The Duchamp works on view at London's Barbican (loaned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition co-organiser) are immensely significant and finely complemented by works of Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage and Cunningham.
There is much to enjoy in this exhibition. However, it is compromised by signage and other documentation which refuses to acknowledge the sexual nature of the relationship between Johns/Rauschenberg and Cage/Cunningham.
One wall texts states:
"On his [Rauschenberg's] return to New York after travelling to Italy and North Africa in 1953 with fellow artist Cy Twomby, Rauschenberg began Elemental Sculptures...." Rauschenberg left his wife (and child) to go on that extensive trip with Twombly, who was his lover at the time. It was, in effect, their honeymoon about which Rauschenberg made significant work, for example Cy + Roman Steps (1952), a series of black and white stills which zoom-in on Twombly's denim-covered crotch.
"In 1957 Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg - who had met in 1954 and would remain close until 1961 - were invited to show works at Leo Castelli Gallery..." During this time Johns and Rauschenberg were lovers. They lived and worked together, and became so artistically close they even made works in each other's name. They were not just pals. Rauschenberg also made important works about his erotic relationship with Johns, including Bed (1955).
A third wall text states:
"From 1959 to 1962 Rauschenberg created a series of Trophies, highly personal 'Combines' dedicated to those artists who had most influenced him: Marcel and Alexina "Teeny" Duchamp, Jasper Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Jean Tinguey..." Again, Johns was Rauschenberg's lover in this period, but features third on the list (after Duchamp's wife), and the sexual nature of their relationship is ignored.
Museum signage and catalogues usually inform viewers of relevant heterosexual relationship between artists, or their subjects; for example, of relationships between Picasso and his female lovers who he often painted. Why are museums not similarly candid about same-sex relationships?
In the Tate Twombly retrospective (2008), no mention was made of the erotics of the 1952/3 trip with Rauschenberg, but Twombley's later "honeymoon" with his wife was referenced explicitly. A complaint to Tate Director, Nick Serota, garnered a reply; that Twombly would not allow the sexual nature of his relationship with Rauschenberg to be stated. But public institutions ought not to knowingly mislead to the public; and if artists are not prepared to participate in exhibitions on that basis, then so be it. It is doubtful Twombly would have walked. Twombly's wife was named as such at the Tate, as was Duchamp's on three separate wall texts at the Barbican.
Likewise: an exhibition currently at the Museum of Modern Art Johns and Rauschenberg does not mention they were lovers, but instead describes them as being "in dialogue with one another"; the 2005/6 signage at the Metropolitan Museum's Robert Rauschenberg: Combines followed this pattern; and worse, the Met's catalogue for The American Century stated that Warhol was "asexual"! Artist John Giorno denounced attempts to de-gay Warhol, and on UK television went into depth about their joint sex life.
Worse instances of institutional homophobia occur but it is important to keep in mind that things do get better.
Returning to the Barbican, signage for Cage's Dream (1948) only refers to his "long-term collaborator, Merce Cunningham...". In the last room of this large exhibition further signage discusses the Cunningham Dance Troup. It lists many collaborators and provides much additional information, including the following: "... Cage who first met Cunningham in 1938 and later became his partner, served as the Company's Musical Director from 1953 until his death..."
It is unclear what type of partner Cunningham was to Cage. Unless visitors already knew they were "life partners", this was the only clue presented in the exhibition. Life partners is the expression used in the press pack biography for Cage (no mention of Johns/Rauschenberg's relationship). The Barbican was aware of the sexual nature of their relationship, but decided to use ambiguous expressions (if not outright misleading ones regarding Johns/Rauschenberg) in the public signage.
US institutions receive no state funding and look to mainly conservative donors, but UK funded institutions hardly act better and it is the duty of viewers regardless of their sexuality to demand from them truthfulness, especially of a show about Brides and men who were hardly bachelors.
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns
14 February 2013 - 9 June 2013
Barbican, Art Gallery, London