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In the spirit: an installation view of Living With Duchamp.

Who’s Your Dada?
By David Brickman

Living With Duchamp
Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Sept. 28

How about this category: Best Artist (anywhere) since 1900. If influence were the major factor, there’s no doubt the answer would be Marcel Duchamp. Just as the history of Western culture was forever marked by the arrival of Jesus Christ, the history of art could one day be divided into the periods before and after Duchamp.

If this statement shocks you, I understand. Duchamp was never popular, and he didn’t sell a lot of work—heck, he didn’t even make much work. But the ideas that he introduced into the arena of art were huge and have proven to be extremely durable.

Compare, for example, his contemporary, Pablo Picasso. By introducing Cubism, Picasso secured his place in the history of great innovators—but who paints like a cubist anymore? Duchamp, on the other hand, introduced the readymade, which spawned a never-ending chain of imitators, many of whom are at the top of the art-world hierarchy today.

As shown in the exhibition-slash- experience Living With Duchamp, the entire postmodernist oeuvre owes its existence to his ideas. Perhaps the best-known of them is the notion of recontextualization—when Duchamp took a common porcelain urinal, signed and dated it, titled it Fountain and placed it on a pedestal in an international art exposition in 1917, he not only outraged the art-viewing public, he started a dialogue that continues to this day.

What is the difference between a work of art and everything that isn’t a work of art? How do we determine authorship? Does anything mean what it seems to mean? Is that item for sale, and is there a museum discount? And so on and on.

The more than 40 artists represented by about 100 pieces in Living With Duchamp include household names and local heroes, from Man Ray to Michael Oatman; apart from the Duchamp and Ray originals, which mostly date to the ’20s and ’30s, and a hefty trove of work from the ’60s pop era, the show is heavily weighted to the ’80s and ’90s. Hence, a number of artists we’ve seen recently in shows such as From Pop to Now at the Tang and Strangely Familiar at the New York State Museum are also present here.

In this case, the staff at the Tang has pulled out all the stops to create a design that captures the spirit of Duchamp as an exhibit installer and to incorporate historical material by way of sound recordings heard through headphones and a Web site accessed through computer stations, both outside the exhibit proper. In an appropriately self-conscious quotation from the master, eyeholes have been placed to give the viewer a sneak peek at the exhibit from without—unfortunately, there’s little payoff to this gambit, as the exhibit looks much the same viewed that way as from within.

Inside, however, there is some real frisson. One huge wall is painted a vivid orange—perfectly offsetting the black-and-white of Hans Peter Feldmann’s 21-part Sunday Pieces, as well as Oatman’s chilling Awful Disclosures and a vitrine construction by Sherrie Levine that stands nearby. Through the rest of the show, there is significantly more clutter, with things hung high on strings, sticking out perpendicularly from the walls, stacked salon-style and placed on the floor, on tables or on pedestals of varying heights.

There is the requisite annoying sound of a video piece, by neo-popper Jonathan Seliger, and a satisfyingly silent sculpture built of stereo speakers by Christian Marclay. Perhaps to help prevent the appearance of crowding, there are no labels—instead, a ring-bound series of diagrams and checklists has been provided. Once you get the hang of it, this guide is a reasonably useful tool for navigating the exhibition, but it is both confusing and distracting to have to keep looking stuff up when you might rather be looking up at stuff.

Either way, the show is a bit of a whirlwind, and I think that’s part of the point: Duchamp took the art world by storm, and it shouldn’t be too easy to take in the results even all these years later. Though it is clearly meant to be received as a whole—and that’s why I call it an experience—there are highlights to the exhibition worth noting.

First of all, the original Duchamps: among them an altered Mona Lisa engraving titled L.H.O.O.Q. (pronounced in French, it translates punnily into “she has a hot ass”); a tiny photograph created with Man Ray of the dust accumulating on the surface of the Large Glass; a 1920 Man Ray portrait of Rrose Sélavy hand-retouched by Duchamp; and a bronze casting of a sink stopper from 1967.

Then there are a number of wonderful quotations from Duchamp, such as Sophie Matisse’s painting of the Mona Lisa without the sitter (leaving a lovely view of a Renaissance landscape), Richard Pettibone’s masterfully crafted copy of Bride I, and numerous pieces by the French artist Sturtevant that relentlessly imitate Duchamp and other artists.

In the pop vein, we’ve got countless examples, including George Stoll’s Untitled (Delsey) and Arby’s, Conrad Bakker’s wooden carvings of Tupperware measuring cups (being auctioned one each week on eBay during the course of the exhibition), and Robert Arneson’s 2 Bit Artist. And many of your favorite ’80s artists are here, too, including William Wegman (though represented by a pair of prints from 1970), Allan MacCollum, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons.

Among the best work shown are two collages by the late Ray Johnson, one of which bears the dates 1974/81/85/86/87/88/90/91/92, an honest record of Johnson’s repetitive working on the piece, as well as an allusion to the decades Duchamp devoted to the creation of his last piece (that seen through the eyeholes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Also outstanding is an installation by glassblower Josiah McElheny that combines elegance with art-historical referencing.

Which, come to think of it, pretty much sums up the exhibition as a whole. Plus, it’s a lot of fun—though more of the chuckle-to-yourself-knowingly sort of fun than the laugh-out-loud kind. Frankly, I prefer the latter—but it appears that an awful lot of artists and curators would beg to differ.

There will be a public tour of Living With Duchamp by Tang curator Ian Berry at noon on Tuesday, Aug. 12. A Tribute to Duchamp Through Film will run from Saturday, Aug. 16 through Sunday, Aug. 24; call 580-8080 for the schedule.


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