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.
An engaging display of late Surrealist catalogues -- including one (Le Surrealisme en 1947) with a breast on the cover made by Duchamp A photographs by Duchamp's chess partner Man Ray, and four of Joseph Cornell's mystical assembled boxes shed light on the experimental territory forged by Duchamp and his contemporaries. But the crux of the exhibition lies in works created by the extended avant-garde group that lived in New York in the late Fifties and Sixties, many of whom (Johns, Cage) actually met Duchamp. In one room at the CFA, works by several of Cage's colleagues, members of the international Fluxus movement, are gathered. Fluxus founder George Maciunas's Venus de Milo Apron, a silkscreen of the classical statue on a vinyl apron, recalls both Duchamp's Mona Lisa and his Tablier de Blanchisseuse (Laundress' Apron) -- this latter work, also on display here, features two tiny potholder-size aprons, one with an appliqued cloth penis, the other with a fake-fur vagina. Daniel Spoerri's Eaten by Duchamp (Variations on a Meal, New York) consists of a used place setting glued to a wood panel.
An archetypal work from this period is Nam June Paik's TV Bra for Living Sculpture, two tiny video monitors attached to bra-like shoulder straps and worn in a 1969 performance by cellist Charlotte Moorman. Nearby are more contemporary works: David Ireland's Initial Machine, a mechanical sculpture with an eyelike sphere printed with the letters D and I that spins around; and Rebecca Horn's charming Oyster Piano, another mechanical sculpture (although inoperative here). In the same area visitors can view examples of Duchamp's own experiments with technology -- for instance, his Rotoreliefs (or optical discs), swirling designs on paper circles that spin around on three turntables in a glass case.
A row of display windows built into a wall in the center of the exhibition space holds an intriguing selection of artists' multiples from the Sixties to the present. Fluxus artist George Brecht's Water Yam is a plastic box filled with "scorecards" that have been printed with instructions such as "Turn on a radio. At the first sound turn it off." Several of Ed Ruscha's photo books from the Seventies are also included, their subject matter explained by their titles: Some Los Angeles Apartments, Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, et cetera. More recent artists' editions include a poignant ACT UP Art Box, which contains symbolic objects contributed by Mike Kelly, Ross Bleckner, Kiki Smith, and others.
Works by other contemporary artists appropriate Duchamp's readymades as revered icons, subverting their original castoff character. Hans Haacke dips a shovel in gold, after Duchamp's In Advance of the Broken Arm (also in the show), then breaks its handle. Sherrie Levine casts a Fountain in bronze. Photographic works by Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson question the confines of gender identity, a theme Duchamp explored when he created and dressed up as his alter ego, Rrose Selavy (the surname is a play on the French phrase "C'est la vie"), captured here in well-known photos by Man Ray.
"Duchamp's Leg" is extensive and a lot of the works are textual, requiring prolonged inspection; in truth, more than one visit is needed to take in everything. For a refreshing pause, enter a small room in the center of the exhibition that has been primarily devoted to Duchamp's From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose (Box in a Valise), a leather-covered suitcase that contains reproductions of the relatively small number of works the artist produced. Included are a perfume bottle, a model of an Underwood typewriter, and a tiny urinal.
Nearby a TV monitor plays an NBC interview with Duchamp, first broadcast in 1956, from a series called Conversations with Elderly Wise Men of Our Day. The artist, taking a tour of his works in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with then-Guggenheim Museum director James Johnson Sweeney, pulls out Box in a Valise and talks in a gentle -- if rather loud -- voice about his life and work. "Intellect is too dry a word," he says in response to one of Sweeney's remarks. "I like the word believing. I believe that art is the only form of activity in which man shows himself to be a true individual and goes beyond the animal state. To live is to believe, and that's my belief."
A most fortunate happenstance has brought another show, Neo-Dada: Redefining Art 1958-62, to the Art Museum at FIU at the same time as "Duchamp's Leg." Smaller, but equally impressive, this exhibition features works by many of the same pop and Fluxus artists featured in the CFA show, whose found objects, assemblages, performances, and happenings were collectively categorized as Neo-Dada. Organized by the American Federation of Arts, the show emphasizes the roots of these artists in the concepts of Duchamp, whose elegant readymade Bicycle Wheel stands at the gallery's entrance. ("Neo-Dada" also ties these works to the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Curiously, a Schwitters collage was removed from the show for lack of space.)
Included in the show are essential works from the 1958-62 period, a time of freewheeling conceptual experimentation: An enormous pile of crumpled newspapers from one of Allan Kaprow's happenings has been placed in one corner of the gallery; a mechanical sculpture by Jean Tinguely (which, regrettably, does not function here for safety reasons) stands in the center of the space; also here is Robert Morris's Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, a small wooden box from which the noise of sawing and hammering emanates. Unfortunately gallery employees sometimes turn off this loud sculpture -- request that they turn it back on.
A showcase holds various small objects, such as a can labeled Artist's Shit signed by Italian "action" artist Piero Manzoni, whose Artist's Breath, a shriveled balloon once used in a performance, hangs mounted on wood nearby. Typed sheets of paper, displayed in a separate case, provide further evidence of actions and happenings. For example, there's George Maciunas's Score for 12 Compositions for Nam June Paik; composition number five reads, "Place a dog or cat (or both) inside a piano and play Chopin."
Seen in conjunction with the CFA show, "Neo-Dada" gives a more thorough picture of artists represented by only one or two works in "Duchamp's Leg." Take Edward Kienholz. His 1971 Sawdy, one of a multiple edition of car doors, is on view at the CFA, while a more complex, earlier work by Keinholz -- O'er the Ramparts We Watched, Fascinated (1959), a visceral tableau of machinery parts and mangled, naked dolls that tells an emotional tale of disillusioned patriotism -- can be seen at the Art Museum. Also, French sculptor Arman's Sonny Liston (1962-63), a gritty pier of welded antique household irons, and Large Bourgeois Trash (1960) -- both at FIU -- are forerunners of the sleeker An Accumulation of Teapots (1964) at the downtown museum.
Although "Neo-Dada" lacks the video documentation and other lively aspects of "Duchamp's Leg," it functions as a succinct selection of consequential works that, taken together, form a fascinating portrait of a period. The catalogue is superb, and there is one especially affecting interactive piece: Yoko Ono's Painting to Hammer a Nail. A small painting that reads "Make a Wish, Hammer a Nail" hangs next to a wood panel and a hammer on a chain, while under it on the floor sits an aluminum bucket full of nails -- an open invitation to visitors. The wood panel was full of nails by the end of the show's January 6 opening.
The work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres exemplifies Duchamp's generous attitude toward art. Gonzalez-Torres's own readymades took the form of deliberately strewn mountains of candy wrapped in colored cellophane, high piles of posters of clouds, the ocean, or fuzzy headshots of real people killed by handguns. (These are customarily displayed with a sign that instructs viewers to take just one. No one ever does).
The sight of gleeful museumgoers stuffing their pockets with candy as "art" in shiny wrappers is at odds with the emotional, often somber stories told by Gonzalez-Torres's work -- stories of AIDS and its metaphors, as well as other hard facts about the human condition. His most poignant piece, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), consists of two white wall clocks, placed close enough to be touching, marking synchronized time. Born in Cuba, raised in Puerto Rico, and based in New York City, Gonzalez-Torres died of AIDS-related complications in his apartment in Miami Beach on January 9. He was 38 years old. Candy won't be as sweet.
Through March 3 at the Center for the Fine Arts, 101 W Flagler St; 375-3000.
Through February 10 at the Art Museum at FIU, SW 107th Avenue and SW 8th Street; 348-2890.
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