The Bride and the Bachelors 02.08.13

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The Bride and the Bachelors is an exhibition held together by the presence of a spectre. The endless experiments of Marcel Duchamp and his influence on a younger group of self-selecting collaborators are manifested through sound, bodies, objects and paintings. Walking into the gallery's white space is not so different from entering an empty studio, but the artist's usual route of uncertainly starting a project is shattered by ghostly pianos transmitting four pieces by John Cage, notes chopping at the air between canvasses.

Duchamp inspired an unlikely group to trust each other. An incredible group effort motored the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Robert Rauschenberg served as its first resident adviser (1954-64), followed by Jasper Johns (1967-80) who created sets as well as inviting Andy Warhol, Bruce Naumann and Robert Morris to the party. And all the while, until his death in 1992, John Cage was the company's musical director. This is collaboration off the scale.

When Duchamp died in 1968, Johns said, "The art community feels Duchamp's presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here." In The Large Glass (1915-23) – an early Nineties replica – you can see the oil, varnish, wire on its surface, while at the same time looking through the glass. Johns' response takes the form of Flag (1954-55) and his number paintings. Number 8 (1960), on display here, is likeable, familiar, yet the furious brushwork is a coarse, energetic assault on our ease of reading. This canvas is a means of production, the painter seems to be yelling.

The readymades, paintings, glassworks and personal effects here are more than just a collective response to another artist. Duchamp's inheritors, Cage, Cunningham, Johns and Rauschenberg – the bachelors to his bride – were protected, the exhibition seems to say, from the nakedness of a beginning because they picked up his invitation to play.

It's clear in the Fountain of 1917 (like a lot of the works, it's a fake, a replica made 33 years after the first) that Duchamp's love of play is more important than his destroying the distinction between art and life. His readymades, such as Bottlerack (1960, the replica of a 1914 original), are still a witty challenge. The exhibition makes Duchamp's apparent (but then again, not real) abandonment of art, to devote himself to chess, less surprising. The leather pocket-chess set Duchamp designed in 1943 for his daily practice is affectingly masculine; its hand-height size increases its power.

The exhibition has devoted a whole room to chess. On 5 March 1968, Cage and Duchamp performed Reunion, a piece in which games of chess governed the unfolding musical score. In notes – there are reams of notes everywhere – we find Cage sitting opposite Duchamp, the game between them. Cage admits chess lessons were merely a pretext to spend time with the older artist.

The works are often an affectionate conversation with the viewing audience and with each other. In the same room as Duchamp's 3 Standard Stoppages (1914), in which he repeatedly drops a string and captures where it lands, then hides the random iterations out of view in a sturdy wooden box, sits Johns' Memory Piece (Frank O'Hara), (1961-70), the relief of a footprint attached to the lid of a jewellery box filled with sand.

The exhibition's message: it's important who you hang out with. In the Barbican, the French artist Philip Parreno's mis-en-scène amplifies a dialogue still in process, making a space for an audience who stumbles through, like guests ogling detritus on the morning after. Evidently, it was quite the party.

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The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns: Barbican Art Gallery, London, 14 February to 9 June 2013



Robert Rauschenberg Foundation; photograph by James Klosty



Fleur Darkin

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The art community feels Duchamp's presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here

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