RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
The lasting legacy of Marcel Duchamp
A rare show focusing on the legacy of Marcel Duchamp is not to be missed, writes Simon Wilson
Almost exactly 100 years ago, as I write, on 15 February, 1913 to be precise, an event took place which became a mythic moment in modernism. At the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, the International Exhibition of Modern Art opened and made a sudden star of a hitherto littleknown French painter named Marcel Duchamp.
A 1991-92 replica of Duchamp’s 'The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass)'. Modena Museet, Stockholm. Duchamp’s instant fame – notoriety would be more accurate – stemmed from just one of the four works he exhibited, Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), from 1912. Provocative in its unheard-of subject, and painted in a then baffling Futurist style, it evoked the kind of response that many may remember greeting Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – the pickled shark – or, for older readers, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (the Tate bricks) from 1966.
As it happens, neither of these works would have been made without the ideas of Marcel Duchamp, and for many people that is enough to damn him. Nevertheless, his influence on the art of the last half-century is undeniable. Yet he remains for many an elusive figure. Help is now at hand since, on this centenary of what went into the history books as the Armory Show, the Barbican Gallery in London has mounted an exhibition which examines, through Duchamp’s key works from that time, the moment when the unexploded bomb of the ideas implicit in them finally detonated on the febrile art scene of 1950s and 1960s New York, where Duchamp had been living in near anonymity since returning there in 1941.
This moment is represented by four closely intertwined figures: the painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the composer John Cage, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage was the senior figure, and most directly channelling Duchamp, to whom he in turn exposed Johns and Rauschenberg. The Barbican show is rich in remarkable work by all four, Cage and Cunningham being represented by a programme of performance.
What they all shared was a desire to break down the barriers between art and life – while still doing something that was clearly art, even if only just. This process begins with Duchamp. After Nude Descending came his long-gestated The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (1915-23, commonly known as The Large Glass), the keynote of the Barbican exhibition.
The Large Glass presents a traditional story of a woman wooed, but in a radically novel form, neither painting nor sculpture, in which highly abstracted imagery floats on free-standing glass sheets so that the work’s surroundings are always seen as part of it, thus integrating art and life. Crucially too it was made from non-art materials – dust and lead as well as the glass – and using chance or natural procedures. It proposed a completely new idea of what art could be. Duchamp then went even further, in his ‘readymades’, notably the infamous Fountain (1917) in which he presented a slightly altered aspect of life (a men’s urinal) directly as art. The presentation – the urinal titled, signed and laid flat – opened the object to metaphoric readings. The work was dubbed ‘the Buddha of the bathroom’ and also seen as a shrouded Madonna, as well as a phallic or a vulval shape.
In 1952 John Cage picked up the Duchampian baton when he made another of the most controversial works of modernism, 4’33”, a musical composition in three movements, of the duration of the title, in which a pianist at a grand piano signals the start by sitting down and closing the piano lid, the movements by opening and closing the lid, and the end by walking off. The music is the ambient sound, of which the audience becomes acutely aware, and Cage believed fervently that we should be awake to everyday aspects of our environment.
Rauschenberg made a visual parallel to 4’33” in his White Paintings of the same year, which act as a screen for the play of shadow and light as spectators view them. These works, and the Cage, like Duchamp’s Fountain, mark an extreme moment in the relationship of life and art, and I do not think it can be an accident that the number of seconds in Cage’s piece add up to 273, the number of degrees centigrade below freezing that is Absolute Zero. After this, the only way forward was an increase in complexity. Both Rauschenberg and Johns then made art that was extraordinarily radical but also intensely rich, complex, sensuous and engaging, that placed them among the greatest artists of their time.
The Barbican exhibition has substantial groups by both of them, including key early works, such as the White Paintings, and many pieces previously unseen in the UK. It will be the biggest showing of Rauschenberg in London for 30 years and of Johns for 20. More of Rauschenberg can be seen at the Gagosian gallery, which shows his Jammers series of textile-based works from the mid-1970s. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, repository of almost all of Duchamp’s work, has been exceptionally generous for the Barbican show, with rarely lent pieces. This is a unique opportunity to enjoy the great Mephistopheles of modernism – whose ideas are still infusing art today – and his extraordinary debut.
© RA Magazine
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