for sale: goat heads, toilets, cheeseburgers and other gooey stuff

The time is 1915s - Zurich, Switzerland: disillusioned by the social values that led to the war and sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness, Dadaists prized the nonsense, irrationality, and intuition. Its father? No one is less than Marcel Duchamp. In the years immediately preceding the war, Duchamp found success as a painter in Paris - but soon gave up, explaining: “I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products.”

The time is the 1950s - New York, USA: After roughly 40 years, Neo-Dada rises as a minor art movement that has similarities in method or intent of the earlier Dada artwork. While it revived some of the objectives of Dada, it puts "emphasis on the importance of the work of art produced rather than on the concept generating the work." Robert Rauschenberg ushered in this new era of postwar American art, rejecting the Greenbergian formalism. His approach was sometimes termed “Neo-Dada” due to its relation to both European forebears and the physical gestures of American Abstract Expressionists.

Rauschenberg’s first pieces were somewhat “anti-art,” as a form of protest about what was happening in the world - and especially in the art world. Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So (1953) were filled with cynicism, as a strategy of provocation against the dominant bourgeois culture. His most famous pieces, though, came a few years later: Bed (1955) and Monogram (1955) are what the artist called “combines” - pieces that blurred the distinctions between painting and sculpture, as their flat surfaces were augmented with discarded materials and appropriated images. In his combines, everyday objects (garbage on the street, comics, newspapers, pieces of woodwork, posters, fabrics, drawings, mirrors) took the space of the painting. Rauschenberg once said ‘I always wanted my works-whatever happened in the studio- to look more like what was going on outside the window.' While other artists considered his work a way out of abstract expressionism, Greenberg spitefully called it ‘novelty art.'

Robert Rauschenberg   Bed   1955   mixed mediums, ca. 75 x 32 x 8 in.   Museum of Modern Art

Robert Rauschenberg
mixed mediums, ca. 75 x 32 x 8 in.
Museum of Modern Art

By the end of the 1950s, Marcel Duchamp came back into the picture. His retrospective in North Carolina in 1963 contributed to the public dissemination of his works around the States, turning him into a very influential artist to pop and, later, conceptual art. With his famous ready-mades, Duchamp questioned the boundaries of the work of art, posting questions like “what constitutes the work of art?”, “what are the parameters?” and, also, examining the influence of ‘the artist's hand.'

With its roots in Dadaism, Pop Art started to take form when artists began making the symbols and products of the world of advertising and propaganda the main subject of their artistic work. Pop artists used the iconography of television, photography, comics, cinema and publicity to create works that were critical of the high culture in the name of mass culture. Riding this wave - but against the current - Claes Oldenburg mixed the gestural and messy combines of Rauschenberg with its contemporary influences (like Warhol and Duchamp) to create his gooey and nasty works.

In his (in)famous The Store (1961), Oldenburg occupied an actual store front, in Manhattan, and filled it with grotesque plaster food and clothing made out of paper mache, making a claim at the pathologies of the commodity culture. In that scenario, the artist was the salesman and the spectator the consumer. Later, his giant soft sculptures took inspiration in barely anything - clothing, fast food, urban decay - generating a new awareness of the environment through strategies of estrangement (with their large scale and soft materials) and displacement. Oldenburg transformed familiar objects (like a toilet or a cheeseburger) into uncanny. What had he to say about it? “I am for an art that is political – erotic – mystical, that does something other than sitting on its ass in a museum.”

Claes Oldenburg, Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything (Dual Hamburgers), 1962

Claes Oldenburg, Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything (Dual Hamburgers), 1962

Looking at the works of Rauschenberg, Duchamp, and Oldenburg we can see the influence that the everyday, urban, life had in the arts. It was not about representing their emotions, or even ‘art for art's sake’ anymore. Artists from the 1950s and 1960s had something more to say. Regardless of the ‘artistic movement’ they are classified under (Dada, neo-Dada or pop), they found distinct ways to criticize the canons of the art world and high culture by elevating urban debris into art; placing trash in pedestals inside galleries; being rebels with a noble cause.