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Yesterday's aggro and shock, today's museum relic. "Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York," curated by Francis Naumann and Beth Venn and now running at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, is an interesting show of what is, ultimately, a spiky but fairly thin subject. Dadaism--its name made of baby-talk syllables, its intent to disorient bourgeois expectations of culture by any means possible--was a short-lived but fecund movement born and raised in Europe in the century's teens. It was more like a tiny religion than an art event, with a proselytizing spirit, a code of behavior, a core of the faithful, and a hope of transforming existence. It relied on irrationality, negation, sarcastic humor. Its most durable legacy lay in French Surrealism (the Surrealist fascination with the unconscious was largely inherited from Dada, and several artists, most notably Max Ernst, began as Dadas and drafted themselves into the Surrealist movement).

Dada left its traces in America, but never struck deep roots there. It never acquired the criticality, the indignation or the longing for social subversion that marked it in Europe. It devolved into amusing in-jokes and tended to preciosity and quirkiness. This grew out of the tiny clique of self-professed illuminati that sustained it. Its sense of humor never grew as robust as the work of the professional funny guys who helped inspire it, like Rube Goldberg or the Marx Brothers. In America the Dadas were plagued by the thought that American popular culture was more Dada than Dada could be. And in fact they were right.

The movement, such as it was, had only one (relatively) heavyweight American in its membership, the painter, photographer and objectmaker Man Ray. Its spirit was best exemplified by two foreign artists who enriched the New York scene by visiting it--the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp and the French-Cuban Francis Picabia. Their impact goes back to the far-famed Armory Show of modern art, held in 1913, which first gave a mass American audience a chance to see modernism.

In the fire storm of ridicule and puzzlement set off by the Armory Show, which 300,000 people saw during the course of its run, Duchamp in particular benefited, on the basis of a single picture: Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912. It became the star freak of the show--its bearded lady, its dog-faced boy. People compared it to a Navajo rug, a cyclone in a shingle factory, an earthquake in the subway. A dull brown painting in a Cubist idiom, its overlapping planes were partly derived from the motion-analysis photos of Etienne-Jules Marey. Its very title was ironic, almost insupportable. Nudes, in art, were not supposed to move, let alone walk downstairs. They were meant to stand or lie as still as statues. Movement suggested indecency, even though this nude had no detectable sexual traits.

As a picture, the Nude is neither poor nor great, but its fame today is the fossil of the huge notoriety it acquired as a puzzle-picture in 1913. It is lodged in history because it embodied the belief that the new, revolutionary work of art has to be scorned and stoned like a prophet by the uncomprehending crowd. In the cult of the problematic, as distinct from the enjoyable, Duchamp rapidly became a saint, and the Nude is one of his prime relics. So are his "readymades"--a snow shovel or a ceramic urinal designated as works of art, sardonic jokes that have been done seven-eighths to death by decades of critical interpretation, but that nonetheless are the ancestors of every piece of "appropriation" art done by Americans from early Jasper Johns down to the present day.

The Nude is not in this show, and neither is Duchamp's even more famous The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), which is too frail to move from its abode in the Philadelphia Museum and is represented by a Swedish-made replica. Begun in 1915, the Large Glass is, as its title suggests, an elaborate sexual metaphor seeded with puns and techno-images. In the lower panel the nine sad little bachelors, mere tin soldiers in the game of sexual strategy, signal their desire through intervening bits of machinery to the floating "bride" above. As Freud said in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900: "The imposing mechanism of the male sexual apparatus lends itself to symbolization by every sort of indescribably complicated machinery."

This was chapter and verse for Picabia too, whose work also caused some scandal at the Armory Show. Picabia returned to New York in 1915, prophesying that the city would soon become the center of modernist effort because its reality had made it the modernist site to beat all others. "Your New York," he told the press, "is the cubist, the futurist city. It expresses modern thinking in its architecture, its life, its spirit"--everything but its art, which Dada would supply. This image of the city as social compressor also comes out in Man Ray's neatly epigrammatic New York, 1917--a bunch of slats, stacked to mimic the setbacks of skyscrapers, held together by a C clamp.

Picabia saw machinery as the prime metaphor of modern society and, particularly, of love. His most telling machine images were about sex. They present the act of love as a ballet of soulless machines, pistons inside cylinders, valves opening and closing, cogs driving other cogs. Though parts of his erotic gizmos are identifiable, their functions, beyond pushing, sliding and transmitting fluids, are not.

There wasn't much social criticism in New York Dada, though some of its members were clearly ticked off by the conservative character of the American art world. Picabia even satirized Alfred Stieglitz--whose 291 gallery was the main rallying point for modernist artists like Constantin Brancusi, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley--as an impotent figure, a camera with a collapsed bellows. Dove himself had a prod at the reviewing establishment in The Critic, 1925--a figure meant to represent Royal Cortissoz, the much feared conservative who had dubbed modernism "Ellis Island art." It is a paper doll cut from one of Cortissoz's own reviews, mounted on a pair of roller skates for fast passage through the galleries, and holding a vacuum cleaner to dispose of modernist trash.

Manhattan Dada also contained an element (though a very small one, compared with French Surrealism) of blasphemy. Its main relic is God, 1917, once attributed to a machine-painting follower of Picabia named Morton Schamberg, but more likely by their friend the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. It consists of a cast-iron plumbing trap turned upside down and mounted on a wooden miter box. An angry little object, an American parallel to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., the mustache on the Mona Lisa.

God pales, however, beside the Dada artifact that the Baroness (ne Elsa Plotz in Germany in 1874) became after moving to New York. Slender, long-backed, penniless and as mad as a March hare, she survived as an artists' model. She would be seen visiting the salon of Walter and Louise Arensberg, the city's first Dada collectors, or stalking through Greenwich Village in black lipstick with postage stamps stuck to her cheeks, her head shaved and stained purple, and dozens of metal toys and lead soldiers sewn to her skirts. She was New York's first punk persona 60 years before their time. Some of her delicate, wacky, homemade jewelry survives and is in the Whitney show. The Baroness seems vivid today because of the interest in gender play and "acting out" in the '90s art world, as though she were a very distant great-aunt of feminist performance art. But she remains an irrecuperable figure, faint and weird, like much of the Dada spirit itself.