Duchamp stars in The Bride and the Bachelors, a multi-faceted show at the Barbican

By Mark Sheerin | 14 February 2013

Exhibition review: The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, Barbican, London, until June 9 2013

Colour oil painting with montage of printed photographs
Rpbert Rauschenberg, Express (1963). Museo Thyssen-Bornenmisza, Madrid© The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2013

The history of modern art is full of tales of rejection, but that  received by Marcel Duchamp in 1912 is surely one of the most spurious of all time.

The Society of Independent Artists in Paris dismissed a piece of energetic cubism called Nude Descending a Staircase and declared in categorical fashion, “A nude never descends the stairs. A nude reclines.” A model should be inert, not broken into a series of dynamic planes which defy easy description.

Three years later he would begin work on an even more obscure system. This was his Large Glass, also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Figrurative elements are in short supply, whereas quasi mechanical structures abound. The only clear outcome is that the bachelors can never reach the bride, be she stripped by them or no. 

Cubist like oil painting of a figure descending stairs
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (no 2) 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection© Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2013, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London

Perhaps an allusion to Homer's Odyssey, this is still a curious subject for a sculpture, the diagrammatic glass plan a curious medium. But for the purposes of this show, Duchamp is the untouchable bride, and the bachelors are composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artists Robert Raschenberg and Jasper Johns.

The four bachelors may be giants of 20th century arts in their own right, but they owe plenty to the “dada of Dada”. As Cage said of Duchamp in near disbelief “He used chance operations the year I was born.”

But whereas the composer developed a relation with the I-Ching, there was little warm, fluffy or cosy about the man who first put a urinal on dsiplay in an art gallery.

This violent act resounds more strongly  now that Duchamp finds himself in the polite company of a younger generation. It becomes harder to dismiss the Large Glass, since it is displayed here with an album full of notes for the project. As Joyce once said of Ullysses, “a transparent sheet separates it from madness.”

But if Duchamp suffered any form of madness, it was surely an excess of reason. In 1923 he appeared to give up art in favour of chess and went on to compete in a number of international tournaments. This interest is reflected in the current show by, among other things, a travel chess board designed by the artist.

When Cage asked the master for lessons in the game of kings, Duchamp set him to play with his wife Teeny but the composer was merely happy for the chance to hang out with the older artist. This is just one node in the network of connections between the five artists in the show.

Cage is also represented by a number of exquisite musical scores on display and a ready-prepared piano which now plays a number of his compositions. Cunningham also has notes on display, but these pale beside the dance performances which also take place.

These are as avant garde as the artwork and as machine-like as the Duchamp works mentioned so far. Jerk by jerk, dancers pivot from the waist, the elbow and/or knees and appear to interlock in an operation governed by chance. The live dimension brings to mind recent landmark show by Barbican about the New York Downtown scene. This in turn featured dance works by younger choreographer Trisha Brown.

If chance acts, faded notes, and coded gestures govern much of the artwork in this show, respite comes in the form of painting and sculpture by Johns and Rauschenberg. Dancers feature in a masterpiece by the latter entitled Express and as well as a pair of colourful works by Johns called Dancers on a Plane. It is as if the younger artists soaked up the coolness of Duchamp’s outlook and reproduced it with a sense of visual pleasure which never appeared to interest the older man. 

Colour oil painting featuring abstract pattern
Jasper Johns, Dancers on a Plane, 1979, collection of the artist© Jasper Johns/ VAGA, New Yorlk / DACS, London 2013

This encounter between two painters and an out and out thinker ensures the current show does not lack for colour. Johns went so far as to subvert the concept of the readymade by casting everyday objects such as beercans in bronze and then painting them to a realistic finish. Duchamp was probably amused.

Staging a show about Duchamp is less than easy. His key works are so well known as to offer limited surprise. So the inclusion of a musician, a choreographer, two artists and indeed four friends offers a fresh spin on Duchamp’s famous bicycle wheel, etc.

Any one of the figures in the show could support a blockbuster, but Barbican have taken the more difficult decision to display a body of work which expresses a set of relationships rather than a biographical narrative. As they point out, Duchamp is perhaps the most influential artist of the 20th century. This show demonstrates how.

  • Open 11am-8pm (6pm Wednesday, 10pm Thursday). Admission £12/£10, book online.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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