Dada: Stop Making Nonsense

Charlie Bass Jul 22, 2006

The Museum Of Modern Art
June 18-September 11, 2006

It’s appalling to discover that, more than 80 years after Dada’s initial collapse, the massive Dada exhibit currently at MoMa is the first of its kind in the United States. Still, better late than never and as now seems a perfect time to explore this post-World War I “anti-art” non-collective.

A media-crossing whirlwind of individualized artistic activity, Dada as a whole is nearly impossible to define; of course, this is partly intended since Dada was always more not something than anything else. If that sounds like nonsense, it’s only appropriate for a group of painters, sculptors, writers, and filmmakers who treasured absurdity, play, non-conformity and chance in pursuit of a new kind of art.

Still, it’s not by accident that this brief movement came on the heels of World War I; in fact, seeing this exhibit in the context of the war in Iraq, it’s hard not to read Dada as concretely anti-war. The exhibit itself emphasizes this from the outset, complete with a monitor showing war footage at the entrance and a multitude of Dada artist’s statements reinforcing this perspective. Though organized by country, several artists, like Marcel Duchamp, appear in multiple rooms, echoing the note on a jointly-signed manifesto claiming no single nationality.

The exhibit provides two entrances, Zurich and New York, but it’s advisable to start with Zurich to honor Swiss pacifism and so one can end with Duchamp’s groundbreaking, still-provocative readymades.

Of course, almost everything here is groundbreaking and hugely influential on modern art as a whole, from the gorgeous early photo collages of Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann to Man Ray’s haunting photograms and pre-airbrushing aerographs.

Max Ernst shows glimpses of the surrealist movement to follow, while Frances Picabia offers an array of satirical periodicals and anti-canonization paintings.

Kurt Schwitters’ paper collages use chance and layer found objects pre-Raushenberg, while Johannes Baader’s show a heavy use of text. The films, especially Hans Richter’s bizarre Ghosts Before Breakfast and René Clair’s Entr’acte play like acid-dosed city symphonies.

The Berlin Dadaists called themselves mechanics, so machines and technical approaches influence the majority of work here from Fernand Leger’s film Ballet Méchanique to Duchamp’s moving sculptures. Finally, Duchamp’s readymades make it clear how we’re still wrestling with his brilliant questioning of what an art work can be.

The best Dada works are the ones that heighten the unresolved tension, the inherent contradictions of the movement itself while still maintaining a (naughty) childlike sense of play and provocation. Like the snot-nosed brats of punk that would later carry forth the Dada spirit, the artists here discover ingenious breakthroughs in the guise of simply taking the piss. Clearly, there’s something liberating in claiming to be anti-everything, or more accurately, anti-status quo in its various political, historical and cultural incarnations. And inside the absurdity, it’s hard to miss the furious revolt against a brand of reason and logic that would lead innocent young soldiers into early graves.

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