NEW YORK — Do you think you know what Dada art is? I thought so too. We were both wrong.
Or at least, not as broadly informed as we might have been. But we do have a good excuse: Until now, there hasn't been a major American museum exhibition of Dada.
That's a surprise. Since the landmark retrospective of anarchic French artist Marcel Duchamp at the old Pasadena Art Museum in 1963, the Dada iconoclasm that his urinal-sculpture and Mona-Lisa-mustache drawing exemplify has moved inexorably into the institutional mainstream.
Once Dada was routinely hinged to the fantastic imagery of 1920s Surrealist art. There it functioned as a modest if important harbinger. But today Dada stands on its own, widely recognized as a distinctive rupture in the cultural fabric.
A large, thorough and -- best of all -- deeply engrossing exhibition has finally taken up the challenge of surveying Dada art between its eruption in Zurich in 1916 and its demise in Paris in 1924. "Dada" is a version of a show organized last year in Paris and that had its debut in February at Washington's National Gallery of Art. Now it is on view here, at the Museum of Modern Art (the final stop on its tour), through Sept. 11. Expect "Dada" to be the most important Modern art survey this year.
Dada is an art of lacerating wit. At its best, the lacerations are what matter.
That makes sense, because Dada emerged in response to World War I -- the most vicious, brutal and reckless brawl in the history of humankind. Born of trauma, Dada meant to rip a gash in consciousness.
Dada performs sometimes puckish, sometimes wrenching ridicule of aesthetic standards and social norms. Beginning in the 1950s, its historical example inspired a growing cadre of American artists. The time was ripe.
World War II was something like a grand finale for the awful overture of the Great War. Postwar America, emerging into unprecedented international power and prosperity, could finally claim that it possessed meaningful artistic conventions to overturn. The Dada spirit suddenly mattered. And as the convulsive postwar decades unfolded, it only came to matter more.
Artists, as usual, came to this conclusion about Dada's importance long before art museums did. (And why not? Museums secure conventions; they don't ridicule them.) For artists today, Duchamp has edged out Picasso and Matisse as the most admired among the European triumvirate who, early in the 20th century, transformed Modernism.
Dada was the first truly international art, ancestor to today's globalism. The show is wisely organized by city -- Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York and Paris. (Barcelona, a minor player, is omitted.) Consider Dadaists a self-selected community of individuals, identified by art-affinity rather than nation.
Zurich, neutral Switzerland's commercial center, was a refuge from the war -- and from fierce German nationalism. Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, exiled German poets, plucked an obscure French word meaning "hobbyhorse" from a French-German lexicon to name their anarchic activity. Its infantile sound -- \o7da-da, da-da \f7-- is as telling as any dictionary meaning.
Ball wrote that "there are people of independent minds -- beyond war and nationalism -- who live for different ideals."
Dada had two parents: nausea at the insanity of modern warfare and excitement about modern technologies. Together they shaped three artistic responses that recur throughout the show: pure abstraction, a specific type of figuration and literary twists.
Abstraction, whether geometric or organic, divorced art from any discernible link to the visible world. Talk about rejecting convention!
Hans (Jean) Arp made exquisite collages from torn paper composed by chance. He'd drop the bits of paper onto a sheet, then glue them down wherever they landed (or so he claimed).
Sophie Taeuber, the only Swiss citizen in the Zurich Dada group (and later Arp's wife), made the most radical work. She executed brilliant geometric pictures in needlepoint. They transform a decorative object of idle feminine pastime into the equivalent of an artistic manifesto, rooted in domesticity but separate from it.
This is abstract art wielded as blunt political tool. Arp and Taeuber demand retreat from familiar understanding and entrance into the unknown. If a viewer is not willing to go, the artists' work is just scraps of wastepaper and bumbling embroidery.
Taeuber was also a genius with figurative art. Her fantastic, sci-fi marionettes recast an 18th century play about royalty as a combat between Freud and Jung, wrestling for the king's inner life. In fact, throughout the show the quintessential Dada figure turns out to be the marionette -- or the tailor's dummy, puppet, doll and mannequin -- which is to say, a lifeless, brainless, sightless being, ripe for manipulation.