One of the most influential, infuriating works in the entire history of art, this porcelain pissoir was bought from an ironmongers, JL Mott, on Fifth Avenue, turned upside-down and then signed ‘R Mutt’, before being rejected for exhibition a few weeks later. ‘He CHOSE it’, said a written explanation at the time. ‘He took an ordinary article of life and created a new thought for that object.’
Forty years after Duchamp’s invention of the ‘readymade’, Johns became renowned foe his hand-made versions of manufactured objects, such as flags, targets, beer cans and here, some paint brushes in a tin. However, he laboriously painted over his bronze casts, both reinforcing and negating them as objects. Johns praised ‘Duchamp’s wit and high common sense, his brilliantly inventive questioning of visual, mental and verbal focus and order.’
Duchamp’s mysterious masterpiece, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (1915-23), was also known as ‘The Large Glass’ because its imagery was sandwiched in between two panes of glass in a transparent, window-like frame. Rauschenberg’s use of layered silk-screens also allowed his materials to float around the picture, here combining images of war, dance and a photographic homage to Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’.
Just as Cage’s music was atonal and often randomly generated, so too were his few visual works of art, such as these prints, which he made by dropping portions of rope or string dipped in coloured inks. Duchamp’s earlier piece ‘3 Standard Stoppages’ (1914) was a canvas with three pieces of metre-long string that had been dropped and then glued in the position of its chance landing.
Metaphorically at least, we’ve spent a whole century dancing around Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), either hailing his legacy as liberator of art from historical restraints, or else bemoaning his decision to display shop-bought objects as art works in their own right, opening the floodgates for art as any-old-nonsense. Indeed his ‘Bottlerack’, ‘Bicycle Wheel’ (replicas of 1913-14 originals) and ‘Fountain’ (the upside-down urinal of 1917) are all trotted out again in this exhibition, like trophies or emblems of some victory for concept over content, whereas they represented severe defeats and career setbacks in Duchamp’s day.
It took a good 50 years for artists to start coming around to his unfettered way of thinking, which is why the Barbican transports us to mid-century New York, where a small circle of Duchamp admirers began rediscovering this exiled Frenchman, who’d spent much of the past few decades in America, playing chess and refusing to make any more art. The show’s title, ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ refers not just to Duchamp’s famously complex glass piece of the same name, but to his position as the cross-dressing object of affection (his female alter-ego was called Rrose Sélavy) to four young suitors: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
The first pair, Cage and Cunningham, were actually life partners to one another and exponents of the most modern forms of music and dance imaginable, certainly influenced by the kind of chance encounters Duchamp had proposed in his 1913 ‘Erratum Musical’, which he scored by pulling notes from a hat. This and other sounds play intermittently in the galleries, the most incongruous of which is a disturbing version of Cage’s famous four minutes of silence, “4’33”, which is piped in from the incredibly noisy, traffic-filled tunnel running beneath the Barbican itself.
The two painters in this devout bunch, Rauschenberg and Johns, were captivated by Duchamp’s mechanistic figures in the ‘Large Glass’ and ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912) on a trip to the Philadelphia Museum (where many of these pieces and this show originated), after which they received a state visit from the reclusive artist himself at their studios on Front Street.
Like true acolytes, this quartet paid homage to their grandmaster through assemblages of Duchampian found objects or ‘readymades’, randomly systematised musical compositions or choreography and wilfully perverse acts of painting (such as the terrific and dark ‘No’ by Johns of 1961). Incredibly, even New York’s finest couldn’t beat the old chess-player at his own game, failing ever to get to grips with the complex plumbing and symbolism behind his ‘Bride’ or checkmate his kingly, but seemingly unmappable mental moves. But no matter, it’s worth watching them try in Cage’s feverish notations, Rauschenberg’s magnificent, layered stage sets or Cunningham’s stilted dance routines, many of which are being performed live in the exhibition.
None of this undoubtedly fab four was quite as theatrical, obtuse or witty as the big D (who they simply referred to as Marcel). ‘I can’t get along without Duchamp,’ said Cage once. ‘I literally believe Duchamp made it possible for us to live as we do’. They clearly couldn’t live without him and his ideas, but artistically, then as now, no one has ever been able to live with him, either.
Latest art features
Juergen Teller has curated a new show of mega rare photographs by the great Robert Mapplethorpe. We got him to explain why you need to careRead more
It’s a little bit funny, but Elton John’s got a great collection of modernist photography. As Tate Modern picks the best bits for its new show, 'The Radical Eye', we ask the Rocket Man what fuels his photographic loveRead more
London is jam-packed full of beautiful art, and it's not all tucked away in museums and galleries. So much of it is out in the streets, waiting to be admired, touched and clambered on (don't climb Nelson's Column, you will be arrested). So we pulled together a shortlist of the best public sculptures in London, and then we opened the vote out to the public. It shows that Londoners love art, they love fun, and they love having sculptures available to all.Read more
Artist David Shrigley has made a huge thumbs-up sculpture for the Fourth Plinth. So our Art editor Eddy Frankel asked him to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to some important London stuff...Read more
This year, the annual Hyundai Commission for Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall has fallen into the hands of Philippe Parreno. As expected, the French artist has gone big, gone grand, and gone and filled the space with bio-reactors, helium canisters and loads of fish. Plan your perfect visit with our guide here – featuring exhibition details, exclusive pictures and a chance to win tickets to an after-hours evening view.Read more
The Turbine Hall has been filled with lights, screens, speakers and inflatable fish by the brilliant French artist Philippe Parreno. He sees his installation as a giant object made of many parts, all of which move and interact. But even though it’s all choreographed like a whacked-out art ballet, it’s designed to constantly realign in new ways. You’ll never see it the same way twice.Read more
To celebrate our partnership with the Tate Modern, we're giving away 125 pairs of tickets to an exclusive after-hours view of Philippe Parreno's new Hyundai Commission in the Turbine Hall. The event will take place on the evening on Monday October 24 2016, including drinks and a talk with the show's curator. Enter our ballot here.Read more
London has been dominated by the biggest contemporary carnival, Frieze London, for over fifteen years – the place to see and be seen taking in all that the international art world has to offer. Six years ago it was joined by its sister fair Frieze Masters, which bridges the gap between ancient and mid-century, making the double Frieze Fair phenomenon a force to be reckoned with every October.Read more
The RA is staging the first major abstract expressionism show in the UK for 60 years. Here's all you need to know about the art movement in six simple stepsRead more
You might also like
- Catherine Ince on Pop Art Design
- Stan Douglas interview: 'I've always thought of disco as a utopian space'
- Patrick Staff Interview: ‘I was too angry, emotional and queer to do anything other than art’
- Joyce Pensato interview: 'I don’t want the work to be nice or sweet'
- 'Soundscapes' at the National Gallery: your ultimate guide