What was Dada? What it still is: a word—“hobbyhorse,” in French. Baby talk. Supposedly plucked at random from a dictionary by a coterie of war-evading young writers and artists in Zurich in 1916, “dada” was a two-syllable nonsense poem and a craftily meaningless slogan, signalling a rejection of grownup seriousness at a time when grownups by the million were shooting one another to pieces on the Western Front for reasons that rang ever more hollow. Reason itself was made the scapegoat. “Let us try for once not to be right,” the group’s most influential founder, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, urged in a quieter passage of one of his careening manifestos. Dada spread like a chain letter among disaffected bohemians after the war. Wired to self-destruct—“The true Dadas are against Dada,” Tzara enjoined—it was over by 1924, succeeded by imperatives, like those of Surrealism and Constructivism, to be revolutionary in more focussed, even grownup, ways. It wasn’t much of an art movement, though “Dada,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, tries hard to make it seem so. (The show originated at the Pompidou Center, in Paris, where it was larger and far more literary in emphasis.) Dada was a publicity movement.
It revelled in novel styles and in popular media—Cubist and Futurist pastiche, collage, assemblage, film, theatre, photography, noise music, sound poetry, puppetry, wild typography, magazines—basically for the hell of it, despite the odd skew, mostly in seething postwar Germany, toward political agitation. Some forms, such as abstraction and machine aesthetics, informed later art; but, as a phenomenon, Dada foretold nothing so much as the marketing of youth fashions. Though hardly commercial, it anticipated a byword of modern advertising: forget the steak, sell the sizzle. The first artist who springs to mind when Dada is mentioned, Marcel Duchamp, would constitute an exception, but he really wasn’t a Dadaist. He had already conceived many of his signature “readymades”—common objects, such as a bottle rack and a snow shovel, presented as art—and his magnum opus, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” was under way before he had heard of the movement. Apart from accessory japes, like the mustachioed “Mona Lisa” (1919), his relations with Dada were more diplomatic than creative. A vital order of business, in clarifying Dada, is to pry Duchamp from its clutch.
The show is an elliptical tale of six cities: Zurich, where the leading artist was the collagist and sculptor Hans Arp; Cologne, the base of the Surrealist-to-be Max Ernst; Berlin, featuring the satirists George Grosz and Otto Dix; Hannover, the home of the single most substantial artist to emerge from Dada, Kurt Schwitters; Paris, dominated by the poets, in particular André Breton, who would exterminate Dada by folding it into Surrealism; and New York, where the wartime presence of Duchamp, and of the Parisian playboy genius and Dadaist par excellence Francis Picabia and the native prodigy Man Ray, anchored a sparkling salon. (Several figures adorned more than one scene. Arp pops up in Cologne, Hannover, and Paris.) Among a cast of dozens are many who achieved immortality in the brief heat of the movement’s heyday, such as the German polemicist Richard Huelsenbeck, who later became a New York psychiatrist, and others who were just passing through, like the glamorous scamp and potter Beatrice Wood. Collagists abound. The quickest technical route to righteous Dadaism was to snip out printed images and compose them to comic, politically rhetorical, or naughty effect. Such things often have a quality at once piquant and jaded, like the morning-after detritus of what must have been a swell party. Schwitters’s formally rigorous collages of everyday trash—newspaper fragments, bus tickets—are something more. Schwitters, who was also an innovative poet and a pioneer of installation art, developed an anti-conventional aesthetic that proved endlessly fecund—blooming, for example, in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” of the nineteen-fifties.
Dada did not attract artists who earnestly practiced straight painting and sculpture. Most works in those mediums in the MOMA show are mediocre—including Picabia’s, though his paintings of mechanical forms laced with wordplay and sexual innuendo can seem deliberately nugatory, razzing the very notion of quality. Picabia, a rich heir with a weakness for fast cars, was seriously unserious, playing—and living—out a Rabelaisian afflatus of all-around ridicule. (If you yearn to be a Dadaist, ask yourself each morning what Picabia would do.) Man Ray’s amateurish paintings, superb photographs, and gamy found-object pieces similarly strike notes of the right (that is, the wrong) stuff. The show’s main picture-maker is the prolific, personally magnetic, opportunistic Ernst, whose tidily irrational drawings, collages, and paintings of the era—essentially superficial glosses on other people’s ideas—pander to a middling taste. The occasional underrated minor artist, notably Arp’s wife, Sophie Taeuber, pleasantly surprises.
Dadaism was an ancestral vein of cool. Those who wondered what it meant could never know.