‘The Bride and the Bachelors’, curated by Carlos Basualdo in collaboration with Erica F. Battle, and travelling from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has as its premise something simple to describe yet impossibly complex to trace: the influence of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) upon John Cage (1912–92), Merce Cunningham (1919–2009), Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) and Jasper Johns (b.1930). The show takes its title from Duchamp’s The Bride Striped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), and might be said to share more: the sense of great anticipation, even the promise of joy, yet ultimately an experience of frustration. There are some extraordinary things hanging within these galleries: the slinky sexuality of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), its stuttering echo located in Rauschenberg’s Express (1963); or Johns’s set for Cunningham’s Walkaround Time (1968), which draws – even more explicitly – upon the erotic forms found within The Large Glass. There are many others. Indeed, it’s an exhibition full of the most extraordinary works, by some of the most extraordinary artists of the past century. Yet there is something else hanging in these galleries which is curious in a rather different way, and that is a silence of things left unsaid.
Silence might be considered appropriate for a show that includes the 20th century’s most famous proponent of it, and one should be careful not dismiss it as easily as the audience in Woodstock on 29 August 1952, where what became known as 4’33” received its premiere (‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!’). But silence can open up onto the world, as in Cage’s work, or it can be an attempt to suppress it. The first two rooms of ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ are titled ‘Between Art and Life’, referring to the gap in which Rauschenberg said he worked, and yet there is very little life here, despite the claims of the curators that ‘life is ultimately the medium’ of the exhibition. One doesn’t want a straightforwardly biographical show, and this has been avoided, but one does require enough life for the gap to be created. (Duchamp stated that he wanted to make his life a work of art; Cage, for his part, said that he wanted to erase the difference between art and life.) It is not that visitors are denied interesting anecdotes – there are plenty in the wall texts – but rather that more fundamental matters are passed over. In doing so, important relationships between the artists and their works are silenced.
At the entrance to the first room we read that Johns and Rauschenberg met in 1954 and ‘would remain close until 1961’ – why so coy? Nowhere in the exhibition does it mention that they were lovers during this period as, similarly, nowhere might visitors learn that Cage and Cunningham were also partners (from 1943 until Cage’s death in 1992). If ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ is an attempt to explore not only the relationships between the artists’ lives, works and one another, but also what this might have meant in mid-century New York, then such omissions are not simply curious but actually detrimental: during the most important period considered by the exhibition, these were not simply four younger artists, but two gay couples in a fiercely homophobic pre-Stonewall America.
No doubt there was much to attract these particular artists to Duchamp, but surely one of them must have been the sublimated sexuality that runs throughout his work (and which must be acknowledged even if one dismisses Arturo Schwarz’s suggestion of its incestuous cause). Whether or not he is dressed as his female alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp is the bride around whom these ‘bachelors’ dance. While one can well understand the artists’ reticence to acknowledge their homosexuality in Eisenhower’s America – Cage’s teacher, the composer Henry Cowell, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on a ‘morals’ charge – it is difficult to understand the curators’ reticence here and now, especially when a richer engagement with the works would result.
The notion of artistic influence might also be considered a form of sublimation. While the influence of Duchamp upon the younger artists is made clear, Duchamp’s precedents and contemporaries are passed over. This creates a false impression that his work was somehow created ex nihilo rather than being the similarly tangled skein of reference and allusion that is demonstrated, repeatedly, in the work of Rauschenberg or Johns. To consider Duchamp’s work in a manner similar to that of the Americans would open it up, in order that we might better understand how artists are influenced and homages are made.
It might also have been done with the works already on display. Let us take one of the best-known pieces, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913): opposite is Rauschenberg’s Tantric Geography (1977), his stage décor for Cunningham’s Travelogue, first performed in New York that year, with musical accompaniment by Cage. It’s a beautiful work, and draws upon some of the formal innovations of Rauschenberg’s delicious ‘Jammers’ series (1975–6), showing currently at Gagosian. Tantric Geography is a frieze of frozen locomotion, chairs coupled together like personal railway carriages; between each one an upturned bicycle wheel suggests the movement that the hidden wheels within the bases actually provide. On the upper floor, diagonally across from Duchamp’s work, is another sculpture by Rauschenberg, Untitled (Late Kabal American Zephyr) (1985), in which three bicycle forks are welded one above the other, their enclosed wheels touching, a hand-crank attached to the hub of the middle one, so that in turning it the wheels above and below it would also turn. The connection being made – by artist and curator – to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel is clear; we might also say that Rauschenberg’s works share with Duchamp’s a vicarious utilitarianism, whereby previously useful everyday objects have their uses transformed. For Duchamp, this is commonly said to be a soothing visual pleasure, a distraction: as he once noted, ‘I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.’ This comment is relayed on a wall label here, but it only describes the effect of the work rather than its cause. It’s an opportunity missed, because Duchamp’s sculpture is an homage even more explicit than Rauschenberg’s was to Duchamp. In placing a wheel (‘roue’) upon a stool (‘selle’), Duchamp is making plain his acknowledgement to the great writer Raymond Roussel, ten years the artist’s senior, whose punning procedures created fantastical devices of almost unimaginable ingenuity. Roussel let words produce objects, which he described with words; Duchamp did, too, although his objects actually existed, and it was the words he used to describe them that were the real distraction, from what could be seen with the ears or heard with the eyes.
Why does this matter? Because, as it is presented here, Bicycle Wheel is separated further from the works that followed, as similar only in form, and acting as a justificatory source. More properly, these works might instead be said to share something far more important: an attempt to contend with the modern anxiety of influence, and how one might make of the past something for the future. (And how much more anxious must it have been for Duchamp – in his mid-20s, his work rejected by his brothers, creating his first sculpture – than for Rauschenberg, by this point a celebrated artist.) In ignoring this aspect of Duchamp’s work, Rauschenberg’s is lessened in turn, as the cranking of his sculpture’s middle wheel turns the others in the opposite direction.
Of course, one might say that any modern artist’s work might be lessened when compared to Duchamp, but it is necessary to ensure a reciprocity between them, much as Duchamp himself benefitted from the attention of these and other artists in the 1950s and ’60s. At least Rauschenberg and Johns are working with forms suitable for a gallery presentation: the inherent performativity of Cage’s and Cunningham’s practices here suffers. The decision to ask Philippe Parreno to create a mise en scène was an inspired one, yet there is also a reticence or politeness at work. In Parreno’s staging of Cage’s music, for example, each piece is performed on a Disklavier (a kind of self-playing piano), and on a relatively short loop. Within comparable circumstances, however, Cage often preferred a ‘musicircus’, whereby musicians came together, played different works, and moved around, activating the space in which they were playing in the most unexpected ways. Two such events were created at the Barbican in 1998; even within the strictures of the 2012 Cage Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall, three works were played simultaneously.
Cunningham’s work is largely absent in ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’, despite his dance company having been central to the development of many of the works on display. While there are performances of his work at certain times throughout the exhibition’s duration, these will inevitably be missed by most visitors in the way that Cage’s works, being played almost constantly, will not (despite the composer’s own antipathy towards recorded music). A live dance performance is preferable to a video recording, but surely such a recording reveals more of the work, to more people, than the sketched complexities of the choreographic score that are included here, or Parreno’s audio recordings of the dancers’ footsteps, no matter how beguiling these might be. As it is, the artists’ backdrops have greater prominence than the dances for which they were made.
In one such work, Rauschenberg’s Minutiae (1954), which was made with the assistance of Johns when the two were becoming romantically involved, a collaged frame of a comic-strip shows two men huddled beneath a stage. ‘Hey suppose they spot us under here?’, one asks. The other reassures him: ‘They won’t, they’ll all be looking at the zebra.’ And what are zebras best known for if not their distinctive camouflage? This is what we’ve been looking at; the artists remain hidden, elsewhere.