Dada’s on Its Way

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Of all the great movements in modern art, none was more essentially libertarian than Dada, most of whose founders were young men escaping from conscription into World War I, preternaturally recognizing the war, as we libertarians do now, as unnecessary, profoundly unnecessary, much like our own Civil War.

Even in its structure, the Dada was antiauthoritarian with people of similar sympathies scattered around the world, lacking a “leader” or spokesperson comparable to Andre Breton, who stood for Surrealism – the movement customarily regarded as a successor to

Dada in most books about French art history, even though Surrealism, centered in Paris except during World War II, was profoundly authoritarian. More tightly organized, much like the Communism that engaged its dopes for an unfortunate spell, Surrealism always had better publicists and thus more exhibitions. As an artist with libertarian-anarchist politics, I have always considered Dada my modernism.

With this background in mind, I recently saw in Paris, occupying the entire top floor of the· Pompidou, the mammoth DADA exhibition that will come this spring to both our National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 18- May 14), and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (June 18-September 11). The most radical quality of the Paris show was the predominance of small-format items – magazines, books, exhibition announcements, even handwritten letters among the participants – that had never been seen before, certainly not in one place.

Indeed, perhaps the most profound theme of the show was that much major Modern Art is not big (BIG), like the stuff predominant in my ‘hood of SoHo for the past few decades, but as small as this magazine. Middle-aged me needed to don my reading glasses and get “up close and personal,” to recall a TV slogan, not only to read the captions but literally to “see” most of the Dada art. Since I personally prefer to read small words not standing up but sitting down, I wish the museum had provided high chairs, with backs.

The first fault noticed by this American was the slighting of New York Dada, which was confined to one section of the exhibit, amounting to perhaps 2% of the entire space. Dollars to croissants, can we bet that the representation of American Dada will be improved in the two installations here? Secondly, the exhibition was a disordered mess, lacking any order or, implicitly, any installation intelligence – reflecting an odd curatorial reluctance, if not an anarchic refusal, to decide, several decades later, that one object or one artist might be more important than another.

This principle of the de facto mess also informs the French exhibition catalog, 12″ high and 9″ wide, over a thousand pages in length, printed on thin paper, oddly feeling more like a telephone directory than the customary art-museum catalog. Not unlike other thick directories, this book is organized alphabetically, so that, say, the 54-page “Bibliographie” appears after a single· page about “Berlin Club Dada” and before another single page (wholly in French) about The Blindman, a magazine whose two issues appeared in New York in 1917. Superficially complete though the whopping bibliography might seem, I found it messy too, typically acknowledging something of mine only slightly relevant but missing my 1968 essay on “Dada and the Future of Literature,” which can be found not only in the bibliography on my website but in a routine Google search of “Richard Kostelanetz dada.”

Again much like the exhibition, the most valuable quality of the catalog (40 euros in Paris, roughly $60 on the Internet) is the huge number of illustrations, mostly black and white, of art and literature not seen in one place before, beginning with choice pages from the Dada publications. However, what’s missing from the captions, oddly, are measurements (no inches, no centimeters), so that I know only from seeing the exhibition itself that

the issues of the legendary New York Art periodicals 291 and 391 were, to my surprise, almost the size of a newspaper tabloid.

For the American venues our National Gallery, bless ’em, has already published a different, more conventional Dada catalogue, likewise large and expensive ($65), illustratively subtitled “Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris,” wholly in English, on heavier paper, with the content, typical of the genre, of extended scholarly essays and many color illustrations mostly of visual art, implicitly demoting Dada, dammit, from Something Special into just another art episode.

The tour of this long-awaited exhibition is incidentally generating a wealth of new Dada publications. Among the more successful is Marc Dachy’s short monograph, “Dada: La revolte de l’art” (Gallimard), which Abrams will reprint here in English translation, with (I hope) all the informative illustrations in the original. Though residing in Paris now, Dachy in his chapter on “Dada Diaspora” devotes more attention to Dada activities in Holland, Barcelona, Tokyo, and, yes, New York, than was so far evident in the big show, at least as witnessed in Paris.

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