50cc of Paris Air

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

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Through January 21, 2013

by Marcelino Stuhmer

 

 “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”  -Marcel Duchamp

 

Duchamp moved to New York in 1942; in the decades that followed, Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp would all become friends. They continued to work as individual artists, but their influence on one another and their collaborations were groundbreaking, inspiring, and in some cases lasted throughout their lives. Duchamp was a legendary artistic figure for them; his avant-garde ideas about the readymades were way ahead of their time, and the mysteries behind the Large Glass, 1915-1923, and in turn the Étant Donnés, 1946-1966, are as intellectually and visually confrontational today as they were then. Dancing Around the Bride is an excellent exhibition about the sophisticated imagination, imitation, translation, and dialogue of this super-group of visionaries.

The first gallery is filled with closely interwoven works. Arguably Duchamp’s most beautiful painting, Bride, 1912, is on view, as is John’s Untitled, 1986, a series of nine ink-on-plastic drawings that were variations of tracings of Duchamp’s Bride painting.  Duchamp’s drawing and written musical notation Erratum Musical, 1913, is a chance composition based on various definitions of the French word “imprimer” (to print), where syllables correspond to musical notes. John Cage exclaimed “Duchamp was making chance music the year I was born!” Cage’s own experiments with chance music, which started in the 1950’s, were based on the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of changes, which would result in his “chance operations.” Cage’s typed and hand-edited instructions for his controversial composition 4’33” is on view, calling to mind Sol LeWitt’s instructional drawings.

Cage composed Suite for Five, 1956, based on the imperfections he found on a sheet of paper; its instructions are hung next to Cunningham’s choreography drawing interpreting Cage’s composition, transcribing the imperfections on the paper as tempo and body movement. Cunningham’s wonderful drawing combines large and small concentric circles, quantifying spinning and lunging movements. In a separate part of the drawing are numbers, lines, and arrows written on top of notes in red pen with phrases and words describing physical movement. At the top right hand side in pencil are three vertical lists of numbers relating to time and space where he writes “begin at 14 to 6, 16, 7, 15, 16, 14…” in this wonderful set of notations the form of chance comes full circle between collaboration, music, space, rhythm, and movement.

 

Before entering the main gallery one is confronted with a photographic print of Duchamp’s Door 11, rue Larrey, 1964. The photograph depicts a manipulation in one of the corners of Duchamp’s apartment in Paris where two doors once led into two separate rooms; Duchamp removed one door and replaced it with a single door that could close either room, but of course only one at a time. Immediately following in the main exhibition space is Rauschenberg’s intense combine Interview, 1955. There is a door on Rauschenberg’s Interview as well, and as in Duchamp’s Door 11, rue Larrey it can close both ways, allowing you to see one open section or the other (if the door is closed), or both sections at once (if the door is open). Considering its contemporaneity with Abstract Expressionism, the complexity and explosion of found materials, slap dash painting (that seems slyly aware of its expressionist appearance), and implicit/explicit content must have been mind blowing at the time. Its list of readymade materials includes “oil, fabric, photographs, found painting, found drawing, lace, wood, envelope, found letter, printed reproduction, toweling, and newspaper on wood structure with brick, string, fork, softball, nail, metal hinges, and wood door.”1

 

A related Johns painting, Studio, 1964, is displayed on the other side of the main space. It is a large seven-and-a-half by twelve foot painting with cans strung on a wire and a tilted imprint of a door that connects at the bottom with a triangular cut-out section of wood, creating the illusion of one single door. Robert Rosenblum coined the term neo-Dada after seeing a group show including Johns and Rauschenberg. In a 1957 review called “Castelli Group” in Arts 31, he writes “Take Jasper Johns’ work…which is as hard to explain in its unsettling power as the reasonable illogicalities of a Duchamp ready-made. Is it blasphemous or respectful, simple-minded or recondite? One suspects here a vital new-Dada spirit.”2

 

However implicit or explicit, these interrelationships are fascinating on both a scholarly and artistic level. There is no mistaking the show’s didactic orientation, and most of the exhibition is playful yet terse, intuitive but deeply researched. For me as a viewer, the exhibit’s instructional approach led to some unforeseeable misgivings, such as the occasional frustration of trying to focus on the individual experience of any given work without its particular context being preconditioned. There are around twenty large pieces by Johns and Rauschenberg in the main gallery, all of which are well worth seeing, but not all are A-works by any means. These paintings and sculptures are scattered in date, style, and vision, making the overall selection of the larger works seem uneven: Rauschenberg tends to looks better and more consistent than Johns in this scenario.

In the final gallery is Rauschenberg’s sculpture Music Box (elemental Sculpture), 1953, a dark brown wooden crate (11 X 7¾ X 9¼ inches) with scores of rusty nails driven into the inside with three loose rocks; it is shown alongside Duchamp’s Hidden Noise, 1916, a ball of twine between two brass plates, joined by two long screws. In the exhibition catalog, there is a fantastic chronology, and in the section detailing 1953, Rauschenberg recalls seeing Duchamp at a group exhibition, “He picked up one of my sculptures. It was a box with nails and rocks in it. I knew who he was, and I was speechless…he turned the box over, knowing what was going to happen. He said, ‘I think I’ve heard that song.’”3 Also in this gallery is number 267/300 edition of Duchamp’s The Green Box, 1934, opened to reveal an inscription “for Jasper Johns,” one of just many gifts and works of homage from one artist to another.

 

The exhibition continues across the museum in the Modern and Contemporary section, and in the Duchamp galleries is arguably the world’s most important collection of his work. On the way, don’t miss the modern/contemporary hallway where there are normally just a few pieces by Joseph Cornell. There is now a large grouping of Cornells I’ve never seen, including several gorgeous examples of his work either borrowed from other institutions or taken out of storage. Cornell had a friendly and collaborative relationship with Duchamp, and a similar propensity for using found objects in his elusive surreal boxes.

 

Duchamp’s readymades are all on view in the main Duchamp gallery as is The Large Glass, 1915-1923. From his text “APROPOS OF “READYMADES,’” Duchamp explains, “THE CHOICE OF THESE READYMADES WAS NEVER DICTATED BY AN ESTHETIC DELECTATION. THIS CHOICE WAS BASED ON A REACTION OF VISUAL INDIFFERENCE WITH AT THE SAME TIME A TOTAL ABSENCE OF GOOD OR BAD TASTE…IN FACT A COMPLETE ANESTHESIA.4 The other artists in this exhibition also attempted to bypass personal taste through the use of found objects, invented processes, chance operations, and using found or invented systems and/or language to create their work.

 

For Duchamp, the Readymades and the Large Glass were honest attempts to erase the distance between art and life, and he believed in them as much as he believed in anything he had done prior. Only seven years before, Duchamp was still painting, and his investment in what he was doing was inimitable and unarguable. The Bride is painted with pure belief, yet this mechanical-organic bride would inspire Duchamp to create something truly different from anything that had been made up until that point: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bacherlors, even, 1915-1923 (also known as The Large Glass), and its accompanying collection of notes and documents, The Green Box, 1934. It remains inviting and provocative, one of the most enigmatic and important works of the first half of the 20th century. The Large Glass took 8 years to create but remained incomplete. Duchamp ironically and famously stated that it was completed by chance when the glass cracked during transportation in 1926. Duchamp said “It was a renunciation of all aesthetics in the ordinary sense of the word, not just another manifesto of new painting.”5 Duchamp had decisively moved away from the Cubists’ and Futurists’ understanding of painting as a visual experience towards something entirely new: the physics of perception, transparency, and the mechanical drawing of mass production.6

 

Duchamp died on October 2, 1968, predictably leaving behind no explanation of the Étant Donnés, giving scholars something more to think about. In the November 1968 issue of Art Forum, Jasper Johns wrote, “Marcel Duchamp, one of this century’s pioneering artists, moved his work through the retinal boundaries….of [painting] into a field where language, thought and vision act upon one another…His persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference altered our thinking, established new units of thought…The art community feels Duchamp’s presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here.”7

 

This exhibition shows quite clearly that Duchamp’s artistic philosophy and practice inspired Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and all who followed, to be experimental, conceptual, and playful, to create hybrid works that used concrete and ephemeral relationships between chance and reason, language and material, and between creating and living. In the most poetic of Duchamp’s readymades, the tiny French glass ornament called 50cc of Paris Air, 1919, Duchamp quietly but permanently erased the distance between art and life.

 

Notes:

1. Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle, editors, Dancing Around the Bride (Philadelphia Museum of

Art, 2012), 395.

2. Ibid, 319.

3. Ibid, 313.

4. quoted in Ibid, 331.

5. quoted in Dahlia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (University of Califonia Press,

Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1995), 53.

6. ibid, 53.

7. quoted in Ibid, 349

 

 

Marcelino Stuhmer received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is an interdisciplinary artist and has exhibited his work internationally. His painting, video, and mirror maze installation Get Ready to Shoot Yourself was on view at VOX VIII at Vox Populi in summer 2012. He is an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and Painting Program Coordinator at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.



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