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.

Cage’s use of chance influenced his long-term partner and artistic collaborator Merce Cunningham, who would throw dice to determine the sequence of movements in a piece of choreography or the number of dancers he might use.

One of the most striking elements of the exhibition is the incorporation of live performance, which, combined with Parreno’s subtle soundscape, creates a dynamic, sensory experience of the artists’ work.

Cunningham’s short collage pieces, Cunningham Events – selections taken at random from longer works – are performed on a square dance floor in the central room of the exhibition. They are accompanied by performances of Cage compositions, and also the prerecorded soundtrack of the dancers’ breath and footfalls, which emanate at intervals from the dance floor itself, as an echoing, evanescent presence.

As the dancers trace patterns of expanding and contracting movement, we can see above and behind them the stage sets designed for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by Johns and Rauschenberg. Some of these refer to Duchamp’s “readymades”, the everyday objects such as bicycle wheels and a urinal (Fountain, 1950) that he exhibited as art works. In doing so Duchamp was provocatively disregarding ideas about the special status of a work of art, and about artistic originality.

The exhibition pursues this theme, displaying musical scores, choreographic and stage diagrams, scribbled notes and typographical experiments. “These artists are all exploring the relationship between art and life,” says Basualdo.

And also, it seems, the relationship between art and other art, art and technology, and artistic forms and disciplines. So if it comes as a surprise to discover that Duchamp composed music, there is also the pleasure of seeing Cage’s multimedia visual art, to which he increasingly turned in his later years.

Cage’s visual art

One series of objects was created by Cage in response to the death of Duchamp, in collaboration with lithographer Calvin Sumsion. Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969) consists of four plexigrams, each comprising eight silkscreen plexiglass panels, inscribed with lettering chosen at random, on a walnut base.

Referring to Duchamp’s The Large Glass, each one draws the eye into an infinite series of transparent planes. In a form that evokes a rack for holding musical scores, each is also an empty vessel, movingly conveying absence. The sense of loss was expressed by Cage in words later: “I can’t get along without Duchamp. I literally believe that Duchamp made it possible for us to live as we do.”

This richly immersive exhibition helps to explain why.

The exhibition is at Philadelphia Museum of Art until January 21st. It transfers to the Barbican Centre, London, from February 14th to June 9th as part of a season of music, dance, art, film and theatre influenced by Duchamp, including a performance by Barry McGovern of excerpts from Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt. philamuseum.org, barbican.org.uk

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