This is turning out to be a great season for Dada, Surrealism and their legacy.
First the Museum of Contemporary Art's Man Ray exhibition picked the brain of an American artist who was in tune with Dada's post-World War I cynicism and whose vintage Surrealism cheerfully sabotaged reason. Before the Man Ray show closed in May, MOCA's Temporary Contemporary unveiled "A Forest of Signs" (to Aug. 13), an up-to-the-minute examination of art's current preoccupation with language and the media--a point of view that stems in part from Dada's use of printed materials and its rejection of precious tradition. Then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened an extraordinarily rich little exhibition, "The Dada and Surrealist Word-Image" (to Aug. 27), which exposes the roots of word-and-picture mergers in the work of Dada and Surrealist artists.
The latest addition to this circle of related exhibitions is a retrospective of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, which opened over the weekend at MOCA and continues to Oct. 25. This engrossing show (organized by the Walker Art Center in association with the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels) is in many ways the most interesting of the entire group, not least because Broodthaers is so little known here.
Broodthaers was a poet who, at 40, made his first artwork and symbolically ended his literary career by embedding 50 copies of his latest book in a lump of plaster. As a critic, film maker and friend of Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte, Broodthaers didn't come from an aesthetic nowhere, but he unleashed himself on the art world with a provocative statement: "I, too, wondered if I could not sell something and succeed in life. . . . The idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind, and I set to work at once."
For the next 12 years--until his death of liver disease on his 52nd birthday Jan. 28, 1976--Broodthaers may have been the world's most sincere maker of "insincere" artworks. Like many Dada and Surrealist artists who preceded him, Broodthaers was anything but a purist. He incorporated written language in his art and used whatever was at hand for his raw materials--most notably the shells of eggs and mussels but also furniture, clothing, garden tools, household gadgets and reproductions of artworks.
In today's terms, Broodthaers was also a conceptualist who prized ideas more than finished products. His idea was to question the meaning, function and value of art, particularly in a museum context. Broodthaers seems to have been obsessed by the role of museums and how their methods of organizing and presenting art influence our perceptions of it.
Like many modern and post-modern artists who adopt a skeptical stance toward tradition and accepted ways of doing business, Broodthaers bit the hand that fed him--and continues to be rewarded for doing so. This may appear to be an odd turn of events but, in fact, no group loves to see its institutions ridiculed more than the art crowd, particularly when the criticism is housed inside one of its sanctified palaces.
Irreverence is a staple of the contemporary art world, but Broodthaers' version is hardly programmatic. He was a relentless questioner who turned traditional museum practices upside-down. One of his methods was to invent his own museums and install them in his home or other buildings. His first was nothing more than a batch of shipping crates, postcards of 19th-Century paintings and a slide projection in his studio. For subsequent sections of his ambitious "Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles," he concocted displays of reproductions, borrowed actual artworks, drew a museum plan on the beach and assembled more than 300 representations of eagles.
At MOCA, Broodthaers' show opens with the typically absurd "Entrance to the Exhibition," a gallery in which a gaggle of palm trees can be interpreted as the audience or as museum-style exotic decor. Framed objects on the walls are little more than what art folks like to call documentation: pages from a catalogue, lists of numbers and reproductions of works by Broodthaers.
Subsequent galleries at MOCA offer a plethora of artworks composed in part of mussel shells and broken egg shells. There's also an array of peculiarly altered objects--properly labeled and displayed in old-fashioned glass cases. In the last gallery is "The White Room," a life-size copy of a room and a half in Broodthaers' home in Brussels. Wooden walls of the empty rooms are sprinkled with printed words in French--such as museum, gallery, oil, subject, composition, images and privilege-- all intended to examine "the influence of language on perceptions of the world and the ways museums affect the production and consumption of art."
Where to begin making sense of all this? The only thing difficult about it is that Broodthaers suggests so many possible approaches. There is no set, unequivocal meaning to any of the pieces, though many critics are quite certain that their interpretation is the best one. Broodthaers himself would probably undermine any such certainty. He was far more interested in the phenomena of how meanings change according to their context and how the organization of facts and objects determines our knowledge of them.
Yet even as he warns you of the folly of categorizing, he inspires the urge to reorganize his show according to the systems he ridicules. Once you get sucked into this, you're involved in an endless game of list-making. And no sooner have you started a list than you realize that each category has an opposite. Among the possibilities:
-- Useful things that are rendered useless (a table and a music stand covered with mussel shells, a cabinet filled with egg shells, books that can't be read) and functional objects that only appear to be useless (shovels covered with the patterns of bricks or vines).
-- Objects that gain importance by being massed together (the ever-present shells, pictures of eyes and mouths, a stack of canvases) or, conversely, by being isolated (letters of the alphabet, bones, a watering can).
-- Actual objects labeled accurately ("Thigh Bone of a Belgian Man") and inaccurately (a "Bottle of Milk" painted to suggest the real thing).
-- Words that stand in for objects or concepts ( sujet written across a cloud in a tiny sky painting instead of a painted subject , words on walls of "The White Room," framed letters and words that spell out cheminee d'usine in the rough shape of a factory chimney) and objects that impersonate other objects (paint that represents white sauce on a pot of mussels and mussels used as paint on canvas).
You can go on, but the point is to recognize contradictions inherent in any attempt to fix meanings. Order according to Broodthaers is not a static state of perfection but a fluid stream of possibilities. If there is one right way to see things, it is that they are in a state of flux.
The museum will screen Broodthaers' films at 6 p.m. on Aug. 10 and Oct. 12; 3 p.m. on Sept. 10. Talks on Broodthaers are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 7 and 14; 3 p.m. on Sept. 24.