Duchamp's fountain of influence on US artists
An ambitious exhibition explores the links between the radical French artist and four major US artistic figures
For more than four hours at an arts festival in Toronto in 1968, composer John Cage, artist Marcel Duchamp and Duchamp’s wife, Teeny, played a game of chess on stage. They had often played in private, but this time their moves on the chessboard triggered electronic sounds that were amplified and then projected on to television screens, in a performance called Reunion. This was to be one of Duchamp’s final public appearances: he died later that year, aged 81.
The artistic and personal interconnections between four American artists of the mid-20th century – John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – and Marcel Duchamp, the radical French artist who changed ideas about what constitutes a work of art, are the subject of a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dancing around the Bride, which transfers to the Barbican Centre in London early next year, is a compendious presentation of an exciting moment in cultural history.
The exhibition is ambitiously multidimensional: there are 130 art works, manuscripts, musical scores and stage sets, as well as recorded and live performances of music by Cage, performances by dancers from the (now disbanded) Merce Cunningham Dance Company, film, and a sound and lighting installation by French artist Philippe Parreno. It explores the myriad ways in which these artists engaged with each other’s work, and how the collaborations between the New York-based artists were inspired by Duchamp, who, having moved to the US, became central to their circuits of affinity and influence.
“The interactions of these five extraordinary artists redefined the language of contemporary art in the late 1950s and 1960s,” says the exhibition’s curator, Carlos Basualdo. “For the younger artists, Marcel Duchamp became a compass and a source of inspiration.”
In 1958, Rauschenberg and Johns visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds the largest collection anywhere of Duchamp’s work. They went on to create paintings and drawings that referred to his 1912 painting Bride, and to The Large Glass, whose full title is The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923). The latter, a complex work on two glass panels, became highly significant to them, and to Cage and Cunningham. They became friends with Duchamp, exchanging ideas and making work in homage to him.
Idea of chance
One of the preoccupations they shared with Duchamp was the idea of chance, and the incorporation of chance operations into the making of art. This theme is reflected in Parreno’s ambient sound installation for the exhibition, which involves random transmission of compositions by Cage on two preprogrammed Yamaha Disklavier pianos, which, eerily, play themselves.
Cage’s use of chance principles in musical composition was one of his most significant innovations. Yet when he got to know Duchamp’s work, he realised Duchamp had composed music using random procedures decades earlier, in a piece called Erratum Musical (1913). “I was 50 years ahead of my time,” Duchamp told him.