The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns
Mise en scène by Philippe Parreno
Barbican Centre, London
14 February - 9 June 2013
Review by Simon Bayliss
A century ago Marcel Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel onto a stool. He claimed no artistic intent, but just enjoyed watching it spin. This absurd, playful gesture is a testament to chance, the unforeseen pairing of two objects within the artist’s periphery. It became the first famous readymade, a conceptual sculpture from which he could remain aesthetically detached. The original was lost, but this doesn’t matter. One of the first encounters at the Barbican is a Duchamp-endorsed replica, and one can imagine the wheel spinning on its stool whether looking at it or not; it exists as an idea.
If ‘Bicycle Wheel’ is a metaphor for the propulsion of Duchamp’s influence amongst the karmic lifecycles of the younger generation of four Americans, the exhibition uncovers an intricate story of inspiration, love, friendship and collaboration. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which formed in 1953, appears to be the catalyst linking the artists in ‘The Bride and The Bachelors’; their avant-garde interdisciplinary collaborations at the Black Mountain College combined music with dance and visual art. Thus, like a vast blank canvas, a central white stage acts as the hub of the exhibition. Convened by contemporary artist Philippe Parreno, live dancers perform Cunningham’s routines to the sounds of John Cage’s musical compositions, while stage-sets by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, imbued with Duchampian motifs, locate the experience.
Dotted amongst the two-tiered exhibition are Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s energetic assemblages, collaged paintings and sculptures. The two artists were lovers for a while and their influence on each other’s work is unmistakable. For them it seems that Duchamp’s readymades were of greatest importance. It wasn’t until in the ‘50s, when a critic paralleled these to Johns’ cerebral paintings of man-made symbols, that he and Rauschenberg visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the older artist’s work. They were later introduced to Duchamp through Cage and partner Cunningham, and a lasting friendship was formed. Close to the stage is ‘Field Painting’ by Johns, composed of wild brushstrokes from which sculpted letters - like signage - protrude on a vertical axle from its core. Resembling the inner machinery of a giant type-press they have stamped the painting’s surface forming a jumbled alphabet. These man-made symbols seem to be literally imprinting their authority over the piece, while a single neon light shaped ‘R’ for Rauschenberg glows a carnal red. Elsewhere is Rauschenberg’s famous tyre print on paper seven meters long, made by the artist adding paint to the wheel of the car while John Cage drove down a New York street (the exchanges between artists are found everywhere). In a shared logic their gestures suggest a remodelling of the rules which Duchamp shattered; Johns and Rauschenberg drag the concept of the readymade back into traditional fields of making, where a tyre print becomes a giant brushstroke, and man-made symbols in a painting critique the whimsical nature of abstract-expressionism.
The mezzanine gallery above the stage is dedicated to Duchamp’s influence on the artists and a key work is ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ (1913), a piece devoted to forms obtained through chance. Three one metre threads are glued to Prussian blue backdrops after being dropped from a horizontal position one metre high. They form undulating sine-waves, which the artist mirrors in three wooden templates. All of the components are designed to slot into a wooden crate, resembling a suitcase, as if the whole package was envisaged not as art, but as apparatus for a travelling meta-physician. Although it could be described as an evolved readymade, the piece is not a musing on manufactured objects. Instead the principle of avoiding aesthetic decisions is obtained through a controlled experiment in chance; using fixed variables to promote unforeseen aesthetic forms.
The métiers of Cunningham and Cage seem to spring from Duchamp’s investigations with chance. The components of Cunningham’s routines were partly choreographed according to his own artistry and training, yet other factors - the structure, number of dancers, timings - were determined by means such as rolling dice. On the stage the actions of his dancers appear alien, staccato rhythms of fragmentary gestures unfamiliar to daily exchanges, yet their motions are executed with classical grace. Cage and Cunningham shared a similar working methodology, but whereas Cunningham’s aesthetic echoes Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s - applying Duchampian tactics to traditional artforms, in his case ballet - Cage’s work contains no demonstrations of accomplished musical ability. As well as the accompanying sounds of Cage’s compositions, which echo and traverse the gallery, a number of his musical scores are displayed, including a vitrine containing four pages of typed notes for ‘Telephones and Birds’. The complex instructions require the performers to dial numbers with a guaranteed automated response and amalgamate these messages with recordings of bird calls. The order is composed through consulting the I Ching, and a forest of absurd and incongruous sound ensues. By replacing instruments with readymades, and arranging them according to chance, without custom or artworld retorts, perhaps it is Cage who is most affiliated with Duchamp’s wholly rebellious and irreverent spirit.
When Duchamp moved permanently to New York in 1942, he had by all accounts stopped working; visitors reported an empty studio, yet next door he was secretly making ‘Étant Donnés’ (1946’1966), his last project. Publically however, he had renounced art in favour of chess; Cage later collaborated with the artist on a musical game, and the adapted board is on display. Duchamp’s legacy has shaped a recognised archetype: the conceptual artist as a chess player, a strategist who knows exactly what he is doing, making transparent moves within the context of art history. Yet despite its rigorously conceptual appearance ‘Bicycle Wheel’ was made on impulse, and throughout the Barbican exhibition a complex story is revealed; Duchamp is an enigmatic figure. Neither were the Americans’ ideas wholly fixed, with the exceptions of Cage’s ‘4’33’ and Rauschenberg’s ‘White Painting’. The exhibition instead presents an era of experimentation and exchange between friends and lovers, practitioners from different fields; a microcosm of activity blossomed from renegotiations of admired ideas; a cooperative model comparable with the open-fields of art practice today.