THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
OCTOBER 30, 2012 – JANUARY 21, 2013
The posse of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, has ridden off into the now canonical (if sun-setting) territory of Post-War American Art triumphant. Dancing around The Bride, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, retrospectively distills Marcel Duchamp’s extended betrothal back to its bachelor party days. How did this prodigal from a bourgeois French family adopt and become adopted by four free-ranging agents of populist modernism in post-war America? Duchamp’s experiments—subtle, shape-shifting correspondences of the late French Symbolist strain—somehow catalyzed a group of individuals whose varied approaches, taken together, resonate more with the home-grown yet visionary, blank verse of Walt Whitman.
The context of the show is most appropriate since the Philadelphia Museum of Art houses many of Duchamp’s significant works. In the past, when visiting the museum, I’ve experienced the esprit of Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even” (The Large Glass) (1915-23) and his “Etant donnes” (1946-1966), as having a somewhat diminished reliquary air about their collective aura. A religious homage, even if it is paid by the avant-garde, can actually undermine the iconoclastic impulse conceptually crucial to Duchamp’s oeuvre (Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg made the pilgrimage after the critic Robert Rosenblum referred to work in a 1957 group show at Leo Castelli, in which Johns was included, as “neo-Dada”). What is remarkable about Dancing around the Bride is how it re-animates the museum’s Duchamp room in counterpoint to the energies of the other artists in the larger exhibition space. Filled with playful works drawn and collaged from the “real” such as Rauschenberg’s collaboration with John Cage, “Automobile Tire Print” (1953) and John’s “Field Painting” (1963-64), the museum managed to de-institutionalize its own masterpieces via an institutional alchemy. What could be a greater tribute to Duchamp than to reinstall the gallery dedicated to his masterworks so that his seminal pieces could once again freely alloy with the objects of anxious suitors populating the rest of Dancing around the Bride?
The examples of work like Johns’s painted compendium of “According To What” (1964) were well chosen and discretely installed. Johns’s work bears the most direct Duchampian influence in its low-tech (yet still painterly) mechanics, hinged and screwed in hermetic schema. Johns’s work in this context may be seen as representative of an American quotidian tragic, of a “Death of A Salesman” ilk, fortified by Duchamp’s heretical hermeneutics. One wonders what direction Johns’s work would have taken without adopting a “neo-dada” gamesmanship. Such are the kind of questions this exhibition occasions. By seeing this circle of friends at such close range, you begin to understand them as individuals, with superficially similar yet still quite divergent interests.
Rauschenberg was always a more spontaneous bricoleur than Johns. Featured are many of his “combine” paintings with found objects attached and attending. An interesting series of works gathered here is seen in his “portrait combines” of Johns, Cage, Cunningham and Duchamp with his wife Teeny. Rauschenberg is probably farthest away from Duchamp’s sphere of influence in how he handles the phenomenal nature of his hunting and gathering. While Duchamp cryptically crafted his idiosyncratic “a priori of objects” to guide possible associative meaning in his work, Rauschenberg was balls out in his encyclopedic grasp of the objective world. His later combines, harvested from increasingly diverse social and international fields, confounded any of his own predilections toward an orthodoxy of American pop imagery, which is why this work still retains a universal appeal.
John Cage is almost in a class by himself as the “best man” at this allegorical wedding. His influence on the others arguably surpasses anything that Duchamp imparted. He was a protean modernist synthesizer of European, American and Eastern philosophical and aesthetic contingency, and the real father figure of the group. Cage and his lifelong partner, Merce Cunningham, are extensively represented in audio and video documentation in addition to choreographic notations, performance layout drawings, and musical arrangements. The museum also hosted a series of dance and musical events held in a large mise-en-scene ballroom, designed with audio augmentation by the French conceptual artist, Phillipe Parreno. The see-through set of Cunningham’s 1968 performance, “Walkaround Time,” exhibited in the middle of the main gallery, was designed by Johns and based upon elements of Duchamp’s “Large Glass.” Cunningham’s work has recently been described by Johns as being most complex in its apparent simplicity, a fact borne out in his company’s multi-layered performances, many of which were documented by Charles Atlas and are on display here.
If Dancing around the Bride has any readymade takeaway, it might be that a fertile community of artistic influence is at its best when it forms organically around shared interests and social contexts, providing the outcomes of such parties are left to chance.
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway // Philadelphia, PA
TOM MCGLYNN is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in the N.Y.C. area. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper- Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian. He is the director of Beautiful Fields, an organization dedicated to socially- engaged curatorial projects, and is also currently a visiting lecturer at Parsons/the New School.