Destroy the Past

John Haber
in New York City

Dada at MoMA

For a movement dedicated to destroying fine art, Dada sure made a lot of it. At least they left a great deal of its wreckage behind. At the Museum of Modern Art, Dada spans two entrances, six cities, and four hundred fifty objects. It may never look this deft, messy, and just plain artful again.

Into the future

Often one recalls Dada as a brief, witty refusal. One thinks of the first readymade, In Advance of a Broken Arm. Marcel Duchamp bought a snow shovel, well before anyone could have called it art, and it still looks perfectly ordinary. He contributed a fancy title but not a noticeably fancy display or, heaven forbid, "installation." One thinks of a small circle and their provocations, before they turned from denial to assertion—the dream world of Surrealism and Surrealist drawing. Clearly the Modern knows a thing or two that this story leaves out. Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (Museum of Modern Art/Artists Rights Society, 1913/1951)

Alternatively, one may think of Dada as the source of art today. One may hear that the first half of the twentieth century belongs to Cubism, the second to Dada. That has one struggling to make sense of Abstract Expressionism. It reduces Minimalism to an industrial-strength form of Pop Art. It elides the conceptual puzzle of appropriations of past appropriations—from Dada to Pop Art to the irony of the 1990s to the repetitions in galleries everywhere now. Besides, Dada began barely two years after Cubism at its most abstract and the same year as a collage guitar by Pablo Picasso, and it ended two years before his Three Musicians.

Still, something in those narratives holds, between doubts about art itself to implications for art far in the future. Can art rebel against the very idea of art, and can that rebellion then engender art to come? The Modern plays up the future, but it takes that future to begin without delay. It sees Dada as not an idea, an accident, a flurry of manifestos, or a handful of eccentrics, but a work in progress. One may as well call it modern art.

The survey has six rooms—for New York, Paris, Zurich, Cologne, Hanover, and Berlin. It describes each of these incarnations of Dada, from about 1913 to 1919, as an expanding circle. Start in New York with a snow shovel and a urinal, and one may find the dirt, grime, and glamour of American realism. Start with the scraps of art history turned into sculpture, and one may find decorative painting by names that barely make the history books. For once a blockbuster does what the word suggests. Instead of attracting long, orderly lines, the explosion leaves shrapnel everywhere.

If such a capacious definition comes close to chaos, that, too, has advantages. For Dada, after all, chaos comes with the territory. Moreover, a touch of chaos avoids a serious problem: once an alternative art enters the museum, it can stop offering alternatives. This show wants the alternatives to stretch in every direction but backward. Its version of Dada sets the tone for all of modern art to come.

Do I believe it? Sometimes, but I found the wreckage along the way exhilarating all the same. The murky origins of the word Dada—at once French for a mere hobbyhorse and a resounding yes—reflect its duality of negation and promise. Besides, I can always flip a coin to decide or maybe, given six cities, toss a die.

Flip a coin

Actually, one may wish to flip a coin right off the escalators, for the exhibition really does have two entrances. That already sets a tone—of chance, chaos, and multiplicity. So do the six rooms, one for each city, but with so wide open an arrangement that one can barely call them divisions.

Half a dozen central walls give proper focus to smaller work, such as collage by Kurt Schwitters. They also create a makeshift movie theater for dizzying tours of modern life by René Clair and Fernand Léger. Most of all, they leave space for invention to flow. A Prussian soldier with a signboard round his head, by John Heartfield and Rudolph Schlichter, belongs to a Berlin littered with poverty and the injured after World War I. However, the uspended effigy also points back to Paris, as if flying through the air feet first. Overhead projections and Duchamp's spinning disks of glass and text, recreating perhaps the first "new media" ever, further beckon one to cross from one city to the next.

The artists themselves did. Francis Picabia first found his merry way to New York City, where his free spirit and admiration for this side of the Atlantic led Marcel Duchamp and, in turn, the Armory Show to join him. His curiously dry figure painted in profile, isolated on a large, flat field, could stand for a rejection of Cubism. It also anticipates the retro style of his later years, which made him fashionable again much later, thanks in part to East Village art. Only back in Europe, however, did Picabia briefly offer the acid puns and angry messages I love most, such as Détruire le futur: destroy the future.

Man Ray headed for Europe, too, ready to start over, although he had visited Paris in 1908 with Max Weber. The American artist's early work with Duchamp brings out Dada's collaborative side. One can share the excitement of a few like-minded rebels, determined to put art's future to the test. Once in Europe, however, he turns to his rayograms, the direct impression of objects on sensitive paper. They strip photography of artifice even before it had gained wide recognition as art.

Other artists appear more than once within Europe, as they fled from war-torn cities and toward new forms of expression. Hans Arp, alias Jean Arp, even had a name for each occasion. It was Arp who cast off fragments of his work in frustration, only to discover forms for his wood reliefs. A toss of the dice has not eliminated chance, but it has quite a payoff.

Still, chance alone has its limits, or it would not permit skepticism and discovery. When May Ray let those ghostly rayograms shape themselves, he cast doubt on representation and on the uniqueness of a creative gesture. Yet when he allowed them so much beauty and named them after himself, he cast doubt on collaboration and self-denial, too. As this survey toured Paris and Washington, it took different forms each time. Neither had two doors. Even chaos, it appears, amounts to an interpretation imposed on the past.

Heavy machinery

Besides chance and chaos, the two entrances point to alternatives, to Dada's multiplicity. As if to insist further on that breadth and variety, all six cities have a decided character. They even match six stereotypes of modern culture. Dada turns out to reflect the real world.

New York projects a New World optimism, only beginning with Duchamp's embrace of anything as art. He chose his modern still life for its lack of intrinsic visual interest, but also for everything he could evoke. The shadows of his hat rack become part of the display, just as they became a part of a later painting. I can see better now why Sturtevant could convert his readymades into night-club décor for the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

New York shows Man Ray at his most poetic and allusive, too. He paints The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows. In photographs, he helps Duchamp shift disguises. He stands behind a strobe wheel like an apparition.

Such optimism extends to play with the machinery of modern life—and art as the ghosts in the machine. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Livingston Schamberg call a plumbing fixture God. They mean it, of course, as a comment on old beliefs—or on trust in the deadening climate of industry to supplant those beliefs. However, they may not mean it entirely as irony. I thought of Stephen in Ulysses, for whom God is "a shout in the street." Nearby, the Modern displays a photograph by Charles Sheeler, a factory with the elegance of black and white rather than the brutality and emptiness of Sheeler's paintings.

Europe has its stereotypes, too, starting with Zurich, where Dada acquired its name. The Swiss city, another refuge from war, has a neutral tone even to its remarkable vitriol, with a greater denial of visual interest. Paris, of course, adores sophistication and words, nurturing collaborations between artists and poets. Tristan Tzara, the closest thing Dada had to an autocrat, must have scorned its faith in art. The poet, born in Romania, shared Zurich for a while with James Joyce, not to mention Lenin, and I almost prefer his judgment in Tom Stoppard's Travesties to the real thing: "doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon."

Hanover allows Schwitters to probe the bourgeois mind-set, and Cologne allows Max Ernst to develop a proto-Surrealism. Last, collage returns in Berlin, but as an act of war. With Heartfield and George Grosz, it treats headlines less as found poetry than as a report from hell. Perhaps only a German would call this humor. Europe softens only for another figure on the penumbra of Dada, Sophie Taeuber—billed here under her own name and not as Sophie Taueber Arp. Her paintings follow the abstract grids of Paul Klee, but a delightful set of marionettes blends fabric design, robotics, and comic theater.

No exit

Along with chance and multiplicity, the two entrances have at least another meaning: they put the stress on beginnings. The Modern could equally have labeled both doors Exit, and the joke might pay greater tribute to Dada's defiance. Instead, the survey makes the case for a lasting break with the past. Sure, one sometimes hears that Picasso had the first word on Modernism, while, from Pop Art onward, Dada had the last. This once, Dada gets to do all the talking.

For one thing, the layout defies chronology. One can enter through Berlin, but Dada did begin in New York, and Berlin Dada arose only after World War I, as a final reckoning. Unlike many exhibitions, this one also plays down origins and antecedents. The war loomed over art—killing or wounding the famous artists who served, carrying others to America, and upsetting the certainties of all. Yet it enters here mostly when artists took it as subject matter in Berlin. More interesting still, the survey downplays connections to earlier art.

Duchamp alone connects Dada to Modernism, as a starting point and a target. His Nude Descending a Staircase became America's idea of Cubism, and the Armory Show became its idea of progressive art. Cubism also supplied the first collage, and Giorgio de Chirico contributed art's nightmares. Alfred Stieglitz opened his gallery around the time this exhibition opens. The absence of all this background has advantages, for it leaves more space to Dada itself, and it even adds to the shock of artists turning on modern art almost from its inception. Still, it also represents an interpretation—Dada as fresh air.

The survey's orientation to the future extends, too, to all those penumbras—where, to lean on Stoppard's imagination again, "my art belongs to Dada." Does Sheeler or Schamberg belong to Dada rather than American Modernism? Does Léger belong here, rather than with Cubism? Would Tauber go better with Klee's formalism or Berlin's anguish with German Expressionism and "Degenerate Art"? Does a work like Ernst's Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale take one already to Surrealism? Most of the Modern's choices have the value of historical accuracy, but they do ask one to consider Dada as encompassing everything from that moment on.

The show's optimism in the face of Europe's despair has one last consequence: it rescues Dada not just for its century, but also for art. Did Picabia wish to destroy the future only to build it anew? When Duchamp exhibited a urinal, did he show that anything can be art, that nothing can be art, or that only an eye as perceptive as his and a context as capacious and specific as his can describe art? Arthur C. Danto, the philosopher, has argued for the first. Tzara might have claimed the second, and many a historian might settle for the third.

Those questions have not gone away for art well beyond Dada, and they make a survey like this one even more relevant. I hardly know whether to point these days to appropriation or to stagnation. Like Dada, exhibitions today can begin just as well in New York or in Berlin, and one might not know the difference. Chelsea can seem to have multiple entrances or no way out. Maybe it pays to spend some time back when the questions truly mattered.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Dada" ran through September 11, 2006, at The Museum of Modern Art. I have spent more time with Duchamp's "Fountain" in another review and with Dada in a review of "Dadaglobe."


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