Supernatural gifts—like communicating with the dead or powers of prophecy—aren’t typically associated with art critics. If that were the case, we could venture into more lucrative professions—real estate, say, or palm reading. Still, I feel confident divining the response of Marcel Duchamp, the grand père of anti-art, who died almost 40 years ago, to the Museum of Modern Art’s superb Dada exhibition: He would’ve hated it.
Sure, he would’ve taken a dry pleasure in being the star of the show. Denigrating High Art may have been his life’s work, but he wasn’t averse to prestige. At MoMA, Duchamp is the local hero—New York City was the Frenchman’s adopted hometown, and it’s the exhibition’s final stop (on a tour that originated at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and debuted in America at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.).
In the “anything goes” spirit of Dadaism, MoMA encourages viewers to enter the show from separate entrances, thereby getting multiple takes on the movement. But Duchamp is unavoidably in the front and center. The showpiece is an arrangement of five “ready-mades”—mass-produced objects that gained their status as art not from any conventional sense of handicraft but because of Duchamp’s say-so. A bottle rack, a snow shovel, a hat rack, a coat rack and a bicycle wheel set upon a stool—these are items that (in the artist’s words) “[had] the least chance of being liked.”
The ready-made was a blunt refutation of artistic norms. Its most flagrant manifestation is Fountain. In 1917, Duchamp signed a urinal with the nom de plume “R. Mutt.” He submitted it to an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists (of which he was a member), and they refused to display it. Fountain was a source of anxiety partly due to its scatological nature, but more because of its express intention to offend.
Duchamp pulled the stunt, then kept a distance from the ensuing ruckus. Writing in the catalog, Michael R. Taylor suggests that his “invisible role in the [Fountain] scandal was … a deliberately provocative Dada gesture, hatched in the spirit of the elaborate hoaxes and satirical humor.” Maybe. Duchamp’s savvy has never been in question. It is worth pondering, however, whether a kind of decorum kept him at arm’s length, at least initially. Duchamp never lost sight of artistic and social mores. Without them, his japes at the received wisdom would have lost the impudence that was their reason for being.
And impudence is all Duchamp had. He knew it, too. That’s the reason Duchamp would’ve hated Dada: The exhibition sets him up as a deity. Fountain, Bottle Rack and the rest of his affronts have become 20th-century classics. For some misguided souls, Duchamp is the equal of Picasso and Matisse—a couple of years ago, a survey of 500 art experts deemed Fountain the single most influential work of modern art. The ascension from gadfly to monument is something the artist would have viewed with amused contempt. “I threw the bottle-rack and urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty,” he remarked late in his life. “Neo-Dada … is an easy way out.”
These are the statements of someone who knew the value of aesthetic quality, even if he didn’t have the gumption or talent to pursue it on its own terms. Duchamp’s followers ignore this particular foundation of his philosophy. You’d think that those intent on upsetting the apple cart would have an appreciation or at least a thorough knowledge of apples. But is the average Neo-Dadaist able to ascertain just how dull and inert the ready-mades are?
As installed at MoMA, they make the surrounding bric-a-brac by Man Ray, a gifted but annoyingly desultory American artist, look like masterpieces. Obstruction (1961; replica of 1920 original), a mobile created from 63 wooden coat hangers, takes the conceptual thrust of the ready-made and gives it a winning sculptural élan. What an odd decision to install it so close to Fountain. In doing so, the organizers of Dada reveal—and how!—the drably pedantic nature of Duchamp’s wit.
Maybe that’s the point: start low, build high. Dada ambitiously includes a lot of material—paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, sounds, posters, pamphlets and whatnot. Attention to scholarly detail doesn’t dampen the lively affair. The show is divided into sections about the cities in which the movement blossomed (New York, Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Paris and Zurich), underscoring the movement’s sociological underpinnings.
The First World War—dubbed, with an excess of optimism, “the war to end all wars”—led artists to question the tenets not only of modernism but of Western civilization itself. Artists rejected traditional models in order to explore new avenues, such as film, collage, chance incident and performance. The burgeoning popular media held a fascination for the Dadaists, for its distinctness from high culture and its ability to reach a large audience. Absurdity fueled by dismay at world events was in the mix, though the degree of political motivation depended on each artist’s locale.
Vitriol is the unmistakable component of Dadaism as it took root in Berlin and Cologne. Defeat and demoralization in World War I led to an art of startling harshness. The raging moral authority of George Grosz’s ink drawings—those scabrous assaults on capital, sex and power—are deservedly well known. The anger and drive inherent in Grosz’s barbed-wire line haven’t lessened with time.
Just as severe is a group of nine small collages by Max Ernst. Collage was an ideal outlet for the Dadaists: The fracturing inherent in the medium served as an analogue for a civilization blown to pieces. In the mixing and matching of photographic reproductions of machinery and the human body, Ernst created images of a very grave order. In an untitled work from 1920, an awkwardly formed amalgam of splayed limbs and machine parts—part airplane, part mythological creature—flies over a barren field in which two soldiers carry a wounded comrade. The body is rendered pathetic and the machine hapless. There are few pictures in 20th-century art that register disappointment as economically as this eulogy to the horrors of industrialized combat.
Collage was also the chosen medium of Hannah Höch, whom fellow artist and onetime lover Raoul Hausmann condescendingly dubbed “the good girl of Dada.” Höch privileged the movement’s breakthroughs in pictorial form over the desire to address historical circumstance. History was there, of course; it’s recognizable in the epochal, if haphazard and woefully discolored, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-1920). But Höch was less strident and more fluid than her Germanic peers. Her satires of high finance, the bourgeoisie and big-city dandies are tempered by subtle juxtapositions of tone, image and texture. Haiku, not sloganeering, was Höch’s forte.
The same is true for Kurt Schwitters, “the one-man enterprise” from Hanover. His collages still crackle with the electricity of a new invention. Recycling everyday ephemera—snippets of newspaper and fabric—he overrode and redeemed their particularity with effortless agility. In pieces like Merz 460; 2 Underdrawers (1921) and Merz 22 (1920), elements coalesce into whimsical decorative structures. Ever the pictorial artist, Schwitters’ subsequent essays into assemblage and sculpture were invariably overscaled, unwieldy and unnecessary. He never reimagined three-dimensional objects as dexterously as he did train tickets or wrappers for Lenox Soap.
The Paris section of Dada, as it is installed at MoMA, registers as little more than a way station for artists on the go. Cosmopolitan figures like Duchamp and Francis Picabia were more at home in New York, and Ernst was less callow in Cologne. The best of the Parisian works is the 1924 film Entr’acte, by Picabia and René Clair, a charming period piece and precursor of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
As for Hans Arp, Zurich was the place to be, particularly if it meant working side-by-side with Sophie Täuber-Arp. Husband and wife, in fact, steal the show. The Zurich portion of Dada is an unintended advertisement for the aesthetic benefits that can come with marriage. Arp and Täuber-Arp trade the outrage of Dada for a playful sense of possibility. (The neutrality of Switzerland may have offered a greater, if somewhat delusional, sense of liberty.) It has been suggested that the name “Dada” originated from a child’s words. True or not, the esprit and wonder inherent in a child’s vision is there in Arp’s resilient biomorphism and Täuber-Arp’s sculptures, particularly the fantastic array of robotic “Dada Heads.”
The wooden marionettes that Täuber-Arp constructed for The King Stag, a Freudian allegory, are delightful and acerbic in all the right measures. Here Dada is a positive, if limited, engine of culture. Too bad the tastemakers of our day prefer Duchamp’s nihilism to Arp and Täuber-Arp’s sprightliness. It’s little wonder, though: As the man himself would tell you, some things are easier to pull off than others.
Dada is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, until Sept. 11.