New York! I should like to inhabit you! I see there science married to industry, In an audacious modernity, And in the Palaces, Globes, Dazzling to the retina By their ultra-violet rays; The American telephone, And the Softness/ Of elevators . . . — Arthur Cravan, 1912 The entire island [of Manhattan] will be honeycombed by swiftly running [subways]. . . . The ?rst day I [went down to the subway] it would not have been a dif?cult task to send me ?ying upstairs again. I wasn’t exactly frightened, rather nervous. The hustling crowd on the platform didn’t give me much chance for re?ection, and I entered the ?rst train that I was shoved into-the magnetism of the mob, as [Gustave] Le Bon would say. . . . New York is full to the brim . . . yes, pretty girls, a bit too rouged, too ?imsily attired. . . . The old-time chlorotic American type is vanishing. — James Huneker, 191530 Interestingly, the two models explored above (with their gray areas in between) de?ne what we might see as the two major trends in modernism in relation to the artist’s negotiation of the city: per the Baroness and Cravan, a highly ambivalent immersion into the crowd (and one that, as the arguments noted above make clear, potentially opens the door for a feminine or queer intervention into the spaces of the city); and, per Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia, a more controlling response of “distancing, abstraction and sublimation,” as Simmel puts it. These two trends thus provide one way of understanding the works of the artists associated with New York Dada-works that in almost every case negotiate some aspect of industrial urbanism. In relation to New York from the mid teens to the mid twenties, this would include the speed, noise, dirt, and burgeoning crowds caused, as Huneker’s description evokes, by subways being carved out of the ?esh of the city (see ?g. 4.4);31 by elevated trains still rattling by; by the clatter of horses vying with cars for right of way on the whirling streets (see ?g. 4.5);32 by the construction of high-rises, which were going
The Large Glass makes form out of the irrational pulsations of modern desire, and the sheen of glass and the rigor of mechanical line aggressively refuse a sensual engagement with this glittering sex machine
4.4 Subway construction, Broadway between 32nd and 33rd streets, New York City, c. 1900–1915; photograph from “Both Sides of Broadway,” negative # 75552. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.
The wheezing, ineffectual bachelors, with their limp apparatuses endlessly spewing love gas upward toward the disrobed bride, can certainly be engaged on the level of poignant-and terrifying- human loss, lack, and vulnerability
4.5 Herald Square, New York City, c. 1909, showing elevated trains, trolleys, cars, and carriages; photograph by G. K. Hall and Son, negative number 73153. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Hall Collection.
up right and left (during this period “a succession of massive edi?ces turned Manhattan into a city of canyons”);33 by the visual clamor of electricity burning forth from every lamppost and Broadway sign; by the population explosion and massive growth of immigrant slums; by the labor unrest and massive labor shifts with the rise of industrialism and men going to war. And these are only some of the technological and psychic shifts with which the citizens of New York (especially its vastly more condensed lower regions) had to contend. As Man Ray put it, “the racket of concrete mixers and steam drills [was] constant,” continuing, “I who had been thinking of turning away from nature to man-made productions . . . with my new surroundings in a busy and changing city, it was inevitable that I change my in?uences and technique.”34 For Man Ray, the racket and ?ux of the city were dramatic “in?uences” on his work, encouraging him to rethink his methods. The Baroness and Cravan, in contrast, came fully to “inhabit” the “audacious modernity” of New York (per Cravan’s poem, cited above), embodying and performing its raucous urbanism. Like Man Ray, Duchamp and Picabia took a more or less sublimatory approach to their negotiation of their urban surroundings, although as always Duchamp is a dif?cult and ambiguous case. Duchamp’s Large Glass does not contain as much as it comments on the impeded ?ows of desire in capitalist culture (see ?g. 2.21). While the Large Glass could, in this way, be read not only as a parable of European men’s symbolic castration in the context of World War I, but also as a metaphor of the death of the myth of phallic plenitude that had long sustained the privileging of white male subjects in European and United States culture, it is also emphatically mechanistic and inorganic. 35 It sublimates, but in such a literal and overtly failed way that the sublimation is exposed as a lie (through the glass, as it were). Picabia also more clearly took up the sublimatory approach Simmel recommends (though, of course, his nervous breakdown points to his personal failure to siphon off the threats of urban modernity successfully). Picabia’s evocatively entitled New York Perceived through the Body (1913) deploys cubistic abstraction to evoke the rustling surfaces and depths of the body’s experience of New York City (?g. 4.6), yet the painting is more or less conventional in its attempt to synthesize bodily experiences through two-dimensional abstracted geometries (conventional within the rhetoric of avant-garde painting from the time). As art historian Paul Conrad