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Dada” gets right down to grimness. In the very first room of the National Gallery of Art’s exhaustive genre survey, the viewer is walloped with a briskly paced, endlessly looped montage of World War I horrors: trench warfare, children wearing gas masks, and, most unnervingly, piles of prosthetic limbs. Rows of legless soldiers are fitted with strange devices. A young man missing half his face is equipped with a false nose and eye attached to a pair of glasses. “It’s Iraq; it’s Iraq,” one stunned museumgoer muttered again and again during a recent visit.
That connection would probably make co-curators Leah Dickerman and Laurent Le Bon very happy. After all, their show is about reclaiming dada for the present, about finding the genesis of virtually every type of contemporary art-making imaginable in the movement’s brief history. Collaboration, mixed media, performance, conceptualism, sound art—all of these turn up in the exhibition’s nearly 450 works, which date from 1916 to 1924.
This isn’t, it should be noted, the dada that we think we know: the weird, violent anti-art precursor to surrealism, which was a slicker, more consumer-friendly type of absurdist fun. True, the two movements had a sizeable overlap in both strategies and membership. But Dickerman and Le Bon take pains to decouple them. “[Dada’s] adherents were seismically sensitive to historical shifts, making certain phenomena visible in their artistic activities, often a decade or so before they became common topics within written cultural commentary,” Dickerman tells us in the catalog’s introduction. “[Surrealism] was much more closely tied to the culture of poetry and the book…and more focused on the individual unconscious detached from the larger social one.” It’s a simple distinction, really: Whereas dada engaged the modern world, surrealism retreated from it.
Another division the show imposes is geographical. The works are grouped by city, thereby stressing regional differences in what’s typically thought of as an international phenomenon. Like the Cézanne exhibition across the way in the West Building, “Dada” follows current curatorial trends by attaching its artworks to a definite place. Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, and Paris—each gets its own space, even if some of the differences are a bit fuzzy, particularly when the same artists appear in multiple rooms, having moved from city to city.
Of course, reconstructing dada in a museum environment is tricky—so much of the movement had to do with ephemera. As a result, much of the show is devoted to documents, magazines, and programs. A small booth in the Zurich room offers a photo of Hugo Ball—one of the founders of both dada and the infamous, short-lived Cabaret Voltaire—dressed in pieces of rolled-up, painted cardboard. This was his “cubist costume,” in which he delivered the nonsense sound poem “Elephant Caravan” in 1916. Audio recordings of performances of that piece and “The Admiral Is Looking for a House to Rent,” a poem in three parts to be read simultaneously by three speakers, play inside the booth, and though the sound is baffling and hilarious, it’s awfully difficult for the listener to conjure the cabaret environment while sitting on a little carpet-covered bench in a closet-sized room.
The poems nevertheless highlight dada’s early strategies of breaking down the devices of language—and, by extension, of propaganda and the European heritage of reason. For the dadaists, the reinvention of language wasn’t simple formal play; it was a denial of the maddening disconnect between the substance of patriotic speeches and the human costs of a terrible war—one many of them had gone to neutral Zurich to escape.
The art of Sophie Täuber reflects a similar rejection of established values, even if the pieces themselves look almost quaint to contemporary eyes. In her Untitled (Composition With Squares, Circle, Rectangles, Triangles) (1918), a red square hovers near the center of a plain blue field. Perched at the piece’s lower-left-hand corner is a turquoise circle; a series of three triangles—one white, one gray, and one brown—descend vertically from the lower right. This could be one of Malevich’s suprematist paintings—except for the fact that it’s done in needlepoint. Täuber taught in a design school, and she sought in her work to blur the distinction between fine art and craft, deliberately avoiding the elevated status of oil paint.
Needlepoint grids such as Untitled (Vertical-Horizontal Composition) (1916) predate Mondrian’s efforts toward pure geometric abstraction. But unlike Mondrian, who sought metaphysical transcendence, Täuber used the grid to draw attention to the reality of her material—to the woof and weft of what was traditionally women’s work. It was an attempt to make art not only an everyday activity but also a gendered one. Täuber’s integration of materials from the domestic sphere into a male-dominated avant-garde discourse predates Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Womanhouse project by more than half a century. Add to that the sureness of her execution, and her accomplishment begins to seem considerable, indeed.
Hans Arp, who married Täuber in the ’20s, also tried to take the hot air out of the myth of the artistic genius, both by having Täuber execute needlepoint designs for him and by having his wall-mounted, painted-wood reliefs manufactured by a carpenter. For Untitled (Burial of the Birds and Butterflies) (1916/1917), Arp had someone else use a band saw to cut out his loopy, biomorphic designs; he then assembled these and painted them using a number of commercial paints. The screws he used are still clearly visible under flat expanses of brown and black; a few of the wood pieces show flashes of grayish-silver spray paint. Not quite sculptures or paintings, not conforming to traditional ideas of how fine art should be made and presented, these pieces must have seemed eccentric at the time of their making. Again, to contemporary eyes, they look merely decorative—suggesting a potent dada idea about the life cycle of works of art. As Brigid Doherty points out in her catalog essay, art for the dadaist “takes on specifically human characteristics—it ‘lives’ in particular historical periods, and possesses a ‘consciousness’ with particular ‘contents.’”
Indeed, for every eerily contemporary piece in “Dada,” there’s also one that’s goofily, utterly dated. For every Sophie Täuber, there’s also a Hans Richter, represented here by Visionary Self-Portrait (1917) and Visionary Portrait—Ecstasy Threatened by Doubt (1917). Richter made these spontaneous, scruffy paintings at twilight, when it became difficult to differentiate between the colors on his palette. The results look as laughably half-baked as the expressionist paintings of Sir Paul McCartney.
Romantic ideas about personal feeling and the authentic self have not endured in the art world, but they peek out elsewhere in the show. So does a love of primitivism, seen in the performance masks of Marcel Janco. His crude assemblages of cardboard, twine, and gouache are obviously indebted to the same sort of African art objects Picasso was looking at when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, and they show a similar understanding of African art: as a storehouse of formal possibilities to be plundered.
The dadaists also shared with Picasso a love of collage, which in their hands became not a means to reconstruct pictorial space but a powerful metaphor for the years between wars, when it was necessary to scrounge for even the most basic elements of daily life. In Skat Players (later titled Card-Playing War Cripples) (1920), Otto Dix presents three men at a table. All are amputees; their peg legs cross one another, tangled among the equally artificial legs of the card table. Their clothes are represented by coarse woven paper—which in fact was the stuff used to make clothing during wartime shortages. Their jaws are depicted as made of blue-silver metal; a tube protrudes from the ear of the mangled left-hand figure, winding its way to a small, crude hearing aid. Dix brings home the way that an entire generation was cut to pieces, victims of the fiction of honor on the battlefield and their nations’ inability to help the creatures who came home. For both Dix and fellow Berliner George Grosz, men were all ruddy-faced animals or half-human, half-robotic mockeries. Women were all prostitutes, pale, swollen, and monstrous.
If the Berlin of Dix and Grosz was hell on earth, Kurt Schwitters’ Hanover was an artistic playground. The Hanover portion of the show is a marvelous attempt to re-create Schwitters’ Merzbau, an ongoing project in which he turned the walls of his domestic interiors into a dense geometric sculpture. Accordingly, the exhibition designers have made the floor into a strange, broken grid and applied all sorts of faceted protrusions to the walls—making the place look a bit like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. The re-creation gives us Schwitters as outsider artist, a man who built a private trash monument more out of compulsion than any definite intention.
Indeed, Schwitters also made decidedly lovely, almost polite statements using various bits of flotsam that entered his life. Picture With Spatial Growths, also known as Picture With Two Small Dogs (1920/1939), is a collection of glued scraps of paper, hair, and lace, painted in modulated shades of cobalt and blue-green. Orange and yellow pictures of fruit—candy wrappers, possibly—dot the upper third of the piece, drawing the eye upward. Schwitters had sure-footed instincts for design, but the preciousness of this piece makes it clear why his application for membership in Berlin’s Club Dada was rejected. Rather than critiquing the products of commercial culture, Schwitters exalted them, seemingly intent on celebrating every impoverished fragment. “Art is a primordial concept,” he declared, “exalted as the godhead, inexplicable as life, indefinable and without purpose.”
This is a truly massive, at times exhausting survey—so much so that it’s vexing to enter the last few rooms in the exhibition and discover just how much of Marcel Duchamp’s work has been included. Nearly all of his readymades make an appearance here—the hanging snow shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964, after the lost original of 1915); the doctored advertisement, Apolinère Enameled (1916–1917); and, of course, the infamous signed urinal, Fountain (a 1964 replica of the 1917 original). Reproductions of these pieces are so ubiquitous that the originals practically evade notice, particularly after so many rooms of dense, text-filled images.
More important, the number of seemingly Duchampian objects produced by the artist’s contemporaries begins to dull any sense of Duchamp as a solitary genius who single-handedly changed the course of modern art. Hannah Höch’s acerbic wit, seen in collages such as Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919–1920), surely matches that of Duchamp’s cross-dressing, pun-happy alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy. And Francis Picabia’s machine portraits and Man Ray’s drawings seem to have sprung from the same place as Duchamp’s chocolate grinders and quasi-Futurist nudes.
Duchamp may have been reluctant to proclaim himself a dadaist, but “Dada” demonstrates just how invested he was in the movement’s shared strategies. For an exhibition predicated on divisions, this one turns out to be surprisingly good at bringing things together—now and then, certainly, but also then and then. Here, Duchamp is part of a common effort to confront a rapidly accelerating culture, the last link in a logical chain of related impulses, events, and personalities. He would, one suspects, approve of the demotion. CP