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.