Barbican Art Gallery
14 February – 9 June 2013
|Duchamp's Large Glass. Philadelphia Museum of Art. From here.|
Duchamp's ambiguous legacy, both in his own terms and in terms of the art he influenced, doesn't distract from his originality and power.
This is a confusing exhibition. Duchamp’s works – among which may be the 25 years he pretended to be only a chess player – are complicated enough.
But this show also explores his influence on a later generation of artists in the US: the visual artists Rauschenberg and Johns, the composer Cage and the choreographer Cunningham.
Finally, an additional level of complexity is introduced by the curator, Philippe Parreno, who arranges ‘ghost piano’ versions of Cage’s work, ‘ghost dancer’ sounds of Cunningham’s and recordings of these artists speaking about their lives, inspirations, etc.
The exhibition is arranged thematically, which isn’t necessarily helpful, though the catalogue provides the works chronologically. The catalogue is also fairly dense, an anthology of writings as well as essays on these artists.
Amidst all of this information overload, it’s still possible to be impressed by the French master.
Quite properly, the exhibition ignores the obvious irony that an artist who explicitly sought to demystify his profession should have become talismanic to later artists.
Several of Duchamp’s greatest works are here, at least in replica, and they convey a good sense of his power and development, in much the same way as would be true of any great artist.
He appears to have pioneered all aspects of conceptual art, from chance and found objects to installations and performance.
I think the finest of the works from the later artists is Not wanting to say anything about Marcel, by Cage. The title sums up my feelings on Duchamp, while of course also attempting to use some of his ideas (in this case randomness, wordplay and painted glass) to create something interesting.
As the exhibition proves, whatever the master did, no matter how hard he tried to create anti-art, his ideas became the reference point for further variations, many of them interesting artworks.
A replica of his masterpiece, the Large Glass, justifiably dominates the exhibition, though his infamous sculptures were more influential (and we see them too).
It has surprising ‘wall power’, especially as it is free standing yet cannot be appreciated except from the front, as with more traditional paintings. Presumably it is an abstract – and sexualised – version of the Assumption, and a version that implies the physical mechanisms of the body while maintaining something of the spiritual mystery and yearning of the traditional concept.
It’s magnificent, but still within the boundaries of traditional ideas of art, boundaries that Duchamp was quixotically eager to destroy.
His US followers may also have wanted this, but were no more successful. Except, I suppose, in the sense that bad art, uninteresting art, is truly anti-artistic.
Much of this stuff is bad. John’s bronze casting of his paintpot has no appeal, especially subversive appeal, whereas Duchamp’s playful revising of an enamel tin is at least enjoyable, if frivolous.
Cage’s music, and Cunningham’s choreography, if it works, does so in spite of knowing the random methods employed. They may as well be created in the traditional manner.
Whereas Duchamp’s wonky versions of the standardised metre length raise the question of why a straight line should be our standard metric, rather than any other. Probably for aesthetic reasons, rather than mathematical ones; so here the artwork challenges this aesthetic notion.
I could continue: the artists, the catalogue, the mise en scene deserve it. But with limited space, I’ll finish by observing that MD was something of a dead-end, such that those he influenced were forced to be creative in a different way if they were to succeed. This is probably as close to anti-art as it is possible to get.