Dancing Around Chess at the Philadelphia Art Museum
By Joshua Anderson   
November 24, 2012
Chess is the “go-to” metaphor for anything involving two sides in opposition: politics, business, sports. But even in all its uses, and over-uses, one rarely finds it as a metaphor for art, where an oppositional relationship is more subtle. This essay will tour the latest Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition: Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp through the major chess phases.

The Opening

Bride, 1912, Marcel Duchamp, American (born France), 1887 – 1968. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 21 7/8 inches (89.5 x 55.6cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp
The Bride (1912) is among Duchamp’s most famous works and an introduction to the artist and his influence. The Bride, along with other pieces of Duchamp’s artistic production, such as 3 Standard Stoppages, inspired choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and visual artists Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg to realize their own creative visions in response to Duchamp and his examination of scientific thought applied to the idea of chance. Works such as John’s series of Untitled (1986) is as much a response to Duchamp as 1… c5 is to 1. e4.

The examination of chance versus scientific causality, or more accurately  the use of scientific method to affect what others call “chance,” makes perfect sense in both the chess and art worlds; in both one expects full control over the medium, excising chance’s influence. In chess, we see this through the development of openings that go well into the middle, and even end, games. In art, we see this with the artists’ choosing of medium and subject, controlling each stage of development. This application of science to art is echoed in Cage’s series of Strings 1-20 (1980) and Cunningham’s choreographic notations for Suite for Five (1956), both on display.

The Middle Game

Collaboration and performance is at the heart of the Main Stage section of the exhibit, just as the middle game is the heart of chess.  Thematic ideas develop and come to light in middle game play—where a minority attack might be mixed with an attempt for active piece play— and there are similar examples in this section from the artists’ perspective.  The most iconic of these is the stage set Tantric Geography that Rauschenberg designed for Cunningham’s choreography Travelogue (1977) which recalls Duchamp’s most known readymade Bicycle Wheel of 1913. Rauschenberg’s stage set.

Pocket Chess Set, 1943. Marcel Duchamp, American (born France), 1887 – 1968. Leather, celluloid, and pins, 6 5/16 x 4 1/8 inches (16 x 10.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp

The chess section of the exhibition serves as a late middle game the heart of the conflict.  The player and the viewer are now deep into their journey of conflict and desire. In this section the visitor, as the player, can look back and see how the exhibition leads into this inevitable conclusion—how Duchamp as provocateur inspired Cage, Johns, Cunningham and Rauschenberg, and how they, together, influenced the direction of post-war visual arts across a spectrum of mediums. Among the works you will   encounter here are Duchamp’s painting Portrait of Chess Players (1911) as well as his leather-cased Pocket Chess Set and Cage’s manuscripts for composition Chess Pieces, both from 1943.

Fish-Life-Chess-Set.jpgThe Endgame
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has set out for display several of their most famous chess sets. The endgame often means sets rules and diminishing options, and these pieces mirror that rigidness—there will always be 64 squares in contrasting colors, there will always be 16 pawns.  Yet, there is room for creativity and expression that push the boundaries of expectation like the porcelain Fish Life (1923), and part of the famous Levy Gallery 1940s exhibition. Including the creative chess sets enriches the exhibit, just as the endgame enriches chess.

Is the exhibition really like chess?  Decide for yourself at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from October 30th to January 21st, 2013. On November 30th, Jennifer Shahade, two time Women’s United States Chess Champion (and CLO editor), will emcee the Art After 5 program “Chess and the Moving Image.”  The Morricone Youth dance troop will perform an interactive dance directed by the audience, and how they play chess. During the week after December 25, the chess tables and sets at the Museum will be staffed by several ASAP (After Schools Activity Partnerships) chess clubs who will play friendly chess games against other museum attendees.

Find out more about the exhibition and related programming on the Philadelphia Museum of Art website.