The Artwork Caught by the Tail
Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris
496 pp., 7 x 9 in, 122 b&w illus.
- Published: September 21, 2007
- Published: September 3, 2010
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.
The contradictions that crease the surfaces and form the actual texture of art practice are too often glossed over in the historian's rush to coherence. George Baker is one of a very few art historians capable of writing for artists, making artists the primary beneficiaries of their thinking, and also writing for the purposes of inciting new artistic production even while removing the artist-subject from the center of the scene. Caught by the Tail is a brilliant example of how to surprise us by lingering a little longer at the scene of the crime.
Gareth James, Chair of Visual Arts, Columbia University
George Baker's gripping study of Francis Picabia offers a model of Dada that goes well beyond the usual pieties regarding its anti-art stance. Baker attends to Picabia's productive innovation in the Paris Dada moment, showing that it was through form that Picabia remade modernism from the medium up.
David Joselit, Yale University
George Baker's book... is the first in English dealing specifically with Picabia's Dada work in Paris and is a serious rethinking of the readymade (the other, Picabian, one) based on a study of the artist's singularly multifarious practice.