‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ at the Barbican

Jasper Johns’s Figure 8 (1959). Photograph: The Sonnabend Collection, New York

I left this exhibition feeling as if I had been educated rather than engaged, inspired or moved by it.

The show, currently on at the Barbican was co-curated by the French artist Philippe Parreno and examines the artistic relationships between Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and how they were all influenced by the work and ideas of Marcel Duchamp.

Encompassing works by all five artists it is possible to see how the American artists, composer and choreographer, were affected by their predecessor in the ideas of conceptual art, and the merging of art and ordinary life.

So there is one of Duchamp’s urinals on display in a glass case near the beginning of the exhibition.  In Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian he paraphrases Parreno  as [he] told me this week, you don’t really need to see Duchamp’s readymades, though a number of them are here. They too can exist as a kind of rumour, he said, and still exert their influence. You just need to know they’re there.

This is true.  There is no need to look at the thing, other than out of the corner of your eye.  A kind of checklist: Duchamp? Check.  Urinal? Check.  You know you are going to learn nothing more by examining it any more closely.  It’s a factory produced piece which probably wasn’t even put in the glass case by Duchamp.

The younger Americans were inspired by his ideas of the use of found objects, readymades and remades, and of incorporation of chance into the making of work.  I was particularly struck by the tale of a dance performance, for which set, music, performers and choreography were only brought together for the first time at its inaugural performance.  For a planner like me, that sounded too chaotic to ever have been enjoyable, but as there is no information on how the show went, I guess I’ll never know.

The exhibition comprises both paintings and sculpture as well as a sound-scape on a continuous three hour loop, and live dance on some days.  There are two grand pianos playing themselves, and a dance floor, from which the recorded sounds of dancers’ feet can be heard.

The whole experience is one of disorientation.  Is that man dressed up like Magritte standing like a statue in front of one of the canvases part of the show? (No); what about the sound of roaring traffic? (Yes), or the incessantly ringing phone? (No……, I think).  It seemed to me all about people pushing at the boundaries of what might be possible, and still call it ‘art’.  It is about absences: so there is art without artistry, white paintings with no colour, music of silence, and the sound of dancing feet but no dancers, musical instruments but no musicians.

Taken as an evocation of the representation of radical ideas, I can see that the American artists are the link between the avant garde of Duchamp’s era and the conceptual art of the present, and that was educational; but the experience itself was rather irritating, the sound-scape in particular, being as it is, plinky plonky tuneless picking at the piano, traffic from the road under the Barbican, and the thud of dancers’ feet hitting the deck (which, really, has to be the most uninteresting thing about any dancer or dance performance).

It must be inevitable that ideas are pushed to extremes by the avant garde in any era, and then the most compelling features of that work become integrated into the mainstream for the next generation, and it’s that aspect of the show that I found the most interesting, but I’m still not convinced about exhibiting piles of junk in galleries……

Leave a comment


  1. Some really interesting thoughts in here – like the idea that there is some art which you only need look at out of the corner of your eye. I often felt that the failing was mine if I didn’t stop and become mesmerised at an exhibition. But I’ve learnt that if something doesn’t catch my attention it’s because I feel that it has nothing to teach me.

    • I think you’re right about the obligation on the artist to engage the viewer; but there are also things for which it’s enough to know they exist and there’s no need to ever look at them again!

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