If Dada, as claimed by the Dadaists, was a noisy alarm that woke up modern art from merely aesthetic slumber, then this Picabia drawing shows us how the alarm was sounded. It is the wiring diagram of a Dada alarm clock (made in Switzerland in 1919) which historically plots the flow of the current of modern art, from Ingres to 391, Picabia’s own Dada magazine. For the nonmechanically minded, some words of explanation as to how this machine works:
To the left we see a battery in cross section, with the electircal current moving in waves between the positive and negative poles, properly represented: the former in black, the latter in white (and with the ladderlike pattern that conventionally associates the negative with neutral or ground). French modernism is attracted to the stable, negative pole (and therefore to tradition), and rises historically until it reaches (with the help of Walter Arensberg, patron to French artists in New York) the rectangular transformer that bears the Dada name. Around the top of the active, positive (and therefore antitraditional) pole is an international cluster of innovative early twentieth–century artists, headed (of course) by Picabia himself. This positive pole directly connects with the Dada clock. The negative pole of French modernism, however, has to pass through the Dada transformer before it can be wired up to that inner circle. (Even then the wiring job looks amateur and not entirely convincing, but apparently it works.) When thus connected, the circuit is completed; the clock can start ticking, and the bell that was made in Paris and New York can begin to sound.
The drawing was made for the “Anthologie Dada” issue (May 1919) of the Zurich magazine Dada, edited by Tristan Tzara, where it was reproduced on pink paper by the printer Julius Heuberger, who was sent to prison for his anarchist activities during the preparation of the magazine. On its inside cover was reproduced a Picabia drawing called Réveil matin, made by dismembering an alarm clock and printing its parts in ink. After previously having mainly used automobiles as the source of his machine images, Picabia shifted (appropriately) to clocks when he moved to Switzerland; hence the form of this drawing too. Its subject is by no means unique. Indeed, charts like this became a favorite Dada pastime just after the war, and served three main functions: to assert the superiority of Dada among contemporary movements; to clarify the progenitors and sympathizers of Dada; and to establish hierarchies within Dada itself, as quarrels about priority and sympathizers of Dada; and to establish hierarchies within Dada itself, as quarrels about priority and importance developed once the movement became established. The first such chart, Picabia’s Construction moléculaire, was published in the first Zurich issue (February 1919) of 391. It listed only New York and Paris Dadaists. This one, published three months later, affirms Picabia’s alliance with the Zurich Dadists, listing as it does Dadaists from all three centers within the clock face.
Obviously, then, this is an interpretation as well as a document of history, drawing as it does a highly selective diagram of the history of modern art: a history, in fact, not of modernism itself but rather of what the critic Frank Kermode calls neomodernism, the antitraditional and antiformalist branch of modernism, intimated by Futurism, that Dada properly began. The history recounted in this drawing justifies the kind of modernism that it itself pioneered.
Publication excerpt from John Elderfield, The Modern Drawing: 100 Works on Paper from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1983, p. 116.