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.