The Artwork Caught by the Tail
Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris
A new theory of the readymade via a new reading of Picabia and a new writing of Dada.
The artist Francis Picabia—notorious dandy, bon vivant, painter, poet, filmmaker, and polemicist—has emerged as the Dadaist with postmodern appeal, and one of the most enigmatic forces behind the enigma that was Dada. In this first book in English to focus on Picabia's work in Paris during the Dada years, art historian and critic George Baker reimagines Dada through Picabia's eyes. Such reimagining involves a new account of the readymade—Marcel Duchamp's anti-art invention, which opened fine art to mass culture and the commodity. But in Picabia's hands, Baker argues, the Dada readymade aimed to reinvent art rather than destroy it. Picabia's readymade opened art not just to the commodity, but to the larger world from which the commodity stems: the fluid sea of capital and money that transforms all objects and experiences in its wake. The book thus tells the story of a set of newly transformed artistic practices, claiming them for art history—and naming them—for the first time: Dada Drawing, Dada Painting, Dada Photography, Dada Abstraction, Dada Cinema, Dada Montage.
Along the way, Baker describes a series of nearly forgotten objects and events, from the almost lunatic range of the Paris Dada "manifestations” to Picabia's polemical writings; from a lost work by Picabia in the form of a hole (called, suggestively, The Young Girl) to his "painting” Cacodylic Eye, covered in autographs by luminaries ranging from Ezra Pound to Fatty Arbuckle. Baker ends with readymades in prose: a vast interweaving of citations and quotations that converge to create a heated conversation among Picabia, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, James Joyce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and others. Art history has never looked like this before. But then again, Dada has never looked like art history.
George Baker is Professor of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an editor at
October magazine and October Books. He is the editor of
James Coleman (MIT Press) and a frequent contributor to