David Chang on Tokyo

David Chang, one of New York’s most prolific restauranteurs (the Momofuku stable), writing recently on the food blog/magazine Lucky Peach, waxed lyrically on about Tokyo’s food.  Mostly good, and well-known, points, but a couple of comments are in order.  I’ll excuse the gratuitous expletives and the overuse of the superlative ‘best’…maybe that’s intended for the hipster audience.

His overall point, that Japan (specifically Tokyo) borrows magnificently from other food cultures, and lends out its aspiring chefs on secondment to top restaurants from Yountsville to Modena, is spot on.  But I think the point can be driven deeper – the Japanese have a gift for internalising the culture of other countries, presumably more so in the post-WWII era than before, and to a certain extent, combining that with a highly-developed indigenous culture, to create a synthesis that, in style and quality of execution, isn’t matched anywhere else.  The key words here are ‘internalising’ and ‘indigenous’.  I don’t think they’re just copying the food – the chefs, but perhaps even the kids with crazy outfits in Harajuku, are looking at, and living, the culture, the music, the film, the clothing that they’re interested in, whether it be American, Italian or French.  There is a passion (to use a hackneyed word) and depth to the research that shows through in the simulation, a stage set, that is a Tokyo restaurant.

Equally, this painstaking simulation is not being dumped on a blank substrate – Japanese culture, and food, are obviously immensely developed, and years of low immigration have had the perverse effect of maintaining a certain purity in both cultural practice and practitioners.  Your average person really gets their food culture, they’ve grown up with it, haven’t necessarily seen much else, or have only seen it through a Japanese cultural filter.  So the French, Californian, or Italian food in Tokyo has a distinct Japanese imprint, if only in the attention to detail, the arrangement of the room, the handling of light and space, the exceptional quality of the ingredients (as Chang points out).  Thus, the simulation becomes a simulacrum.

Here I would characterise Chang’s comments on Italian food, if not French, as slightly ignorant and perceptive at the same time.  Italian food does not just have to be pasta, as anyone who has spent time in, say, couscous-laden Trapani (Western Sicily) or rice-growing plains of Po Delta, can attest.  But Italy does have a strong resistance to change, as well as an internal food culture that Italians feel, rightly so, is well worth preserving.  But, here’s the difference with Japan: people, from what I can see without having interviewed hundreds, actually don’t want to eat much imported food. Even outside Italy, while one sees plenty of well-heeled Italians at ethnic street-food stalls in East London, but most Italian tourists pile into Soho’s Princi, which they know from Milan.

Here, in my humble opinion, is the difference with New York and London – two other world cities with very good food.  I would argue that neither America nor England have the same quality of indigenous food, that substrate, that Japan has.  America, as a country so young and foundationally built on immigration, can have no ‘native’ food culture.  So everything in New York is a simulation, for better or for worse.  England perhaps had some interesting food before WWI and WWII, and in the last 20 years, chefs such as Fergus Henderson (St John in Clerkenwell is the best one of his) have done a heroic job resurrecting the old recipes, but again, it’s all (re)created: the average youngish Londoner seems, from my own anecdotal experience, to care more about what he/she drinks and smokes, and where, than the food.  So both New York and London seem to produce copies, more or less acceptable, of foreign food.  But their copies, particularly in London, are mass-produced, soul-less affairs, more reminiscent of an accountant’s spreadsheet, redolent of return-on-equity and price-points, than the work of single mad chef.  New York is a bit better, but again, rising rents, the internet, the phenomenon of food as something one watches on a screen, have taken much of the fun out of the restaurant scene.

There are plenty of exceptions, particularly outside of Manhattan – for instance, Sake Bar Zabb, an simulated izakaya , set in a poorly-ventilated basement in Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood in Queens previously only known for really bad Indian (i.e. Pakistani and Bangladeshi) food sitting in pools of fetid grease.  Curiously, Zabb, which shares the name with an excellent Michelin-starred Thai restaurant upstairs, is run by an enthusiastic Thai man who has sourced hundreds of objects from Japan to create his little sarariman‘s drinking hole, complete with foaming pitchers of Sapporo and squishy raw octopus in grated horseradish.

Moving on to a controversial point, in this most politically-correct of cities: the last difference I would point out between the New York restaurant scene and Tokyo’s, is the makeup of the cooking staff.  Look around any good, but perhaps not top-end, restaurant in much of New York – most of the cooks are Hispanic, with a smattering of Bangladeshis, African-Americans, Chinese, etc. I can’t help thinking that the French or Italian food coming out of those kitchens must, in a majority of cases, necessarily be totally disconnected from the culture and experiences of the cooks making it.  Surely, if food isn’t just something you put in your mouth, and is a cultural or communicative experience, the fact that the person cooking the food hasn’t grown up with it, or at least taken a multi-year deep interest in it, surely must detract from the ‘essence’ of what one is served.

Unless Japan has changed in the 5 years since I last was there, most of the cooks are Japanese, and the Japanese chefs have often spent years in Western kitchens learning about food they’re cooking and the context it exists in.

I’m sure some will object to these comments, but the fact that restauranteurs such as Danny Meyer and Andrew Tarlow are moving over to a no-tip policy could lend some support to my view: the extortionate tips in New York only go to front-of-house staff. This means that the cooks, the people who obviously matter more, are being paid much less than the decorative foliage swanning around the dining room, their fawning equal parts strafottenza and passive-aggression.

I would end by pointing out some of the finest, most interesting, most passionate (again that word) food in New York still comes from the kitchens that are family-run, or at least held firmly within a given ethnic group: the sushi bars (Hibino in LIC is a fave), the absolutely stonking Thai joints in East Elmhurst/Woodside (start with Zabb Elee, Kitchen 79, Khao Kang, & Paet Rio), the filthy but delicious regional Chinese stalls of the Golden Mall in Flushing, or that joyous margarita-meat-and-arepa extravaganza that is the Colombian restaurant Delicias in Woodhaven.

 

 

 

Brilliant Corners, Dalston

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I love Tokyo’s ultra-specialised restaurants, from places that only serve sea urchin or fugu fish, to tiny audiophile bars under railroad arches with thousands of dollars worth of kit and records. For whatever reason, London and to a large extent New York, never really picked up into this obsessive groove – probably partially due to real estate prices (not that Tokyo acreage is cheap) and partially, likely lack of custom.

So it’s cheering to see a recent opening in Dalston – Brilliant Corners, (presumably) named after Thelonius Monk album. It’s a venue with 4 massive Klipsch speakers and a rack of old valve amplifiers; customised sound-absorbing wall panels; an awesome selection of natural wines; and very good, albeit simple and reasonably-priced, Japanese food. An odd combination, but the wonderful owners and staff make it work – they’re pumped about what they’re doing and it shows.

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The Dalston & Hackney trendy food scene is pretty grim fare – burgers, somewhat gross American junk-food elevated into haute cuisine (£21 friend chicken), served in supposedly stylish, and utterly undifferentiated, shabby-chic venues, with the obligatory tattooed, characteristically Antipodean, and extravagantly bearded cooks/waitstaff/DJ/owner. Even the acheingly hip Cafe Oto’s food is very much second fiddle to the music, booze, coffee, and cakes. The owners of Brilliant Corners are, I think, ex-City, so a far cry from the slightly ghastly food-world insiders, often backed by cashflow-hungry investors, rolling out series of dismal restaurants that cater to the latest fad (whether it be “tapas”, “no bookings”, “Venetian ciccheti”, “Peru”, “street food”, “artisanal pizza”, “hog roasts”, etc.)

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So it’s great to see Brilliant Corners’ unpretentious menu, cut rolls and hand rolls, chicken kara-age, or donburi on brown rice. No fancy fish, only salmon, which keeps cost down and keeps the “save the sea” brigade happy. The clean flavours work really well with the excellent natural wines; as it happens, a topical tipple – this weekend is RAW’s natural wine fair at the Truman Brewery, with old favourites like Frank Cornelissen, Stan Radikon, and (hopefully) a contingent of mad Georgians.

Standouts from the wine list are Salvo Foti’s gutsy white/gold wine from the shoulders of Etna, and La Stoppa’s orange from Emilia-Romagna, both at £38 by the bottle. A wine I haven’t tried, but described as having “cult status” in Japan, the ultimate accolade in my book, is a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah by Dard & Ribo, at £38. Wines by the glass are a very reasonable £5-6. As with any natural wine, it pays to enquire what the flavour profile will be (“funky”, “barnyard”, “oxidised” are terms often used, rather unflatteringly if enthusiastically, to describe them), and if possible, ask for a taste. At their best, they should have intense flavours in the whites, a tannic grip and enhanced mouthfeel in the oranges, and a fresh grapiness in the reds (at least those based on Gamay). They should be as far as possible from the ghastly mass-market high-alchohol wines endemic to the UK market.

Wine list
Wine list

These aren’t wines for drinking all the time, but they are absolutely worth a try. And….no hangover, owing to the reduced use of sulphites. Anyone living East for a few years will remember the happy 18-month tenure of 259 Hackney Road, that used to sell similar wines, albeit from the Jura or Loire; unfortunately Florian & Milena left, and the wine shop has been replaced by a bubble tea vendor (see “latest fad” above).

Brilliant Corners: 470 Kingsland Road E8 4AE.  Info on Facebook (they don’t seem to have a website)

RAW Natural Wine Fair, London

On an otherwise grim, sometimes overcast, Sunday in the Essex-hinterland that is Brick Lane, I made an effort to find the RAW Natural Wine Fair in the Truman Brewery (which incidentally was filled with nasty old clothing and a great deal of “street food”, served indoors and at decidedly non-street prices).

RAW wine fair, London
RAW wine fair, London

It was a breath of fresh air – I arrived at 10.30am, and found 5 long tables of animated, occasionally a little tipsy, mostly just mad, winemakers, babbling in tongues ranging from Provencal to Georgian. The show was organised geographically, Italians in one set of rows, French in the other, Georgians with a massive clay amphora, and Austrians and Germans nestled in the middle. Without a map, you could divine provenance just by looking at clothing and manner: the green trousers and red-rimmed glasses of the Piemontese and Tuscans, the ample proportions and generous gesticulation of those from Rhone and Languedoc, and the ruddy yet anxious faces of the Germanic peoples. Up and down the rows were cardboard boxes filled with a mix of sawdust and what looked like tobacco leaves (but obviously weren’t), and as the day went on, these filled up with purple spitoon-juice. Occasionally, the more experienced tasters, particularly from the trade, would vigorously slosh the wine around in their mouths and spit, all in one motion, from a great height, with considerable noise and velocity. Mostly they were admirably accurate in hitting the box, but a wise newbie would do well to keep distance.

Friends.  From Casa Gravner.
Friends. From Casa Gravner.

The tasting itself, as always, was a matter of discipline – faced with some fantastic, hard-to-find and expensive wines, it was hard to spit out, but nothing could be worse than peaking early, or worse, dropping one’s glass or flattening an elderly fair-goer. Speaking of which, there were a great number of florid gentlemen of a certain age, copiously making notes, and I never did actually see one of them avail themselves of the boxes.

The winemakers were super-friendly, even to retail visitors (distinguished by blue wristbands as opposed to the red of trade and journalists). It reminded me, by way of contrast, to commercial contemporary art fairs like Frieze. There are also similarities: newish wine (which a great deal of the wine at RAW was), like new art, has a greatly evolved technical jargon, extreme differentiation, a high level of subjectivity underpinned by a certain rigour, and a healthy sprinkling of frauds and charlatans.

My favourites are below but with a slight caveat: my experience and taste are mostly confined to Italy and Friuli Venezia-Giulia (FVG) at that.

A couple of notes: “natural” has a quite precise definition (available on the webiste http://www.rawfair.com), but the long and short of it is: organic/biodynamic cultivation of the grapes; hand-harvesting of the grapes; no yeasts or additives, except for sulfites, which should be (far) below EU levels and more imporantly, documented by lab tests; limits on mechanical processing/manipulation, chemical processing like acidification and chaptalisation. In practice (looking at it postively), this means the wines more distinctively express their terroir and altitude/temperature conditions when the grapes were picked, with minimal influencing post-picking to achieve a “house” or “international” style. Some detractors would say the wines are highly variable, vintage-to-vintage, even bottle-to-bottle, are unstable when opened, have weird smells (“farmyard” is the euphemism), and in the worst cases, are indistinguishable from homebrew or vinegar. Indeed, certain of the offerings would have done my accomplice’s father’s vintages proud (albeit his are made with rhubarb or elderflowers).

The pantheon: Gravner, Radikon, Bini, Princic, Cornelissen, Vodopivec
The pantheon: Gravner, Radikon, Bini, Princic, Cornelissen, Vodopivec

A particular interest are orange wines: these are made from white grapes (such as Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla or Malvasia), which after pressing, are held in contact with skins and sometimes stems, for 1-30 days. In some cases (as in certain Georgian wines), the wines are even crushed/macerated in clusters, so have a massive amount of skin/stem contact. This contact gives them tannins but also the distinctive orange (or “amber” as Gravner prefers to call it) colour. So one gets a wine that has the fruit or perfume of a white wine, but with the slight firmness (of flavour) that tannins provide to balance the often-intense aroma, as well as often the mouthfeel of a red. I believe the tannins also allow the wine to age better without sulfites. Certain orange wines (though this is by no means confined to orange) are aged in clay amphorae, which allow the wine to breath without imparting oak flavours.

Orange wine
Orange wine

Orange wines have very little similarity, other than perhaps a morphological one, with rose: the latter are made from red grapes that are macerated without skins (so the colour is coming from the pulp of the grape not from skins or stems). Roses generally aren’t especially tannic and only some have any noticeable complexity.

Frank Cornelissen: we had the honour of an extensive tasting by Frank (courtesy of Tutto Wines and Noble Fine Liquor), who is one of the most revered winemakers of the Italian natural wine world. He’s a Belgian who set up a vineyard on the shoulders of Mount Etna in Sicily, and has made some fantastically distinctive wines, usually challenging, but made with great passion. See below for his site/blog, other tasting notes, and retailers/importers. My favourites were his orange, Munjebel Bianco 8 (2011), and his entry-level red, Rosso di Contadino 9 (2011). Both are using Sicilian autochthonous (the lovely word for indigenous, from the Greek – in fact the archaic Greeks believed their were “autochthonous”, borne directly from the earth, ie. not settlers from elsewhere, therefore not foreigners nor barbarians) grapes. I believe “Munjebel” is the old Arabic name for “mountain”.

Stan Radikon: Radikon’s wines have gravitas, particularly the orange wine with its strong tannins. The first time I had his wine, upon opening the bottle, I was convinced it was skunk – and then over an hour the wine evolved beautifully. This doesn’t mean it necessarily went well with food, this was very much a conceptual wine, a Duchampian experience (food for another post – conceptualism in food & wine). There were 6 wines in the tasting, but I still lean towards the austerity of the Ribolla Gialla. Incidentally, his vineyard is near the Gravner estate in Oslavia – though Gravner wasn’t at the fair, his wines are probably the most famous of Friuli, and he’s done the most to bring the old (Georgian) winemaking back and has done a great deal to market the wines of FVG.

Antipasti with Radikon's orange wine
Antipasti with Radikon’s orange wine

Gabrio Bini: Bini is another iconoclastic winemaker who produces on the tiny Sicilian island of Pantelleria, closer to Africa than it is to the Italian mainland. His white, with the Zibibbo grape, is aromatic, while the moscato, made with the Moscato di Alessandria grape, is amazingly perfumed, yet the slight sweetness and aroma blend into a full finish, that is never cloying. He’s also a great person to talk to, and in between greeting visitors, he stopped by the Georgian stall and waxed lyrical about how his grapes came from Georgia via the Levant and Egypt to Sicily.

Lagvinari: This was a great pleasure of a stall – there were 3-4 Georgian wines available, and one winemaker made the long journey to talk to visitors. This gentleman I think was from Lagvinari, and spoke with great pride about Georgian winemaking in general (said to be 8,000 years old and therefore probably the oldest in the world) and the specific characteristics of the various wines on offer, his own and others. Two macro observations: the orange wines and natural processes, particularly skin contact and amphora-ageing, that are fashionable in Italy and other places, clearly have historical antecedents in Georgia (hence are less likely to be a twattish fad that one might at first think). In fact, Gravner imported his amphorae from Georgia. Secondly, the Arab and Georgian influence was richly but subtlely intertwined with wines in the fair – most obviously in the names (Munjebel, Moscato di Alessandria, etc.). The Arabs acted as excellent conduits in bringing the gift of Dionysius to the modern world, before foreswearing the whole business in more recent times, and the Georgians provided a model for a particularly poetic and attractive method of wine-making. The winemaker talked of one wine, called “Colchis”, after the mythical land where Jason and the Argonauts went to find the Golden Fleece.

Although these wines aren’t that easy to find in London, they’re worth seeking out; I last had Georgian wine while living in Moscow (before the embargo after which it was a black market luxury), and it goes splendidly with the gutsy, spicy, outstanding food of the country.

Josko Gravner and his amphorae
Josko Gravner and his amphorae

Others: There were also some lovely wines from other producers, particularly the Austrians Weingut Sepp Muster (near the Slovenian border, in Styria/Sudsteiermark); Strohmeier (from Weststeiermark). Of the Italians, I liked the Tuscan Macea (northern Tuscany, not far from the sea and Carrara); the Venetian Daniele Piccinin (Verona zone); Le Coste (from Viterbo, nearer the sea than Rome, overlooking the Lake of Bolsena); Quarticello (Emilia Romagna) is one of our favourites on a value basis, particularly their two Lambrusci, which have an awesome acidity that makes them delicious for drinking with food, while their Le Mole is one of the most reasonably-priced orange wines we’ve had.

I would add an honourable mention for Stefan Vetter of Germany (northern Bavaria) with his Sylvaner wines, for his enthusiasm and effort in making it to RAW. The wines perhaps need a little more work, and we look forward to seeing next year’s production.

Blogroll

http://www.tachu.net/frank/blog/

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/a/eric_asimov/index.html

http://www.starchefs.com/cook/features/orange-wine-guide-sommeliers

http://dobianchi.com/

http://www.rawfair.com/

Winemakers

Cornelissen: http://www.frankcornelissen.it/

Radikon: http://www.radikon.it/azienda

Gravner: http://www.gravner.it/

Bini: http://www.serragghia.it/

Lagvinari: their link (www.lagvinari.com) appears to be broken, Dynamic Vines are the UK importer

Quarticello: http://www.quarticello.it/

Daniele Piccinin: piccinindaniele@tiscali.it.

Sepp Muster: http://weingutmuster.com/

Strohmeier: http://strohmeier.at/

Macea: http://www.macea.it/

Le Coste: lecostedigradoli@hotmail.com

London importers

http://www.dynamicvines.com/

http://www.tuttowines.com/

http://www.gergoviewines.com/

Incidentally, Gergovie have an very good enoteca/restaurant, 40 Maltby Street.

http://www.raeburnfinewines.com/

info@georgianwinemerchants.co.uk

Retail

http://wearenoble.co.uk/

http://hedonism.co.uk/about-us/reviews-/

Homeslice Pizza in London

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Even the most achingly cool ‘ster, in his high-and-tight waxed-up haircut, Rizlas, and fixed-gear bike, eventually settles down, gets fat, and sheepishly resigns himself to a BMW and 2.5 babbitts. Similarly, “street food”, that mildly oxymoronic concept that started in hot & dusty places no hipster would actually be caught dead in (say Bamako, Beijing or Bombay), came to the less posh bits of London in 2011 and by 2013 is firmly established in pricey, zoomlens-central Neal’s Yard. Homeslice started out as a mobile pizza shack in a few locations around London, and like Pizza Pilgrims (which operates out of a Piaggio Ape in Berwick Street Market), served great pizza with no frills. They now operate out of a small restaurant in Covent Garden.

In their previous incarnation as pizza on the street...
In their previous incarnation as pizza on the street…

The pizza is really good. I went in planning to have two slices, ended up eating four (£4 each). The margherita is great, very little cheese, super thin & light crust. The courgette & artichoke was more substantial and chewy with the courgette barely cooked. They also have more adventurous dishes like bone marrow & caramelised onion, but only as a full 20″ pie. I’m pretty sure I could get through a full pie at lunch, chase it with a little Chartreuse at the French House, and be in good shape for a big dinner. Hard to say that for, say, Franco Manca… There wasn’t much/any char on the bottom of my slices but not sure if that was because I was there early at lunchtime.

Regarding pizza-by-the-slice generally, Homeslice have a good chance of successfully transplanting the “taglio” (basically pizza by weight) concept from Italy to the UK; 2011/2012 saw a spate of taglio pizzerias, most of which had greasy leaden fare, served by slightly shifty characters (Italian or otherwise), who seemed to know their wares were dodgy, who warmed the slices up in those ghastly electric toaster-oven like things. The things came to you seeping ancient rancid oil, like something out of a really nasty fry-up in early-1990s London. Unlike in Italy there simply isn’t enough customer volume to keep the pizza turning over and inevitably the product ages thereby. Even Princi’s pre-made pizza is necessarily closer to foccaccia. Homeslice sell 3 of their pizzas by the slice, and while these are pre-made, they are in small enough quantities that there’s (probably) little risk of getting a pie past its prime. That being said, the crust is very thin so there little tolerance for error – my slices went soft pretty quickly, but not as quickly as I dispatched them.

Incidentally, the outer crust ring, the “cornicione”, was excellent; historically, the rich in Naples wouldn’t be caught dead eating it, for it was conspicuously poor people’s food, and would be gathered from pizzerias, to be sold or given away on the street.

Speaking of sordid port towns, I hope they bring in one pizza variation that is awesome but rarely found (basically a Marinara) – tomato, origano, garlic, capers & anchovy – the one at Chez Etienne in Marseilles’ Panier neighbourhood will live forever in my taste memory – as will the hard men dealing drugs outside.

Some niggles: no fork, knives, or plates (other than paper) give the place a pretty pessie feel, which is fine if one is eating on the street out of a shack in Hackney, or at a New York pizzeria (and in both cases paying a lot less than six dollars a slice). It’s not great at an otherwise polished sit down restaurant. A salad would be good as well. Wine at £4/glass is okay price but not especially cheap, belying the mildly gimmicky bottles which are measured when the bill is made up (this is a nod to humbler places in Italy, with the difference that those places mostly are under €1/glass)!

Both those are all points of economics and style, the important thing is the pizza is excellent, and saves one the trip to Franco Manca, now that Spaccanapoli has left Soho.

http://www.homeslicepizza.co.uk/

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)