The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns, Barbican Art Gallery, London

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bride’ (1912)

When one of its dancers asked Merce Cunningham what his ballet Minutiae (1954) was actually about, the choreographer led her to the window of his studio, pointed to the street below, and said: “That”.

Robert Rauschenberg designed the set for the production. A gloriously messy red structure of billowing fabrics, paint, fragments of wood, metal, newspaper, plastic and a mirror on a string, it was his first freestanding “combine” – the hybrid painting-sculpture with which he questioned the distinction between everyday and aesthetic objects, attempting, he said, to work “in the gap between art and life”.

The music for Minutiae was written by Cunningham’s lover John Cage, who had recently become famous for “4’ 33” – a piece for any instruments whose score instructs performers not to play, allowing listeners to hear ambient, everyday noise. As a schoolboy, Cage had anticipated this silent composition with a speech advocating that what America needed was a day of quiet: “by being hushed and silent, we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think”.

American art of the early 1950s was neither hushed nor co-operative: dominated by the loud gestures of abstract expressionism, it was romantic, heroic, individualistic and extrovertly heterosexual. Visiting from Philadelphia, the Barbican’s new exhibition The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns focuses on an exhilarating few years when two gay couples (Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were lovers in the 1950s) pierced that macho façade by making work that was oblique, clever, cool, playful, collaborative, impersonal and thwarted every traditional expectation of what art should be.

The show feels alert and impassioned because we are still negotiating the fallout from that moment. The Barbican displays Rauschenberg’s junk sculptures and Johns’ painted bronze ale cans. It relates how Cunningham incorporated ordinary pedestrian movement into choreography and threw dice to determine how many dancers to use. And resounding through the gallery are the bird songs, telephone calls, horseracing results, with which Cage explored differences between music and noise.

If abstract expressionists such as de Kooning identified Picasso as “the guy to beat”, this show’s radical “bachelors” looked awestruck at Marcel Duchamp – the dapper, charming, reticent French inventor of conceptual art who in the 1950s lived in New York and had apparently given up working to play chess. Cage observed him for years before plucking up the courage to ask for lessons in the game, as a way “to be with Marcel”.

Running on the spot, Cunningham shed his leotard, recreating on stage the dynamic movement of Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending A Staircase”. After seeing “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)”, Rauschenberg made the combine “Bride’s Folly”, with its theatrical dash of white paint wittily punctured by a fork – shown here for the first time in the UK – and Johns eventually dared to ask Duchamp for permission to paint images from the work on plastic inflatables as props for Cunningham’s “Walk­around Time”.

At the Barbican these are magnificently suspended, as Duchamp suggested, above a stage on which performers enact fragments of Cunningham dances to collages of Cage music, surrounded by sets and paintings – including Rauschenberg’s string of bicycle wheels, a homage to Duchamp’s readymade, created as a set for Cunningham’s “Travelogue”. This compelling mise-en-scène is the work of a sixth artist, Philippe Parreno, who has choreographed the entire show as a temporal and spatial sequence, on a 90-minute loop, with live and pre-recorded sound. Independent of any pianist, two Disklavier grands play Cage; the thump of “ghost dancers” echoes even when there are no live performances.

Embodying the ideas of chance, accident and life randomly interacting with art which animated these artists, Parreno’s installation evokes the thrill with which they collapsed boundaries, crossed disciplines and confused identities. Recalling the transformation of a urinal into “Fountain”, nothing here is quite what it seems: dance props become museum objects; musical scores resemble delicate drawings; a chess board is a mechanical music box, playing notes each time a piece is moved; Duchamp appears as his female alter-ego Rrose Selavy (“Eros, c’est la vie”). Parreno’s scenography unfolds like a dance, with connections between the five figures constantly changing – from Rauschenberg’s silkscreen-painting “Express”, centred on photographs of Cunningham’s curving dancers, to Johns’ use of Duchamp’s bronze “Female Fig Leaf” to make an imprint on his grey monochrome “No”, literally manifesting the older artist’s impression on his work.

‘Painted Bronze’ (1960) by Jasper Johns

Still more intriguing are indirect associations – the affinities of sensibility and temperament that this show elucidates. Seeing a Johns’ “Target” in company with Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” made me think how pessimistic and defensive both are. The target image carries the weight of an embattled America during the cold war, as well as of the targeting of homosexuality in the 1950s-60s. “The Large Glass” of course implies sexual frustration – the tentacle-like bride in the upper part never connects with the mechanical forms representing the bachelors below – as well as a musing on time and space (Duchamp called it a “delay in glass”) that resonates with Cunningham and Cage.

But with its wiry, hesitant outlines filled in with paint and cloudy figures cloaked in dust that accumulated as the work lay incomplete, “The Large Glass” is also an allegory of creative frustration and emotional deadening. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” wrote Eliot in “The Wasteland” in 1922; a year later Duchamp announced “The Large Glass” to be “definitively unfinished” (he had been working on it since 1915) and that he was abandoning art to solve a problem in chess – significantly, an endgame.

That fear/embrace of art’s endgame is in Cage too – music reduced to purposeless play because, as he wrote, “life is excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and lets it act out of its own accord”.

We are still dancing around Duchamp, teasing out whether the conceptual art he invented was a liberation or a new prison. Meanwhile, how marvellous to see live performance energising painting and sculpture here – Rauschenberg called the Merce Cunningham Dance Company his biggest canvas – even as these media make poignant the impermanence of dance. “You have to love dancing to stick to it,” Cunningham said. “It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls ... no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns’, Barbican Art Gallery, London, until June 9;

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