In 1921, when a New York reporter asked the usual suspects linked to the movement, "What is Dada?" responses varied.
"Dada is irony," said art collector Katherine Dreier. Dada meant "nothing," according to the daddy of Dada, Marcel Duchamp. It was "having a good time," painter Joseph Stella said. In the opinion of Duchamp's American acolyte, photographer Man Ray, Dada equals "a state of mind."
Actually, the answer is all the above, with shots of madcap irreverence and anti-authoritarianism to stir up the stew.
Born in Zurich in 1916 as a protest against the bourgeois mentality that produced the nightmare of World War I, Dada came to American shores with migr artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. It flourished until the early 1920s as a sort of in-your-face bohemianism.
Today, American culture dominates Europe. Even provincial French towns boast Tex-Mex restaurants. The Disneyized "Hunchback of Notre Dame" captivates Parisians. But the exhibition "Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York," at the Whitney Museum of Art through Feb. 23, reminds us of the time when cultural currents flowed in the other direction.
Among the 200 paintings, sculptures, and photographs from 1912 to 1925 are some genuine icons of art history.
A replica of Duchamp's "Fountain" (1917), a porcelain urinal the artist turned upside down to display as sculpture, is one of the most notorious.
With this and other ready-mades (found objects like a snow shovel exhibited as art), Duchamp single-handedly changed the definition of art from retinal (or a visual object created by the hand of an artist) to conceptual (an idea conceived by the mind of an artist). From then on, imagination was the only limiting factor separating art from non-art.
The show contains other seminal works by Duchamp, like "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," which caused an uproar at the 1913 Armory Show.
The master provocateur created "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" by, among other techniques, "dust breeding." (This process, not taught in art school, consists of letting dust accumulate on the surface of glass for six months, then varnishing it.)
Machine-inspired works by Picabia celebrate his love of gadgets, cars, and New York skyscrapers. The Dadaists in general were infatuated with the modern energy of the city. Man Ray's collages and whimsical photographs may be second fiddle to Duchamp, but he still plays strongly.
His "Homme" (1918) portrays man as an eggbeater and its shadow.
Most of the other important pieces are from artists on the fringe of Dada who hung out at its parties, like painters Stella, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Arthur Dove. The rest are mostly by third-rate hangers-on, who seem to concentrate on portraits of their patron saint, Duchamp. The art-lite objects have lost their buoyancy and power to shock and now look limp as deflated balloons.
Curator Francis Naumann titles his essay on New York Dada "Style With a Smile." Unfortunately, the smile is more like the three stooges' smirk than Mona Lisa's timeless mystery.
"The sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated in the brain of man" is how one contemporary reviewer characterized the Dada philosophy. It's hard to see what all the fuss was about.
In Europe, where trench warfare and poison-gas attacks of World War I seemed to render humanity's claim to rationality truly absurd, Dada's shock tactics had more of a point. And punch. Their nonsense performances punctured the pretensions of a world gone berserk.
A typical Dada event aimed at an effect of utter chaos. Tristan Tzara, a founder of Dada in Zurich, did a bizarre dance with his head stuck in a stovepipe. A colleague yapped like a dog while others recited nonsense verse or banged on pots and pans.
So what is Dada? An assault on the status quo. But, as the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin pointed out, "Destruction is also creation."
Dada would lead to its progeny, Surrealism, in art and to individualistic existentialism in philosophy. "I am the new Dada," proclaimed Jean-Paul Sartre.
The Whitney exhibit makes it appear Dada was pure high jinks. But its underlying impetus was freedom.