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Madcap Irreverence Drives New York Exhibit

Dadaist works hint at weightier meanings

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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.)

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