The Bride and the Bachelors at the Barbican
It’s a big claim that Marcel Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th century, but artists and historians tend to agree as he initiated so many artistic ideas that were new to art and which artists have been exploring ever since. His significant works, Fountain of 1917 (the infamous upturned urinal) and Bottle Rack of 1914, brought into galleries the idea of the readymade.
Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), is so famous and significant in art history that one feels a little star-struck in front of it. Famous paintings are oft-reproduced, and so seeing one live can bring surprises to familiarity – there is so much more to it than the idea. It’s a record of a genius’ thought: the painting of movement, realised by a brilliant artist. It’s the star of the show.
Artists Duchamp and Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham all knew each other, collaborated and developed works in response to each other, so it makes sense to show all these works together. These are the artists who deconstructed and remade our artistic culture, and the questions they posed are still being pondered in contemporary practice.
And yet, another question is raised: where are all the women? Women feature in this exhibition as contemporary performers, as dancers and musicians, but this belies the reality and oversight of their artistic contribution by art historians and the Barbican. In such a wide-ranging exhibition linking artists who were not exact contemporaries but who influenced each other, where, for example, is Sherrie Levine’s bronze Fountain of 1991?
Cage’s music still sounds experimental after decades, and manuscripts and drawings give an insight into his inventive process. The Bride and the Bachelors is a work in parts on glass, and the exhibition features several works by the other artists on transparent surfaces. Another highlight is Field Painting by Jasper Johns (1963), a painting with text and objects so up-to-date that, like all the works, it could be placed in a gallery as if it was made today.
There is a full programme of events, talks, films and theatre in the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp season, and, inside the gallery, live dancers perform short pieces by Cunningham at set times. With music and sound by Cage and others playing in the gallery, this multi-media exhibition is mesmerising.
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 9th June 2013. For further information visit the gallery’s website here.