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Marcel Duchamp: Between Art and Life

In this specially commissioned essay, art historian Paul B. Franklin explores the rich connections between the artists featured in our Dancing around Duchamp season.

Focusing on the life, work, and legacy of the French-born artist Marcel Duchamp, the Barbican Centre’s multi-disciplinary season of events – Dancing around Duchamp – demonstrates the extent to which Duchamp’s revolutionary ideas transformed avant-garde music, dance, theatre, film, and the visual arts.

At the centre of Dancing around Duchamp is The Bride and the Bachelors, a groundbreaking exhibition exploring the rich dialogues between Duchamp, the composer John Cage, the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1963, Duchamp admitted: ‘Art doesn’t interest me. Artists interest me.’ As the exhibition illustrates, one cannot fully comprehend the tremendous impact that Duchamp’s work had on Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns without also grappling with the influence that he, as a person, had on them. For these younger artists, Duchamp the man was just as fundamental to their aesthetic development as Duchamp the artist. Weeks after Duchamp died in October 1968, Johns confessed: ‘His persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference altered our thinking….The art community feels Duchamp’s presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here.’ Near the end of his own life, Cage confirmed: ‘I literally believe that Duchamp made it possible for us to live as we do.’

Duchamp was born in 1887 into a bourgeois family. Following in the footsteps of his two older brothers, who were artists, he realized in first serious artworks in 1902. His brothers also taught him to play chess, which became a lifelong passion.

Grappling with Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, Duchamp developed his mature style in the early 1910s in paintings like Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, presenting a mechanized human body. In 1913, he mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool, the first of several found objects that he dubbed ‘readymades’ and declared works of art. In fact, when Rauschenberg first encountered Bicycle Wheel, he acknowledged: ‘I thought that was the most fantastic piece of sculpture I’d ever seen.’ Whether a bicycle wheel, bottle rack, or urinal, Duchamp’s readymades offered answers to a question that he first posed in 1913: ‘Can one make works that are not works ‘of art’?’ Like the readymades, chance, which Duchamp also embraced in 1913, enabled him to suggest alternative answers to this same question.

At the same time that Duchamp’s readymades and his use of chance redefined art and art making, he commenced his most ambitious project, a painting on glass entitled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, commonly known as the Large Glass. Begun in 1915, shortly after he landed in New York, and left definitively unfinished in 1923, the Large Glass is an abstract meditation on the mechanization of heterosexual desire that incorporates Duchamp’s interest in physics, perspective, chance, the poetics of language, and eroticism. 

Duchamp painted his last canvas in 1918, and little of what he produced over the next fifty years qualified as high art at the time. He made fleeting appearances around Europe and America, designing catalogues, books, posters, and exhibition installations. He also adopted a drag persona, played tournament chess, fabricated optical machines, and carefully reproduced miniature replicas and reproductions of his works for inclusion in a portable museum. Executed under or off the artistic radar, so as not to be co-opted by the art market, such activities did little to diminish Duchamp’s status. In 1945, his close friend Man Ray argued: ‘Those who say you do not work any more are crazy….The most insignificant thing you do is a thousand times more interesting and fruitful than the best that can be said or done by your detractors.’ In 1966, Rauschenberg professed: ‘I’ve always found it difficult to talk about Marcel Duchamp’s works specifically….He means more to me as a man who has pursued a particular point of view that was uncommon and remains uncommon….His recognition of…the artfulness of everything…is probably his most important contribution.’

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Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage first saw Duchamp’s work in 1935, five years after he commenced writing music. ‘He’s one of the artists whom I admired most,’ Cage attested in 1971. The two men met in the summer of 1942 in New York, where they both had relocated. Two years earlier, Cage had altered the musical possibilities of the piano, inserting found objects, such as pieces of rubber, screws, or bolts, into the instrument so that it produced new timbers when its strings were plucked, scraped, or otherwise manipulated. In 1950, he started to compose using chance. Declaring all sounds musical, Cage wrote 4’33” in 1952, a silent work inspired both by Rauschenberg’s monochromatic White Paintings and Duchamp. The ambient sounds in and around the performance space became the ‘music,’ the audial equivalent of Duchamp’s readymades. As Cage advised in 1962: ‘One way to write music: study Duchamp.’ In the hope of observing Duchamp more closely, Cage asked him for chess lessons in 1965. Years later, he revealed: ‘What I wanted to do was to be with him!…Chess was simply a pretext.’

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Cunningham was born in 1919 in Centralia, Washington. He met Cage in autumn 1938 while studying dance, and moved to New York the following year to perform with Martha Graham. In summer 1942, Cunningham reunited with Cage, who probably introduced him to Duchamp shortly thereafter. Cunningham and Cage commenced a romantic relationship in early 1943, which endured until the latter’s death in 1992. They gave their first joint recital, consisting solely of their own work, in New York in April 1943. ‘I date my beginning from this concert,’ Cunningham disclosed. Structured around time units, the music and choreography came together at the end of each section, but otherwise remained independent, a collaborative system that Cunningham employed throughout his career. Like Cage, Cunningham first utilized chance in his choreography in 1951. Two years later, he established his own dance company, which he directed until his death in 2009. Cage served as musical director, and Rauschenberg and Johns were artistic advisors during different periods. ‘Merce is my favorite artist in any field,’ Johns declared. In 1968, Cunningham choreographed Walkaround Time, a tribute to Duchamp and the Large Glass for which Johns designed the set and costumes.

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Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, Rauschenberg took up painting during World War II. Settling in New York in 1949, he discovered Duchamp’s work in 1951, and met Cage and Cunningham at his first solo exhibition that same year. The three men collaborated for the first time in August 1952 at Black Mountain College. In fall 1953, during another exhibition of his work in New York, Rauschenberg met Duchamp, who noticed similarities between one of Rauschenberg’s sculptures, made from found objects, and a readymade. A year latter, Rauschenberg introduced found objects into his paintings. In fact, allusions to Duchamp appeared in his work until his death in 2008.

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Johns was born in Georgia in 1930, and grew up in South Carolina. He became vaguely aware of Duchamp in 1947, while in art school. Moving to New York in late 1948, he realized his first mature artworks four years latter. Johns met Rauschenberg in fall 1953, and recalled: ‘Bob was the first person I knew who was a real artist.’ They began a romantic relationship in 1954, which lasted seven years. Also in 1954, Johns met Cage and Cunningham and commenced painting and drawing everyday motifs, like flags, targets, numbers, and maps. Sometime between spring 1957 and fall 1958, Johns and Rauschenberg visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see its exceptional Duchamp collection. Around the same time, Johns began acquiring Duchamp’s work, confessing: ‘I was very inquisitive about his work and ideas.’ In January 1959, he met Duchamp, who told Time magazine six years later: ‘Abstract expressionism was not intellectual at all for me. It is under the yoke of the retinal; I see no grey matter there. Jasper Johns, one of our lights, and Rauschenberg are much more than that; they have intelligence in addition to painting facilities.’ Regarding Johns, Cage announced: ‘How lucky to be alive the same time he is!’

In 1959, Rauschenberg described his artistic process as follows: ‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)’ In response, Cage professed: ‘I have the desire to just erase the difference between art and life.’ Likewise, in 1966, when asked what he had done with his life, Duchamp answered: ‘Using painting, using art, to establish a modus vivendi, a way of understanding life. That is to say, probably, to try and make of my life itself a work of art, instead of spending my life making works of art….One could very well make of one’s life—the way one breathes, behaves, reacts to things or to people—one can treat it as a painting, if you will, as a tableau vivant….I realize now, after many years, that this fundamentally is what I was aiming for.’ This reflection suggests that the radical aesthetic innovations that Duchamp’s example allowed Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns to achieve, individually and collectively, also offered him new insight into his personal trajectory. As The Bride and the Bachelors demonstrates, blurring, confounding, and effacing the distinctions between art and life was not only Duchamp’s legacy, but also that of Cage, Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg.

While The Bride and the Bachelors traces the many interconnections between these five artists, it is also worth highlighting Duchamp’s connection to modern theatre.

The theatrical program of Dancing around Duchamp features works by Alfred Jarry, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett, all of who are associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. Duchamp dubbed Jarry one of his ‘gods.’ Indeed, Duchamp’s ironic approach to scientific concepts, such as his notion of ‘playful physics,’ is indebted to ’pataphysics, an absurdist discipline that Jarry invented as ‘the science of imaginary solutions.’ In 1934, Duchamp designed a binding for Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the ribald humour of which captivated him. In the 1950s, Duchamp, Ionesco, and Beckett all joined the College of ’Pataphysics, a French organization founded in Jarry’s honour. Duchamp saw Ionesco’s plays The Chairs and The Lesson in January 1958, and met the playwright the following June. Beckett and Duchamp were introduced around 1937, and played chess together. Beckett was familiar with Duchamp’s 1932 treatise on chess endgames, which may well have influenced his play Endgame.

Combining visual art, dance, film, theatre, and music, Dancing around Duchamp illustrates why Marcel Duchamp remains one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.

Find out more about Dancing around Duchamp here

Images (from top)

Five-way portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1917 at the Broadway Photo Shop in New York, Private collection, Courtesy Association Marcel Duchamp © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2013, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London

John Cage preparing a piano, c.1964. Photographer unknown, Courtesy of the John Cage Trust

Merce Cunningham from Antic Meet, 1958, Photograph by Richard Rutledge, Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust

Untitled [Jasper, Pearl Street studio], 1955. Photograph by Robert Rauschenberg, Courtesy of The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2013