Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, with its arrangement of oil, varnish, foil, wire and dust on two glass panels, has long been renowned as a masterwork that demands to be looked through as well as looked at. But earlier this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you couldn’t do either.
That’s because the 9-foot-tall pane — full title: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) — was shrouded in opaque plastic, its famously spider-webbing cracks echoed by the crisscrossing strips of brown packing tape clasping it protectively tight.
The rest of the gallery was emptied of its treasure trove of Duchamp works and ephemera, but it’s as unimaginable to think of moving the Glass itself as it would be to move the fountain that can be seen through the window behind it.
New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins has quoted Robert Rauschenberg as saying, “Many paintings try to place you somewhere else, but The Large Glass doesn’t do that. It involves you with yourself and with the room you’re in, and it seems to require a kind of alertness on your part. It is very much in the present tense.”
More than half a century after Rauschen-berg first stood in that gallery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) on his first visit to see the Glass, the artwork remains in the present tense both in itself and in the impact it has had on the shape of modern art. As PMA curator Carlos Basualdo says, “The Philadelphia Museum of Art was central to the encounter between some of the most important artists in the 20th century. That encounter had ripples, and we’re still part of those ripples today.”
Those ripples are the focus of the museum’s groundbreaking exhibition “Dancing Around the Bride” (opening Oct. 30), which explores the influence of Duchamp on four of the 20th century’s most influential artists: composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The work of all four will soon populate the Duchamp gallery and its surrounding spaces; French artist Philippe Parreno has designed a soundscape involving Cage’s music to fill the galleries, while a dance floor in the gallery space will host periodic performances of Cunningham’s choreography.
In conjunction with the exhibition, performing-arts organization Bowerbird is presenting Cage: Beyond Silence, a festival in honor of the composer’s centenary that will stretch into the new year with performances at the museum and other venues.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art — or any major, mainstream cultural institution — seems an unlikely convergence point for such forward-thinking artists. They famously lived, met and conversed in New York’s avant-garde galleries; they philosophized at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. But, especially for Rauschenberg and Johns, who were still at formative junctures in their careers, the ability to visit Duchamp’s work at our city’s museum afforded them a glimpse of an alternative to the more conservative art establishment of the late 1950s.
As Cage biographer Kay Larson puts it, “Philadelphia became this major stop on the art information highway because of the Duchamp exhibition.”
“There wasn’t a lot of work that these younger artists could see in a systematic way outside of certain gallery exhibitions and works that were in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” says Paul B. Franklin, who assists the Duchamp family in managing the artist’s estate and is editor-in-chief of the journal Étant donné Marcel Duchamp. “Without the Arensberg collection in Philadelphia, these four artists would be functioning like a lot of European artists did before them and after them, through reproductions. They were lucky; they didn’t have to do that. They all made pilgrimages to Philadelphia at some time or other.”
The “Arensberg collection” is that of art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, who were lifelong patrons of Duchamp. Many of his most significant works were among the more than 1,100 items that the Arensbergs donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1950. Duchamp himself served as a scout for the couple and eventually oversaw the original installation of the collection.
The museum wasn’t necessarily the most likely home for the collection, as curator Basualdo admits. “Philadelphia was and in many ways still is a relatively conservative environment. But while Fiske Kimball, who was the director at the time, might not have completely understood what modern art was, he understood its importance.”
Kimball was the museum’s director when it opened the doors of its now-iconic Parkway home. An architectural historian by trade, he played a key role in the renovation of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, an activity that may have indirectly led to his grudging acceptance of modern art — due to an unlikely connection with Jefferson.
That link came in the person of painter and collector Albert Gallatin. One of the “Park Avenue Cubists,” Gallatin in the late 1920s opened the Gallery of Living Art at New York University, a school founded in part by his namesake great-grandfather. It was the country’s first public collection devoted entirely to contemporary art, preceding MoMA by two years. When NYU decided to repurpose the space in 1942, Gallatin moved his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I don’t know how much of a sensibility Kimball had for modern art,” Basualdo says. “But he thought that the Albert Gallatin collection would be accepted because of who [Gallatin] was — he was a patrician.”
He was also the great-grandson of a man who, besides helping found NYU, had served as secretary of the treasury under Jefferson — a direct relationship that may have served to quell any unease that a Jeffersonian scholar like Kimball might have felt about the contents of Gallatin’s collection. And once that collection had found its new home, Gallatin connected Kimball with the Arensbergs.
When Rauschenberg and Johns visited the museum in the late 1950s, The Large Glass would have been surrounded by other works from the Arensberg collection; the gallery was at that time named for them. (It is now officially named for late museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt but better known as the Duchamp gallery, for obvious reasons.) The view through the Glass at the time was of a door leading onto the exterior balcony, which was replaced by a window when air conditioning was installed in 1976.
The impetus for the trip was an early Johns and Rauschenberg show at a New York gallery, after which one prominent critic referred to John’s Flag as “neo-Dada.” Being largely unacquainted with actual Dada, Johns decided to see it firsthand in Philadelphia, Rauschenberg in tow. With the work significantly less glassed-off inside vitrines than it would be today, Rauschenberg seized the opportunity to try to steal one of the marble cubes from Duchamp’s birdcage piece Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? A museum guard famously scolded him, “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to touch that crap?”
The visit would also have been inspired by Cage, who was already becoming a mentor to both men and who had already become acquainted with Duchamp in the early 1940s. Cage had seen much of the older artist’s work at the Arensberg’s Los Angeles home. Duchamp’s appreciation for found objects and acceptance of chance into his work appealed to Cage. The composer was already making tentative advances along those lines when he was introduced to Duchamp, who helped to deepen a musical philosophy that would expand even further once Cage began to study Zen Buddhism.
“Duchamp himself is widely thought to have been a Zen master, whether he actually was a Zen master or not,” says Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists. “Cage was creating a kind of dialogue that was based both on Duchamp and on Zen, and he became the axis around which these artists were focused.”
Few artists have proved so profoundly influential to other artists across such a wide variety of disciplines. And with Duchamp, his influence comes not via a new technique or a particular approach that disciples can adopt. Instead, there are direct references to Duchamp riddled throughout other artists’ works, most vividly in Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, a dance piece inspired by The Large Glass, with sets by Johns (these will be part of the PMA’s exhibition).
But Duchamp’s most lasting contribution is far less tangible. The word that most often arises is permission: The mere existence of Duchamp’s work gave Cage permission to pursue his most radical ideas, and Cage in turn gave that permission to artists such as Rauschenberg and Johns and composers like Morton Feldman. It pointed offhandedly, playfully, in the vague directions that would lead to Cage’s and Cunningham’s use of chance operations, to Rauschenberg’s employment of found objects in his combines, to Johns’ reconfigurations of pop iconography.
“These four artists used the ideas that Duchamp’s work ignited in them individually to do something different,” says Franklin. “None of them copied Duchamp. He’s a central inspiration, but they’re not doing what we call appropriation. And that’s what I think makes their work so powerful.”
Artists continue to accept that permission today, but without the advantage these artists had of getting know Duchamp the man, who died in 1968. Cage and Cunningham met Duchamp in the early 1940s, and 20 years later Cage renewed the friendship through the pretense of chess lessons — Duchamp’s main interest later in life. Rauschenberg and Johns made contact soon after their first venture to the PMA.