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Picabia, Nihilism, and Searching for Meaning in Art in 2017

This is going to be a little bit dark and weird, but I can’t help it: it’s 2017. The universe doesn’t care about us! Maybe 2018 will be better. (Those numbers look weird. I don’t want to count from Christ.) But I was asked about what book or movie or art exhibit affected me most this past year, and what came to mind was the Picabia show at MoMA. I was amazed by the show. I loved it and learned from it and I’m still thinking about it.

Inevitably, in 2017 the thought of the Picabia show also brings Trump to mind. The two men have things in common. Both have been plausibly called nihilists (as have I, in fact, in connection with my “punk” history). Both inherited enough money to live comfortably their whole lives. (Picabia was born and raised in Paris; his father was a Spanish-Cuban aristocrat with a sugar plantation and his mother came from wealthy and intellectually distinguished French merchants.) Both lied and misrepresented themselves a lot and were sexually self-indulgent and untrustworthy. They also lived to insult and provoke. How could what is repulsive and ridiculous and scary in Trump be fascinating and intriguing in Picabia?  I suppose art absorbs everything without damage; societies don’t. Societies are about living in harmony and prosperity; art is about how things are.

Francis Picabia, “Très rare tableau sur la terre” (1915)

I mentioned I have a “punk” background. A lot of what punk was about was “authenticity” or “honesty.” Of course, a quality carried to its extreme becomes its opposite (the universe appears to be curved) (or, as Picabia put it, and MoMA adopted for his show’s title: “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change directions.”) Picabia was so fraudulent he was completely real. He probably found that “heads are round” line in a newspaper somewhere. It doesn’t sound like Nietzsche, who was the writer Picabia usually stole from, and by all accounts the painter didn’t read much.

Picabia, of course, is primarily associated with Dada, that and with Duchamp, who was his lifelong close friend, and from whom he also seems to have taken a lot of ideas. Duchamp was an originator of conceptual art more than he was a Dadaist. Picabia is largely a mixture of those two tendencies, Dada (“anti-art” art) and the conceptual. Also “of course” Dada and punk have things in common: mockery of the idea of skill or virtuosity in art, a general inclination to subvert… Irreverence, brattiness, aggression. Dada was also thought of as nihilist, though it was a kind of idealistic nihilism, in that it was largely a reaction of anger and despair regarding the values and social structures and political leaders responsible for the unprecedentedly horrific and pointless carnage of the First World War.

Francis Picabia, “Parade amoureuse,” (1917)

The 20th century was full of massacres. People are always trying to put the killing in perspective, find ways to say it’s not so bad. I often wonder myself. I wonder how lucky I am not to have been in a fully hot war zone, or an imposed famine, or some other murderous situation in my lifetime (yet). I wonder how large a proportion of general human life is about murder. I wonder how much time throughout history the average person has spent with his life immediately threatened by other human beings, as in a war zone or an extremely violent neighborhood or household. I tried to figure it out recently. The best I could do was find statistics on violence. A World Health Organization report online read that “In 2000, an estimated 1.6 million people worldwide lost their lives to violence—a rate of nearly 28.8 per 100,000. Around half of these deaths were suicides, nearly one-third were homicides, and about one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict.” Somehow the numbers didn’t really enlighten me as to how miserable exactly it is to live in our world. The most surprising thing was what a large proportion—half—of violent deaths are deliberately self-inflicted. That suggests that perhaps things are even worse than they seem.

Francis Picabia, “Espagnole a la cigarette,” (1921)

Figuring out Picabia is almost as hard as figuring out how mean human life is. I’ve always appreciated Dada but have not been particularly fixed on it, partly because, whatever “metaphysical” position I may have (nihilist?), I love art (and being “honest,” I don’t want to deny that, however uncool it may sound). I depend on art. Art is the only answer I have. I hardly believe in anything else, and, supposedly, Dada was about subverting art, demystifying it, mocking it, destroying it. The thing is, even more than capitalism, art absorbs all its opposition. Once you acknowledge it, it owns you. And that’s what’s so revealing about the Picabia show. It demonstrated the power of art despite all arguments to the contrary, seeing as how some of the most beautiful and interesting art of the century was created by someone, Picabia, with nothing but contempt for art, if an apparently irresistible compulsion to create it. Art is the field for those who want to know what’s going on, whether they like it or not.

Francis Picabia, “Portrait d’un Docteur” (1938)

Everything about Picabia is suspect, except for maybe two things: the quality of his work and the respect and affection he won from his friends, extraordinary brilliants like Apollinaire and Duchamp and Gertrude Stein. Not only was Picabia independently wealthy (he spent a lot of money on fast cars and yachts), apolitical, and intensely egotistic, it seems that he was a narcotics addict. He was a rampant plagiarist, most egregiously in his many writings, half of which were aphorisms, most of which he copied from Nietzsche. He didn’t draw very well. He mostly liked living the high life on the Riviera with his witty friends and many and simultaneous lovers and wives. It all seems completely frivolous, when not positively evil. Yet not only are his works tremendous, but a lot of their aura positively comes from their dubious origins and aspects—unlike say T.S. Eliot whose conservatism and anti-Semitism can incline one to rethink one’s opinion of his art, Picabia’s plagiarism and appropriation actually confer glamor. He’s proving that plagiarism does no harm in the hands of a good artist. People don’t own ideas. He’s enlarging your mind. Can a self-absorbed immoralist make great art? Of course.

Picabia was essentially a Dadaist before Dada. Dada was founded in Zurich by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, et al., in 1916. Tzara wrote Picabia, inviting him to join them, in 1918. Picabia had been painting his “mechanomorphic” canvases, which were basically diagrams of industrial/electrical machinery copied directly from a popular science magazine, since 1915. (There is actually a case to be made, too, that Picabia painted the first ever purely non-representational—abstract—painting with his Caoutchouc of 1909.) Unsurprisingly, Picabia’s friend Duchamp was meticulously depicting machinery and machine diagrams before Picabia.

Francis Picabia, “Tetes superposees,” (1938)

I’ve always been something of a snob about Dada, I should mention, too, because, as seductive and invigorating as it was, by the time I was born Dada was passé, inevitably. Every artily precocious high school kid ate it up, and who wants to be an artily precocious high school kid? So we made up “punk” instead. Now, at age 68, I’m both less threatened by Dada and less pridefully snobbish. The thing about it, that I now see Picabia most fully demonstrating, is that, despite everything, Dada still presented sensibility. Despite being “anti-art,” practitioners of Dada made art of great beauty. I first learned this from the exquisite collages of Kurt Schwitters. Dada had a lot of inner contradictions. How was it possible to oppose art, mock art and all its pretensions, while making art (from garbage) as beautiful as Schwitters’s is. Somehow it wasn’t inconsistent. I could hold the opposing ideas in my head at once and still function. I’m smart (as Donald Trump likes to say)! My generation grew up with the idea of authenticity and passion as the ground for art-making. Cezanne through Pollock. But something else was going on too, and as much as I loved it—Duchamp and Warhol and Kippenberger—there was still a thread of skepticism in me about art that is apparently frivolously or coldly calculated, or even derisive about art-making altogether. But, in fact, as I’m sure you know already, you can be fake and not give a damn and still make great art, especially if there’s some wit involved too. That’s exciting.

Francis Picabia, “Femmes au bull-dog” (1941)

Another interesting thing is that I don’t know how to explain how good Picabia’s paintings are. Like a lot of painters in the past couple of centuries he had many periods and styles. The one thing you could say about him, the way in which he was consistent, is that all the paintings seem to have followed from fairly simple formulae. Copy mechanical diagrams from technical magazines. Superimpose elements and outlines of images across each other. Arrange figures copied from soft porn magazines. Attach series of objects or prominent arrangements of heavy marks to the surface of images. There’s a lot we still don’t know about him. I remember when it became generally known that that whole period of his mildly-porny/cheerful-communist poster imagery was actually copied from European soft porn and other mass market magazines. It took a while for scholars to figure that out—same for his appropriation of Nietzsche in his writings. I learned a new thing from the MoMA exhibit: I didn’t know that Picabia as a young man, circa 1905 (he was born in 1879), had been an apparently serious, successful post-Impressionist, making paintings that looked to me like Robert Crumb doing Albert Sisley, and that, despite Picabia’s sincere-seeming Impressionist conservatism (by 1905, to be Impressionist was to be conservative), many of those paintings were apparently copied from post cards, rather than painted in true Impressionist style, en plein air. In other words, at that point he was behaving as a conceptualist/Dadaist without there being any indication that he wasn’t in fact a striving, conventional young academic painter. What was up with him???

Basically, I think he wanted to get ahead as an artist and he was very smart and he didn’t care what means he used. The ends justified the means, he felt, probably without giving it much thought at all. It’s like love and war. Who knows? But the lesson I took away is: trust your sensibility. It’s all you have, there are no other rules in art. Van Gogh and Picabia are pretty much opposites in any way you can think of, but they are both genuinely great (to the extent that humans get to use the word “genuine”).

Francis Picabia, “Lachete de la barbarie subtile” (1949)

There’s so much that’s clumsy and/or kitschy about Picabia’s canvases, but it doesn’t matter. Their richness makes up for it, where it’s an issue at all (clumsiness and kitsch have their own charms too). His paintings are like what the human world is saying at that time and place, which is all that art can be. Like the world itself at one point, around 150 million years ago, said “turtle,” the human world speaks in art, and during Picabia’s lifetime his art was eloquent. It still is. Perhaps it was as conceptual as it was “retinal” (to use Duchamp’s term for art as simply a visual experience), and often it is sourced from vulgar or commonplace imagery, but on the wall it tells you what is happening in the 20th century, and it is fascinating, poignant, funny, gorgeous, and sad.

There is no meaning, there is only sensibility. Trump is an ugly monster because he’s an amoral, egomaniacal nihilist who’s put himself in a position to control people’s lives for his own benefit. Picabia is a beautiful monster, however disturbing his nihilism may seem, because he’s an artist with an advanced sensibility who gave that sensibility free play in his work. The nihilism increased the freedom.

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PLAYTIME

From Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night to Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, MOMA’s painting and sculpture galleries are incredible to look at. But tonight, you can engage with these works in new, unexpected ways, too, thanks to the creativity of the emerging artists at Recess art space. For this edition of MOMA’s PopRally parties, artists including A.K. Burns, Kara Hearn, and Laura Vitale will be staging various performances in the galleries inspired by the works. Imagine the women in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon coming to life, receiving a dream interpretation in the Surrealism gallery, or collecting each work as a trading card on a “Lookbook” tour. Plus, take in a “musical performance” by the group Title TK (Cory Arcangel, Howie Chen, and Alan Licht), who apparently don’t play music at all but instead chat about bands and the industry while their instruments sit nearby.

Sat., Nov. 10, 8 p.m., 2012

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MAN ON WIRE

“I paint with shapes,” said the American artist Alexander Calder, referring to his brightly colored moving sculptures that Marcel Duchamp dubbed “mobiles.” In 1941, a decade after he had invented the mobile, Calder had one of the most creative years of his career, experimenting with string, wire, and found objects to create his delightful works of weights and balances. “Calder 1941,” which ends its run today at Pace Gallery, exhibits 15 sculptures, some of which haven’t been shown since Pierre Matisse (son of Henri) presented them at his Manhattan gallery in 1941. For even more Calder, head to the Whitney Museum to see his masterwork “Calder’s Circus,” now on display as part of the museum’s exhibition “Singular Visions.” Created in Paris from 1926 to 1931, the miniature circus features movable acrobats, tightrope-walkers, and sword-swallowers made with simple materials such as cardboard, yarn, and bottle caps.

Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. Starts: Dec. 20. Continues through Dec. 23, 2011

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Sherrie Levine’s “Mayhem”: Walker Evans Irked Again

Sherrie Levine’s “Mayhem,” a survey of her work since 1980 at the Whitney Museum, might have read differently a year ago. The nihilism of her postmodern ethos was appropriate in a world where the economy had crashed, and there was nothing you could do about it. What has happened since is a massive shift in consciousness, prompted by the worldwide Occupy movement. Now, almost any time of day, you can walk into Deutsche Bank’s atrium at 60 Wall Street and see half a dozen groups using the General Assembly model to discuss how to change society one microcosm at a time.

Levine’s generation of artists—she was born in 1947—experienced a similar disruption. Raised in the postwar ’50s and thrust into the roiling ’60s, they were confronted with a series of quandaries. For instance, what if you grew up with television and mass-produced objects and actually loved them, but now you were told to renounce these and make “unique” ones? And for women: What if all the art you grew up with—virtually the entire Western canon—was male, and now feminism was telling you to reject it?

Appropriation rose out of this desire to have it both ways, to keep what you loved—or at least knew intimately—and still make art. It was a great solution. But it was born in the 1970s, following the burnout of the ’60s, and it has run aground in recent years. Not only have artists like Levine, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince been dragged through the legal system for their cultural borrowing, but the postmodern irony and cynicism on which Appropriation was founded also feel outmoded in the Occupy Age.

It’s important to remember, however, when you encounter After Walker Evans, a grid of 22 black-and-white gelatin silver prints Levine photographed from a book of Evans’s famous 1930s photographs, that this was a radical gesture in 1981. When co-curator Johanna Burton asserts in the catalog that Levine changed our thinking about authorship, so that some of us see a Walker Evans and think “Sherrie Levine,” she’s right. This wasn’t just feminism: It was arm-wrestling with history, literally occupying images from the past and making them your own.

Levine’s conversation with modern male masters—Courbet, Degas, Mondrian, Malevich, Brancusi, and particularly Marcel Duchamp—continues throughout the Whitney show. There are recast Brancusi heads resting on grand pianos and a bronze remake of Duchamp’s famous 1917 urinal christened The Fountain; monochrome paintings made by averaging the colors in Kirchner or Monet paintings; and billiard tables “after” a painting by Man Ray.

The show would be better, though, if it stuck closer to Appropriation’s strong point: photography. Levine’s photos “after” Edward Weston aren’t here, and she returned to Evans at other times in her career. Instead there’s an emphasis on hard, cold sculpture in which Levine attempts, with mixed results, to appropriate and fuse modernism with minimalism, the reigning (patriarchal) movement of the ’60s.

What’s missing is the pleasure you find in many of her early sources, and this is too bad, since one of Levine’s touchstones is Roland Barthes, who championed the “pleasure of the text,” as well as the “death of the author.” “Mayhem” skews heavilytoward Duchamp, who also espoused pleasure. But Levine’s gestures feel like shrewd chess moves in which the game has become convoluted. What does it mean if your strategy was to upend art history—and then you became a canonized figure yourself, enshrined in the museum?

One of Levine’s early champions, the critic Douglas Crimp, predicted the museum’s demise in On the Museum’s Ruins (1993). While his musings were slightly premature, museums’ exhaustion rather than their vitality seems underscored by this show. The whole system is cracking: the canon, proposed initially by writers based in early capitalist epicenters; and American museums founded on robber-baron fortunes and controlled, nowadays, by the 1 percent.

Levine has covered a lot of ground in 30 years. But the display here feels sterile, and by the time you reach Crystal Skull (2010), a series of cast crystal skulls displayed in vitrines, you’re a long way from the Steal-This-Book radicalism of After Walker Evans. Instead, the skulls emphasize Adorno’s edict of the museum as mausoleum and link it with the death spiral of capitalism rather than the euphoric regeneration of the Occupy movement.

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Lutz Bacher Gets Damaged

Marcel Duchamp once said that art scenes happen in retrospect; you don’t necessarily think of them as scenes when you’re there, experiencing them in real-time. A comforting thought, if slightly disingenuous: Duchamp knew as well as anyone that visual art evolves—even more than, say, literature—out of social networks.

Lutz Bacher’s survey exhibition at P.S.1 offers an interesting perspective on the subject. Bacher started making art in the ’70s, and showed for many years with Pat Hearn and Colin de Land, married dealers (with their own galleries) who came up in the East Village in the ’80s and whose reputations often eclipsed their artists. Both died in their forties of cancer: Hearn in 2000, de Land in 2003. 

Two works here serve as memorials. Closed Circuit (1997–2000) takes several months of footage from a surveillance camera mounted above Hearn’s desk—an inner-sanctum of “avant-garde” contemporary art—and edits it down to a jerky 40-minute document. Crimson & Clover (2003) was shot at a memorial for de Land, held at the now-closed CBGB with a band made up primarily of artists playing a loose rendition of “Colin’s favorite song.” 

It’s a touching tribute—and, at the same time, kind of irritating. True, Hearn and de Land sprang from an art world that celebrated the “transgressive” (de Land reportedly made his first art sale—a Warhol painting—as a favor to a friend who needed the money for drugs). But the punk-provocateur model—the memorial held in an iconic rock club, the requiem played on electric guitars—feels dated, contrived. (Or maybe I’m not the best audience: Like many kids who lived in the East Village in the ’80s and ’90s, I played in a band that performed at CBGB, so it doesn’t exist for me as a sacred mythic site.)

Yet Bacher is about the opposite of a New York scenester. She lives in Berkeley, California; she doesn’t do interviews; and “Lutz Bacher” is a pseudonym (or, if you prefer, a made-up name; she doesn’t reveal her former one). Her work occasionally touches on art-world issues, but she’s also spent nearly 40 years highlighting our fraught relationship with images, moving and still. 

A less loaded example—for me, at least (probably not for Sean Penn or Keanu Reeves)—is a work from 1989, seven photos and text appropriated from Ron Galella, a paparazzo who stalked Jackie O back in the ’70s. The last image in the sequence shows Jackie literally fleeing from Galella with the photographer’s extraordinary assessment underneath: “Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the most desirable woman in the world wanted to be chased by me, Ron Galella, the paparazzo. I knew even then that there could be no stopping, no turning back.” 

Photography and history also drive The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview (1976). Here, Photostat-collages, which include a fragmentary interview between unidentified speakers, question not only the single-gunman theory of the JFK assassination, but also Oswald’s identity and, ultimately, the reliability of photography and “official” information.

The most recent series-cum-work, Bien Hoa (2006-07), hinges around an extraordinary, and yet rather banal, collection of black-and-white photographs taken by an American soldier in Vietnam, which Bacher found in a thrift store. Underneath reproduced versions of the photos are the originals, turned toward the wall, so we can read the handwritten captions. The author-photographer, identified only by his signature, “Love, Walter,” is, by all appearances, a simple fellow. Yet he’s not immune to making aesthetic judgments. “This is a helicopter that got shot down over rice paddies,” he writes. “Amazing as it may seem the guys inside weren’t killed. I think this is also a good picture.”  

Curator Lia Gangitano and Bacher have, in the opening gallery, mounted photographs and paintings from several series salon-style—a smart strategy that strengthens appropriation-derived work that isn’t intrinsically as powerful. Black-and-white photographs of celebrities and politicians include funny word balloons (Bella Abzug: “Cocksuckers!”; Jimmy Carter smiling at Ted Kennedy: “I don’t have to kiss his ass”). There are soft-porn images of ’60s Vargas girls that Bacher hired another artist to paint, and Gap ads featuring the ruggedly handsome art god Ed Ruscha and his son.  

Throughout, a punk aesthetic reigns: Photos are “distressed” or damaged. In her videos, Bacher actively eschews the refined, virtuosic, and technologically slick. Olympiad (1997) is a damaged black-and-white video shot at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin that offers a disjointed tourist update to Leni Riefenstahl’s gorgeous-but-Nazi-glorifying Olympia (1938). Manhatta (1999) takes an aerial shot of Manhattan and runs it backward, screwing up the view.

This is Bacher’s second big museum show—an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis closed in early January. It also coincides with the release of a thick, zine-like book put out by Regency Arts Press. The book feels authentically Bacheresque—rough, open-ended—but at P.S.1, you can feel the pains of trying to insert her work into an “institutional” setting (albeit a scruffy and formerly alternative one). The result is a show that feels, initially, very uneven.  

Yet, when you swing back around—art, like everything, takes time—you begin to appreciate both the logic in Gangitano/Bacher’s installation and the insistent threads running through the work. For instance, three-quarters of the way through Crimson & Clover, the video homes in on something—a light reflecting on a guitar string? The vinyl edge of a guitar amp?—and the video turns frustratingly abstract. It’s as if Bacher lost the plot of what she’s supposed to be recording. But it’s also revealing. Using punk/Dada/anti-art techniques, she parses perception, showing how, in an image-saturated culture, it’s easier to be told how to see (and, hence, think) by professional image-makers rather than working it out for yourself. And this extends to the art world.

Bacher’s zoned-out meditation becomes, in many ways, an act of defiance. Unlike Jonas Mekas, whose films celebrated his blue-chip art-world alliances, Bacher shows how complicated these identifications can be. She’s not going to accurately record de Land’s memorial, just as she’s not going to provide a clean picture of Olympic Stadium, New York, Vietnam, or a month in the life of art icon Pat Hearn. If you can handle that ethic, you might just love this show.

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The Fiery Furnaces Get Inscrutable

With the Fiery Furnaces, live performance is the juice: a public-setting-as- laboratory proposition wherein principal sibs Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger (along with whoever’s sharing space in the touring van, including, sometimes, Sebadoh’s Jason Lowenstein) can play Operation with the band’s constantly mushrooming catalog of art-rock test subjects. The late Marcel Duchamp famously left The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even “unfinished”; the Friedbergers subscribe to a similar aesthetic of perpetual incompletion, which explains why the bootleg market for live Furnaces MP3s is thriving. Anything can happen to, say, “Navy Nurse” under the harsh, unrelenting glow of hot stage lights: instrumental addition or subtraction, lyrical decimation, melodic bleaching, breakneck medley conscription. “Navy Nurse” might be your favorite Fiery Furnaces song, but in concert, you might not even recognize it.

While Remember finally cashes in on and officially immortalizes this unhealthy appetite for deconstruction, the two-disc whirligig sometimes doubles as a Furnaces-specific Don’t Forget the Lyrics home game. Recognizing “Inca Rag/Name Game” is a matter of placing Eleanor’s shaggy “I was listening to classic VH when I pulled a H Singh” ejaculation, because the blooze-guitar jerks have been replaced with paranoid keyboard epilepsy. “Forty-Eight Twenty-Three Twenty-Second Street” gets similar treatment, only with a much livelier time signature. Infidelity soap opera “Chris Michaels” retains its complex, multi-suite swirl, but the barnstorming synth hook that powered gambling-outta-control travelogue “Borneo” becomes a muted whimper. Elsewhere, the Friedbergers’ revisionist urge emerges in forms both compelling and defeatist. Shuffling together cross-sections of loose-lady admonition “Don’t Dance Her Down” (“Her man’s in town”) and marital-discord anthem “Single Again” (“He beat me and banged me/He swore he would hang me”)? A genius narrative juxtaposition, or at least a frantic but nifty hotfooting of perspectives. But compressing “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” from eight carefully crafted minutes down to a clogged and spotty two seems wantonly cruel, even masochistic. Then again, maybe there’s about as much point trying to ascribe rhyme and reason to Remember as there is in demanding linearity from the Furnaces’ catalog as a whole.

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Decoration of War

Art, wrote Marcel Broodthaers, “hangs on our bourgeois walls as a sign of power.” The Belgian conceptualist also understood that art was just another consumable item, part of a world “devoted to advertisements, overproduction, and horoscopes.” So in 1964 he gave up his career as a poet and turned to the task of making something that might resist co-optation. To wake up a passive audience, he dug deeply into philosophical issues surrounding the culture of display, most notably in museums, and through an eccentric body of work relentlessly pursued those questions until his death in 1976.

His self-styled mandate was not as idealistic as it sounds—Broodthaers also said he hoped to profit from his art (he didn’t)—and the poetry never disappeared completely. He was a quiet crusader who trafficked not in bombast but in wordplay. Inspired by René Magritte (he’d met the Surrealist in Brussels as a teenager) and Marcel Duchamp, he has been described as their artistic heir. In recent years, Broodthaers has himself become something of a muse to a number of young artists. But there’s more to his diverse output—which includes films, installations, photographs, and even a fictitious museum in his apartment—than a catalog of influences.

If his 1975 installation Décor: A Conquest, now on view at Michael Werner, seems familiar, it’s probably not because you’ve seen it before (this is its New York debut and first appearance anywhere since 1999). The artist’s methods—art made through selection rather than creation; a focus on contextual specificity, to name just two—are now common enough to be taken for granted. But the depth and sophistication of Broodthaers’s ideas about the often-buried interplay between brutality, art, and culture has been harder to duplicate.

This two-part work, originally presented as the inaugural show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1975, was conceived as one of the artist’s Décors—large-scale exhibitions-within-exhibitions that riffed on museological conventions through displays of accumulated objects. In the spirit of Duchamp, he asked the show’s curator to begin selecting items for him, and the two became partners in an ad hoc exercise of hunting and gathering. One room of the installation, which represents the 19th century, is furnished with pairs of red velvet chairs, silver candelabra, and “Waterloo-style” cannons, as well as a huge, truly menacing stuffed python and a small grove of potted palm trees, all set on squares of artificial grass. This faux salon/saloon also features barrels of ale and gin and a tabletop card game played by a plastic crab and lobster. A single pistol rests on a low platform near the entrance. Theatrical lights illuminate the scenario and underscore the artificiality of this dead-silent “historical” tableau.

The second, 20th-century room is a sparser, more efficient version of what came before. A hundred years later, it’s clear that any delusions of bourgeois grandeur have been traded for modern convenience and better guns. Rows of automatic rifles are lined up along the tops of display cases that hold numerous handguns and instructions on how to use them. In the center of the room is a set of patio furniture with a blue-and-white-striped umbrella and matching fringed cushions. A spare umbrella rests in one corner, and on the table, a jigsaw puzzle depicting the Battle of Waterloo is nearly complete. Like the overabundance of weapons, the banality is meant to be oppressive.

Was it because of the guns that a security guard closely monitored me the entire time I was there? I asked, and it turns out the guns are all fakes. Like most of the elements here, they were borrowed from a movie prop house for the ICA show (for this version, the gallery was able to get many of the original items back). In fact, all of this was a film set (which is what décor means in French) for The Battle of Waterloo, which Broodthaers made during the course of the 1975 show. The film alternates between shots inside the museum, a parade of royal guardsman in their iconic red and black outside its walls, and scenes of an actress working on the jigsaw puzzle. The Battle of Waterloo (which White Columns will screen at Anthology Film Archives on September 4, along with other films by the artist) and Décor: A Conquest are not incidental to one another, each serving to reference the other and to reinforce the multiple symbolic associations (between film and installation, decoration and art, viewer and void, and warfare with everything else) of what would be Broodthaers’s last major project.

In the end, the work delivers the victory promised by its title, although there’s no clear winner in this battle between art and violence. You can’t, the artist seems to say, have one without the other. I’d wager the real victor is Broodthaers, who claims the gallery as his territory and, with it, the viewer: He won’t let you forget that you can’t keep war out of the living room.

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Crazy Beautiful

What would our lives would be like if Dada’s radically anarchic aesthetic had taken over? Would people be proclaiming abstract sound poetry on street corners? Would they wander about, like the notoriously free-spirited Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, bizarrely arrayed in pilfered goods and castoffs—a bra made of two tin cans tied with string, rows of curtain-ring bracelets pinched from Woolworth’s, a bustle of electric lights? Perhaps they’d hole up, like Kurt Schwitters building his Merzbau, an installation cobbled together from bits of urban and natural detritus. Perhaps every public gathering would become a provocation.

Dada Triumphs!, a 1920 photocollage by Raoul Hausmann, includes a map with the word “DADA” emblazoned across the northern hemisphere, announcing this movement’s vast territorial ambitions. In fact, though Dada’s reach extended well beyond the heart of Europe, it stopped far short of world domination. “Dada” focuses on international networks of peripatetic artists responding maniacally to the twin debacles of World War I and the unrelenting pressures of industrialization. Dada began during wartime, among artists who had sought refuge in Switzerland and a still-unaligned United States; by 1924 it had fizzled, sacrificed to the internecine Parisian struggles that gave rise to Surrealism, its more popular successor.

Today, the ghosts of Dada must content themselves with a single province: the art world, which remains largely under the sway of Marcel Duchamp, Dada’s sly patron saint and most elegant prankster. With a curatorial nod to chaos, the show boasts two separate entrances, signaling Dada’s dual origins: the raucous, proto-performance-art soirees at the Café Voltaire in Zurich, and the radical experiments Duchamp conducted while in exile in New York.

Enter through Zurich, and you hear archival recordings of someone loudly declaiming nonsensical syllables and encounter Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s fantastical marionettes for an 18th-century play that the Dadaists had updated to reflect their own psychoanalytic preoccupations. The effect is both charmingly artisanal and—due perhaps to the ineffable nature of performance—elusive. Enter via New York, and you’re confronted with Duchamp’s readymades, those industrially produced objects that, once removed from their contexts, acquired the status of aesthetic icons, and now suggest a sort of Big Bang theory of contemporary art.

Either way, there are plenty of pleasurable surprises, like the Baronness’s airy portrait of Duchamp—a temporary assemblage, surviving only in a photograph, of a champagne glass topped with a clock spring and feathers. And there’s enough to still jar your senses. Dada, after all, had crawled out of the trenches; several of its male artists had been wounded in combat or suffered from shellshock. Others, like the German political satirist John Heartfield, feigned insanity to avoid military service, and the habit, once adapted, became hard to shake. Mayhem was their antidote to a world gone mad; they aimed, in the words of poet/provocateur Richard Huelsbeck, for an art that would “let itself be thrown by the explosions of last week.”

Perhaps because last week, the drumbeat of war was gaining momentum, Berlin Dada’s highly politicized interventions seemed particularly apt: Hannah Hoch’s photomontage of two paunchy Weimar officials in their bathing suits, or George Grosz’s magnificently grotesque portrait of the German Republic’s president, transformed through photomontage and collage to evoke the mutilated visages of veterans filling Berlin’s streets. Also wonderful are the movies on display, bidding belated adieu to the 19th century, like Hans Richter’s hilarious Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927), in which a bunch of men chase vainly after their bowler hats. And the entire show evoked a deep nostalgia for bohemia, which the forces of capital long ago pushed to the margins of our urban centers. Artists now go to graduate school to have experiences that were once available in Greenwich Village. Would that we could bring them back.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Front Man

By now the empty- or full-as-exhibition strategy is more than a half-century old. In 1938 Marcel Duchamp hung 1,200 bags of coal from a gallery ceiling; four years later he filled a space with a mile of string. In 1959 Yves Klein exhibited an empty gallery as art; the following year Arman filled one to the point of no entry. In 1964 Lucas Samaras arranged the contents of his entire bedroom in the Pace Gallery; Christo wrapped a whole museum five years later. Artists have put horses, donkeys, and dogs in galleries; filled spaces with dirt, bricks, cardboard, and steam; and transformed rooms into stores, shrines, and restaurants. The gesture is a standard form of institutional critique.

It’s also a form of super-realism. Instead of Duane Hanson’s or Ron Mueck’s perfect renditions of human bodies we’re treated to re-creations of real-world environments. The recent high-water marks in this genre are Michael Smith’s over-the-top installations of a light-show shop and an artist’s loft sale.

Into the fray comes Justin Lowe, 30, with his super-realistic version of a bodega installed in the Oliver Kamm Gallery entrance. This store is exact down to displays of newspapers, nail clippers, combs, and Corona beer. Behind the “store” is a Mister Softee truck. Beyond that is a floor covered in rolled-up clothes. The store is the best part by far and is all that’s necessary. The only sour note is the press release claim that bodegas are often “fronts” for illicit activities. Sometimes they are. Mostly, they’re ways for people to make a living. If Lowe’s installation needs a bit more inner tension, its outer skin is impeccable.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Rejoyce

When Marcel Duchamp drew a goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, adding the mildly lascivious legend “L.H.O.O.Q.” (“She’s got a hot ass”), it was the vandal’s impulse that had gotten hold of him: a personal disavowal of the work’s power over the public imagination and, somewhat paradoxically, an acknowledgement of his inability to impress his will on it by other means.

The playwright Sheila Callaghan has not been so brash in approaching one of our greatest novels, an increasingly publicly possessed work in its own right, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Her new play Dead City, a “highly designed” production with intriguingly “non-realist moments” (e.g., a flying taxicab), does not confront the book. In fact, perhaps understandably, Callaghan has gone so far as to insist that it is not an adaptation but, as its press release says, “a riff.” To hear her tell it, her reasons for taking Ulysses as her model seem disarmingly casual and willfully innocent.

Callaghan first read the book in 1998 with a few friends, after they saw that it topped the Modern Library’s list of the best 20th-century novels written in English. She returned to it, creatively, as a way of “getting ownership of [her] reading.” The play, she says, is a “personal reaction.”

One theme she responded to was the death of a child: “I’m in my thirties, so mother stuff is on my mind a lot.” Throughout the day that Ulysses encompasses, Leopold Bloom tenderly mulls the loss of his son, who would have been nearly 11 but died 11 days after birth. Here it’s forty-something Samantha Blossom—mother of a sports-minded, Disney-loving Vassar girl to whom she can’t relate—conjuring up a romanticized punk-poet son who would have been 22, but also died as a newborn. Enter our Stephen Dedalus, a 22-year-old poet named Jewel Jupiter. She idolizes Patti Smith, has been canned from her tutoring gig, and recently had an abortion. (Per Joyce, the two characters cross paths throughout the play.) According to Callaghan, the gender flip wasn’t, in her words, a “feminist” revision (à la Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote); she simply thought it would be easier for her to write female characters.

A dead city is, of course, a cemetery, but the title (also the name of a bar in the play) comes from a Smith song in which she laments both the death of her husband (Fred Smith, guitarist for the MC5) and a culture of constrained expression, where “scenes are built on empty dreams”—which could describe the New York, circa 2004, in the play. It is a loss felt subtly by even Blossom, who tells Jewel about attending a legendary Smith concert at CBGB. Blossom is based on women Callaghan has met at temp jobs, whose youthful dreams, while not dead, have undergone rapid attrition as they’ve moved further into adulthood. Callaghan admits that “Samantha has very simple notions of what it means to be a poet,” but that does not invalidate her attempt to connect with the idea of a poet through Jewel.

Jewel is an easily identifiable type, a burr in a smoothed-over world, but her allegiance to Smith, a “revolutionary responding to cultural uproar” in the ’70s, is partly a result of that smoothing over. “I don’t know who that idol is now,” Callaghan says. She believes it’s a problem that includes gender bias, particularly in the theater world. The Voice, she wrote me, “just awarded an Emerging Playwright Obie to a woman who has been operating with some level of recognition in this field for 20 years, while another playwright (male) won with his first and only play, fresh out of school. If there are any female heroes, the tastemakers of our generation certainly aren’t looking for them.” But Callaghan remains optimistic: “I see this as an opportunity. We are ripe for some foundation-shaking in the arts. Hopefully it will be explosive, and come free of narcissism or savvy marketing. It will burn people’s eyebrows off! Like bad pyrotechnics at a hair-band concert.”