WHEN I WAS / YOUNG—FOOLISH— / I LOVED MARCEL DUSHIT / HE BEHAVED MULISH—. This snippet of poetry by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is printed on a wall next to the bathroom door at Mimosa House, beside a projection of Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of an upturned urinal signed R. MUTT 1917. The proximity of the Baroness’s handwritten lines to the widely known signature underscores their remarkable similarity: a nod to the spirited debate that has emerged in recent years about the true authorship of the most famous art object of the twentieth century. Did Marcel Duchamp steal the credit for a woman’s work? We know that he certainly admired her. “She is not a Futurist,” he once proclaimed. “She is the future.”
“The Baroness” is the latest in a burst of projects attempting to revive the reputation of the underknown artist who was born Else Hildegard Plötz in the Pomeranian city of Swinemünde (now the Polish S´winoujs´cie) in 1874. She acquired her title through her third—bigamous, short-lived—marriage to an impoverished German aristocrat in New York in 1913. After her husband deserted her, the Baroness scraped by as an artist’s model while forging her own name in Dadaist circles. She attracted particular attention and was more than once arrested for her unapologetically eccentric outfits: a coal-scuttle lid worn as a hat, teaspoons dangling from her ears, a pair of tin cans strung together to form a bra. Her equally provocative poems found a regular audience in The Little Review, the influential literary magazine in which James Joyce’s Ulysses was first serialized. Its editor, Jane Heap, described the Baroness as “the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada.” Yet by the time of her death in Paris in 1927, the Baroness’s star had waned. She was isolated, depressed, and utterly destitute. (She died from asphyxiation after leaving the gas on overnight; whether this was an accident is unclear.) In the following decades, her name fell into almost total obscurity.
Today, the Baroness has a dedicated coterie of admirers who view her as a neglected visionary—a progenitor especially of the feminist tradition of performance and body art. To properly establish her artistic legacy, however, is difficult. Besides her poetry, which was published in a long-awaited collected edition in 2011, little of the Baroness’s oeuvre is documented and even fewer securely attributed works have survived. So it is understandable, though frustrating, that only three of her sculptures—small found objects and assemblages mostly made from scraps of wood and metal, including a wearable “earring-object” from around 1918—are on view in this exhibition. (A fourth from the same private collection is currently in the Venice Biennale.) The rest of the display comprises photographs of the Baroness striking an array of outlandish poses; written and audio extracts of her poems; and contemporary works by a dozen artists and collectives including Zuzanna Janin, Reba Maybury, Taqralik Partridge, and Liv Schulman, presented “in dialogue” with Freytag-Loringhoven’s output.
Offering the most direct and illuminating commentary is Sadie Murdoch, whose photomontages reflect on the lost stories of modernist women. To create the digital prints on view, the artist cut out images of the Baroness, who is transformed into a ghostly silhouette, and spliced them together with landscape photographs by her friend Berenice Abbott. Although the Baroness painted a portrait of Abbott, it seems that the successful photographer never reciprocated. On a drawing, ca. 1923–24, the Baroness scrawled: FORGOTTEN—LIKE THIS PARAPLUICE / AM I BY YOU— / FAITHLESS / BERNICE! But what exactly happened between the two women—and what on earth is a parapluice? Judging by the drawing, perhaps an umbrella that keeps water off and also a sluice that lets it gush down? We are left only to guess.