The question ‘what is art?’ has triggered many lengthy debates, though a defined answer has never been landed on. Of all works that trigger such debates, the most notable is the famous urinal signed and displayed by Marcel Duchamp. The original was lost soon after it was first exhibited but a replica is here in the Barbican gallery for an exhibition that explores Duchamp’s influence on four other artists and their outputs — both in visual and performing arts.
The contrasts between these artists are stark. Duchamp’s jagged edges of a nude descending a staircase eschews realism in favour of motion. By comparison many of the works by Johns and Rauschenburg seem cluttered in comparison. Duchamp could simply place a wheel on top of a stool or hang a bottle rack from the ceiling and leave it at that, while other artists felt compelled to build upon this simplicity, thus decreasing its impact.
Of all the artists on display here, Cage came the closest to emulating Duchamp’s potency through minimalistic activity. His paintings created by dropping paint soaked strings on to paper are a prim example of this, as is his famous 4’33” performance. On a few occasions Rauschenburg also rose to these heights, particularly with the paint transfer from a tyre across sheets of paper.
This exhibition isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it is cerebrally challenging. It may not answer the question of ‘what is art?’ but, through examining Duchamp and his relationship with other artists, it provides plenty of fodder for the debate.
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is on display at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk street, EC2Y 8DS until 9 June. Tickets are £10 for adults (online booking), concessions available.