As Franklin explains, Duchamp’s personality made almost as profound an impact on his disciples as did his work: “He was a father figure, but without all of the entanglements that a family romance has. We’re dealing with four gay men with this intransigently heterosexual guy with a fantastic sense of humor that’s often imbued with bawdy sexual innuendo. But they can totally get along because Duchamp remained completely nonjudgmental. They never had to reject the father.”
They also all came to share in having their work misunderstood. In the popular imagination, Duchamp is merely a provocateur who signed a urinal and called it art, Cage a clown who sits at a piano in silence, Johns an uninspired painter of flags. Worse yet, modern artists continue to look at their work from a similarly narrow vantage point, leading to uninspired echoes glutting gallery walls. “If you reduce Duchamp just to the idea of the readymades,” Franklin says of Duchamp’s found objects, “he becomes a sort of lazy philosopher who just had one idea that he kept replaying over and over again. And unfortunately, that’s the way a lot of contemporary artists misconstrue Duchamp. That was not the case for these men in the ’50s and ’60s at all.”
With all but Johns having since passed away, “Dancing Around the Bride” may provide the closest approximation of these artists’ dialogues that can be reconstructed today. “We’re trying to put the art back into its context and into those conversations from which it emerged,” Basualdo says. “Art is immersed in a very diverse system of values having to do with the lives of the artists, their conversations, and other forms of exchanges, and an antiquarian show would not be in the spirit of this art. We need to make the viewer feel that this history is happening for her or for him, now. This is about the past, but it’s about a past that is never fully past, a past that is still present.”
The Large Glass will likely never move from its current position, a curious sense of permanence for a work that contains within it such a sense of transparency, and which has inspired so much creation that has at its heart elements of impermanence — Cage’s chance-driven compositions, Cunningham’s spontaneously crafted dances. It remains as silently, compellingly enigmatic as it has for decades, its very impenetrability serving to generate the types of questions that spark artists to find their own answers.
“The Large Glass and the work of Duchamp have a way of becoming part of your life — not just a part of your life but an integral part of your life,” Basualdo says. “I believe that artists still find that kinship with Duchamp. He was so radically independent and autonomous and free that he remains attractive for younger people. Art is profoundly about freedom and profoundly about the expression of the possibility of freedom, and I think Duchamp in the 20th century incarnates that very strongly.”
“Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp” runs Oct. 30-Jan. 21, 2013, $20, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org.