When I started my intensive immersion in art a decade ago, I was infuriated by Duchamp. How could he show an urinal as art, just turning it upside down and signing it…? Today I am less categorical. Duchamp, via his readymades, asked some useful questions about the role of the artist. His definition of a ‘readymade’ is a mass-produced object selected and presented as a work of art. I learned at the Barbican show that his first readymade was not the famous Fountain (the porcelain urinal he signed R. Mutt) but the Bicycle Wheel (1913), a bicycle fork with front wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool.
The Barbican exhibition looks at Duchamp’s influence on subsequent generations of American artists: composer John Cage (look for his “self-playing piano”!), choreographer Merce Cunningham, and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I believe however that those artists have produced works in homage or with reference to Duchamp, rather than being influenced by him, at least in the works shown at the Barbican centre.
For instance, the influence of Duchamp in Rauschenberg’s works using recycled materials, which I discovered at a 2006 Pompidou show, is not immediately apparent. The exception may be Rauschenberg’s white paintings, which would be readymades if Rauschenberg didn’t apply white painting on the white canvases. Thinking beyond the exhibition, I think a similar parallel can be drawn with Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and pop art to a larger extent, not readymades per se but based on reproduction of commercial packaging and other mass-produced printed material.
I was at least as interested by the impact of Duchamp as his own artistic process. I understood from the show how Duchamp was a dada and surrealist artist, in that he incorporated chance operations into his practice. In 3 Standard Stoppages, he surrendered artistic control by dropping three threads, each one meter long, from a height of one meter onto three stretched canvases. His chance completion is a direct equivalent to surrealism’s automatic writing, in my view.
The introduction at the beginning of the exhibition is an excellent rendering of Duchamp and his artistic practice: Duchamp favoured ideas over objects, chance over taste, and the artist provocateur over an illustrious creator. The exhibition runs until June 9.