If you were to draw a diagram of the flow of 20th century artistic influences without including Duchamp, it would look quite linear and predictable. Add Duchamp, and the picture changes dramatically. A seemingly random pattern will emerge, with lines zooming across decades and styles, mocking the distinct categorisations of art history. Duchamp’s influences ranged deep and wide, but his rediscovery in the post-war period served as an antidote to modernism’s heroic attitude and tendency to take itself too seriously, and inspired a radical artistic turn that would have a lasting impact.
Although his early work resembled that of his contemporaries Picasso and Braque, (in ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ for example), his contribution to art differed in not being confined to a specific style or visual language. What Duchamp brought to art was an attitude, first and foremost: irreverent, cerebral and humorous. Picasso’s radical experiments took place on the surface of the painting, Duchamp wanted to break free from it. It’s that fluidity that made Duchamp a kind of Joker figure of 20th century art, in more senses than one.
Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, 1950
The Duchamp season at the Barbican is a tribute to the most significant of Duchamp’s reincarnations, his American revival as the godfather of a new and irreverent attitude towards art’s institutionalisation and its obsession with the nature of the medium. Its centrepiece is The Bride and the Bachelors, an interdisciplinary exhibition that brings together the works of Duchamp, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and examines the collaborative relationships between them.
In keeping with Duchamp’s legacy of challenging artistic boundaries, the exhibition includes a wide spectrum of works ranging from painting and ‘combines’ to dance and music. At the centre of the exhibition is a slightly elevated stage that features performances from Cunningham’s repertoire, performed to pieces by Cage, Johns, Frank Stella and others, with stage sets by both Rauschenberg and Johns. It’s carefully orchestrated to tell the story of Duchamp’s engagement with the four American artists and the way it revolutionised the way we think about art.
In terms of the visual artworks on display, the exhibition is dominated by Duchamp’s trademark pieces, eclipsing to a certain extent the works of Rauschenberg and Johns on display. The most prominent is a replica of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (The Large Glass)’, the ‘painting’ he worked on between 1915 and 1923. The free standing wood-framed plate of glass introduced several of Duchamp’s radical ideas that he would continue to experiment with for decades, and that would eventually be adopted and developed by Rauschenberg and Johns.
In no specific order those ideas were: giving the painting a three-dimensional presence, introducing the catalogue as a necessary companion to the art work, and finally embracing the element of chance as antidote to subjective aesthetic preferences. Painting on glass wasn’t a new idea of course, but Duchamp revived what had become a decorative form of art and gave it a new meaning. It was a challenge to the autonomy of the painting surface, with the movement of people, change of light and accidental shadows all became part of the painting.
The three-dimensional ‘leap’ was revisited by Rauschenberg in his 1959 painting Monogram (not part of the exhibition unfortunately). Rauschenberg used a taxidermy goat with a tyre around it, installed it on a canvas and displayed it flat on the floor. It was a breakthrough moment, as the distinction between painting and sculpture was challenged. On display is another of Rauschenberg’s paintings that makes an allusion to ‘The Large Glass’, his 1962 Trophy V (for Jasper Johns). The sliding window frame installed within the surface of the painting hints at unperceived depths that seems to mock the modernist obsession with the two-dimensionality of painting.
Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Minutiae’, 1967 copy of 1954 original’
Both Rauschenberg and Johns continued to experiment with integrating three-dimensional objects within the painting surface, as represented in the exhibition by Jasper Johns’ ‘Field Painting’, where the two-dimensional letters pop-out of the painting surface, with the letter ‘R’ formed by a lit neon strip. The two American artists picked up painting where Duchamp had left it, displaying a similar mischievousness and fondness for ordinary objects that went against the aloofness of high-brow art.
The ‘catalogue’, the series of notes and diagrams that Duchamp had created for ‘The Large Glass’ was to have a different type of influence. Seemingly intended to explain the painting, the catalogue in fact complicated the piece by describing elements that were not in the painting. In fact, the catalogue was in of itself an art work that required engagement and interpretation. With the catalogue, Duchamp was mocking the idea of the inherent narrative that is transmitted from the artist to the audience. He was encouraging multiple interpretations and unscripted audience engagement.
Together with Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, the upturned urinal he exhibited as an art work, Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’ catalogue represented a seminal moment in the formation of conceptual art. Art was no longer purely about craftsmanship and the aesthetic value of the art work, gesture and thought process became crucial. From our jaded contemporary perspective, fed on a diet of a soulless barrage of Brit Art and vacuous ‘gesturism’, Duchamp’s creations might not appear so radical. He might even be considered guilty of spawning the self-indulgent conceptual art automata. But that would miss the point; Duchamp’s attempts at liberating art were truly radical, whereas contemporary conceptual art has crassly turned to cheap parodies for which Duchamp would have had little time.
Duchamp’s dalliance with chance represented another strand in the life of these artistic collaborations. The story begins when ‘Large Glass’ was chipped during transport, leaving a pattern of cracks on the glass. Duchamp accepted that as part of the natural life of the painting, and went on to experiment with different processes of accidental form-making. Chance processes and random systems were employed by both John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in a unorthodox attack on the subjective pretences of music and dance.
Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns, ‘Walkaround Time’, 1968 ’
The exhibition tells the story of those experiments and Duchamp’s role in the process comprehensively, both through the inspired live performances and the large collection of note sheets, sketches and diagrams. In addition, the sets and costumes designed by Rauschenberg and Johns highlight the breadth of the engagement between the five artists, and the exhilarating sense of rethinking the limits of artistic disciplines. It gives a sense of the experimental appetite that is essential to avant-garde art. In that respect, it is reminiscent of the Bauhaus but without its overwhelming social engineering pretensions.
In many ways, that is down to Duchamp’s - the Joker’s - infectious playfulness, an attitude that encapsulates the pure art impulse much better than that weighed down by social reformism or political agendas. There is a sense of joy about Duchamp’s humorous attitude, and that of his American circle, which sets it apart from the prevalent irony of today. In fact, that sterile, self-parodying form of ironic detachment is the antithesis of the child-like enthusiasm that permeates Duchamp’s work and ideas.
The Bride and The Bachelors is a very welcome account of Duchamp’s post-war American adventure, and the rich web of encounters and collaborations that reinvigorated the master himself and nurtured the American artists with whom he worked. Duchamp’s legacy could be detected in as diverse places as Georges Perec’s novels, Jean Tinguely’s sculptural machines and even the music of bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! (via Cage). As interesting as those influences are to disentangle, the Barbican exhibition however tells a richer story, not merely of artistic lineage but that of the Joker reinventing himself.