Barbican Art Gallery, London
14 February–9 June 2013
by REBECCA WRIGHT
In fact the hold of the bride is so strong that it is impossible for artists today to perform so much as a simple jig without returning to dance once again around this mysterious woman; even now, it appears her powers of seduction go unchallenged. The longevity and pervasiveness of this perennial dance means that the recent show at the Barbican Art Gallery, The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is long overdue. Yet, whilst this exhibition claims to stage the inaugural dance, (the earlier exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the catalogue are entitled Dancing around the Bride), this Duchampian dance now appears somehow out of step. It makes sense that the curators modelled this exhibition on the dynamics of Cunningham's dance, inspired by the curators’ witnessing of the Merce Cunningham memorial dance in New York in 2009 in which “each dancer's individual movements – like non-sequiturs jumping from sentence to sentence – were seamlessly subsumed by a larger, temporary whole, only to part ways again in a refusal of linear time and narrative necessity”.1 Yet despite this indeterminate dance “around the Bride”, it appears that the exhibition somehow surrounds her, closing her off, whilst sucking up all of her vital air.
In order to “dance around the bride”, the curatorial approach used in this exhibition draws inspiration directly from Duchamp himself. This includes interventions into the fabric of the exhibition by contemporary artist Philippe Parreno, situating the curatorial strategy somewhere between art and exhibition design. In a form of mimesis, the exhibition layout reflects the internal structure of the work exhibited. The poetics of indeterminacy so central to the artists’ practice is woven through the exhibition design. This is evident in the wide range of works in the exhibition, which includes painting, sculpture, stage-sets, musicological objects, musical notations and ready-mades, all of which resonate off one another so that no single authorial voice or artistic strategy dominates. Further, in order then to avoid a coherent narrative structure (something that these artists so avidly fought against) the exhibition does away with chronology, instead clustering the works by way of theme, such as chance, absence and presence, and art and life. Although on entry to the exhibition we are positioned chronologically at the beginning of this meta-history, through a confrontation with Duchamp's early work Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) on the opposite side of the gallery this is paired with Rauschenberg's 1963 silkscreen Express. This latter work visually echoes the former by incorporating a montage of a nude in locomotion, thus neatly tying up both halves of a century through a formal affinity.
In place of a chronological structure, all the works in the show are positioned around a Duchampian axis. This is explained in the introductory catalogue essay, in which the curators note that “with this peculiar temporal logic, more attuned to the “mirrorical returns” characteristic of Duchamp's work rather than that of cause and effect.”2 These creative relationships are figured by way of either a direct reference, a homage to the grand master, or an evocation of some form of Duchampian spirit. This even extends to works produced before the four artists had met Duchamp, and when they were still unaware of his work. Pieces that prefigure Rauschenberg's interaction with Duchamp such as his White Paintings, (1951) are presented as responding to some amorphous spirit of Duchamp, which pervaded the era. Within the exhibition, the before-Duchamp and the after-Duchamp become somewhat confused. At times the exhibition claims direct lineage between the former master and his devotees, while at other points reduces this relationship to something merely floating in the air. The Cage-Cunningham-Rauschenberg Johns constellation also dematerialises into a vague and untenable élan. Nowhere in the exhibition are their individual and communal trajectories elucidated. We read that these artists existed within a strong friendship circle, whilst details about irreconcilable fall-outs are provided but never fully explained. Although Cunningham and Cage, and Rauschenberg and Johns, respectively, were lovers, any sense of personal intimacy beyond the aesthetic is curiously absent from the exhibition. The main biographical information provided details their engagement with Duchamp. Yet, if one is unclear as to the dynamics between the four artists themselves, this information is somewhat hard to position.
Where the exhibition does establish clear relationships, the excellent catalogue fills in for its dearth of contextual information. It is a rich anthology divided into three illuminating sections. The first, “curated” by Reinaldo Laddaga, is a compilation of essays which trace the historical connections linking these different artists, and explains the joint reception and interpretive cornels which brought them together. The second section consists of an extensive timeline constructed by Paul B. Franklin. The intimate description of the artists' meetings, their first show and associated events, paints a detailed picture of their complicated relationships. We learn that Cage and Johns dined at Duchamp's apartment on 2 March 1966, and that on 31 December 1976 Johns gave Teeny Duchamp a circular ink drawing of interlocking targets, when, having been confined to her bed, and confessed that after “spending all her time on her back staring at the ceiling, she had wished there could be a dot for her to look at”.3 The plethora of detail builds up a rich fabric of events, individual perspectives and nostalgic reminisces which allow us to trace our own individual path through this era. Evocative essays by Calvin Tomkins, well known for his seminal biography of the artists entitled The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (1965), also bring to life the artistic milieu which seems strangely absent from the exhibition. In one essay by Tomkins we are at once relocated back to post-war New York, to Rauschenberg's industrial loft, watching him as he pauses work “to refill a large tumbler with ice cubes and Jack Daniels, whose levels declined, slowly but not too slowly as he worked”.4 Though Tomkins notes in his introduction to the aforementioned book that the most commonly held attitude at the time was that “art is not so interesting or important a business as daily life”,5 it appears that in this show “everyday life” is pointedly siphoned off into the catalogue, leaving its less interesting partner, art, to dominate the gallery space.
This would not be a problem for a group who privileged art above all else, but for a group who privileged everyday life this feels somewhat contradictory. It must be understood that biographical, authorial details are ancillary to the sort of “life” these artists fought for, advocating instead indeterminate sounds or the trace of light on a certain part of the canvas. But despite the group’s privileging of absence (as the epitome of life) over the stability of meaning, what becomes apparent in this show is that within any museum environment, absence only really functions if one is saturated with enough information to really enjoy that absence. We appreciate Rauschenberg's White Paintings not because they are in fact white paintings, but because we know that they hung in the rafters during the first ever live happening at Black Mountain College in 1951, and because Cage left a residual image of them, conceiving them as "landing strips" for dust, light and shadow. We cannot forget that Cage later recounted how, during the first performance of his famous piece 4'33” (1952), people did not recognise that it was intended to incorporate life, but instead “began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn't laugh – they were irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven't forgotten it 30 years later: they're still angry”.6
Lacking a point of reference or a strategy of activation, absence such as that evoked in 4’33” remains curiously absent. For it is only with the rhetorical framing of this absence that presence can be truly appreciated. Indeterminacy, or the supposed lack of meaning cannot on its own be interesting until we know why indeterminacy is itself important. As such, in this exhibition, by privileging indeterminacy as a curatorial strategy, what happens, ironically, is that the artworks appear strangely devoid of life. Rather than seeing the cogs of the bride’s machine start up, turn over and move on, they remain stationary. They appear jammed. In this jamming, this seizing up of objects, what we see is not the amalgamation of art and life; instead, this dance around the bride has a contrary effect, not so much reconnecting the space between art and life, but in fact sucking the life out of art.
1. C Basualdo and E Battle, ‘Openness and Grace’ in C. Basualdo, C. Tomkins, of Art., and C. Exhibition Dancing around the Bride: Cage Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp.,, Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp; [published on the occasion of the exhibition “Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp”, Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 30, 2012 - Janu. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art [u.a.], 2012. p. 19.
3. P. Franklin, ‘Between Art and Life, art as life: a chronology of the lives and work of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, in C. Basualdo, C. Tomkins, Philadelphia Museum of Art., and C. Exhibition Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp.,, Dancing around the Bride : Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp; [published on the occasion of the exhibition “Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp”, Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 30, 2012 - Janu. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art [u.a.], 2012. p. 355.
4. C. Tomkins, ‘Asking the questions’, in C. Basualdo, C. Tomkins, Philadelphia Museum of Art., and C. Exhibition Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp., Dancing around the Bride : Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp; [published on the occasion of the exhibition “Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp”, Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 30, 2012 - Janu. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art [u.a.], 2012. p. 31.
5. C. Tomkins, Introduction to “The Bride and The Bachelors” in C. Basualdo, C. Tomkins, Philadelphia Museum of Art., and C. Exhibition Dancing around the Bride: Cage Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp., Dancing around the Bride : Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp; [published on the occasion of the exhibition “Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp”, Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 30, 2012 - Janu. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art [u.a.], 2012. p. 53.