In Focus

Dialogues: Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, Rauschenberg

The following text is adapted from the Dallas Museum of Art catalog originally published in 2005, in conjunction with the exhibition Dialogues: Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, Rauschenberg.

"Marcel Duchamp is all but impossible to write about. Anything you may say about him is at the same time untrue, but when I think of him I get a sweet taste in my body." [1]

This exhibition traces a dialogue among four great artists of the 20th century: Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. The relationships were not symmetrical: Marcel Duchamp was the most pervasive and simultaneously elusive force. Joseph Cornell quietly worked directly with Duchamp during the war years, assisting in concrete ways in the construction of the boîtes-en-valises (box-in-a-suitcase assemblages). Nonetheless, his relationship with Duchamp remains tangential (which is how Cornell apparently liked it), evidenced only indirectly in a dossier in which he collected scraps of evidence of this rather long relationship. Johns and Rauschenberg met Duchamp at the same time; the texture of their responses is, however, very different. Johns, collecting and studying Duchamp's works, launches into a direct conversation, citing texts, playing games, and taking instructions as though directly from the master's notes. Rauschenberg evinces his interest with broader strokes: an early flirtation with box making, an enduring fascination with layering, transparency, and translucency, a robust love of the found object as detritus of the urban landscape. Both Johns and Rauschenberg embrace a redefined role for the artist, avidly working with dancers and choreographers and engineers, making us recall that their link with Duchamp is sometimes through the powerful intermediary presence of John Cage or Merce Cunningham.

Duchamp is the lens for this exploration, but the foci and points of reference are multitudinous. Leo Castelli once said, "There is nothing that has been done since Duchamp that doesn't bear a little bit of his influence." [2] Among the many different impacts of Duchamp's work, there is iconography: each artist's appropriation of the visage of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, for instance. Also, there is process: the use of assemblage and collage. There is the issue of form: the use of boxes, for instance, and the replication of already extant works of art in a miniaturized imaginary museum setting. There is the integration of text into the visual field: sardonic subtitles, nonsense inscriptions on the readymades, coiling texts of puns on the rotary reliefs. There is the metonymy of circular forms, targets, optical devices, breasts, round boxes. There is a fascination with simple machines: things that turn, parts that move, and with the integration of words resembling the annotations or instructions of the mechanical diagram. The conceit of the magic and poetry of the unseen or unheard awaiting the intervention of the viewer-become-participant privileges the conceptual. The artist's role has become fluid—no longer necessarily a painter or a sculptor, but also an inventor, writer, and theorist, a performer in unconventional settings of games, installations, and happenings.

Duchamp's protracted sojourn in the United States, especially in the guise of his female alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, is astonishingly at odds with the testosterone-saturated art history of abstract expressionism and with the Calvinistic austerity of minimalism. His own body was the locus for ambiguity and indeterminancy, his visage transformed into that of stylish matron or lascivious faun. The indecipherability and inherent contradictions of his carefully preserved scraps of notes, the simultaneous obscurity and transparency of his entire life's project could not have been other than a taunt to the McCarthyist fear of ambiguity. The foreigner, the dandy, the subtle provocateur eschewing bombast in favor of wry games, Duchamp embraces contradiction, doubt, and the possibility of multiple meanings. He attacks the very definition of art with his readymades, and then goes on painstakingly to reproduce them and box them as miniature and (moreover) salable reproductions, thereby doubling his destabilization of tradition. His dry gamesmanship instigates a dialectic movement between taking and defacing, chance and precision, packing and unpacking, seeing and thinking. Duchamp makes possible a language of (or about) art that is fluid and multivalent. It is through this language that he speaks to Cornell, Johns, and Rauschenberg and continues, in a dialogical exchange, to inspire younger generations.

Let us consider, in this regard, Duchamp's iconoclastic Dada act of the desecration of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. In 1919, Duchamp violated the givens of cultural authority, transforming the Giaconda into a man, blaspheming the sanctity of the image with the crude sexual pun of "L.H.O.O.Q." Duchamp snatched just one of the thousands of reproductions of this image in circulation. His scabrous appropriation throws into question the meaning of the original as it is transformed in our memories through repetition. In an interview in 1961, Duchamp explained the effect of extreme familiarity bred by the overaccessibility of the image: "I had the idea that a painting cannot, must not be looked at too much. It becomes desecrated by the every act of being seen too much. It reaches a point of exhaustion." Overused to the point of exhaustion or destruction or invisibility, Duchamp's Mona Lisa is re-born as a man or an androgyne. "The curious thing about that moustache and goatee is that when you look at it the Mona Lisa becomes a man. It is not a woman disguised as a man; it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing it at the time."

In his solvent-transfer and silk-screen prints, Rauschenberg also plays with iconic images from the banks of national memory, from the books of art history, or from the avalanche of cacophonous reportage in print and telecommunications. C_urrency_ includes at least seven images of the Mona Lisa, in various sizes, cropped differently and in different states of resolution or clarity. They are the same image repeated, yet none the same. The game is tartly overt: the face of the Mona Lisa is as ubiquitous, meaningful, and invisible as the head shot of a founding father on a banknote. Through Rauschenberg's quick and incessant borrowing from magazines and all sorts of printed matter, the art historically significant is never immune to the muffling, meaningless surfeit of visual information in our mass multi-media environment.

Jasper Johns has pointed to L.H.O.O.Q. as perhaps his first encounter with Duchamp (even before Johns and Rauschenberg were actually introduced to him by Nicolas Calas). Asked, in 1989, when he had become aware of Duchamp, Johns replied: "I probably had heard about the mustache on the Mona Lisa when I was in college. I think the idea was that well known. But I hadn't encountered his work." Duchamp's rectified readymade preceded him, in effect. His insolent act repeats itself in all the reproductions of the readymade. Duchamp's iconoclasm would undoubtedly have spoken to the contradictory but coexisting emotions of youth—awe and insolence—but the sexual transformation of the Giaconda might have especially appealed to gay culture.

The Mona Lisa figured in many of Johns's works; in Figure 2 she is collaged at the lower right. She is embedded in the black-and-white lithograph Figure 7 as well as in the Color Numerals from the same time. Colored red, Mona Lisa figures, too, in Johns's The Seasons project: in the painting Summer, related charcoal drawings, and the 1987 print. The Seasons is an ambitious work that is infused with a spirit of elegiac reverie as each panel traces the passage of time, the cycle of the year, the repetition of years, and the brevity of life. The shadow in each panel of The Seasons is Johns himself, melancholic perhaps and surely self-referential, although it is executed after a drawing of his cast shadow that was executed by someone else. This game of ironic distance is surely rooted in Duchamp's play with shadow portraits.

Cornell's association of the image of Mona Lisa with Duchamp is clear in the multiple reproductions of Leonardo's painting to be found in the mysterious Duchamp Dossier. This box is a collection of diverse materials documenting in a typically obscure way Cornell's relationship with Duchamp, but especially their more intense contact during the years 1942–1953, when Cornell assisted on the construction of Duchamp's boîtes-en-valises. This particular assemblage of "flotsam and jetsam" includes a comical postcard "Partenza della Giaconda da Milano," sheet music for the song "Tell me why you smile, Mona Lisa?" published in 1931, a black-and-white postcard reproduction from the Louvre, inscribed (in Cornell's hand?) "notice nose tip," and yet another sepia-toned reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Cornell's collection embraces high and low, weaving the iconic Renaissance image into a dense network of references with a dizzyingly contradictory emotional and psychological tenor.

Duchamp's iconoclastic appropriation of _The Mona Lisa—_along with his readymades, his work in film and in optics, and his guise as Rrose Sélavy—pushed the meaning of art beyond the visual to also encompass language, text, choice, and social patterns of behavior and thought. In an obituary for Duchamp written in 1968, Johns points out the way in which he opened the work of art beyond "retinal boundaries" to a "field where language, thought and vision act upon one another." Indeed, Johns also embraces the importance of the concept: words, verbal ideas, are critical to his own aesthetic. His entire oeuvre seems, sometimes, perversely arcane, resistant to interpretation, as though the artist intends to confound or frustrate. Objects from disparate worlds engage the viewer in a baffling task of resolving their congruity. Puzzle-like art historical references are jumbled together, unexplained games test our ability to understand. Johns seems to revel in posing the idea and then dismissing it; offering the object and then transforming it into something else. Similarly, Rauschenberg's complex assemblages with their baffling multiplicity of references engage the viewer in a puzzle-like game, an attempt to complete the picture, to fill in the blanks of context and reference. The transparency of many of his works on Plexiglas and the layering of the solvent-transfer print technique accentuate this euphoric complexity by opening the work of art into the world.

Duchamp's shadow falls not just on Johns and Rauschenberg. There is a migration back and forth between the visual and the verbal. The visage of the Mona Lisa is an apparition belonging and not belonging to Leonardo or Duchamp or Cornell or Johns or Rauschenberg and oscillating between zones of commodification and aestheticization. These shifting connections and mutable references reflect an understanding of art as an enduring process of interaction, as an increasing layering of complexity and multiplicity of meaning through time. The art object is never inviolate or unchanging, nor ever totally complete.

We have seen how Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, and Rauschenberg explore this quality of indeterminancy. Johns writes: "There seems to be a sort of 'pressure area' 'underneath' language which operates in such a way as to force the language to change. (I'm believing painting to be a language, or wishing language to be any sort of recognition.) If one takes delight in that kind of changing process, one moves toward new recognitions (?), names, images." It is also helpful to reinvoke Duchamp's articulation of the viewer's role as active participant in the creative process. The experimental musician John Cage, who knew Duchamp early on during his sojourn in the United States and who himself advocated so fervently the participation of the audience, collaboration with his colleagues, and the role of chance, evokes the principle of dialogism in a discussion of Rauschenberg: "There is in Rauschenberg, between him and what he picks up to use, the quality of encounter. For the first time . . . it is as though the encounter was extended into a visit on the part of the stranger (who is divine). . . . Shortly the stranger leaves, leaving the door open.

[1] Robert Rauschenberg, from "A Collective Portrait of Marcel Duchamp," in Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 217.

[2] Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, exh. cat. (New York: Achim Moeller Fine Art, 1999), 7.

Adapted from

  • Dorothy Kosinski, Dialogues: Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, Rauschenberg (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 11-95.

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