Dada sprang forth in Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris between 1916 and 1924. One of the most influential avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, it was multifaceted and style-resistant, born in response to the disasters of World War I and an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists led a creative revolution that boldly embraced and caustically criticized modernity itself. Pursuing innovative strategies of artmaking that included abstraction, chance procedures, collage, photomontage, readymades, performances, and media pranks, Dadaists created an abiding legacy for the century to come.

Prior to the recent Dada exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 2006 (the first one in the institution’s history devoted exclusively to the movement), the Museum mounted several important exhibitions that investigated Dada among other subjects. The archival materials on display here elucidate the planning, organization, scholarship, installation, and reception of a few of these exhibitions. Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–37), Collage (1948), and Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage (1968) were the most important manifestations of the Museum’s longstanding interest in Dada, although many other exhibitions examined the topic in some way.

The varied positioning of Dada at the Museum over the years is revealed through significant acquisitions and installations as documented in unique archival material, including floor plans, installation photographs, checklists, and oral-history commentary. Coinciding with the launch of the Museum’s landmark publication Dada in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, this exhibition provides an overview of MoMA’s long and rich history of collecting, documenting, interpreting, and exhibiting Dada works.

The exhibition was organized by Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist

All items in this exhibition are in the Museum Archives, unless otherwise specified.


December 7, 1936–January 17, 1937

Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, The Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition to focus on Dada, was organized by founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., in 1936. It was the most comprehensive presentation of Dada works since the Dadaists’ own exhibitions. It was also the first to be organized by a nonparticipant and the first to present Dada as a historical movement. The exhibition was rife with controversy and provoked fierce reactions from battling factions among the Dadaists and the Surrealists. For example, Tristan Tzara, a leader of the Dada movement and one of the exhibition’s most important lenders, threatened to forbid Barr from exhibiting his loans when he learned that the exhibition’s title had been changed from The Fantastic in Art to include Surrealism and that the French Surrealist André Breton was to write the catalogue preface. For their part, Breton and French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard disapproved of the final format of the exhibition; they wanted it to be an official Surrealist “manifestation.” Critical response to the exhibition was mixed. In 1937, when the show circulated around the country, lender Katherine Dreier withdrew her artworks and feuded with Barr over his inclusion of works by children and “the insane,” and A. Conger Goodyear, President of the Museum’s board of trustees, requested that other items be removed.

Travel notebook Summer 1936 [AHB, 9.E.2]
Barr traveled in Europe with his wife, Margaret Scolari Barr, from May 18 to August 1, 1936, to secure works of art for the exhibition. This page includes notes on Barr’s visit to Jean Arp in Meudon, France.

Letter Barr to George Grosz, May 11, 1936 [REG, Exh. #55]
Barr solicits the artist for information on obtaining work by him and his German colleagues from the Dada era.

Letter Barr to Tzara, November 7, 1936 [REG, Exh. #55]
Barr attempts to placate Tzara, the “chef d’école” of the Dada movement, by reassuring him that Dada will hold a very prominent place in the exhibition.

Installation photograph [PA, IN55]

Letter Barr to Marcel Duchamp, February 1, 1937 [REG, Exh. #55]

Letters Dreier to Barr, February 16 and 27, 1937 [REG, Exh. #55]
Dreier expresses her displeasure over the inclusion of artwork by children and “the insane” in the exhibition.

Newspaper clippings December 9 and 12, 1936 [ACG, v. 42]

“A Brief Guide to the Exhibition of Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” [AHB, 10.A.71]
This brochure was published after the first edition of the exhibition catalogue went out of print. The second and third editions of the catalogue included the essay that Museum director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., had written for this brochure as well as essays by the French poet and critic Georges Hugnet that had arrived too late for inclusion in the first edition.

Letter Thomas Mabry to A. Conger Goodyear, January 8, 1937 [ACG v. 42]
Goodyear, President of the Museum, raised an objection to certain items in the exhibition, as recorded in this letter. Barr replied with a thorough and impassioned refusal to remove the works; he deemed the request to be censorship on the basis of artistic judgment Goodyear relented.

Itinerary [CE, II.1.59.1]
The exhibition traveled to six venues across the country in 1937.

List of items for sale from the exhibition [CE, II.1.59.1]
Many of the objects in the exhibition, lent by artists and dealers, were for sale, and a price list accompanied the traveling exhibition for the host institutions’ reference. The Museum instituted this practice for this exhibition as a way to express appreciation to the lenders; it received no commission on the sales.



September 21–December 5, 1948

The exhibition Collage, organized in 1948 by Margaret Miller, Research Associate in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, included an important representation of Dada works.

Installation photograph [PA, IN385]

Checklist [WCS, II.3]

Letter Miller to Katherine Dreier, October 3, 1947 [CUR, Exh. #385]
Miller was also involved with coordinating a fellowship facilitated by the Museum for the artist Kurt Schwitters, to enable him to reconstruct his famous Merzbau artwork.

Letter Miller to Tristan Tzara, with enclosed list, October 2, 1947 [REG, Exh. #385]
In response to a request from Tzara, Miller compiled a list of works from the Dada period in the Museum’s collection, including those acquired from him. The list identifies sixty Dada works (Miller did not include films in her inventory); the Museum collection at this time comprised 7,506 objects.


March 27–June 9, 1968

The exhibition Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, organized by William S. Rubin, Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, was the first comprehensive exhibition of these movements since Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, thirty years before. Notably, it explored not only Dada but also its impact on contemporary artmaking practice in the 1960s (the work of the “neo-Dadaists”).

Exhibition proposal July 6, 1966 [AHB, 1.443]

Memo Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to Rubin, July 12, 1966 [AHB, 1.443]
Barr replies to Rubin’s ideas for the exhibition and offers advice.

Press release May 31, 1968 [MoMA Library]
The exhibition included the important film program Hans Richter Retrospective, during which Richter’s film Dadascope, Part II premiered.

Memo Rubin to René d’Harnoncourt, April 24, 1968, and sketches by d’Harnoncourt [CUR, Exh. #855]
D’Harnoncourt, Director of the Museum, played a significant role in the installation of the exhibition’s three-dimensional works, as attested by the many sketches of objects, pedestals, and floor plans he made. D’Harnoncourt was renowned for his expertise in installation design.

Installation photograph [PA, IN855] Invitation to exhibition opening [Graphics, 318]

News clipping “300 Hippies Protest at Opening of Modern Museum Dada Show,” New York Times, March 26, 1968 [CE, II.3.4.17]
The protest was aimed at the Museum’s “bourgeois” nature. The Museum was holding a black-tie dinner in honor of the exhibition (which included notably radical, anti-“bourgeois” artworks) for invited donors, collectors, lenders, and artists.

Memo Rubin to Bates Lowry, March 5, 1968 [WSR, box 6]
During his work on the exhibition, Rubin prepared a thorough and detailed analysis of the Museum’s holdings of Dada and Surrealism. In this report to Lowry, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpure, Rubin notes that it is the best collection of its kind in the world and that it could never be replicated, thus arguing the necessity of filling the gaps.


The Museum has made many important acquisitions of works from the Dada era, including the Paul Éluard Collection and the Dr. Camille D. Dausse Collection, both acquired in 1935. The Museum commissioned the Paris art dealer Jeanne Bucher to acquire the two collections of Dada and Surrealist materials for the Museum’s Library. Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., Chairman of the Museum’s Library Committee, provided the acquisition funds. The Katherine Dreier Bequest acquired in 1953 includes 102 works of art, of which over twenty are from the Dadaera. Marcel Duchamp, Dreier’s old friend and colleague, worked with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Director of Museum Collections, to select which works came to the Museum.

The Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art May 1936, pages 4 and 5

Installation photograph [PA, IN538]
To celebrate the Dreier bequest, the Museum mounted an exhibition from June 23 to October 4, 1953, of works included in the gift.


In 1964 the Museum reopened after a significant expansion, designed by architect and MoMA trustee Philip Johnson, and the new galleries allowed Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to undertake a permanent installation of work from the Museum’s collection for the first time. On the third floor, which held work from the later half of the collection installed roughly chronologically and according to style, he included sixteen works from the Dada period. The sequence of galleries began with two rooms titled Early Fantasts, the first of which contained works by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia. After the second Early Fantasts gallery and a Surrealists gallery, visitors encountered a satellite space—half of which was identified as Dada—hung with works by Jean Arp, Duchamp, Max Ernst, George Grosz, and Kurt Schwitters.

Installation photograph [PA, IN732]

Checklist [REG, Exh. #732]

Information plan [MoMA Library]

The Museum opened a greatly expanded facility in 1984, designed by architect Cesar Pelli. William S. Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, reinstalled the collection in a new configuration. Dada works were now located near the end of the second-floor sequence of rooms, which were devoted to the first half of the collection. Rubin further codified the taxonomy of the evolution of styles that Barr had made, so that each room represented a specific art movement that in turn begat the following one. According to the floor plan, three contiguous galleries (17, 18, and 19) were devoted to Dada and Surrealism, leading to a gallery devoted to Spanish artist Joan Miró (20) then to one devoted to Surrealism (21). To convey a more complete portrait of Dada, Rubin included a small number of works on paper, including Ernst’s The Hat Makes the Man (1920) and Grosz’s Republican Automatons (1920).

Installation photograph [PA, IN1372]

Information plan [MoMA Library]

In 1992–93 (and with further refinements in 1996), Kirk Varnedoe, who succeeded Rubin as Director of Painting and Sculpture, undertook a new installation of the collection galleries. His aim was to undo the sense of a singular, linear progression of art movements conveyed by Rubin’s installation and instead show a diversity of art forms at coinciding moments. The floor plan of the galleries reflects this interest, using chronology to intermingle works from various movements. Instead of being held in a single Dada or Dada and Surrealism gallery, Dada works now appeared in four rooms on the second floor: Collage and Dada, Picasso, Duchamp; Brancusi, Léger, Duchamp, Picasso 1920s; Klee, Schwitters; and Surrealism: Miró, Arp, Ernst, Picasso 1920s.

Information plan [MoMA Library]

Installation photograph [PA, IN1832]

Excerpt from interview with Kirk Varnedoe December 13, 2001 [Oral History Project, Varnedoe, 2001]

Dada in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (2008), the ninth volume of the Museum’s series Studies in Modern Art, edited by Anne Umland, Curator, and Adrian Sudhalter, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, with Scott Gerson, Assistant Paper Conservator, Department of Conservation. The volume includes a chronology by Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist.


Exhibition support is provided by The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art.

I am incredibly grateful to the editors of Dada in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, Anne Umland and Adrian Sudhalter of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, for entrusting me with the Herculean task of developing a comprehensive chronology of Dada at the Museum.  I could not have done it without them, and it was a truly collaborative effort.  In addition, this exhibition could not have occurred without the dedicated perseverance of the entire staff of the Museum Archives:  Michelle Harvey, Tom Grischkowsky, Miriam Gianni, Jonathan Lill, Donald Prochera, MacKenzie Bennett, Peter Huelster, and Molly Shea.  In addition, I appreciate the steadfast encouragement and support of Milan Hughston.  I am also indebted to Julianna Goodman, Claire Corey, and James Kuo in Graphics; Allegra Burnette and Lotte Meijer in Digital Media; Rebecca Roberts in Publications; Sarah Ganz and Kirsten Schroeder in Education; Lana Hum in Exhibition Design and Production; Erika Mosier in Conservation; Rhys Conlon in Painting and Sculpture; and Jeff White in Prints and Illustrated Books.