The Barbican’s latest exhibition – which opens on 14 February – looks at Marcel Duchamp’s influence on the work of four modern masters: composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. We speak to Carlos Basualdo, the exhibition’s curator.
- Who are the bride and the bachelors?
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23) is one of Duchamp’s masterpieces. The bride towers regally over the labouring bachelors. The figure of the bride appeared for the first time in Munich in the summer of 1912 in an extraordinary painting entitled Bride. She is caught between the organic and the mechanical worlds – her body looks strangely like the section of a machine made with metal as well as leather and flesh. The figure of the bride is repeated in The Large Glass, which is divided into two sections, with the nine bachelors in the lower half (the first drawings included only eight of them). The bride above is perhaps a figure of transformation and desire. In the notes for The Green Box [an album of material intended to complement the visual experience] Duchamp describes in detail the different sections of the Large Glass and the interactions between bachelors and bride. The bachelors desire the bride, while she seems to reject them – but seductively so.
- It’s 100 years since Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No 2) (1912) sparked controversy after being shown at the historic Amory Show in New York in 1913. It was said by one critic to resemble an ‘explosion in a shingle factory’. Why did it invoke such a strong reaction?
Duchamp was young when he painted this work, in his early twenties. He was the son of a notary and had two older brothers – Jacques Villon (1875–1963) and Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876–1918) – who eventually became artists, and he followed. They were both interested in Cubism and although Duchamp was curious, he was never keen on its formal aspect but mostly focused on the thinking processes behind it. For example, his 1911 Portrait of Chess Players seems to be concerned with the intellectual process behind the game of chess, the mental state of the players. The same can perhaps be said about Nude. Duchamp was preoccupied with the different stages of ‘being’ that the nude traverses while moving down the stairs. This was important because he was neither a Cubist nor a Futurist, properly speaking. He was a member of the Independents and entered Nude for exhibition at their Salon, but Albert Gleizes (1881–1953) expressed strong concerns about the work and Duchamp was stunned. Later that year the painting was shown at the Salon d’Automne where it didn’t cause a stir, but at the Armory in 1913 it was seen as completely scandalous. The audience was not used to such a dose of modern art and people were shocked.
- How relevant do you think Duchamp is to contemporary art?
He was very relevant for the four artists represented here – and I believe that he remains relevant today. It’s inconceivable to think of contemporary art without Duchamp. He still offers young artists the possibility to open so many doors in their own work.
- The artist and film-maker Philippe Parreno has been involved in the design of the show. What is his contribution to the viewer’s experience?
Absolutely crucial. I worked very closely with Erica Battle [Project Curatorial Assistant at Philadelphia Museum of Art] on the exhibition and we were uncertain as to how to make the show work as a whole with such different art forms: sets, music, manuscripts, drawings and so on. There were all these disparate elements and we needed to provide visitors with a singular experience. Philippe has been working with the experience of time in his show for years – Erica and I saw his show at the Serpentine and loved it. He has made a number of extraordinary interventions including the soundscape for the exhibition and other works closely related to the materials on display. He truly makes the show come to life.
- What has prompted an exhibition exploring these four artists’ connections to the work of Duchamp?
The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds the largest collection of Duchamp’s work. It also has a permanent gallery devoted to Jasper Johns and a history of relations with all of these artists. This exhibition is fundamentally about collaboration, a model for being together, working together. I’ve been thinking about it on and off for about five years, but it was around two-and-a-half years in the making. Erica and I wanted to work with the dancers from the Cunningham Company which disbanded in late 2011, so we couldn’t wait too long or the opportunity would have been lost.
- What, for you, has been the most exciting thing about putting the show together?
It’s been enriching to have an opportunity to study and learn about these artists. Working with Jasper Johns has been a privilege: he’s a constant source of inspiration. I feel glad to have had a chance to work closely with Philippe and with the dancers – and of course with Erica, to whom I am deeply indebted. The show itself has been all about collaboration.
- What do you hope audiences will gain from seeing the exhibition?
I hope they will leave the show wanting to come back, and thinking that – as the artist Robert Filliou put it – ‘art is what makes life more interesting than art.’
Interviewed by Juliet Hardwicke – originally published in the February 2013 edition of the Barbican Guide. The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns runs from 14 February–9 June. Find out more about the Barbican’s “Dancing around Duchamp” season of events here.