The Artist Stripped Bare

A small striped rubber ball bobs in a claw-footed bathtub half-filled with dingy water. The words "Since Marcel Duchamp all the avant-garde artists are soaking in the same water of the same bathtub" have been scrawled in black script around the rim of the tub, a 1991 work by French artist Ben Vautier. Playfully referring to Duchamp's infamous pissoir, Vautier's bathtub sums up the premise of Duchamp's Leg, the terrific exhibition now at the Center for the Fine Arts (CFA).

The consummate artist's artist, the man who drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa, Duchamp was an inspiration to both his contemporaries and to subsequent generations of artists. By virtue of the polemical ideas that the French Dadaist (who spent most of his adult life in New York City) put forth in the first quarter of this century, his spirit has pervaded the ways in which art has been made since just after World War II. As the CFA show illustrates, Duchamp's heretical tenets have since been embraced as sacrosanct -- an ironic development that the wily Duchamp, who died in 1968 at age 81, no doubt foresaw and certainly would have enjoyed.

Organized by Minneapolis's Walker Art Center and culled largely from that museum's permanent collection, "Duchamp's Leg" follows the development of major contemporary art movements (pop, Fluxus, Neo-Dada) via the work of more than 50 of the countless artists who have shared Duchamp's philosophical irreverence and droll sense of humor, engaging in an art based on ideas that reject prescribed notions of beauty. The artist's acknowledged legacies -- the readymade (or found object), appropriation, artists' books, multiple editions, word-and-picture puns, and his exploration of themes such as gender identity -- are reclaimed here by pivotal pop, conceptual, and postmodern players: Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Sherrie Levine, and Lorna Simpson, among others.

The spirit of spontaneity, essential to the conception of these works, is preserved through the deliberately erratic installation of the show in the museum's second-floor galleries, resulting in a sort of art amusement park whose attractions compete for the viewer's attention. Freestanding sculptural objects are placed around the galleries, amiably coexisting with photographs, prints, and assemblages hung on the walls. Artists' books and multiples (artworks reproduced in multiple editions) are placed under glass in shop-window-like showcases, and simultaneous showings of films and videos in different parts of the space create a jovial racket and give the exhibition a "you-are-there" air.

Duchamp is ever-present, more carnival barker than grand master, presiding over this homage to himself through his own works and publications included here, as well as through audio recordings, videotapes, and photographs of him made by others. "Duchamp's Leg" is didactic but not dry -- the show is rich in history and enormously entertaining.

Andy Warhol's readymade icons of consumer culture, Brillo Boxes, are stacked on the floor at the entrance to the show, while a row of the pop artist's Campbell's Tomato Juice cartons sit on a high, supermarket-style shelf. Warhol, who advanced the Duchampian Zeitgeist with decadent zeal, is represented by several other works, including ten screen prints of Campbell's Soup cans and two of his lesser-known pieces, 1978's Oxidation Paintings: urine and metallic pigment on canvas.

In the same room are some works by Duchamp, notably L.H.O.O.Q (the initials stand for a French phrase that translates as "she has a hot ass"), his Mona Lisa "with pencil additions," and a 1963 remake of the 1914 beehive-shape wrought-iron Bottle Rack, acknowledged as the first readymade.

Elsewhere a copy of the New York publication the Blindman, with a photo (attributed to Alfred Stieglitz) of Duchamp's Fountain on the cover, hangs on a wall. Stieglitz made the picture after Fountain, the readymade urinal that Duchamp placed upside down on a pedestal and signed "R. Mutt," was rejected from a 1917 New York exhibition organized by a forward-thinking group of artists who called themselves the Independents. "Whether Mr. Mutt made the Fountain or not has no importance," Duchamp wrote in the Blindman, a short-lived artists' magazine published by several of his friends. "He chose it."

Duchamp's notion of random selection, which he later called "canned chance," became gospel to artists such as Johns, Rauschenberg, and composer John Cage. Johns was greatly influenced by Duchamp, and his set for choreographer Merce Cunningham's 1968 dance Walkaround Time, with music by Cage, reproduced his mentor's magisterial The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, an erotic, allegorical painting on glass (hence otherwise known as The Large Glass) that Duchamp created over eight years. Johns interpreted the work on large sheets of plastic stretched on metal rods, through which dancers weaved on-stage. The set is impressively re-created at the CFA on a platform, accompanied by a video of the performance. Also here are Johns's 1969 lead casts of everyday objects: Flag, Light Bulb, and Bread, a slice of bread made of lead and mounted in the center of a dark gray lead slab A from afar it looks like an abstract painting. The show includes only one Rauschenberg work, but it is significant in this context: Trophy II (for Teeny & Marcel Duchamp), a large, three-panel assemblage of paint, paper, fabric, and objects (a metal chain, a drinking glass, and a spoon) made in homage to Duchamp and his wife.

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