The Bride And The Bachelors: Duchamp With Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg And Johns
Barbican, London EC2
Saturday 04 May 2013
A Marcel Duchamp exhibition shows his continuing influence in questioning exactly what ‘art’ is
Born into a notary’s family in provincial France, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) headed for Paris to study art in 1905. By 1912 he had challenged not only academic naturalism but also the orthodoxies of the avant-garde. Impatient with the latter’s obsession with formal innovations Duchamp gave up what he called “retinal painting” in favour of returning art to the realms of the mind.
His first love had been Symbolist art and poetry and elliptical, speculative appeals to the imagination continued to be the key to his life’s work. His irreverent, iconoclastic works and actions questioned the fundamental processes, techniques, materials and skills upon which Western art had rested since the Renaissance.
Duchamp redefined the artist’s social role from brilliant creator to provocateur. This had a major influence on Western art yet the validity of his legacy remains controversial.
In 1914 he bought a mass-produced bottle rack, inscribed it with a now forgotten title, signed it and called it a “ready-made,” thus questioning the traditional assumption that art consists of individual objects made by the artist.
The best known ready-made is the urinal which he titled Fountain. He signed it R Mutt and submitted it anonymously to an independent exhibition in 1917.
Defending it in his radical magazine Blindman, Duchamp wrote: “Whether R Mutt, with his own hands, made the fountain is of no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – creating a new thought for that object.”
In choosing commonly seen, industrially produced, non-emotive and “aesthetically neutral” objects, Duchamp questioned existing aesthetic criteria and heightened awareness of the everyday.
Equally radical was The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915 -1923), known as the Large Glass. Using non-traditional processes and material it consists of two panels of glass encased in a tall, free-standing aluminium stand.
Motifs are represented on its transparent surface with lead, silver foil, varnished dust and drilled holes – with some of their forms generated by chance rather than by aesthetic judgements.
Its complex content can only be decoded by referring to The Green Box, in which unpaginated notes name its various characters and describes the actions of the bride, alias “motor-desire,” the bachelors, the nine metallic moulds and the oculists’ witnesses.
Devoid of a single, linear narrative the Large Glass’s content nevertheless suggests tales of frustrated sexual desire. Its open-ended, allusive meaning leaves room for the spectator’s imagination to soar. Or to scoff.
So radical were his innovations and so indifferent was Duchamp to careerism that he only became influential when rediscovered by the 1950s avant garde. This Barbican exhibition considers his works along with those he inspired in the American vanguard – composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
In so doing, it explores the impact of several threads of Duchampian thought such as Cage and Cunningham’s use of chance and of “ready-made” sounds and human movement from everyday life in their music and ballets and Rauschenberg and Johns’s incorporation of mass-produced every-day objects and imagery into works to bridge the gap between art and life.
The exhibition also explores collaborations and interactions between the five artists such as Cage’s scores for Cunningham’s ballets and the references to Duchamp’s works in sets by Rauschenberg and Johns for Cunningham’s productions.
Created during WWI and its aftermath, the emotional disengagement of Duchamp’s work can be partly attributed to sociopolitical revulsion.
That it resonated for vanguard artists in the US of the 1950s can be understood in the context of their nation’s cold war denial of its 1930s socially engaged art. Theirs were creative responses to Duchamp’s legacy.
However, in the mid-1970s and 1980s his rebellion and iconoclasm became ossified by art educational institutions into academic orthodoxy. A misunderstanding of his ideas to mean that anything can be called art has led to an infestation of mindless and sniggering art in recent decades – an unwarranted legacy which has cast a shadow over Duchamp’s own work.
Curated by the contemporary artist Philippe Parreno, this celebratory exhibition becomes a creative soundscape/installation in its own right. It intertwines sound, light, live dance performances and art works. Relatively few and judiciously selected works by each of the five artists are presented with flair and imagination to appeal to the senses as much as to the mind.
Avoiding a stodgy trudge through endless works, the exhibition introduces complex ideas and creative cross-fertilisations carefully themed around key ideas in an elegant and palatable form.
Art in which ideas take precedence over skill and visual responses must be based on ideas with depth of meaning and purpose. Parreno’s exhibition may inspire yet a new generation to engage with Duchamp’s intelligent questioning of preconceived ideas which will bury the puerile and cynical use to which they have been made.
Runs until June 9. Box office: 0845 121-6823.