Neo-Dada Art
Characteristics, History, Neo-Dadaists: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns.

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Neo-Dada Art (c.1953-65)


Neo-Dada Label
Characteristics of Neo-Dada Art
Revival of Dada
Neo-Dada Artworks

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Example Art Works

Bed (1955)
MOMA, New York.
Robert Rauschenberg.

Target with Plaster Casts (1955)
Private Collection.
Jasper Johns.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.


In visual art, the term "Neo-Dada" - coined by the American art historian and art critic Barbara Rose (b.1938) - is usually applied to modern artists and modern art with similar methods or motivations to the earlier Dada movement (c.1916-23). The original Dada first appeared in Zurich, in 1916, as an anti-art movement, inspired by the junk art of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the modernist sculpture of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine (1888-1944) and Henri Laurens (1885-1954), and the propagandist work of Andre Breton (1896-1966). The Neo-Dada movement (c.1953-65), like its earlier namesake, was a strain of avant-garde art, characterized by its use of unorthodox materials, use of popular imagery, and collaborative juxtapositions, and driven by its anti-establishment ethic. Famous Neo-Dadaists included Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Jasper Johns (b.1930), Larry Rivers (1923-2002), the modernist composer John Cage (1912-92), the metal sculptor John Chamberlain (b.1927), the Performance artist Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), the 'Happenings' pioneer Jim Dine (b.1935), the Nouveau Realiste Yves Klein (1928-62), the Fluxus leader George Maciunas (1931-78), the Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), the collage artist and father of mail art Ray Johnson (1927-95), the Japanese concept artist Yoko Ono (b.1933), the video artists Nam June Paik (1932-2011), and Wolf Vostell (1932-98), and the installation artist Joseph Beuys (1921-86). Neo-Dada went on to influence a whole generation of 20th century artists, as well as contemporary art movements such as Fluxus (1960s), Pop Art (c.1955-70), Nouveau Realisme (1960s), and Minimalism, as well as new creative forms like installation and conceptual art.

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Neo-Dada Label

Never an organized movement, Neo-Dada was just one of several labels (including New Realists, Factual artists, Polymaterialists and Common-Object artists) applied in the 1950s and 1960s to an amorphous group of young experimental artists, many based in New York City, whose work attracted fierce controversy from the arts establishment. During the 50s there existed a major tendency in American art in favour of formal purity, as illustrated in the work of the Post-Painterly Abstraction group. In opposition to this, Neo-Dada artists set out to combine materials and media in a spirit of wit and eccentricity. The label Neo-Dada is also sometimes applied as an umbrella term covering a number of new art movements that sprang up during the 50s and 60s, such as "Beat Art", "Funk Art", "Lettrism", "Nouveau Realisme", and "Situationist International". Avant-garde institutions associated with Neo-Dada-type aesthetics include Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the New School for Social Research in New York, and the California Institute of the Arts.


Characteristics of Neo-Dada Art

For Neo-Dada artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Jasper Johns (b.1930), Larry Rivers (1923-2002), Richard Stankiewicz (1922-83), Lee Bontecou (b.1931), Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) and Jim Dine (b.1935), art should be expansive and inclusive, appropriating non-art materials, embracing ordinary reality and celebrating popular culture. They rejected the elitism associated with Abstract Expressionist painting in favour of a more social type of art which emphasized the community and the environment. Collaboration was another feature of their work: Neo-Dadaists worked on projects alongside poets, musicians, choreographers and dancers, and engaged with other like-minded artists, such as the Nouveau-Realistes. All this resulted in a new set of aesthetics based on experimentation and cross-fertilization. See, for instance, Yves Klein's Postmodernist art (1956-62).

Revival of Dada

During the 1950s in both America and France, there was a revival of interest in the Dada movement and in works by the pioneer modern artist Marcel Duchamp. The Dada attitude of "anything goes" was certainly embraced by the artists who, like the original Dadaists, used unorthodox materials in protest against the traditions of "high art". The collage art of Georges Braque (1882-1963) and of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), Duchamp's "readymades" (mass-produced found objects) and the efforts of the Surrealist artists to turn the "marvellousness" of everyday objects into a shared public language were all-important sources of inspiration for them. The ideas of the new art were also in tune with new critical ideas. The action painting of Jackson Pollock was reinterpreted by the artist Allan Kaprow as pointing towards the world of everyday life, rather than towards pure abstraction.

Influential supporters of Neo-Dada included composer John Cage, inventor Buckminster Fuller and media theorist Marshall McLuhan. In an age of overt nationalism, McLuhan's concept of a "global village" and Fuller's idea of "Spaceship Earth", which characterized the world as a single entity, seemed to provide a more hopeful way forward than descriptions offered by the often fatalistic contemporary social and existential philosophy. Like a good deal of Neo-Dada work, Cage's mixed-media compositions and his collaborations with the dancer Merce Cunningham, promoted the importance of accident and experiment and celebrated the social environment.

Neo-Dada Artworks

Important Neo-Dada works include Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953, Museum of Modern Art NYC) by Larry Rivers; Combines such as Bed (1955, nail-polish, toothpaste, paint, pillow, quilt, sheet, Museum of Modern Art NYC) and First Landing Jump (1961, cloth, metal, leather, electric fixture, cable, oil paint, board, Museum of Modern Art NYC) by Robert Rauschenberg; Target with Plaster Casts (1955, David Geffen Collection), Three Flags (1958, Whitney Museum of American Art), and Ale Cans (1964, Private Collection) by Jasper Johns.

Rivers' reworking of the well-known history painting by Emanuel Leutze was greeting with scorn by the New York art world when first exhibited. With its Abstract Expressionist-like handling and all-over composition "contaminated" by unfashionable history painting and figuration, it was seen as an irreverent take-off of both past and present masters. In general his works display a willingness to draw on widely different sources, enabling comparisons with Postmodernist art, notably installations.

Johns achieved overnight success with his first one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1958, when 18 of the 20 works on display were sold by the time the exhibition closed. The real-life quality of his flags - a familiar object seen afresh - caused people to query its status: was it a flag or a painting? Likewise, Rauschenberg's innovations questioned and stretched the definition of art. Although creating very different works, Rauschenberg, Johns and Rivers are united by their take-off of Abstract Expressionism, their irreverence for tradition and their use of popular American iconography. The influence of these three artists on later modern art movements, such as "Pop Art" and "Conceptual Art", is considerable.

The optimistic collaborative work by Larry Rivers and the Kinetic Art sculptor Jean Tinguely, Turning Friendship of America and France (1961, Museum of Decorative Art, Paris), is in many ways typical of the Neo-Dada idiom. Rotating like the earth, it presents the possibility and desirability of peaceful co-existence, and celebrates the use of commerce (symbolized by images of cigarette packages) in establishing cultural exchanges at all levels. Similarly, Johns' Fuller map provides a potent image of this new interconnected art world and of the spirit of collaboration between art and technology. An even better example of Neo-Dada plastic art by Jean Tinguely (1928-1991) was his wonderful self-destructing Homage to New York (1960, MoMA, New York) a classical example of the Dada aesthetic.

Two other quintessential Neo-Dada sculptures, include Accumulation of Sliced Teapots (1964, Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis) by Arman (Armand Fernandez) (1928-2005), who became famous for his weird assemblage art of waste items; and Compression Ricard (1962, compressed automobile parts, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) by the Marseilles artist Cesar (1921-98).


For all their diversity, the Neo-Dada artists have been deeply influential. Their visual vocabulary, techniques and, above all, their determination to be heard, were adopted by later 20th century painters and contemporary artists in their protest against the Vietnam War, racism, and government policies. The emphasis they laid on participation and performance was reflected in the activism that marked the politics and Performance Art of the late 1960s. Furthermore, their concept of belonging to a world community anticipated the sit-ins, anti-war protests, and civil rights protests which followed later, as well as today's demonstrations concerning commercial globalization.

Neo-Dada art can be seen in some of the world's best art museums, notably the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam; and the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

Note: In the Spring of 2002, a group of left-wing contemporary artists (the Kroesos foundation) were nicknamed "Neo-Dadaists" by the press when they "occupied" the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich (the birthplace of the original Dada movement).

• For the chronology of modern painting and sculpture, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about Nouveau Realisme in Europe, see: Homepage.

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