Marcel Duchamp spent much of his later life ignored by the art world at large. He died in 1968, but it’s only recently that his legacy has taken on greater affect and he is now known as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, influencing everything from Conceptual Art, to the Young British Artists, installations, dance and avant-garde music. Conveniently, many people have forgotten this fact. He’s back (or rather, his spirit is back) in London for a new reconsideration of his influence over some of the twentieth century’s other greatest artists, with a new exhibition at the Barbican: The Bride and the Bachelors.
They take us back to post-war New York, and bunch of guys who sat around wishing that art could be different; something else entirely. This was a scene dominated by Mark Rothko in New York and Pablo Picasso in Europe. Duchamp was busy dressing up as his female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy, and she was being anxiously pursued by four male suitors: painters Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Of course, the title of this exhibition refers to Duchamp’s complex and influential glass artwork, but it makes perfect sense here as an analogy. The show traces a line through the work of the four acolytes in relation to their inspiration by Duchamp. What this show ultimately reveals is a systematic analysis of their work and how it fails to overcome the psychological symbolism of the grandmaster at work. That’s not to say Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage or Cunningham’s work is no good, but they spent their lives in awe of the Frenchman. ‘I can’t get along without Duchamp,’ said John Cage. ‘(He) made it possible for us to live as we do.’ It’s an incredibly sweet sentiment, and brings much-needed vitality and life to art that can otherwise seem a bit too cerebral.
The Bride and The Bachelors is at the Barbican until 09 June.