The work of Duchamp hangs on the precipice of taste. His abject rejection to the safe confines of conventional art caused a furore that – among his other ‘readymade’ works – has the curators of the Barbican labelling him as the definitive artist for the 20th century.
All this for a man who crudely signed a pseudonym on a carefully placed, porcelain urinal? The icon for the great debate on conceptual art, Fountain, sits centre stage in the just opened, multi-disciplinary Barbican exhibition The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns. 100 years after his first readymade, Bicycle Wheel (1913) the exhibition aims to explore Duchamp’s work through a new lens – the one defined by the relationships he held with these close contemporaries.
It’s the realisation that many of these early, seminal works displayed are in fact replicas that the real conversation begins. The Fountain (1950) we view was created over 30 years after the 1917 original. Bicycle Wheel (1964) was re-commissioned by Duchamp long after his first from 1913 was lost in the First World War. Interesting arguments of authenticity aside (if the artist authorises it, as Duchamp did, who is to argue it is not an original?) it is the timing that is key. Fountain was authorised for the 1950 exhibition Challenge and Defy, which helped introduce his work again to an entirely different art world, and to a new generation of artists who would in turn help to re-contextualise and appropriate his work.
What feels revelatory is that we are experiencing the second wind in his career for the first time. It is a bit of a Duchamp dinner party, really, with all the formidable members of the New York Dada revelling in their host’s revere. The series of plastic set pieces which hang in the centre of the gallery, based on Duchamp’s The Large Glass (also on display) and later used as stage art in Cunningham’s performance Walkaround Time (1968) actually came from a discussion one evening at Duchamp’s home with Cunningham and Johns. They hang alongside the stage and an illusory and pragmatic programme of contemporary dance and choreography.
The intricacies of the relationships and references between the works can become tenuous, but this structure is the defining point of the exhibition. Radical? Maybe not, but the works remain so. Re-invigorate one of the best debates of the exhibition upstairs with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. (The great divide – I fell in love with his glossy justification of ‘the reflection of ideas’ seeing a triptych from the series at the SF MOMA years ago; my present company at the time decided their ‘painter decorator could do better.’)
Considering Duchamp’s technically brilliant painting Nude descending a staircase (No. 2) (1912) was rejected by the hanging committee at the Society of Independent Art in Paris because a ‘nude never descends the stairs – a nude reclines,’ it’s safe to say the boundaries of what classes as art will always continue to be redefined.
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns shows at the Barbican until 9 June 2013