The French Connection: Marcel Duchamp's American legacy is explored in new exhibition

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

When the Dadaist left Occupied France for New York, his influence on the American cultural scene ranged from art to dance and music. Adrian Hamilton explores an exhilarating new show at the Barbican

The French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, can – and has been – blamed for many of the conceptualist ills of modern art with his urinal proposed as a work of art, his found objects presented as sculptures and his theories of perception and randomness.

He can also, in the Barbican’s new show of his influence in America, be held responsible for the composer John Cage’s decision to create 4’33”, a work of four minutes and 33 seconds of total silence from the orchestra while the audience absorbed the sounds around them, the choreographer Merce  Cunningham’s performance of a work in which the dancers’ moves are chosen by the roll of a dice, and the painters, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, preference for attaching, nails, wires and other detritus on to their canvases.

Duchamp himself would have cheerful put his hand up and declared “guilty as charged”. Cunningham, Cage, Rauschenberg and Johns would equally have, and did, proclaim the French artist as their guru and inspiration. Which all goes to make an  exhibition not nearly as intellectual as it sounds (although it is) but one full of the energy and explosive creativity of New York at its frenetic height.

For The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, to give the exhibition it its full title, is not really a show about Duchamp as such,  although it has many of his most  famous works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was originally shown. Rather it is a story of influence and friendship between an older  artist fleeing Europe and a group of young American artists exploding on the US cultural scene.

Duchamp arrived in New York with his wife in 1942 aged 55, and was to spend the rest of his life there. He had left an occupied France and a career in which he had produced virtually no new art in public for nearly a quarter of a century since he displayed a series of infamous works, or non-works, in the years before the First World War.  He was lucky in place and time. Thanks partly to the influx of refugees but also America’s growing sense of itself, the US was the land of cultural opportunity and New York its throbbing centre.

First up in Duchamp’s attention and mutual affection was John Cage, then just 30. The avant-garde composer met Duchamp soon after his arrival and it was through Cage and his partner, the equally avant-garde choreographer, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), that Duchamp came to know the bright new stars, Jasper Johns (born 1930) and his lover, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). They were relationships that lasted until the Frenchman’s death, aged 81, in 1968.

If the exhibition has a hero it has to be Cage. Best known over here for 4’33”, Cage was much more than a jester. Profoundly interested in poetry and art, eager to apply the ideas of randomness and dissonance to music, Cage had long been concerned with bringing in the sounds of ordinary life and the clamour of the street into the  concert hall.

Duchamp, with his belief in  the accidental and “found art”,  provided the intellectual framework for much of Cage’s thinking and his partner’s experimentation with  unplanned and haphazard dance.  “I cannot get along without Duchamp,” the composer was to say before his death. “I literally believe that Duchamp made it possible for us to live as we do.”

But then the Frenchman was also seized with the way that Cage followed his own line of thinking and took it into words and music in ways that the older man hadn’t managed in his early  experiments with sound boxes. Cage, of all Duchamp’s followers, was the one that carried his logic furthest into new fields. Although some of the exhibits may be beyond the less musically literate of us, the show’s master of ceremonies, the French artist Philippe Parreno, has provided a background of Cage’s compositions, interspersed with  sections of noise from outside lasting precisely four minutes 33 seconds. And surprisingly absorbing it is.

Duchamp’s relationship with Johns and Rauschenberg was more of  master and pupil. The two were  already heavily involved with Cage and Cunningham, creating backdrops for their performances, before Duchamp first met them in the Fifties when he was nearly 70. Both painters had also started attaching objects and other materials on to their canvases as a means of bringing life into art and the other way round.

It was not so much that the French artist gave them a new beginning,  although Johns was certainly seeking one when he decided to destroy all  the work in his studio in 1954. It  was, I think, that he gave them the  confidence as a giant from the European past and as an enormously articulate spokesman for the principles of Dadaism, to develop along the lines they were beginning to map out for themselves.

Their debt was openly avowed. Johns took the designs made on glass of Duchamp’s seminal The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), painted them on clear inflatables that were hung above Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, to be then used for the dancers to move around them, while Rauschenberg, on seeing the installation, then painted a collage with a fork stuck in the middle, naming it Bride’s Folly.

Johns took theFrenchman’s  3 Standard Stoppages, created around the fall of three lengths of string, and attached a pulley and wire on to a painting and called it M. Duchamp,  inspirited perhaps by these young  acolytes, himself starts to create  new works such as Torture-morte, a painted plaster sole of a foot covered in flies and mounted in a wooden box, which Johns then promptly turns in to Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara), in which a modelled sole in the lid makes an impression in sand when it closes.

Bliss must it have been to be alive in those happy days and the Barbican  exhibition makes the most of them. Downstairs, Duchamp’s seminal works are arranged around a dance platform for performances at the weekend, a grand piano that automatically plays Cage and some of the set designs for Cunningham. Upstairs are a series of rooms in which the works of these  artists are arranged side by side.

It didn’t last that long. I’m not sure that it led anywhere in the end. The final logic of Duchamp’s theories was the removal of the artist altogether and that these creative, self-confident Americans were not about to do. But oh, to have been there, as we can through this exhilarating show.

The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) to 9 June

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders