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Dancing around the Bride:  Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp

Exhibition at Barbican, London
14 February – 9 June 2013
Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp
Exhibition website:  http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/765.html.

by Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle, Editors
Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, Philadelphia, 2012
448 pp., illus. 100 col., 105 b/w. $29.95
ISBN: 9780300189254.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth


Making an historic overview of multidisciplinary art is an art in itself as this intriguing exhibition at the London Barbican successfully demonstrates. Compiled by Carlos Basualdo in collaboration with Erica F. Battle, in an inventive mise en scène by French contemporary artist Philippe Parreno, Dancing around the Bride convincingly shows how this can be done. Basualdo, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Battle were inspired by the memorial for choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham in 2009 to develop this exhibition about the artistic relationships between Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, as ‘an unfolding dance’. As they claim in the wonderful catalogue, Cage was the first to learn about Duchamp when seeing his work in 1935 at the home of the collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg who would later donate their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cage met Duchamp in New York in 1942; the same year that he encountered Cunningham. Later, in 1951 Johns and Rauschenberg were introduced to each other by art critic Suzi Gablik, and independently Cage and Cunningham met Rauschenberg during his first one-man exhibition in New York. Toward the end of the fifties Johns and Rauschenberg travelled to Philadelphia to see the Duchamp collection and met Duchamp who, was sufficiently curious about these so-called ‘neo-Dada’ artists to visit their studios in 1959.

Basualdo and Battle state in their introductory catalogue text: “From these multifarious points of introduction onward, each of these artists and Duchamp developed relationships that pivoted around mutual interest and exchange that would last until Duchamp’s death in 1968 – and that would, for the younger generation, reverberate well beyond” (Basualdo, 20). This so-called dancing around each other, as a metaphor for responding to each other, work together and build influential relationships, is evidenced in several ways in the exhibition. For example, the set up is quite playful on the lower level and opens with Duchamp’s key pieces, the paintings ‘Nude Descending A Staircase (No. 2)’ and ‘Bride’, (both from 1912) and the movement depicted in the first painting is picked up by one of two automatic piano’s as well as on a central stage nearby above which the set pieces from Cunningham’s ballet ‘Walkaround Time’ (1968) that refer to Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’, are hung. Panels designed by Philip Parreno and installed throughout the exhibition, light up alternately to indicate which sound or musical piece is played as part of the looped soundscape, consisting of work by Duchamp, Cage, Parreno and David Behrman. The idea of playful movement is not only evocated on the central stage during weekends and Thursday evenings, but also in the programme of dance, music and theatre that accompanies the exhibition and that makes full use of the location in the Barbican.

The upper level is shaped by the imposing architecture of the building and is somewhat more regimented. Each of the rooms on this floor is used to explore particular aspects such as the use of chance, important exchanges and dance collaborations. The fact that the exhibition originates from the Philadelphia Museum of Art makes for a unique chance to see a whole series of works by Duchamp that normally resides in the museum’s collection. As a consequence, apart from his ‘Nude Descending’ there is also ‘Apolinère Enameled’ (1916-17) – a painted work that resonates with the work of Jasper Johns, or the object ‘With Hidden Noise’ (1916) that inspired Robert Rauschenberg. There are also various other high-end loans from other international private and museum collections to be seen. The unique combination of the chosen art works and documents therefore makes for an extremely complete and insightful exhibition.

The catalogue, designed by Takaaki Matsumoto (described by a colleague as the ultimate form of book porn) is another artwork in itself. It compiles amongst other things an extensive anthology of over 200 pages of texts as well as a chronology that gives a good view on how these artist’s lives intertwined with each other.

Last Updated 3rd May 2013

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