Perspectives

Marcel Duchamp Walkaround

Or how Marcel Duchamp has magnetized the American avant-garde. — By Tristan Bera

Merce Cunningham’s choreography Walkaround Time is also an artistic and musical work in its own right. When art, music and dance bring random chance and aleatoric composition together, history is unceasingly rewritten.

It was during the Second World War and through John and Xenia Cage, who were living with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim at the time, that Merce Cunningham discovered the milieu of the European Avant-garde in exile in New York. Brilliant and pluralistic, the world of European art attracted him strongly in that it was resolutely different from the rigorous discipline of Martha Graham’s company where, from 1939 until 1945, he was a soloist. The artists of the avant-garde and the “-isms” of the early twentieth century defended a total identity and fusion between art and life. In Europe, and later in the United States, the artists of the Dada and Surrealist movements worked together, among friends or as couples. And if there was not always collaboration, in the strict sense of the term, between brothers, friends or spouses, there was dialogue, friendly exchange, a community in which ideas, motifs, works of art and manifestos were born.

Among these artists was Marcel Duchamp, whose encounters during the Belle Époque in Paris or the Roaring Twenties in New York; whose frequent trips back and forth between the old continent and the New World and whose relationships and collaborations with the Arensbergs (both art collectors) and with artists like Apollinaire, Brancusi, Breton, Man Ray, Picabia, Satie and the Stettheimer sisters paint a vivid picture of the international avant-garde scene. During the forties, Duchamp, more “diogenesian” than his fellow travellers, and less concerned with his own reputation and the market value of his works, did not yet enjoy public recognition or the status of a major artist. Discrete, enigmatic and distant, underground before the the term was coined, he was, however, an object of great admiration and curiosity within private artistic circles. John Cage, who was fascinated by the elements of random chance and aleatoric composition that Duchamp was exploiting even in his earliest works, was the first member of the quartet comprising also Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to meet him.

Cunningham was to recount that it was during an evening party at Marcel and Teeny Duchamp’s home that Johns suggested to him the idea of using Le Grand Verre as a theatrical décor. Instantly seized with enthusiasm, Cunningham asked Johns to run it past Duchamp, who was watching Cage play chess with his wife nearby and smoking a cigar. Johns did as he was asked, though somewhat intimidated. Le Grand Verre or La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même had the aura of a masterpiece. A unique piece, unlike reproducible ready-mades (which belong to everybody), its fabrication, between 1912 and 1923, had taken up all the artist’s time. In order to transform it into an element of stage décor, Johns suggested that it could be reproduced and divided into seven distinct elements. Duchamp, amused as usual but also slightly worried that he might have to take on a work that would curtail his freedom as a distinguished artist and disrupt his tranquillity as a chess player, inquired as to who would build the décor. Johns, himself, volunteered. Duchamp accepted on condition that during the performance the seven detached pieces were reassembled to form an integral whole. Naturally, Cunningham and Johns agreed. 

The Choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage, in 1965
The Choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage, in 1965 © Jack Mitchell

As well as the décor, Johns designed the costumes. On March 10th 1968 at the University of Buffalo in the state of New York, Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, a production “both rigorous and free, without clichés and without affectation”, on repetitive music by David Behrman, was given its first performance. The dance was not a demonstration. The décor was not an illustration. The music was not an accompaniment. Walkaround Time placed the emphasis on effective and equitable collaboration between disciplines: art, music and dance were “three separate elements, each central in itself”, the objective of the choreographer being to place dance in relation to the most radical art of the 20th century. Marcel Duchamp died on 2nd October 1968. Retrospectively, Walkaround Time takes the form of an acknowledgement of Cunningham's debt to Duchamp: a tribute to an artist who, in modern art, invented a combined, “non-retinal” species of thought, liberty and exploration from one who brought about the conceptual transition between modern dance and contemporary dance.

It is amusing to note that although Marcel Duchamp rejected the principle of influence and was characteristically on the sidelines of Art History and the art market, he has been the object of one of the greatest political and aesthetic re-appropriations of the 20th century. Everyone wanted their share of the Duchamp legacy or claimed him as a father figure. The French have made him the glory of the nation and consider him as marking the starting point (a Duchamp retrospective inaugurated the Pompidou Centre in 1977) and the end (since 2000 the Marcel Duchamp prize has been awarded to a graduate from the FIAC) of the Postmodernist movement. In Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, Duchamp is described as an American artist born in France. American Pop Art and French Nouveau Réalisme are still fighting over the Post-Duchamp legacy. In 2012, the exhibition, “Marcel Duchamp in Munich” at the Lenbachhaus commemorated the centenary of his stay in the Bavarian capital, in the course of which he invented his first ready-made. Brazilian art historians like to recall that the sculptress Maria Martins was the fatal inspiration of his final masterpiece, Étant donnés (1946-1966). And one has lost count of the many and minor artistic references to his work or quotations of his sayings, made in a spirit of rivalry, transformed into mantras or reduced to clichés: “It is the spectators who create the picture”; “the enemy of art is good taste”; “the great man of tomorrow should go underground” etc.

However, Merce Cunningham’s relationship with the work of Duchamp is far more complex and critical, intimate even, than it is imitative. Firstly, it involves a transposition from the field of visual arts to that of dance, a methodological transfer rather than a formal or thematic one. The artist provided the choreographer with a method of working, with rules and combinations,- an instruction manual on the use of his lexical field. The essence of the corporeal movement in both Le Grand Verre and in Walkaround Time is a combination of the mechanical and the erotic: “there is a motor which distributes a love essence to the cylinders”. Cunningham’s physical implication in the work is humoristic also (a primordial dimension for Duchamp) when at a certain point he interprets nudity and movement by undressing and getting dressed again simultaneously whilst running. Le Grand Verre, reproduced by Jasper Johns, was a stripping down, a demystification, of mechanisms that were unexpected, enigmatic and concrete. If from his Nu descendant l’escalier (1912), (the first volume of the trilogy comprising also Le Grand Verre and Étant donnés), onwards, Duchamp’s project was to “reduce a moving silhouette to a line rather than to a skeleton”, Cunningham, by restoring the skeleton to that line, also aimed at a reduction, in his case of choreography, to simple movement per se, devoid of representation and narrative. Dance and Music share a common space-time whilst expressing their own relationship to that space and time with complete independence, “without trying to say anything, just quite simply being,” without narrative or psychological motivation. This is the radical method by which Cunningham translates the ready-made. Marcel Duchamp has no lesson to give, unless it be that of starting from zero, from the roots of the discipline. The avant-garde is like a single machine that operates on its own even if it is part of a network. Cunningham did not see the elements of Jasper Johns’ stage set until the day before the opening, Johns having previously given him the dimensions for the transport of the pieces. Furthermore, throughout their long collaboration, Cunningham and Cage always worked independently of each other, without informing the other about the progress of their creations, in order to conserve something undetermined, an element of chance.

Much has been written and read on the interpretation of Le Grand Verre or La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, meme. Certain commentators, at a loss, have even argued that Duchamp, who always remained mute, wanted to confound critics overly concerned with finding the key to the work. One even remembers that in 1964, Joseph Beuys, furious that the “anartist” was retiring from the world of art to devote his time to playing chess, performed the “Action”: The Silence of Marcel Duchamp Is Overrated. Ultimately, perhaps, the enigma of Le Grand Verre is the real subject of the work. Whilst erotic and humoristic dimensions are primordial for Duchamp in the presentation of life as it really is, the enigmatic is also indispensable, as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, the four major artists of the post-existentialist era, understood.

                                                                                                                                                        Tristan Bera

*The original decor for the 1968 production was conceived and supervised by Jasper Johns. That decor is now in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center. For this production the Paris Opera built a replica under the supervision of Pascal Goblot for the Association Marcel Duchamp. 

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