Steven Heller | Essays

My Dada

Steven Heller, as a student at SVA

Robert Hughes once described the weekly paste-up night at the East Village Other as "a Dada experience." The year was 1970 and while none of us who were toiling into the wee hours of the morning at one of America's oldest underground papers (founded in 1965) knew what he was talking about, we nevertheless assumed that to get Time's then newly appointed art critic to spend some of his first weeknights in America with us, we were doing something weird and perhaps even important. "Dada was the German anti-art political-art movement of the 1920s," he explained in his cool Australian accent. "And this is the closest thing I've come to seeing it recreated today. I'm really grateful for the chance to be here."

The East Village Other, December 3, 1969

Yet he needn't have been so grateful. He was as welcome as any other artist, writer, musician, hanger-on and at that moment, detective. Frank Serpico, the most famous whistle-blowing cop in America, was stationed at the local 9th Precinct and would came around periodically in his various undercover costumes to schmooze with the EVO staffers. Paste-up night was open to anybody who drifted up to the dark second floor loft above Bill Graham's Fillmore East, a former Loews Theater turned rock palace on Second Avenue and 6th Street, just next door to Ratner's famous dairy restaurant, in a neighborhood that in the Thirties was the heart of New York's Yiddish Theater. At that time it was the East Coast hippie capital.

Beginning at seven or eight o'clock at night and lasting until dawn, the regular and transient layout staff took the jumble of counterculture journalism and anti-establishment diatribe that was the paper's editorial meat and threw it helter skelter onto layouts that were pretty anarchic. Anyone could join in whether they had graphic design experience or not, yet many of the gadfly layout artists were too stoned to complete their pages which were finished on the long subway ride to the printer deep inside Brooklyn.

The East Village Other, March 15-April 1, 1970

The East Village Other, April 1, 1970

The East Village Other, October 6, 1970

EVO's paste-up was the closest thing I had ever come to a tribal ritual. Every Thursday night for well over a year I joined the others in the group encounter that was part makeup and part make-out session. I had done all-nighters before but none were as fever-pitched or as drug stimulated as EVO. While I harbored superstitions about drugs and never touched the stuff myself, the joints and acid tabs were the payment for a good night's work. Someone routinely emerged from the editor’s office around 8:30 P.M with a shoebox full of the stuff, as well as with the night's layout assignments, which included at least three pages of "intimate" classifieds. The layout crew would help themselves to grass (the acid was saved until after the session was over) and manuscripts, find their tables, select their decorative ruling tapes and transfer type sheets, and settle down to "design" pages.

The editor’s office, where everyone congregated at one time or another during the night, was a dimly lit cubicle papered with manuscripts, clippings, proofs and other underground papers. It was also where the editor, who suffered from a degenerative nerve disease, spent most of his time schmoozing with anywhere from ten to fifteen habitués while snorting his drug of choice, cocaine, which gave him cavernous nostrils, the focal point of his yellow-tinged, hollowed-out face. Beginning early every Thursday morning, however, this was also where — in solitude — he would read the week's copy and as diligently as possible put the finishing touches on manuscripts submitted by his staff of writers and columnists. Yet his mastery of the blue pencil was minimal at best and by any measure the manuscripts remained unfinished even after editing. In fact, the only way to insure clean copy, if one really cared about such trifles, was to edit it oneself. 

Way back in 1965, as a fifteen years old, I was an early EVOtee. I had stumbled upon one of the first issues at a newsstand. The cover, which I remember vividly, had a photo collage of a serpent emerging from battle fatigues worn by America's commanding general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland. Haunting is not a strong enough word to describe the impact that this had on a teen just a year or two out of Valley Forge Military Academy, where, surprisingly, I had learned about the military impossibility of winning the war. EVO was my introduction to the emerging counterculture and I savored each issue, as an adolescent boy would covet his contraband copy of Playboy. I even made a pilgrimage to EVO's original storefront office on Tompkins Square Park to inquire whether they could use volunteer labor. I was met at the door by one of the founding editors, Walter Bowart, who said, "Come back kid, when you're not jail bait." Though my pride was hurt, I continued to venture into the East Village after school in the hope that I would earn my stripes as a hippy first-class and then, despite being under-age, be invited back into EVO's inner sanctum.

The road to EVO was long and circuitous. Before I could be invited in I had to make myself valuable. So I turned to making cartoons of angst-ridden little men with long hair and mustaches without genitalia in situations that were religious in nature but with a touch of Jules Feiffer's irony. Feiffer was my hero but the inspiration for this subject matter came from the disciplinary dean at my prep school, who upon learning from his stooges that I was growing my hair longer than the school regulations allowed proceeded to have my head shaved by a sadistic YMCA barber.

I eventually left prep school for a progressive school where I was allowed to have long hair and a clip-on earring and began hawking my artwork to the other New York undergrounds that had begun around 1967. Finding a receptive outlet at the New York Avatar (the journal of the Boston guru and jug band musician, Mel Lyman). I was taken under the wing of its art director, a gaunt, frightening demonic character who taught me the virtue of fanning out lines of type and other underground layout tricks. The Avatar was ostensibly concerned with the creepy machinations of Lyman's conscious and subconscious and its effect on the world and my drawings of Christ-like characters fit nicely into his agenda. 

The New York Avatar, May 10, 1968

Later I found a temporary haven at the RAT, an SDS-oriented tabloid. I produced two comic strips for RAT that dealt, rather simplistically with issues of racism and inequality. RAT saw in me a future Ron Cobb, the brilliant political cartoonist of the Los Angeles Free Press, but after publishing them I couldn't come up with any other socially satiric strips and was dropped immediately. Finally, I lucked into a comparatively full-time job as a paste-up artist, cartoonist and two weeks later, the art director of the New York Free Press.

At the Free Press I learned the rights and wrongs of newspaper design. The Freep was rather conventional. Its columns were standard; the type was usually justified, unless of course the IBM MTST magnetic typesetting machine was on the fritz. EVO, on the other hand, was resolutely formless. While it had an anchored editorial page the features and columns were not constricted by either aesthetic or functional rules. By the time I arrived at EVO five years after its founding and two after its real heyday, the layout staff, of between five and ten, on any given Thursday were all erstwhile amateurs without a clue how to create consistent design even if they wanted to. I, on the other hand, was now a two-year veteran learned in the ways of the grid, central axis composition and knew the right way to refer to a magazine (or newspaper), as a "book.”

The first couple of weeks on the job I created islands of elegance in a sea of ugliness. But I became bored, indeed, envious of the naïfs around me. The biggest influence in those sessions, however, was watching veteran, Fred Mogubgub draw obsessively intricate designs for covers (including the masthead) and inside pages that were often printed in a split fountain, going from unreadable yellow to brilliant orange to faint green. Mogubgub was a pioneer commercial animator, whose quirky, detailed, comic style changed the look of animated commercials in the early 1960s. When I was a kid I marveled at the hilarious 7up bottles that literally can-caned across my TV screen.

I began to play with copy by blowing up words, laying down heavy ruling tape over or under copy blocks to emphasize key passages. I integrated various found and clipped images around text and headlines to further invigorate the page. Soon my EVO layouts were as ugly (read as vibrant) as the others and still had some semblance of text that could be read. The pages had become textures. I likened it to literally letting my hair down, which I wore in a tight ponytail.

By 1972 EVO's circulation, which is reported to have once been around 75,000 nationwide, had plummeted to five or six thousand and most of that was for the sex ads and classifieds that it took to stay afloat. It was also consistent with the demise of the Underground Press in general, which either evolved into mainstream alternative journalism or just died. Some of EVO's elite went on to the SoHo News, which sought respectability but never attained the circulation figures. Other EVOtees went on to other publishing ventures, and some simply disappeared. The issues of EVO printed on cheap newsprint are hard to find these days, either because they were thrown away or turned to dust. The few that remain in the hands of collectors, however, represent a remarkable period of counterculture publishing, naïf design and youthful exuberance that marked one of the democratic periods in American history, when the means of cheap communication was in the hands of many. For me, I learned how much fun it was to make expressive design. While I have continued a rather reserved course with my art direction, the EVO experience was not a youthful fling but a point of departure.

Thanks to Robert Hughes I had begun to read about Dada, and in that spirit I decided that every designer needed a Dada, if only to clear one's head of the rules and regulations. EVO cleared my head then, and I could sure use it again forty years later.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Media

Comments [21]

Great story, Mr. Heller.

It seems Dada is on the brain lately, as I've read about it in a few places this week.

You refer to the period in time as "one of the democratic periods in American history, when the means of cheap communication was in the hands of many." I'm wondering about now, with the ability to communicate cheaply and in more ways than ever, if a movement like this could ever happen again. Moreso, if it did, what would it look like?

I guess you can say blogging is similar, but that's more or less a solitary endeavor. Hmm...something to think about.


That student ID photo is classic (you handsome devil.) Laughed out loud.

Joe Moran

War in Gaza: No one left in the ruins to hear the thunder of Israel’s guns
The London Times 16/1/09
'Efforts To Report Are Blocked': For three weeks and counting the media have watched the conflict in Gaza from a distance.
Sky News 16/1/09
Pregnant woman hospitalized as Gaza rocket hits Ashkelon home: A pregnant woman was hospitalized in Ashkelon after her home suffered a direct him from a rocket, while two Israelis were wounded in Ashdod - one moderately and the other lightly.
Haaretz israel news English 16/1/09
Israeli offensive on Gaza goes on, 14 killed on Friday
www.chinaview.cn 16/1/09
Israel kills militant's family in Gaza tank fire
(Reuters)UK 16/1/09
'Israel warns Lebanon of massive war'
www.presstv.ir/ 16/1/09
Phosphorus bombs in Gaza: the proof: Doctors detail burns to victims' entire bodies from chemical that is forbidden to be used as a weapon
The Guardian UK 16/1/09
Gaza: Israel prepares 'iron fist' strike at Hamas
Times on Line 13/1/09
CARE halts aid deliveries amid Gaza bombing
AJC Atlanta 16/1/09
Medic says Israeli troops kill West Bank protester
Associated Press 16/1/09
Gaza: an ongoing challenge for the media
Guardian UK 14/1/09

Over the last 21 days no mention of the massacre of the innocent and the ‘guilty’ in Gaza has been mentioned on the most popular site for culture and graphic design: Why?

Writing on design culture?
During 21 one days of ‘designed’ mayhem in Gaza DO has discussed: My Dada; Ten Things That Need to be Redesigned; Murray Moss: Design Hates a Depression etc etc

The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. Instead of pictures of the drawing-room, electric gadgets for the kitchen. There should be no such thing as art divorced from life…
Munari, B., Design as art. Penguin modern classics. 2008, London: Penguin. pp25
Colin Davies

Mr. Heller...Your words brought a tear to my eyes.
The good old days were the 60s and 70s for graphic designers.
Thank you for the article.
pat Taylor

Over the last 21 days no mention of the massacre of the innocent and the ‘guilty’ in Gaza has been mentioned on the most popular site for culture and graphic design: Why?

Not exactly true, as in the first days of the conflict we linked Moiz Syed's Israeli / Palestinian Coffin Counter Project, a devastatingly simple piece of information design that is well worth a visit.

Sorry for the somewhat off-topic exchange.
Michael Bierut

The constant outrage about the ratio between the death in the Palestinian side and the Israeli is becoming a bit ridiculous. One would think that if the Hamas could have managed to kill hundreds of Israeli children - Israel would have the right to do the same..

As if more than the killing itself, people are bothered by the quantity difference.
James Boyes

Please, let's stay on topic here.
Michael Bierut

“Yo lo vi” – “I saw it.”
Speaking of Disasters of War, we should all read Goya by Robert Hughes. One of my favorite teachers from Cooper Union, Dore Ashton reviewed Goya and you can read her review from the Washington Post on Amazon if you scroll down. I thought of her when I read your post. Dore Ashton like Hughes was a critic for Time Magazine and Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand might know her work as a senior critic in painting/printmaking at Yale. Her review is worth reading. Here is an excerpt:

Hughes’s accomplishment in this vastly detailed book is to lay out all the possible reasons for considering Goya the first exemplar of modernism, which, he says in his opening statement “has to do with a questioning, irreverent attitude to life; with a persistent skepticism that sees through the official structures of society.”
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co
Carl W. Smith

Forget Heller and the love for things retro under the banner of design research or whatnot. As long as we continue to navel gaze, we reduce our potential worth as humans (not designers or whatever label one would choose to be identified with). That the media of this country would cover one side is pretty much a given. Forget dada, that was then and this is now.
Erica Schwarz

Ah, art school and the glory days of paste-up, blue lines and stat machines. I got out out of art school at the dawn of the Mac and wouldn't trade all those necessary and vital tactile production hand skills it used to take to complete projects for anything.

Whenever I even hear the word DADA I always smile and flash back to my 1988 Symbiotic class at the Massachusetts College of Art with one of favorite professors Mary Ann Frye. I remember making her laugh as she explained that Marcel Duchamp was the father of Dadaism and I asked "Isn't that kind of redundant?"

Another fond and funny memory from back in the darkroom paste-up days on the 9th floor of Mass Art was our beloved community Lucy machine. Lucy, (a lucidograph) was a drawing projector where you could take a photograph, or a sketch and project and enlarge images for class projects and posters.

Our Lucy lived in an 8x8 room with a door that had an big face of Lucy circa the "I Love Lucy" days pasted on the front. On the day Lucille Ball passed away on April 26, 1989 somebody, in true angst-ridden art school fashion, quickly updated the image with two huge black Xs over her eyes. Genius.

Dig your SVA student ID shot almost as much as I do your writing and books. If you ever compile a series of student art IDs I'd love to send you mine.

Keep up the fine work Mr. Heller.


H. Michael Karshis

Dore Ashton like Hughes was an art critic . . .
(Dore Ashton was an art critic on The New York Times from 1955 to 1960 and Robert Hughes was a critic for Time Magazine 1970.)

“Forget dada, that was then and this is now.”
I disagree, I think important for designers understand the history of political-art movement.
Carl W. Smith

"As long as we continue to navel gaze, we reduce our potential worth as humans."???

Personal reflection aside, I am astounded (yet again) when ignorance is promoted at the expense of knowledge.

I teach a History of Typography class and start the first class by asking students the question, "How do you know whether your work is any good?" I have had students break down in tears in front of me because they could not come up with a response to that question. Their entire educational experience had been measured to that point on the viewpoint of someone else, i.e their grades. The students had no independent measure or comparative understanding of where their own contributions to design "fit." They had no exposure to a history of graphic design. To speak of "human worth" without any regard for history is to reduce life to its most basic functions: shitting and fucking.

When "worth" is reduced to instrumental applications, it measures value on a monetary scale, not a quality of life scale (see Simmel, "The Philosophy of Money") This is the same attitude that prevailed when Robert Moses wanted to blast a freeway through New York's SoHo district (which failed), or that lead to the destruction of McKim, Mead and White's New York Penn Station (which succeeded). Instead of "old buildings" that have some representational value (meaning that they reflect what society has accomplished, what we as a group have been able to achieve in the past), 1970s urban renewal projects put up innumerable faceless, anonymous bland boxes which tell us nothing about ourselves.

Granted, history won't cure cancer, it won't solve world hunger. But it does give meaning to our lives. We have a desire to know where we came from, who our parents were, and what have we accomplished as a culture.
David Cabianca

Can't (and won't, honestly) really immerse myself in the ideology, but i love the artwork that came from the era. Dadaist influence is everywhere nowadays, and the future graphic designers should be as bold as these guys were. http://www.jobstaxi.com

Totally love the student ID pic. Great stuff!

We got tonnes of design jobs here!


students can be immersed in all the political histories/herstories that they want, but to be "inspired" by them or continue to write about them or harp about them incessantly is to deny them their own individuality- it was at a certain place in time that these movements transpired. the constant reemergence of these visual idioms in modern/contemporary design, such as the often lauded but obviously blase and predictable work of pentagram for the public theater are indications of where one misappropriates for commercial abuse. even worse is the lowest common denominator work of shepard fairey/giant, which is enforced by the massive popularity (one liner style) of the obama 'hope' campaign. so therein lies the danger of being versed in graphic knowledge of the past when it is rehashed.
Cort Wilkinson

Are you saying that there's danger in knowledge? Are you really serious that understanding the past - let's just take Cubism or Aerospace or, heck, American History - is will deny students of art, science, or history "their own individuality?"

Is knowledge of the past the reason why designers "missapropriate for commercial abuse?"

There are many reasons to focus on the present - since we live in it and its the gateway to the future - but does that mean we "deny" the past because it has "transpired?"

Rehashing anything without understanding is problematic. But limiting our collecting knowlege, now that's "the danger."
Steven Heller

It's hard to imagine that the designer of the April 1, 1970 Other cover shown hadn't looked a John Heartfield's work. If not, it says a lot about the convergence of political/communicative intent and reproduction technology.

1970s urban renewal projects put up innumerable faceless, anonymous bland boxes which tell us nothing about ourselves.

Perhaps the real objection is that they tell us too much about ourselves.

Gunnar Swanson

Hi Gunnar, ya, I know. I'm a relic at 40. [Cheekily,] I'm described here and here.

David Cabianca

I can say with all certainty that the "designer" of that cover never heard of John Heartfield in his life. Even after Hughes left the building, Heartfield was not on the radar. For me it came only after a 1974 invitation to visit East Berlin to discuss Heartfield's influence on underground press collage (a trip and talk I never made).
steven heller

Great story Steve! I like to be reminded of useful subversion. Not like the kids of today. They've been sold their idea's for the most part. Also, if you need to clear your head, then do it! It would be good to hear someone say something for once.
Keith Rowland

Dear Sir, been trying desperately to micro-fiche or find an article i believe that was covered by the new york daily news in the early 1960's about a puerto rican boy that drowned in the east river-we kids were playing together and he fell in. Imust have been around 6 or 7 years old. Anyway, they took my picture and used it in the daily news to cover the story of the boy drowning. It's been impossible to find it, also, my brother fell from a 3rd floor window on east 13th street and died and i wonder if it was cover by any newspaper in the early 1960's-wish i could find that history because it's a historical part of my life.
Brady Greenberg

Jobs | July 23