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  • Five Men and a Bride:The Birth of Art "Post-Modern"
  • Kay Larson (bio)


Perhaps all the arts are "dances" of interconnection, but the word seems especially apt when applied to the world-altering exchange between the five artists in Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp. The Philadelphia Museum of Art organized this unusually beautiful and memorable exhibition, which opened in Cage's centenary year (October 30, 2012-January 21, 2013); the next stop is the Barbican Art Gallery, London. The joy of watching these five creative geniuses trading insights is reward enough in itself, but in addition, this elegant grouping of carefully curated work, afloat with great conversation, has a momentous subtext, packed with questions (and some answers) as to who originated the world of the arts "post-Modern." I think it was John Cage, for reasons I will explore here.

But first a pause for clarification. I mean the term "post-Modern" to be strictly chronological. It signifies "after the Modern," that is, after the visual art (and the discourse around it) that arose in a Western cultural context circa 1850-1950. After 1950 "Modern" began to lose its power position, a diminishment fully in effect by the mid-1960s. Since then, the term "postmodern" has been enveloped in philosophical, textual, structuralist, and other intellectual and interpretive strategies. When I refer to the "postmodern" I mean to invoke all the baggage that goes along with it. The "post-Modern" phrase is useful in a different way. It describes a factual watershed between past and present: between European and American art pre-1950, and a post-1950s internationalism that includes performance art, Fluxus, Pop Art, installation art, and a host of exotic forms unimaginable in the 1940s. If this "post-Modern" timeline is closely examined, it reveals an uncanny time-based synchronicity with John Cage's revolution in life and art circa 1951-1958 (and beyond).

Dancing around the Bride naturally originates in the desire of the curators, Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle, to remind us of the Philadelphia Museum's unparalleled Duchamp collection and its role in energizing the shared sensibilities of the other four participants. We learn—from an eminently useful chronology prepared for the exhibition catalogue by scholar Paul B. Franklin—that Jasper Johns brought [End Page 3] Robert Rauschenberg to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at some point circa 1958. Robert Rosenblum, in reviewing Johns's Flag (1954-1955), had drawn parallels to Duchamp's readymades.1 Later in 1957, Johns—who most likely wanted to see what Rosenblum was talking about—picked up The Dada Painters and Poets (1951); the essays aroused his interest in the early-twentieth-century movement. Johns felt he needed to see Duchamp's work, and Rauschenberg agreed, so the two artists made the journey to Philadelphia.

This story should oblige us to re-examine the conventional mythos that enshrines Duchamp and endows him with a godlike persona that virtually dictated the early work of Johns and Rauschenberg. Franklin, like most art historians, likes to draw explicit parallels between the younger artists' early explorations in the 1950s and alleged precedents by Duchamp. But Rauschenberg has said that he knew too little about Duchamp to have been influenced by the older artist at first.2 Franklin's timeline appears to be in agreement. Duchamp was a fleeting exhibitor in New York in the 1950s. Rauschenberg saw Duchamp's re-created Bicycle Wheel readymade in a 1951 show at Sidney Janis Gallery; in 1953, at the same gallery, he visited the exhibition Dada: 1916-1923, which included Duchamp's Tu'um, a 1950 replica of Fountain, Fresh Widow, and reproductions from the Boîte-en-valise. Duchamp himself stopped by Rauschenberg's show at the Stable Gallery in the same year.3 Aside from these brief encounters, Rauschenberg seems not to have seen much of Duchamp's art, which at the time was scarcely shown or reproduced. Johns was discharged from the U.S. Army on May 5, 1953, so he couldn't have visited Duchamp's gallery shows. Then how do we account for the Duchampian echoes in the early work of Rauschenberg and Johns...


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