Monday, January 21, 2013

Philadelphia Museum of Art, January 2013

By Charles Kessler

The "Rocky Steps" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I went to Philadelphia to catch Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) before it closed on January 21st (sorry). It was a densely informative show with lots of work I had never seen before; and the PMA is a great museum, worth a trip by itself (more on that later). If you didn’t get to see this show, you might want to buy the catalog. It includes reprints of important articles about these artists (28 articles by my count), as well as original essays, an impressive 70-page chronology and about 60 reproductions (poor ones, unfortunately). The museum was selling it for $66 but discounted it because Amazon has it for only $34.65.

This was one of those shows that involve a lot of reading, and frankly I only had the patience and stamina to do a small sampling. They had several file drawers you could pull out to look at diagrams, notes and drawings for dances and music by Cunningham and Cage; in addition, installed on the walls were drawn, written and typed Dada musings by Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp as well as more work by Cunningham and Cage. They also played Cage’s music, performed Cunningham’s dances with sets by Johns (based on Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass), and showed documentary films; and of course there were a lot of paintings and sculptures. It was a big show!
Walkaround Time by Merce Cunningham staged by Daniel Squire and performed by former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with sets by Jasper Johns, Philadelphia Museum of Art, January 18, 2013.
I don’t know enough about music and dance to say anything of value about Cage and Cunningham, so I’ll quote from the PMA exhibition website:
The dance program consists of twenty-five to forty-minute Cunningham Events, as well as solos, duets, trios, quartets, and quintets. Merce Cunningham's Events—dance performances, usually ninety-minutes in length, consisting primarily of sections excerpted from his repertory—have been described as the dance versions of readymades. Traditionally, Cunningham would cast dice on the day of the performance immediately prior to the rehearsal to establish which readymade sections of dance would appear, in what order, and (in non-proscenium instances) where "front" would be for each section. In this way, Cunningham's methods echoed those of Duchamp, embracing chance and freely recombining and reconfiguring previously existing material to create something new.
I am, however, qualified to complain about the sitting area for the dance. They had the audience sit on steps (a reference to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase?), and aside from it being painfully uncomfortable, getting in and out was precarious if not dangerous. The steps did look imposing though. Oh, and one more thing: the dancers seemed awfully shaky holding poses. They are former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company so maybe they're getting a little old for this.

My main take-away from the show: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are good artists, but they look lightweight next to Marcel Duchamp. I know I’m not being fair. The intent of this exhibition was to demonstrate specific ways Duchamp influenced these artists, it was not to appraise them in comparison to him. It’s just hard not to when they're presented side by side.
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-23, oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 109 ¼ x 70 x 3 ⅜ inches (PMA #1952-98-1).
Let’s start with an extreme case. Work by Johns and Rauschenberg was installed in the room where the PMA has their extensive collection of Duchamp’s art. Duchamp had a window constructed in that room to place his masterpiece, The Large Glass, in front of, and next to that window they installed Rauschenberg’s Untitled (Venetian), 1973, presumably to make a point about the similarity. (I would have taken more and better photos, but a guard stopped me.)
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Venetian), 1973, cardboard and string (Robert Rauschenberg Foundation).
I don’t want to get into the complexity, profundity and aesthetic innovation of  The Large Glass. (For a fun animated explanation of it, see the website Understanding Duchamp and navigate over to 1923. Unfortunately there’s no direct link.) Suffice it to say The Large Glass makes this work look as insubstantial as cardboard. The Rauschenberg has beautiful funky materials and a nice casual presence, but come on.

A better match, except when you look at the dates, are these:
Left: Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Late Kabal American Zephyr), 1985, rubber cycle wheels on metal structure with hand crank, 73 ½ x 24 x 28 ¼ inches (The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation); and right: Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 replica of 1913 original, wheel, painted wood, 51 x 25 x 16 ½ inches (PMA, 1964-175-1).
The Rauschenberg is clever and funny, and again it has an appealing funky hand-made quality; but the Duchamp, aside from the radical and profound implications of a Readymade, is mysterious and elegantly simple.  (It's unclear from the museum website if Duchamp included the pedestal when he made this replica. MoMA exhibits one without a pedestal and think it's better — more direct, not so arty.)

As to the Dada objects, musings and pataphysics of Johns and Rauschenberg, as well as Cage and Cunningham — they are cute and sometimes insipid compared to the subtlety and sophistication of Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, for example.
Marcel Duchamp, 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913-14, wood, glass and paint on canvas, wood box 11 ⅛ x 50 ⅞ x 9 inches (MoMA, 149.1953.a-i)
MoMA website’s has a simple explanation:
It is "a joke about the meter," Duchamp glibly noted about this piece, but his premise for it reads like a theorem: "If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases [it] creates a new image of the unit of length." Duchamp dropped three threads one meter long from the height of one meter onto three stretched canvases. The threads were then adhered to the canvases to preserve the random curves they assumed upon landing. The canvases were cut along the threads' profiles, creating a template of their curves creating new units of measure that retain the length of the meter but undermine its rational basis.
I also explored (for about the tenth time) the PMA’s outstanding collection.
Paul Cezanne, Group of Bathers, c.1895, oil on canvas, 8 ⅛ x 12 ⅛ inches (PMA, 1950-134-34).
Cezanne’s The Large Bathers, 1900-1906, one of the PMA’s most famous paintings, was being cleaned, so I paid particular attention to his small Group of Bathers, c.1895 (above) and was amply rewarded. The photo isn’t out of focus, it’s painted that way. It shimmers with vibrating light; colors appear transparent, and they glow and pulsate; the brushwork and drawing rhythmically play over the entire surface; and space becomes as palpable (or as un-palpable) as the landscape and figures. It’s as if Cezanne combined the best of his painting and watercolors. Whew, what a great little painting!

Nearby is his Bay of L'Estaque, 1879-83, a typical Cezanne landscape, but I was taken by the clouds in the upper right of the painting which struck me as very Chinese.
Detail, Paul Cezanne, Bay of L'Estaque, 1879-83, oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 29 ¼ inches (PMA, 1963-116-21).
I don’t know why I didn’t realize this before, maybe because I was paying too much attention to the Mondrian paintings in the same room, but the PMA has a huge collection of twenty Brancusi sculptures, and they’re beautifully displayed.
Constantin Brancusi room, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
And speaking of Mondrian, let no one ever say his work is impersonal. Check out the rather crude frame he made for the painting, and that touching dab of red paint on it.
Detail - Piet Mondrian, Composition with White and Red, 1936, oil on canvas (PMA, 1952-61-89).
Also currently on view are small exhibitions of Ellsworth Kelly’s early work (no link), Sean Scully’s paintings, and Cy Twombly’s sculptures.

The PMA is less than a mile from the Barnes Foundation, and you can get there pretty much the same way:

Take a New Jersey Transit train from either Penn Station New York or Penn Station Newark to Trenton, and easily transfer (usually within a few minutes, and on the same track) to SEPTA, the Philadelphia rail system, which will bring you to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. It costs just $10 - $15, a little more than the Chinatown bus would cost (and a lot safer and more comfortable), and about ¼ of what the cheapest Amtrak fare would be. The trip takes about two hours (as compared to one hour via Amtrak).

From the 30th Street Station you can take a taxi for about $10, or it's an easy and pleasant mile or so walk from the 30th Street Station. To walk, leave the station through the 29th Street exit, cross the somewhat challenging street in front of the station, go straight over the bridge that crosses the beautiful Schuylkill river, and as soon as you’re on the other side, walk down the stairs to the Schuylkill River Trail, then go north (the river should be on your left) about ⅔ mile. The museum will be on your right — you can’t miss it. Either take the “Rocky Steps” (named for the movie) to the front entrance, or go up the hill and around the museum to the back entrance.


Carl Belz said...

Great to have your Philadelphia report. I was able to stop there briefly last October when I went to South Jersey to be inducted into the Camden County NJ Athletic Hall of Fame. They were installing the Duchamp/Johns et al exhibition and wouldn't let us in the gallery to have my photograph taken behind the Large Glass like I was able to do in 1963, but we got a good look at those Brancusi sculptures, a fabulous collection of them, along with Mondrian. Philly looked real good, too. You should have mentioned the giant plaster relief sculpture, a history of transportation, in the 30th Street Station, a knockout surprise for me.

Charles Kessler said...

I'm embarrassed to say I never noticed the history of transportation relief. I guess I concentrate so hard on getting out of there and going the in the right direction that I don't look around. Next time.

And congratulations again on your induction!!