Duchamp et al at the Barbican

Marcel, cigar, and friend
Marcel, cigar, and friend

The show of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage, and Cunningham was not so easy to get through, and is, for this reason amongst others, all the more important, from an art historical perspective, to see. Duchamp, as most people know, doesn’t come off as particularly cuddly or passionate or loveable, what with the slicked back hair, omnipresent phat cigar that not even bankers would be seen smoking anymore, and particularly un-funny Francophone wit. His artwork sometimes has the elegance of Georg Cantor’s “diagonal slash” proof or a bottle of Joszko Gravner’s odd orange wines, an intellectual tour de force but ends up leaving one a bit raspy and dry in the throat. In fact, most of Duchamp’s work is bereft of traditional visual appeal…you end up lusting for the simple pleasures of a Chardin skate-fish or an Ingres odalisque in a Turkish bath. Or to drop back into wine terms, it’s a bit like going from Gravner to an exquisite, traditional, ruinously expensive and splendid bottle of Fiorano, that, in one glass, luxuriously expresses most of the last 2,500 years of human experience, of literature, of poetry, of money, of power.

Having said all that, Duchamp is brilliant – he forms the link between the early 1900s and a good bit of contemporary art. When we see a pile of wood shavings in an otherwise empty, yet reputable, Fitzrovia art gallery, and try, in vain, to connect that to Titian and Manet, the path often leads through Duchamp. For he pushed the locus of avant-garde art-making out of the perceptual realm, that is, the field of pictures and paintings, howsoever fractured or tortured, as in the cases of Braque, Giacometti or even Pollock; into the conceptual realm, where the art object needn’t be a picture or sculpture at all, in order to receive the imprimatur of “art”. In doing so, he dramatically blurred the line, which was probably always slightly porous, between “life” and “art”.

This show’s premise is to explore the themes above, and two others: the implicit or explicit emphasis of relationship on the viewer’s relationship with the art-work (the so-called “activation of the viewer”); and the fusion of visual art, namely painting or sculpture, with the performance arts of dance and music. It does this by considering Duchamp, the painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the composer John Cage, and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). NB: Barbican version is slightly different
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). NB: Barbican version is slightly different

The Duchamp aspect is built around his early painting-on-glass masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, but includes other key painting- and object-pieces. He is shown to be something of an informal eminence grise for most of the other, younger, creators. John Cage tried to push the boundaries of music-making, for instance by emphasising the qualities of environmental noise in his well-known 4′ 33” , as well as making compositions that were based on interrogations of the Chinese book of numerology, I Ching. In doing he largely sidesteps the melodic/harmonic tradition of Western classical music, as well as the atonal innovations of Schoenberg. This exploration of chance resonates with Duchamp’s work 3 Standard Stoppages, which is a set of images formed from the random positions that three strings take when dropped on the floor.

John Cage
John Cage
Duchamp's Three Standard Stoppages
Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages

Rauschenberg, of whom I have written before, is perhaps the most visual of the 3 painters: a number of major works in the show, highlight both his conceptual innovation, the juxtaposition of cultural images and objects (newspaper photographs, advertisements, logos, chairs, stuffed animals, tin cans, etc.) on the plane of a painting (what Leo Steinberg called the “flatbed picture plane”); and his interest in materials, including plenty of silk and gauze, the stuff of Gagosian’s show Jammers (reviewed here).

Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Rebus, by Rauschenberg
Rebus, by Rauschenberg

Johns’ contribution is similarly fundamental yet a bit harder to grasp: he took as subject matter images utterly familiar to his viewer, like the American flag or a map of the USA, and rendered them in paint, or wax, or collage. His rationale for this was to free his aesthetic drive to concentrate on things other than composition or subject, and instead to focus on material, on execution, on viewer impact. In doing so, in a sense he emptied his painting of the most obvious evidence of the subjective hand of the artist, namely, his taste in selecting a subject or a composition. While a commonplace approach since, this was indeed pretty revolutionary in its day, in the context of Abstract Expressionists like Pollock, Rothko and Newman, pouring their agonies, betwixt another glass of bourbon at the Cedar Tavern, out on the canvas in a heady mash-up of Aeschylus and the Old Testament.

Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
These look like beer cans. They're not: they are painted bronze replicas.  Made in response to de Kooning's wisecrack (about the dealer Leo Castelli): "You could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them".
These look like beer cans. They’re not: they are painted bronze replicas. Made by Johns in response to de Kooning’s wisecrack (about the dealer Leo Castelli): “You could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them”.
One of the Target paintings - done in encaustic (wax mixed with paint), and with imprints of a woman's face above
One of Johns’ Target paintings – done in encaustic (wax mixed with paint), and with imprints of a woman’s face above

The connection between Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s aesthetic, and that of Duchamp, also lies in the integration of everyday objects and images into art. Famously, this Duchamp was the one who submitted a urinal to an art exhibition (apparently, he also arranged for one of his friends, the collector Walter Arensberg, to buy the piece, which unfortunately was subsequently lost, only to be remade in an “authorised re-issue”). Cage’s interest in allowing the environment into his pieces has an analogy in Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, which, having emptied the canvas of almost any figuration and all colour, were almost mandatorily receptive to their exhibition environment, and pretty much forced the attention of the art work back onto the viewers…..what else were they going to look at? In doing so, of course, they prefigure many strands of Minimal, post-Minimal, and Contemporary art.

Duchamp's urinal (signed "R. Mutt")
Duchamp’s urinal (signed “R. Mutt”)
A Rauschenberg White Painting (the Barbican work is different)
A Rauschenberg White Painting (the Barbican work is different)

I’m not particularly familiar with Merce Cunningham or modern dance, so won’t comment on that. There are a few evening with performances and dancing in the gallery, which might be entertaining, or tedious, depending on how many drinks one has had at the nearby Barbican Red Room.

Dance performance, with sets by Johns based on Duchamp's "Bride..."
Dance performance, with sets by Johns based on Duchamp’s “Bride…”

This show, as is the contemporary curatorial fashion, is lateral, in that it treats 5 creators, their inter-relationships and the differences between their works, and therefore, it demands a certain nous of the viewer. There is little of the easy anchoring that biographical events present in a single-artist retrospective. Yet, the show, organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where many Duchamp works reside, is very well-explained and has an excellent catalogue with lots of turgid analysis and interviews, as well as photographs of works not in the show. Moreover, the experience benefits hugely from the gloriously spaces and sight-lines of the Barbican Gallery. Bride Stripped Bare… in particular, has the full play of shadow and reflection against the high ceilings and crepuscular light of Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon’s magnificent Brutalist edifice.

It remains only to end with an enigmatic quote of Duchamp, whom we must remember, conspicuously stopped making art mid-career, preferring instead to play chess (though it turned out he had spent much of the last years of his life working on a characteristically pornographic final piece, Etant donnes):

“But you see, I am not so interested in art per se. It’s only one occupation, and it hasn’t been my whole life, far from it. People speak of art with this religious reverence but why should it be so revered? It’s a drug, that’s all. The more I go on, the more I am convinced of that. I’m afraid I’m an agnostic in art. I don’t believe in it with all the mystical trimmings. As a drug it’s very useful for a number of people, very sedative, but as a religion it’s not even as good as God.” (Calvin Tomkins essay, excerpted in exhibition catalogue)

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