Marcel Duchamp: An art pioneer and his ambiguous inspirations


The Duchamp-inspired set pieces that Jasper Johns designed for a 1968 Merce Cunningham ballet, “Walkaround Time,” are on display. (James Klosty)

Grandparents often tend to that which has been orphaned in children, those parts of us that are neglected, thwarted or in rebellion against the parental bond. The relation between Marcel Duchamp, the French pioneer of Dada who became a fixture of the New York arts scene, and a generation of American artists who dominated the avant-garde in the 1960s and ’70s was essentially grandparental: an indirect transmission of nurturing energies that skipped a generation. He was to artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, a figure of reverence and admiration, safely remote from the politics and power plays of ordinary artistic influence and succession.

A fascinating exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp,” probes the nature of those relationships, so complex that even the title of the exhibition acknowledges ambiguity. The “bride” refers to Duchamp’s enigmatic and sparse diptych “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” a 1915-1923 work that seems to condense the artist’s intellectually refractory energies into two mysterious panels of glass, varnish, foil, wire and dust. “Dancing around” suggests an unwillingness to pin down the younger generation’s debt and devotion to the older master, suggesting only a sense of mutual animation. The image is particularly apt given the role of Merce Cunningham in this strange, intergenerational alliance: Cunningham’s choreography placed dancers in isolated, disconnected worlds of motion, often unrelated to other dancers and the music as well.

The centerpiece of the Philadelphia exhibition, which closes on Jan. 21, is a performance space where the set pieces that Jasper Johns designed for a 1968 Cunningham ballet, “Walkaround Time,” are on display. Inspired by Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare,” which is part of Philadelphia’s permanent collection, Johns’s sets reproduce elements of the Duchamp work on clear plastic boxes that were moved about by the dancers in the original ballet. Other works tease out direct and indirect acts of homage, including Johns’s drawings from the 1970s and 1980s inspired by a related Duchamp painting, the 1912 “Bride,” and Rauschenberg’s 1959 “Bride’s Folly,” which may also be a reference to Duchamp. A 1947 Cage score, “Music for Marcel Duchamp,” is uncharacteristically direct in its reference, although another Cage work, a set of cryptically decorated Plexiglas panels made a year after Duchamp’s death in 1968, is more typically obscurantist: “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel.”

The spongy grammar and instinctual negation in “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” speak volumes: of a spiritual ethos that celebrated removing the ego from art, intentionality from the artistic process and art from its historic pedestal. Duchamp’s American grandchildren, chafing at the fetish for control and self-expression seemingly embodied by the dominant abstract expressionist movement, saw in their French predecessor a prophet for ideas which they would pursue with more fundamentalist vigor. They were inspired by his habitual irony, and by a mystical humility they projected onto him. He was a figurehead for their cult, which celebrated negation of self as somehow essential to liberating artistic meaning and energy.

But when seen side by side, the works of Duchamp and the works of his admirers come from very different places, the former birthed in the despair of World War I and Dada’s anguished cry against the established order, the later in a more bourgeois sense of spiritual alienation.

A mentor kept at a distance

Duchamp’s career, in retrospect, seems a succession of brilliant, subversive and anarchic gestures, often contradictory and negating what came before. In an early room of the exhibition, a series of works by Duchamp lays out almost the entire geography of the art world ever since, in a few bold and determining strokes. A 1913 musical score “Erratum Musical” is composed of notes drawn from a hat, a randomly derived score that prefigures a century’s worth of musical modernism. A 1920 Man Ray photograph of Duchamp “breeding” dust on one of the glass panels of “The Bride Stripped Bare” captures a random, cumulative archaeological landscape of dirt, and makes one think of Andy Warhol’s oxidation paintings from a half century later. Duchamp’s meticulously crafted “3 Standard Stoppages,” a set of wooden forms seemingly intended to be used as newly invented units for analysis or measurement, anticipates the pseudo-
scientific obsessions of so many contemporary artists who strive for documentary and archival rigor.

This early room of the exhibition undermines the later ones, magnifying Duchamp’s brilliance and eclipsing the all-too derivative repetitions of Johns and Rauschenberg. Duchamp’s work is meteoric and unrepeatable, overabundant with ideas, while Johns and Rauschenberg often pursued one or two ideas with subtle variations and refinements and a slow, cumulative impact.

Yet something about Duchamp required the Americans to keep him at a philosophical distance. In a 1973 interview, Cage played down anything like a mentor-
student relationship with Duchamp, saying “we never really talked about his work or my work.” Rauschenberg once wrote that it was “all but impossible to write about” Duchamp. Johns described him in similarly opaque ways.

For a group of ardent admirers, there is something rather uncharitable about the American non-disciples’ treatment of the great forefather, a backhanded, unemotional distancing of the man, a respectful but guarded tendency to cast a veil of inscrutability about him. The effect, today, seems almost aggressive, as if Duchamp’s influence was so profound it can’t be acknowledged and the man himself must be set apart, spinning wildly in some orbit unrelated to the real world. This is the classic anxiety of influence, no less powerful even when the relationship between artists skips a generation.

In final act, an artistic rebirth

What did Duchamp get out of it? Grandparents are by definition closer to death, and thus perhaps more directly concerned with what they leave behind and who will sustain their memory and protect their reputation. When Johns suggested the idea of a ballet inspired by “Bride Stripped Bare,” Duchamp had two reactions: He didn’t want to be involved in doing the work, but he wanted the “pieces” of his painting, rendered on plastic boxes held together by lightweight tubing, to be reassembled during the performance.

It was a strange request, in essence a negation of his usual patterns of negation. Rather than disassemble, contradict or refuse to give meaning, the dancers would give the painting a rebirth, a very primal, generative act, and seemingly at odds with so much of what Duchamp stood for. In fact, it was a gesture with a direct parallel to Duchamp’s last work, the great surprise of the 1946-66 “Etant Donnes,” in which an artist who had supposedly given up art for chess reconstructed many of the very things he had resisted throughout his career: a carefully controlled, literal and romantic depiction of a woman’s exposed genitals, seen through peep holes in a weird, diorama-like construct, connecting the work and the artist to a hoary but robust tradition of painting and voyeurism stretching back centuries.

The only way to describe the shock of this last work, which has been installed at the Philadelphia Museum since 1969, is to say that it is essentially Duchampian. And as one absorbs the relationship between Duchamp and his American admirers — so well controlled, so deeply woven into networks of irony and self-reference — nothing in their work of decades seems even remotely as transgressive and life-affirming as Duchamp’s mysterious final act of gratuitous creation.

Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp

on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, continues through Jan. 21. For more information, including admission charges, visit philamuseum.org.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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