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Review of the current show at the Tate Modern: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia (through May 26):

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Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. (image courtesy of Succession Marcel Duchamp/ Paris and DACS)

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia begins as a romp. It is full of surprises, a pantomime of nonsense symbolism, in-jokes, sexual images and wordplay of an often furtive, farcical and even bestial sort, leavened by intellectual cool (at least on Duchamp’s part), anarchism, nihilism (Picabia’s intellectual forte) and chess.

This is a very large exhibition, with more than 300 works: paintings, photographs, sculptures, readymades, films, chess sets, and a wealth of documentary material. There is much here I was previously unaware of. The show takes us from the early years of the 20th century to 1976, when the last of the trio, Man Ray, died. In between, there are shocks and surprises, dirty pictures and beautiful enigmas.

I thought I would be bored by Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, tired of his porcelain urinal and exhausted by the Large Glass. It is impossible not to hear a lecture on their relevance rolling round one’s head; the shock, never mind the thrill, has gone, and they have become icons, which in a way is their tragedy. Duchamp himself would have been bored. He would probably have been happier to hear the splenetic complaints of people who think that readymades are not art. He once told Richard Hamilton that he liked signing the bottle racks and snow shovels and other examples of readymades that people bought him, because it undermined the originals.

Yet, because of the atmosphere of exhilarating iconoclasm that pervades the early part of the show, these sacred relics regain something of their playfulness, and begin to look like images from a lost, more innocent world. Man Ray’s coat-hanger mobile floats in space; Duchamp’s snow shovel dangles from the ceiling with it, as though a riposte; Duchamp’s wooden Hat Rack swims through the air like an octopus with curly wooden tentacles. Man Ray’s Cadeau (or Gift), his best-known surrealist object – the flat iron with a row of nails welded to it – has become a stock object in surrealism’s thrift store of the subconscious, to be set alongside Dalí’s lobster telephone. This is a sad but inevitable fate.

Museums kill the things they love. In the context of this show, it is Man Ray who looks the weakest today. His Venus, bound in rope bondage, begins to look like an illustration to some essay on the male gaze. And if Picabia’s work has also suffered in the years since his death in 1953, it has been largely by neglect.

As well as charting the careers of the three artists, the exhibition traces their friendship, enthusiasms and the influence they had on one another. What we have here is a conversation in art that continued throughout their lives, with Duchamp the pivotal figure. Yet all three gained: they looked out for each other, indulged one another, egged each other on. Perhaps we might see them as the art world’s rat pack. What the exhibition also makes clear is that each retained their artistic independence; their voices and styles are never confused in the way that Picasso and Braque’s cubist-period works might be. Nor were Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia three stooges: they shared no programme and invented no movement. And although they were associated with dadaism and surrealism, they each went their own way, with panache…

This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue do much to bring the complications, developing attitudes and complexities of these three artists to life. It also highlights changing social mores and the ways art has been made over the past century. Rather than presenting us with closure and academic posturings, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia makes the best of their art look vital again, dangerous and alive.

Adrian Searle
Guardian Unlimited