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For a 1953 Dada exhibition, Marcel Duchamp designed a one-page catalogue meant to be crumpled up and tossed in the trash. One of these unfolded “Dada 1916-1923 / Sidney Janis” (1953) poster-sized catalogues is on view from May 2 to 7 at Swann Galleries in New York ahead of their Modernist Posters auction.
The Dada catalogue has all 212 works listed from the exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, including 12 by Duchamp alongside those by Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Arp, Man Ray, and others organized by country. Staggered alongside are four concise essays by Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Jacques-Henry Lévesque, and Tristan Tzara, with the name of the exhibition in semi-bold, reddish orange over the black letterpress text. The layout readily recalls the kinetic feel of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912), but it has as much in common with his readymades that took an object and repositioned it as art (most famously with the “Fountain” urinal, one of which was replicated in the Janis show). As Caroll Janis wrote in Art in America in 2006, when the “painstakingly produced catalogue” was printed, Duchamp reportedly “took a sheet in his hands, crushed it into a loose ball, and suggested that a trash can full of these paper balls be offered to visitors entering the vernissage” (which, as usual, he didn’t attend). The Philadelphia Museum of Art has one of these crumpled versions in its collections, with the catalogue going from printed poster, to trash, to art just by the action and context.
Duchamp was heavily involved in the exhibition, working on curation and installation alongside the catalogue design, and it would be majorly influential on younger artists like Robert Rauschenberg, who would also embrace trash in the spirit of the readymades. It may not be his most subversive catalogue design, as that would have to go to the cover for Le Surréalisme en 1947 where a foam and rubber breast had to be touched in order to open the book. But considering how many galleries now use the one-sheet, newsprint, or other light paper design, it may be his most prescient.
The Modernist Posters are on view from May 2 until auction on May 7 at Swann Auction Galleries (104 East 25th Street, Flatiron District, Manhattan).