both Roché and Duchamp fearing deportation with the outbreak of World War I. This issue, in fact, does contain several excellent avant-garde examples of poetry, particularly the two poems by Robert Carlton Brown, with his visual manifestation of “eyes,” and his short poem, “A Resolution Made at Bronx Park”:
i’m going to get
a big bed
of a pelican
and keep him
in the house
to catch the
flies, mosquitoes and mice,
to make omelettes of
and be my downy couch at night.

Artist Charles Demuth wrote a poem “For Richard Mutt,” and the now-underrated poet and Duchamp friend, Arensberg offered two rather wonderful works, “Axiom” and “Theorem,” while Wood offered a comical plea, “Letter from a Mother,” signed only as “A Mother.”
     Other poems by Picabia, Buffet, Charles Duncan, and Frances Stevens punctuated the pages which also included “Buddha of the Bathroom,” a defense of Duchamp’s “Richard Mutt” ready-made, by Louise Norton, and Mina Loy’s somewhat skeptical but also supportive writing on American (certainly independent) artist Louis M. Eilshemius:

As Rosseau of the French Spirit pained in France, does Eilshemius of the American spirit paint in America, with the childlike self-faith of a Blake.*

By this time The Blind Man has almost come to a kind of fruition which might have promised a true art and literary magazine had it not also been a kind of promotional piece for The Blindman’s Ball which was celebrated the same month.
      rongwrong, issued the same month was edited by Duchamp, with works mostly in French except for Carl Van Vechten’s comical sketch, “Pour Amuser Rich” and a visual poem by “H.F.” identity apparently unknown today. Even Picabia’s poems, “Empty Rafters” and “A Chinese Night in New York” (the latter far better than the first) appeared under his own name and under a name associated with his Cuban ancestors. In French, Van Vechten also contributed a comic dialogue, “Rondes de Printemps,” while Henry J. Vernot expressed himself in a rather marvelous spatially-positioned poem which might have felt at home in the oeuvre of Charles Olson, “At This Hour….”
      The folded pages of visual puns of The Ridgefield Gazook is represented by Seita as a prelude to these Dadaist-centered magazines.
      One might argue that the very short-lived nature of these magazines was almost inevitable if not intentional. But one wishes that these editors, either together or alone, might have explored their territories a bit longer and further, incorporating the numerous other figures of the day—the Baroness von Elsa Loringhoven, Djuna Barnes, and Marsden Hartley immediately come to mind—while including more visual images. But, of course, these small journals were among many in the early century that changed our entire way of thinking about art and literature.

Los Angeles, May 25, 2018

*Seita also cites the fact that Loy’s Elshemius essay was reprinted in the second issue (Spring 1976) of Howard N. Fox’s and my Sun & Moon Press: A Journal of Literature & Art, suggesting that we did not quite contextualize the “ironic overzealousness of Loy’s ostensibly positive review of Eilshemius’s naïve and conservative paintings.” That is true. But I might suggest that his work was also not quite aligned with Howard’s taste—who was, after all primarily a curator of “contemporary” art—nor with mine. However, Howard was fascinated that Joseph Hirschhorn—whose collection made up the museum where he was then working—had purchased a large number of paintings by this truly “independent,” almost outré artist. When Howard (who had also published early works in Sun & Moon on Robert Longo, Laurie Simmons, Allan Kaprow, Channa Horowitz, Steve Gianakos, Peter Campus, Eleanor Antin and numerous others) suggested he might want to write a short piece on Elshemius, it was I, if I recall (then studying previous small magazines, including those above) I who suggested the Mina Loy piece, and wanted to let that writing stand on its own without further commentary. Although there are many almost satirical flourishes to Loy’s writing, I am not so certain, finally, that she was actually dismissing Elshemius’ work as she was simply attempting to appreciate it in the context of the independents. Clearly, it was not Dadaist, but late Romantic painting that didn’t quite fit into any of the contexts of the day.

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