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

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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

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