The Barbican's show is an expansive distillation (if you will) of the many ways these five artists unpicked the seams of art and tore out the stuffing, before gluing it to a canvas
If you ask an art fan when they'd revisit if they could go back in time to some legendary artistic gathering, they might say the first exhibition of the Impressionists or the first meeting of the Royal Academy or the premiere of the Rite of Spring or even a particularly rowdy night at The Factory. The Bride and the Bachelors, the new show about Marcel Duchamp's influence on John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, would make me pick another.
I'd plump for the 1964 Venice Biennale, when Robert Rauschenberg won the Grand Prize and his friend Merce Cunningham staged a dance performance and Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg were in town (workwise, if not necessarily in person) and John Cage was to hand too. If you can imagine a more perfect carnival of kindred spirits, all devoted to pushing art beyond its boundaries, I'd like to be there too.
The Barbican's show is an expansive distillation (if you will) of the many ways these five artists unpicked the seams of art and tore out the stuffing, before gluing it to a canvas next to a fork and painting over the whole thing. (The fork is a real thing – see Rauschenberg's Bride's Folly below.)
Robert Rauschenberg, Bride's Folly, 1959, Private Collection © DACS_London
The exhibition is both too big and too small at the same time, which is again entirely appropriate for artists who frowned at standard scales. Most themes – presence and absence, chance – are given two rooms, so there is space for representative artworks, but each theme is so earth-moving that you could give it an entire show, or at least more time to breathe.
Take chance, for example. When Duchamp made 3 Standard Stoppages, he dropped a metre of string onto a metre-long board, then used the resultant wriggle (that's the technical term, I believe) as a spark for further artwork. This idea of randomness was picked up by John Cage in his asking questions of the I Ching to order his music. Cage also stuck things in the pianos to vary the tones (see below).
John Cage preparing a piano, c.1964
This approach (aleatoric, after the Latin for 'dice') has percolated into Modern and Contemporary art with found objects, Spin paintings, Surrealist work and much new assemblage-sculpture, as well as music. Only last year the Brodsky Quartet celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a concert at which they spun a wheel to pick the pieces they were going to play.
And that is just one aspect. The first space you enter has editions of the work Duchamp made between 1912 and the mid-Twenties which were the pieces which definitively shatter standard notions of art: his beyond-Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase (No 2), which took representation out of art; the Large Glass (see below), two glass panels in a wood frame sandwiching images of wondrous ambiguity; and Fountain, the readymade which encapsulated the brutality, banality and beauty of Duchamp's vision for art and the role (or lack of a role) of the artist.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1991-92 replica of 1915-23 original, Modena Museet Stockolm
Add to this the experience of the show. Philippe Pareno has created the mise-en-scène, scheduling Merce Cunningham dances on a central stage in front of Duchamp-inspired Rauschenberg set designs to John Cage's music, which is also played separately on autopianos, modified just as Cage had. Although it lacks the frenetic and friendly energy you imagine an actual collaboration between the group would have, it is still enveloping.
I have always been a fan of art about art – art which talks about and defies the art which has come before it – and there is no more self-obsessed art than in this show. That is its triumph and its disaster. For all the keen intellect of the work, Duchamp and his heirs – the Bachelors to his Bride – drove out emotion.
Jasper Johns, Field Painting, 1963-64, Collection of the artist © DACS, London
Art should not just be about feeling – I have violent reactions to those who sit in front of Rothkos and volubly weep – but it should say something about the artist not just as a brain but as a person. Now this, of course, is in complete contradiction to what Duchamp et al were aiming at, their readymades removing the artist from the art, but that's why the aim is off. It was a brilliant, necessary, pernicious innovation.
The Bride and the Bachelors
Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns
Barbican Art Gallery, London
14th February – 9 June 2013
Read more from Josh Spero