No other museum in the world could have staged this exhibition. Only the Philadelphia Museum of Art has the Arensberg Collection – including its extensive Duchamp holdings (“the largest and most significant collection of works by Marcel Duchamp” in the world). That means it has the Large Glass (which only traveled a couple of times before it came to Philadelphia, and look what that did to it …). Even more important it has Duchamp’s sometime ‘secret work’ Étant Donnés … which, given that it is actually built into the museum’s architecture is even less transportable than the Large Glass. (A version of the show will in fact travel to the Barbican in London next spring, but that will inevitably offer a much-diminished experience.)
It is not as if these two key Duchamp works are just vaguely relevant trophies, either. The subject matter of both pieces lies at the centre of this splendid and thought provoking exhibition. For, as the show’s title makes plain, alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Bob Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Duchamp himself, the so-called “Bride” that inhabits much of Duchamp’s art is the sixth personality that it features.
More than that, the Philadelphia Museum itself is part of the history that this show revisits: after Robert Rosenblum described Johns as “a vital neo-Dada spirit” in a 1957 review, he and Rauschenberg decided to travel to Philadelphia to see the Duchamps on show there. It was their first exposure to a substantial body of his work, and a key artistic experience for both of them – though you probably don’t need the evidence of this show to realize that.
The network of influence around the artists featured here is well-worked territory, and it has not only been explored repeatedly in writing (including in this recent unfortunate example) but at least partially in exhibitions as well. What makes the current show unique however (and unmissable in my opinion) is how literally its title is intended. Not only is the Dancing intended metaphorically, it is very much part of the experience of the exhibition. At the very center of the show’s principal gallery a full-size dance stage has been installed and, between now and the show’s closure in January there will be almost thirty performances of Cunningham’s work there. In addition, the music of John Cage and his contemporaries and followers is piped continuously into the exhibition space. There will in addition be a whole series of Cage concerts (as part of the Philadelphia-wide Cage: Beyond Silence centennial festival) and one of the exhibit’s loveliest touches is the inclusion of two beautiful Yamaha grand Disklavier player pianos – one of which has even been ‘prepared’ according to Cage’s instructions – which robotically play his solo piano works in different parts of the museum.
For someone like myself who has been convinced for years that performance tends to get overlooked in most histories of modern and contemporary art, these curatorial decisions come as delightful evidence and vindication. After all, not only did both Rauschenberg and Johns provide sets and costumes for the Cunningham company’s pieces, they were also makers of performance in their own right. And Duchamp’s interconnections of art and life – whether it was masquerading as Rrose Sélavy (another of the Bride’s multiple personalities) or more obviously working on the Étant Données in secret for all those years that he let it be understood that he had retired from art making – amount to one of the great performance oeuvres of the twentieth century.
If an exhibition of five such differently inventive artists can be thought to have a central theme, then it is the artistic exchanges between them. And by this I mean the entire range of influence, borrowings, collaborations, quotations, dedications and homages. This fact runs deep through the show’s curation, and is emphasized in its hanging. Johns’ Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara) is displayed so close to Duchamp’s Torture Morte (made only two years before Johns began his piece) that their plinths actually touch;
Rauschenberg’s Express (1963), with its obvious paraphrase of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, actually hangs between the 1912 and 1916 versions of that painting;
and perhaps most fundamental, Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960-64) sits adjacent to the 1950 reproduction of Duchamp’s (lost original) 1917 Fountain.
I say most fundamental, because it was somewhere around Fountain that Duchamp started all the trouble.
This was Duchamp’s essential legacy (to which the other artists in this show, and its curators, return over and again): he demonstrated that ordinary things can be art. Like most radical reversals of everything that had previously been believed, Duchamp’s action was at its center disarmingly simple. He took a real object from the world and transmuted it into art by simply signing it, and coming up with what he called “a new thought for that object”.
Though the central act is simple, its implications are vast. That a work of art might be brought into existence by a mere act of choice questions the entire concept of the artist’s taste (and also the spectator’s). That an artist need have no involvement in the crafting of an object draws skeptical attention to the notion of skill as a part of what makes an artist exceptional. (As we are often reminded, Duchamp was particularly fond of the expression “stupid like a painter”.) That an artist might make art simply because he found it “amusing” (as Duchamp put it more than once) throws into question the whole nature of artistic motivation. And so it goes on … These ideas established a deep and rich seam of intellectual and technical material that Cage, Cunningham, Johns and Rauschenberg – and Duchamp himself, obviously – would mine in one way or another for their entire lives. (And which, to state the rather self-evident, is still apparently irresistible to artists today.)
Cage’s inclusion of noise and silence in his musical compositions, and his use of chance to determine their character; Cunningham’s inclusion of “non-dance” movements in his work and his practice of choreographing and rehearsing without any reference to the music that would feature in his dance’s eventual public performance; Johns’ making a painting of a flag or a target, or allowing a pivoting school ruler do the painting for him; Rauschenberg’s erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning or making “combines” (neither paintings nor sculptures) in the “gap between art and life”: all of these things are aspects of this wonderfully irreverent and celebratory Duchampian direction in contemporary art. I didn’t need this exhibition to remind me that this is the most significant ethos to have emerged from modernist art making, but it was lovely to have it illustrated again.
A quick word about the beautiful catalogue. Appropriately enough it is a virtuoso example of the bookbinder’s art: three books in one cover. The first one is far more than a catalogue of this show, rather it is a reader around the artists in the exhibition and will undoubtedly have a lifespan somewhat greater than most exhibition catalogues. The second book is a chronology. Nowadays chronologies are a standard component of exhibition catalogues, and they tend generally to be interesting. This one is absolutely fascinating and includes a lot of anecdotal and historical stuff that even someone with the sort of familiarity with this material as I enjoy will find novelty in. The third is the necessary picture book. I recommend the ensemble wholeheartedly.