Sunday, September 10, 2006


Saturday I went to the closing weekend of the Dada Show at MoMA. I put it off because I'm not really a fan of this phase of modern art, though of course its influence can be found in things I do admire. And Duchamp, one of the unavoidables of this crew, is particularly well-represented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which has the Large Glass), so I feel most of the show is of the "seen it, seen it, taped it" variety.

What I saw that I'd never seen before (always the notch on the pistol for the museum maven): Picabia and Clair's "Entr'acte," an alternately poetic and hilarious 20 min. film that contains the seeds of the visual style of vintage Monty Python. The slow-mo, giant steps of the staid bourgeois funeral train was funny enough, but when the hearse-cart gets away and plunges pell mell down a steep street, the footage of the pursuit is Keystone Cops worthy. Then follows an increasingly hysterical montage of speed shots, dissolves, overlaps, and a camera on the front of a roller-coaster. Great stuff.

The other item worth the price of admission was a fairly large sampling of Kurt Schwitters, most of whose work is available for viewing only in Hannover (not a town I'm liable to visit any time soon). I'd seen the ones MoMA owns before, but the range of his work was greater than I'd supposed, and it was a great addition to the exhibit to see Schwitters' unique brand of "Merz" (his self-styled version of Dada, which began as competition but was a hit with some dadaists and so his Merz publications embraced some of the latter as well). These compositions of cast-off bits of paper (tickets, rolling papers and packaging, newsclippsings, colored papers, etc.) have such meticulous compositional sense that they stand as treatises on abstract composition. While many of the dadaists still strike me as amateurish when it comes to a grasp of visual aesthetics, Schwitters, and also Max Ernst and Man Ray, stand out as true innovators who developed a unique aesthetic that it took the dada movement to bring to light.

The exhibit was fairly mobbed by midday. The diversity of people present was a kind of "dada" of its own, especially with some of those outfits. I joked to my daughter that we should've designed and printed some T-shirts -- "I'm gaga for dada" borrowing various non-copyrightable squiggles and "chance" arrangements a la Arp, ticket stubs to the exhibit and collage elements from various Moma handouts -- and hawked them outside. We could've covered the day's expenses at least. Given the dadaist predilection for representations of biological process as mechanical, especially sex and reproduction, one can't ignore the irony of "Dada"(a renegade who never considered child support for his progeny) and "Moma" (everyone's favorite midtown generatrix of art for the masses) hooking up to produce such an array of modern children.

The spirit of Dada was discernible in some of the work in the "Out of Time" show, featuring work of latter day artists. Only one thing I saw there bears comment: A huge circle filled with sand. A mechanical blade bisects the circle and circles endlessly, one half of the blade digging grooves in the sand, the other half of the blade erasing them, so that the circle is always half grooved and half smooth. I've never seen a more succinct expression of the relation between time and human endeavor. Cheers!


Andrew Shields said...

I went to Hannover to see a spectacular Gerhard Richter exhibit around New Year's Day 99 or 00, and after feasting my eyes on the brilliance of Richter's landscapes, I immersed myself in Schwitters for a long and pleasurable while. Worth an extra visit.

I assume you have read his extremely funny poetry, haven't you?


Donald Brown said...

actually no, I haven't read Schwitters' poetry, though there were some of his journals on display.

I saw the retrospective on Richter at MoMA some years ago (before the renovation). A great show -- someone who can paint!