Saturday 23 February 2013


There's a fabulous YouTube clip put up on The Arts Desk by my art-critic colleague Fisun Güner (I'll reproduce it at the end). It shows John Cage performing his Water Walk as part of an American TV game show. The smug, isn't-he-a-naughty-boy presenter quotes a New York Herald Tribune review of Cage's latest LP as showing 'a surprising degree of charm and affability'.

And that is exactly what made me smile, if not laugh outright, as I strolled around the Barbican' stunning new exhibition The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns. Marcel Duchamp, of course, is the leader and shaper, cueing the 1950s experiments of those great Americans as early as 1913. Technically brilliant and dynamic as his two early "portraits", Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)

and Bride

of 1912 certainly are, you wouldn't have expected what eventually resulted before Duchamp 'lost all interest' in the project in 1923: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even, aka The Large Glass illustrated up top. More comprehensible to me are the playful promptings of his first 'Readymades' which makes you realise how early conceptual art came into the picture. The Bicycle Wheel (on a stool; the Barbican has a reproduction), also of 1912,  came about simply because Duchamp 'just liked the idea of having a bicycle wheel in my studio'. Of the New York phase he wrote of 'relating  notions of aesthetic worth to a decision of the intellect and not to a facility or cleverness of the hand, which I have protested against in respect of so many artists of my generation'.

If that sounds too sober, then let's go straight to my favourite, the 'assisted Readymade' Why Not Sneeze, rRose Sélavy? of 1921. The lovely rRose became Duchamp's drag alter ego, as the charming photo above by Man Ray of  'La Belle Haleine' shows. The proper moniker is a play on the universal truth 'Eros, c'est la vie'.

Quite what rRose has to do with the piece in question is uncertain. It's a metal birdcage full of what look like sugarcubes actually made of marble, with a cuttle bone and a thermometer penetrating the bars.

In the late 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I believe in the company of his lover Jasper Johns, and so admired the artefact that he tried to nick a couple of cubes. The guard stopped him with 'Don’t you know you’re not supposed to touch that crap?'

These fascinating artists collaborated with the great Merce Cunningham and John Cage. There's an exuberant 1954 'assisted Readymade' kind of a design by Rauschenberg for Cunningham's Minutiae.

Against a background which  may include the random chimings of a self-playing grand piano intoning a Satie-like piece by Cage, several of the Bride-linked Cunningham dance pieces are re-enacted on the exhibition's stage several times a week. I was lucky to catch one performance on Thursday evening.

All four Americans owed so much to Duchamp, sometimes without knowing it: Cage, using the hexagrams of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes for his musical 'chance operations', only later found out that Duchamp had 'composed' his own chance pieces long before in a family game extracting notes from a hat. Below: Cage preparing a piano in 1964.

Such connections make this an endless hall of mirrors, metaphorically speaking, though the show is brilliantly designed by Philippe Parreno and fits the Barbican spaces both downstairs and up perfectly*.

The Barbican, moreover, had cast its net wider in its Dancing around Duchamp season. I was there to review the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris's production of Ionesco's Rhinocéros. Let's have one of the production photos by Jean-Louis Fernandez I didn't use on The Arts Desk: Hugues Quester and Valérie Dashwood in the last, oddball love-duet of the play.

I had no idea this was such a great play: funny, lucid, chilling, even profound. Reading it was a revelation; seeing it I found it less uproarious, but the show was pacy and imaginative all the same. In its thesis of a sane seeming-mad protagonist against a faceless majority, it has something in common with Giraudoux's lesser entertainment The Madwoman of Chaillot; so it was a happy coincidence that I'd seen, liked and review-raved about Jerry Herman's long-buried musical on the subject, Dear World, the previous evening. How I love its hit songs and its ingenious musical-theatre trio for the old-timers, played here by Annabel Leventon, the deservedly legendary Betty Buckley and the outrageously funny Rebecca Lock (photo by Eric Richmond).

The many waltz-songs in this show, I reckon, are as strong as those in Sondheim's A Little Night Music. While we wait with not a little trepidation for Liza Minnelli's appearance at the Southbank's The Rest is Noise festival this coming Friday, let's see and hear her singular delivery of Countess Amelia's 'I don't want to know'. This was 1986, and Liza was still in fabulous form.

As for the Barbican, there are many more fantastical treats in store, and I'll certainly be dropping in on the exhibition again. For filmed entertainment, in the meantime, I'll leave you with naughty John performing his Water Walk.

*As Sue reminds me in her comment, the exhibition originated with the above-mentioned Philadelphia Museum of Art, so it's all the more impressive how well it must have been tailored to suit the Barbican Gallery's tricky space.

Exhibition image credits: 

Marcel Duchamp The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1991-92 (replica of 1915-23 original) Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912  and Bride, 1912  Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2013, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London

Marcel Duchamp as Belle Haleine, 1921  Photograph by Man Ray  Private collection © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2013, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London © Man Ray Trust, 2013 / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Robert Rauschenberg Minutiae, 1976 (replica of 1954 original)  Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.  Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2013

Installation photographs (dance and exhibition) by Felix Clay

John Cage preparing a piano, c.1964  Photographer unknown  Courtesy of the John Cage Trust (Documentary image – not in exhibition)


Susan Scheid said...

I was already regretful about this, but on reading your post am now totally despondent at having missed all but a fleeting glimpse of this exhibit while in Philadelphia last November. (You're probably aware, but in case not, the exhibit was "organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with the Barbican.") I'd purchased a ticket to see the Barnes Foundation collection the one day I had for museum-going on that trip, so had only 30 minutes for the Duchamp et al exhibit. What a mistake to opt for the Barnes! At least I did chance on seeing a couple Cunningham dance pieces, in the same room as the Duchamp pieces you show here.

The Water Walk I do know, having discovered it on my very first foray into contemporary music a couple years ago. Mischievous he is, and that video is a pure delight. I used to watch that show as a kid, and I've always wondered whether I might have seen the first broadcast of it.

So, do you know that, here, you are veering close indeed to the content of my ModPo course (repeating again this fall, BTW)? Duchamp and Cage figure big, Cage particularly, in the final sessions. I wasn't altogether sure what I thought at the time, but then one starts to see all those connections of the kind the Barbican exhibit makes.

In New York, I have been able to make two visits to Inventing Abstraction at MOMA and one to a wonderful show of Surrealist drawings at The Morgan Library, so I'll have to console myself with that! PS: at the beginning of the MOMA show there is the most incredible wall map of all the connections, an interactive version of which can be found here.

And to your point, BTW, about casting a wider net, it is wonderful, isn't it, how much more of that seems to go on now than I, at least, recall in the past. In conjunction with the MOMA show here, there are some nice events connecting the art to the music, including two concerts, one of which I'm attending next week.

David said...

Of course, the Philly link - I went to that splendid museum when I was in the city (first time ever in the States), though I was then too unadventurous to head for the Duchamps.

I gather 'interdisciplinary' is the key word. How things have changed. When I applied to do my PhD at Oxford, on Greek tragedy and 20th century opera, I was told it was asking too much to have English, Classics AND Music supervisors, and was told in no uncertain terms 'this is not an interdisciplinary university'. That was over 25 years ago: not so now.

Delighted, anyway, that your course provides for all the sorts of interesting connections you tend to forge yourself.

I was especially charmed by a whole set of typed acrostic poems Cage made and put together as an artwork: some very beautiful, wish I'd noted them down, but must go again. Duchamp's use of language also rather wonderful at times.

Laurent said...

For the last few months I have been presenting paintings to students in the 8 to 12 yrs old group.
I tried different schools of painting, only to discover that the real hit, the one that gets children really excited is modern art or abstract art. They are totally fascinated by hit and you can see how to peer at it that they are trying to see what is in the painting itself. All modern painters are popular with them. Strange really but that is the way of the world. One thing that really upsets me is teachers asking me how much is that thing worth? This week I had one teacher asking me about investment in art in a class of 9 yr old. The kids thought teacher boring. Good for them.

David said...

Isn't that interesting. There's some evidence that the children who come to the BBCSO's 'family concerts' - absolutely undiluted programmes which happen to embrace parents and children via special offers - also respond well to new pieces. The visual aspect is important: all that new percussion, those strange effects! Cage and Riley, with their premise of music for all, are hugely popular in schools performing projects. But I do also reckon that 20th and 21st century pieces are more likely to get kids engaged than Mozart: that can come later.

Dreadfully demoralising about the materialistic teachers. I've met some musically illiterate music teachers (one had never heard of Bartok and was teaching at secondary level). Many are just uninterested in their subject. Lucky the pupils who hit on a truly inspiring teacher (I had a few, far more memorable than my tutors at university).

David Damant said...

David, in my amateur way it seems to me that in musical competitions ( instruments, voices) very often the young entrants will choose a fairly modern or even a very modern piece for their free choice item

As for the last year or two I came across three secondary school teachers of French. One had not read Proust and the second said that Louis XIV was not relevant as that was history. And yet another said that if I mentioned Proust to her colleagues in the field they would just look at me blankly.

David said...

Pas drole, c'est triste... On a lighter note, a very sweet person at university, whom I would NOT have expected to know said 'Bela Bartok, what did she write?' Another had some gender confusion over Joan Miro. Perhaps you detect sneery laughter, but I just find it fun.

David Damant said...

Then there was the guy to whom it was suggested that his analysis of the legal framework did not take account of Magna Carta. The reply came - " And what was her position on the matter?"

David said...

On which note, I have to add a modern twist on the drag-queen moniker, whereby in the most recent series of RuPaul's Drag Race, one of the characters is called Bob the Drag Queen.