Sword Dance Around Duchamp

Andrey Shental

The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns
The Barbican, London
14 February 2013 - 9 June 2013

American critic Leo Steinberg once noted that Jasper Johns chose as the subject of his works objects that let things happen. If Chekhov's gun has to be fired at the end of a play, then certainly it would be into one of Johns' targets. This principle of “waiting for something that is about to happen” serves as the basis for this exhibition with the provocative title of “The Bride and the Bachelors”, which is dedicated to the influence of Duchamp on American artists.

The Barbican Centre – which was designed more for spatial, rather than temporal, arts – produces this effect. The structure of the gallery is more theatrical than museum-like. The balcony that goes around the main space allows one to look at the show as if viewing a stage on which the action is going to happen. The contradiction between the inanimation of representation of museological artefacts, and the vital avant-gardist ardour that was intrinsic in many of the works that are exhibited here, sharpens this effect to the extreme. This explosion reminded me of the Soviet-era writer of children's literature, Korney Chukovsky, and his revolting world of objects in which disturbed things run away from their untidy hosts; although in this case, they are revolting against the sterility of exposition. Jasper Johns’canvases with their handles, switches and chains are just asking to be turned, pressed and pulled, and they infect the whole show with a rebellious spirit. Duchamp’s wheel wants to drive outside, Merce Cunningham's suspended decorations – come unhinged from the celling, John Cage’s notes – go for a ride on the piano keys, and Robert Rauschenberg’s canvases – be smeared with paint.

Photo: Felix Clay / Barbican Art Gallery

The curators from the Philadelphia Museum of Art could do nothing except follow the approved method and invite in contemporary artists and choreographers who would be able to reanimate the works from the collection. On weekends, everything in the show starts moving: music recorded by Phillipe Parreno is played, the dancers rush into the hall, and the concrete space of the gallery turns into a giant Gesamtkunstwerk. However, to my disappointment, the prominence of the show becomes exhausted at this point, since this kind of intervention has already become a gimmick: nowadays, the avant-gardist call for the dissolution of borders between life and art sounds like an advertising motto.

Photo: Felix Clay / Barbican Art Gallery

Of course, the choreography and music revitalise the reception of the display, and relationships between viewers and objects become less formal and alienated. You should not read Cage’s notes or reconstruct Cunningham’s choreography in your imagination through the photo- and video-documentation. The curators want to achieve the opposite effect; they suggest you become a contemporary of these artists. But this is nothing more than an anachronism: during Johns' and Rauschenberg’s time, it was unlikely to encounter dances and concerts going on in the exhibition rooms of museums (except for, of course, in Allan Kaprow’s happenings, or in Fluxus activities). Theatricality, as denounced by Michael Fried, has not yet come to substitute modernist principles of presence and instantaneity.

It is not necessary to recourse to art theory in order to notice the trick. Composed music, played without any visible source, sounds like a ghost from the past, while two mechanical pianos, playing compositions by Cage and other composers, intensify this effect. The dancers, in turn, do not interact with the objects and keep a safe distance, avoiding contact. Of course, it would be absurd to presume that the curators would use replicas instead of the real objects in the context of the existing system of contemporary art, but one should face the fact that when curators suggest to experience the past as the present, the exhibition itself emphasises the museum-status of the objects, attributes the music to a certain period, and highlights the conditional character of the dance.

Photo: Felix Clay / Barbican Art Gallery

One could expect that the shift would happen on the inner, ideal level. However, the curators do not suggest either any critical evaluation of the oeuvre of these artists, nor any interpretation of their practice that is relevant for the current artistic process. The exhibition does not call into question our fixed notions concerning art, nor does it transform our subjectivity – as Duchamp did during his life. We leave the show with the same stereotypes, rules, and accepted values, just augmented with mere protocol-type information and an increased acquaintance with the lesser-known works. 

The curators chose a traditional, classical and, in fact, out-dated methodology, that is based on the exposure of influences and adaptations. Remaining in the framework of linear art history, they limit themselves with a short and, arguably, the most uninteresting period, namely – “the two Duchamps”: the one at the end of the 40s, who influenced Cage and Cunningham, and the second one, the one of the 50s, who made an impact on Johns and Rauschenberg. Both of these “Duchamps” are nothing more than historical constructs created by American artists, his biographer, Robert Lebel, and collectors that brought his works to America. The influence of these art history-fictions – on Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns – is the most studied and safest of subjects; it does not assume any possibility of a different point of view, since these “influences” have already been factually proved and sealed by the close friendships that existed between all of the participants.

Photo: Felix Clay / Barbican Art Gallery

To a certain extent, the exhibitions put together by Tate Britain, such as “Picasso and Modern Art”, which praises museum philanthropy, or “Schwitters in Britain”, seem more interesting because of the unexpected angles suggested by the curators. Picasso was in London only twice, while Schwitters spent his last years in Britain. This was enough to encourage large-scale research and the creation of huge shows.

In comparison, “The Bride and the Bachelors” does not communicate anything new, but just repeats the well-known content of student textbooks. The suggested narrative could be reduced to the following: there once were these American artists, composers and choreographers who worked in a certain tradition, and then in the 1940s, they were joined by Duchamp. At first, he met Cage and Cunningham; later on, they told Johns and Rauschenberg about him, and the younger artists went to the museums to see his works, and then they met him in person. Duchamp told them what “ready-made”, “chance”, and “index” are, and inspired them to dissolve the borders between life and art.

Despite this oversimplification, the exhibition is reactionary also because its visual part is focused on Duchamp’s influence on the movement – conditionally named “neo-dada” (Johns and Rauschenberg) – that was more decorative than ideological. Hal Foster, for instance, thinks that the first neo-avant-garde does less in transforming the institution of art, and rather does more in terms of transforming avant-garde itself into an institution. For instance, one could say that “ready-made” was, for them, no more than a new technique by which real objects are incorporated into an artistic entity, comprised into an assemblage or – as Rauschenberg called this technique – into “composites”. 

These works are not as subversive as later institutional critiques made them out to be. Rauschenberg and Johns, of course, criticised art, questioned some of its claims, destroyed hierarchies, consciously dissolved medium borders, and simply laughed at institutional conventions; but all of that was done within the art, as such. They were not capable of looking at it from the outside, or from a distance, as Duchamp did. They were “correct” artists, unable to transgress, and their shows became too “correct”. Cage, probably the only enfant terrible among them, looks extremely neat. Instead of his prepared instruments, there were two lacquered, black grand pianos, and his «3'44» being performed by Phillip Parreno, who had just recorded the silence of the gallery – it just does not work, and simply looses its meaning.

Furthermore, I found the curators’ position towards art history quite problematic. Everything that is seen as Duchamp’s influence – if we remain in the paradigm of influences and adaptations – is only one facet of a wider complex of different influences. Russian constructivism, different variations of dada, surrealism, and many other trends – notwithstanding political, economic, and social transformations – happened in America at that time, and should be mentioned in this regard. When one emphasises the consequences of just one artist, it can lead to many problems. For instance, something that is seen as being influenced by Duchamp could also be seen as being impacted by Kurt Schwitters – who had been doing his “metz” for many decades before the emergence of “neo-dadaism”. Johns, by the way, knew his works, which is obvious even from Leo Steinberg's text. When one considers just the influence of one artist, even one with such a huge presence, it limits our understanding of both the inner rules, and the external context, of art. 

One of the side effects of this methodology is a hagiographic description of Duchamp's personality, in which every work becomes cult-worthy. As a result, the physical shell of an artwork is considered to be the aim in itself, while its creative and cognitive potential falls away from the view of art historians. While Duchamp opposed artistic individualism, auratism and the uniqueness of art objects, in this show, he looks to be kind of individualistic. The fetishisation and sacralisation of him (for instance, decorations made by Merce Cunningam, or Johns’ later drawing – in which he copied the famous “Bride”) lead to a vicious circle of endless citation upon citation.

Marcel Duchamp in the photo by Victor Obsatz

Thierry de Duve, one of the best interpreters of Duchamp, suggested during one of the October roundtables that we not consider Duchamp as an inventor of something new just because he “pointed out the conditions of art-making that are not just the ones valid for a decade, but valid for 150 years”. I think that this is the most adequate and contemporary approach to Duchamp's legacy. The name “Duchamp” contains not only the prominent personality and the aggregate of works that are now included in all art textbooks, but, first of all, it signifies the possibility of “a set of operations” that allows for art to be made differently. After all of the changes in economics, politics, society and science that were yielded up by the 20th century, art could not remain as it used to be. Even if there had been no Duchamp, appropriation, chance, index and other artistic methods would have emerged anyway. 

The exhibition could also be reproached for its Kulturträger approach because of the fact that it is confined to Duchamp's influence on only one country. It seems that America, which  is where Duchamp moved to due to obvious economic and political reasons, holds the patent for his assimilation and the correct evaluation of his legacy. But this exhibition tells us not even about America, but of Greenberg’s America – with its artificially-spread intolerant and de-politicised modernism. This is not a universal problem, but rather the result of a certain tradition. Duchamp himself had a different cultural background, whereas “Greenbergianism”, as such, is not the target of his criticism, as it could be with Johns and Rauschenberg. It makes sense to recall that while American artists and critics were arguing about medium specificity for several decades, in Europe there was CoBrA, the Lettrists, and François Morelle, as well as Marcel Broodthaers, who had been making his “post-medium” works. It turns out that that this show holds back the development of art history to the extent in which American art itself did not follow the avant-garde. Surprisingly, after so many publications dedicated to “other modernities”, curators continue to make exhibitions about Americans and for Americans.

That is why I think it would have been more interesting to have included in this show artists from Latin America or Eastern Europe who, even though they did not have any direct access to Duchamp's works, nor had the privilege to meet him in person, practiced his methods and managed to find a political mode that was adequate for them. It would destroy the immaculate integrity and permeability of the exhibition, but it would also democratize Duchamp's legacy. 

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy in the photo by Man Ray

My last hope for a chance at curatorial rehabilitation was the gender problematisation of the works of all five artists. The full name of the project is “The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns” which seems to allude to two of the works represented here: “The Bride” and “The Large Glass”, and also serves to explicitly hint at the sexuality of the participants. Duchamp, with his alter-ego of Rose Selavy – and this photo is, by the way, shown at the exhibition – plays the role of the bride. Her “bachelors” are two gay couples: Cage with Cunningham, and Rauschenberg with Johns. For instance, one of the captions said that Cage played chess with “Teeny”, and that this was just a pretext to spend time with the elder artist and “be with him”.

Johns’ works highlighting “passivity” and the “allowing of things to happen”, as well as Rauschenberg’s works based on the inscription of cultural codes onto the surface of the canvas, were a response to the performative machismo of action painting. This fact could become a starting point for gender analysis of the works. However, the curators did not dare to allow for this interpretation – perhaps because of the issue of museum censorship, which has recently has become more frequent in the States (the show was initially shown in Philadelphia, and titled as “Dancing Around the Bride”). It turns out that the curators simply selected five men for the show, and without any grounds for their decision; this makes it suspect for sexism.

The only prominent feature displayed by the curators was the integration between the visual and the temporal arts. This interdisciplinary approach to Duchamp’s legacy is interesting, but not sufficient. Chekhov’s gun has not fired; there was only the sound of Chekov's string breaking.

Photo: Felix Clay / Barbican Art Gallery