It is no exaggeration to say that without the Museum of Modern Art, Dada as an art historical phenomenon, much less its overarching influence on contemporary art praxis for the last 35 years, would be forgotten.
Particular jewels of the Alfred Barr era dazzle throughout "Dada," the rakishly formal and charmingly comprehensive installation which opened at MoMA this week. Here are, for example, Max Ernst’s chilling and bucolic Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale and George Grosz’s portrait of John Heartfield in uniform, The Convict. (Dadaista Francis Naumann remarked at the opening, "I’ve never heard this called The Convict before. It’s always been known as The Engineer. Heartfield, of course, continued to wear his uniform, after the War.")
It would be a disservice to judge Marcel Duchamp, however, by the memorable ephemera included in "Dada." A toylike display of the refashioned readymades Duche created at the behest of Arturo Schwartz in the ‘60s comes across as a throwaway gesture in a most serious show. Marcel’s puerile puns and light plays upon the female anatomy have become so hackneyed in the discourse that their internment in storage for a couple of decades might be advisable. For "Dada" makes an intriguing case for a movement which can subsume Duchamp’s Borscht Belt tendencies with a flick of the dick.
Doing the flicking, exalted to protean heights by "Dada," is Francis Picabia. As the painter Holly Hughes commented on opening night, "The number of careers which owe a direct debt to Picabia is immeasurable." Her husband, curator Bruce Altschuler, trilled, "There are so many pieces in this show I’ve never seen in person before," and this is especially true of the deep and varied Picabia selections.
Take a small example, Francis Picabia’s Signature, a flowing blue announcement of self which anticipates and encapsulates the entire career of Ed Ruscha. Intervention of a Woman by Means of a Machine is what my wife, a Southern lady, acerbically described as "what they did, sexing up the machines, but this one works!!"
The Animal Trainer, a black colossus whipping a pack of Dada dogs, is the most esthetically pleasing and visually dominant piece in the show. What appears to be an amusing illustration of bowling balls, Volocelles, anticipates Al Held. The range of Picabia’s concerns, his mordant industrial humor and sheer manliness send Duchamp scurrying to the sidelines like an urchin picking snot from his nostrils.
Indeed, Picabia’s Tabac-Rat, a frame sarcastically showing string, is a hilarious send-up of The Large Glass and its author’s pretensions (the piece exhibited here was reconstructed in 1948). The triumph of "Dada" lies in a portly bachelor stripping a bride, the rape of Marcel by Francis in retro. Just glorious.
"Dada," June 18-Sept. 11, 2006, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).