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  • Duchamp Culture/Cunningham Dance
  • Carrie Noland (bio)

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Fig 1.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Walkaround Time, 1968, SUNY Buffalo, Buffalo, NY. Choreography by Merce Cunningham, set design by Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp. Photograph by James Klosty, 1968. Courtesy of James Klosty.

Culture as Comparison

It is an interesting thought experiment to ask what "culture" would be for Duchamp—or, more exactly, what "culture," understood in the anthropological sense, would be for him in its ideal form. My question refers not to the notion of culture as implied by the "culture industry" in the Adorno/Horkheimer sense, but rather to the way(s) people live together, how they exist side by side, how they create relations, kinship or otherwise. We know from Duchamp's interviews what kinds of relationships and social roles he explicitly rejected: marriage (although he [End Page 361] was married twice); the conventional social relations of the family (although he was close to his siblings and married a woman with three children); work (although he was rarely without a project); the art market (although he manipulated it as a hired collector); and politics, understood as allegiance to a party or social movement (although he was briefly associated with the right-wing art movement, les Nouveaux réalistes).1 Duchamp's rare comments on human relationships testify to two opposing attitudes. On the one hand, in his interviews he speaks openly and affectionately of the strong friendships he maintained throughout his lifetime. On the other, his comments often reveal an impatience with relationality in general as well as a pronounced desire for autonomy, distinction, and non -relation. It was vital to him not to meld, not to become part of a "school" or cénacle. Marc Décimo puts it well: Duchamp "se sent exister quand il se sent radicalement différent de l'autre" (Duchamp feels like he exists when he feels radically different from the other).2 "Radically different": the lone wolf, the expat, the one who attends—but remains aloof from—those many soirées mondaines to which he was subjected.3

The danger of enforced relationality (as opposed to "found" relations) is that it can systematize and class, put someone in a social category defined by its place among other social categories and distinctions. If, as Robert Rauschenberg once stated, Duchamp "is all but impossible to write about. Anything you may say about him is at the same time untrue," it might be because Duchamp simply didn't want to be something in comparison to something else, someone in relation to some other someone: a male in relation to a female, an artist in relation to a non-artist.4 Aesthetic "taste," which Duchamp scorned of course, involves the act of setting one thing (art) into comparison with another thing (not art). A comparison requires a measure by which to evaluate, just as a relation threatens identity by suggesting resemblance or isomorphism. And yet Duchamp knew his artworks could exist only in relation—this time in relation to a spectator, someone who "complete[s]" the work by entering into a relationship with it.5

In this article I will take a closer look at relationality in Duchamp—relationality understood as an explicitly social or interpersonal problem—in order to measure its impact on the work of an artist with whom Duchamp entered into relation, the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham. A recent exhibition focusing on Duchamp's affiliations not only with Cunningham but also John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns has brought new attention to the significant aesthetic exchanges that took place among these artists during the 1950s and 60s.6 The exhibition demonstrated the great extent to which Duchamp impacted the careers of the younger artists. It centered on their collaborative projects and thus their frequent social contacts, the human ties that developed between Duchamp and this homosocial/sexual community.7 What the exhibition did not do, however, is focus on the women who belonged to the same circles and were even instrumental in creating them, such as Peggy Guggenheim and, later, Yoko Ono. Cage and Duchamp first got to know each other at the home...


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