Usually, when we think of the Dada movement, we think of Paris and Zurich, just before, during, and for a short time after the first World War. And, we think of the work of Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and Kurt Schwitters. These were the founders of the Swiss/German branch while in Paris, Marcel Duchamp staked claim to the French franchise in nihilism. Dada philosophy was proclaimed in its infamous manifesto, which was anti-traditional, anti-art, even anti-manifestos. What started as a largely literary movement quickly encompassed painting, music, drama, and sculpture. But with WW I on the horizon, its leading proponent, Duchamp, wisely decamped for New York City. He brought Dada with him, which quickly found a circle of artists just as willing to espouse its radical art theories as those in Paris. Among these was Man Ray, a 27-year-old painter, who, like Duchamp, had been working in a Cubist mode.
Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890. His art education had begun in a very traditional vein at the National Academy in New York, until he moved to the less structured venue of the Art Students League. It was through numerous visits to Stieglitz's 291 Gallery that he became familiar, second-handedly, with the work of Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and other leaders of French Avant-garde art. Shortly after Duchamp moved to New York, Ray met him and embraced the anarchy of Dada. His painting, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, done in 1916, plainly gives evidence of the influence of Duchamp and his Nude Descending a Staircase, first exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913.
While Ray's Rope Dancer... is similar to Duchamp's Nude Descending... in its effort to explore movement and several different angles at the same time, Ray's work tends also to bear the influence of Picasso's Synthetic Cubism in its flat, planar shapes and linear curves. Dada, in this country at least, was much more one of philosophy rather than style. In terms of painting, even in Paris, it bespoke primarily a rebellious attitude, while relying upon Cubism and Fauvism for style, substance, and colour. The American art world, always susceptible to European influences, and much more open to the new and different than that of Europe, found "attitude" was not so important as the painting itself. It was thus in the area of "found object" or "ready-made" sculpture that American Dada artists could revel in the shock element they so loved. Man Ray's contribution to this type of art was to take a flatiron and glue a row of nails to its flat surface, thus not only rendering it useless, but counter to its original purpose. This was Dada--art with an attitude.