Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés
Michael R. Taylor
INSTALLATION (Part 5)*
* Taylor, Michael R.; Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés, Philadelphia Museum of Art & Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 169-181, pp. 187-189. (Published on the occasion of an exhibition held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Aug. 15 - Nov. 1, 2009.)
AN EROTIC CRÈCHE
The astonishing news that Marcel Duchamp had been working on an elaborate assemblage in secrecy for a period of twenty years, from 1946 to 1966, was revealed by the art critic John Russell in an article in the London Sunday Times on May 11, 1969, nearly two months before Étant donnés was scheduled to be unveiled to the general public. The article’s title, “Riches in a Little Room,” borrowed by Russell from the first act of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, alluded to the infinite pleasures of the artist’s secret room on East Eleventh Street in New York, “which became the sanctuary of Duchamp’s imagination to such an extent that it has had to be transported in toto to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is now in the process of installation.” In dramatic, over-the-top language generally reserved in the newspaper industry for exclusive stories, he continued, “One of the key facts about modern art blew up in our faces last week.... The legend of the great artist who disdained to make art is gone for ever; and another, no less potent, has come into being.” Unfortunately, Russell failed to check his facts with the Museum before publishing the article, which was so riddled with errors that his scoop was not taken seriously by the institution. Furthermore, since the Museum’s press office refused to confirm Russell’s account, the story was largely dismissed by the public as a hoax.
---- The source of the article’s information was the British artist Richard Hamilton, who had recently learned of the existence of Duchamp’s “big new work” through Bill Copley. Hamilton had received further details about the work in a letter from Anne d’Harnoncourt dated April 18, 1969, in which she asked for his help in obtaining photographs for the forthcoming Museum Bulletin essay:
---- Hamilton had no knowledge of Étant donnés before receiving Copley’s telephone call earlier in the spring of 1969, when the American artist-collector told him about “a new, room-size work viewed through peepholes.” Copley’s revelation led Hamilton to recall a recent cryptic note from Walter Hopps informing him that Duchamp had leased a second studio, unknown to his friends, and urged him to visit Philadelphia to see a new work being installed; but since the missive failed to disclose details of the work, Hamilton simply ignored the suggestion. The news from Copley thus put Hamilton, who was an acknowledged expert on Duchamp’s work, in the awkward position of hearing secondhand about the extraordinary sculpture-construction, despite his close, almost filial relationship with the older artist. Hamilton had studied Duchamp’s work exhaustively, especially the notes and diagrams for The Large Glass, a piece he had re-created for the critically acclaimed Tate retrospective exhibition of Duchamp that he had organized in 1966. Calling on his extensive knowledge of Duchamp’s earlier work, together with snippets of information provided by Copley, Hopps, and d’Harnoncourt, especially regarding the “study for the piece” owned by Maria Martins—included in the 1966 exhibition under the tide Étant donnés le gaz d’éclairage et la chute d’eau—in early May 1969 Hamilton’s hypothesized description of the new work provided Russell with the basis of his Sunday Times article.
---- “First reports (which I owe to Richard Hamilton),” wrote Russell, “indicate that the subject of the new work, like the subject of the ‘Large Glass,’ is the relationship between a love-goddess and the male sex. Covering all four walls and ceiling it forms a Grand Design that will be viewed, in so far as it can be viewed at all from anyone point, through a peep-hole cut in the wall. Duchamp the great ironist would seem to have devised it in such a way that only he, in mind’s eye, would ever see it completely.” Russell presented the startling news that Duchamp had been “toiling away in total secrecy for all of twenty years on what may well be one of the largest and most complex projects to have been carried through by an artist in this century,” and declared that it would challenge preconceptions of the artist and his work. However, the large number of errors in the article, such as the reference to “a love-goddess and the male sex”—strongly reminiscent of the division of the sexes deployed in Duchamp’s Large Glass, as well as the man-eating female deities that Martins explored in her own sculpture—allowed the Museum to dismiss the article as mere speculation that did not warrant a response. Although the Museum received several letters and telephone calls regarding Russell’s article, they were not answered until late July 1969, after Étant donnés had been installed and following publication of the Museum’s Bulletin on the work.
---- While Russell’s initial, factually inaccurate article failed to raise eyebrows, the next attempt to publicize Étant donnés had serious and negative repercussions for the Museum. On June 23, 1969, the New York-based magazine Art in America issued an unauthorized press release to promote its July 1969 issue, which was intended as an homage to Duchamp and would include an essay on Étant donnés by Bill Copley, as well as an overview of the artist’s life and work by the American painter Cleve Gray that also would contain details about the secret work. The promotional effort clearly was intended to provoke a controversy that would increase sales of the issue, scheduled to be published on June 30, 1969. The press release’s attention-grabbing headline— “Newly Revealed Final Masterpiece by Marcel Duchamp Publicized for First Time by Art in America”—effectively destroyed Evan Turner’s carefully orchestrated plan to unveil the work without fanfare or advance publicity. According to Turner, when the Museum “accepted the gift it was understood that the ‘Art in America’ issue would come out in the middle of July; there had never been any discussion of their doing a press release.”
---- The magazine had failed to contact the artist’s widow or the Philadelphia Museum of Art before distributing the press release, which as a result contained numerous errors that could have been corrected, including the claim that “only Mrs. Duchamp knew” about the existence of the work. The magazine further, and more significantly, reported that the installation was “due to be unveiled on July 1 to adults only.” Not only did the statement project an opening date that was six days earlier than the Museum had planned, it created the impression that Duchamp’s work, described in the press release as “explicitly sexual,” was not suitable for minors. In fact, no age barrier had ever been discussed by Turner, Copley, Teeny Duchamp, or anyone involved in presenting the work at the Museum.
---- Apoplectic with rage, Turner sent a scathing letter to Art in America’s editor, Jean Lipman, decrying the “thoughtlessness” of the magazine’s press release, which “did considerable disservice to an extraordinary achievement. I was astonished that the facts were not even checked with this Museum in any way. It was the wish of the donor and of Madame Duchamp that the piece should be quietly placed on exhibition, as the artist had worked on it, with no public announcement; that is no longer possible because of your release. Also, the piece will not be on exhibition as soon as July 1st and it is not the Museum’s intention to limit it ‘to adults only.’” On the same day, Turner forwarded “the appalling press release” to Teeny Duchamp, with a copy of his letter to Jean Lipman. “We have been extremely upset by it—and made our position clear,” wrote Turner, obviously exasperated by the timing of the magazine’s ill-conceived statement. “I don’t think much can be done on the matter. I really am thankful that we have gone to such trouble to write the Bulletin as we have because after that is released the seriousness of the work cannot be sufficiently overstated.”
---- The masterful essay on Étant donnés in the Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 3.31), coauthored by Walter Hopps and Anne d’Harnoncourt, was scheduled to arrive at the Museum on July 2, 1969, in time for the public unveiling of the work five days later but too late to prevent the fallout from the Art in America press release. Bill Copley, who had alerted the magazine to the existence of Étant donnés, also was furious at the lurid contents and factual inaccuracies of the press statement, and told d’Harnoncourt that he “gave Art in America Hell” for releasing it. Unfortunately, the damage was done, the cat was out of the bag, and the Museum was immediately inundated with requests from critics and reporters at the New York Times, Time, and numerous other publications, all demanding to learn more about Duchamp’s mysterious final masterpiece.
---- Many of the basic errors that appeared in the Art in America release were repeated in Cleve Gray’s essay in the magazine’s special section on Duchamp in its summer issue. Through his friendship with Copley, Gray had been invited to see Étant donnés in Duchamp’s Eleventh Street studio shortly before the work was moved to Philadelphia, and the Museum had worked tirelessly ever since to meet Gray’s last-minute photography requests, including a color image of the wooden door that was mislabeled in the magazine despite the fact that Anne d’Harnoncourt had sent the full caption information ahead of time. Unfortunately, like John Russell’s article in the Sunday Times, Gray’s essay used the racy language and sensational tactics of tabloid journalism to present Duchamp’s final work as an “erotic crèche” that was “as explicitly sexual as any work ever made.”
---- In contrast to Gray’s tone and language, Bill Copley’s essay offered highly personal testimony on the artist’s secret final work, written from the point of view of a painter who had been influenced by Duchamp’s humor and philosophy. Copley presented his own speculations on the meaning of Étant donnés, which he called the New Piece and considered to be “an extension of the unfinished Large Glass.” The author connected the two works through their use of enigmatic titles, invented perspectives, and unconventional materials taken from Duchamp’s daily experience. Above all, Copley believed that the uncompromising eroticism of Étant donnés restated the implications of the artist’s earlier master piece with finality: “The Bride and the machinery that makes her female are represented carefully and symbolically in the Large Glass. In the New Piece she and her moving parts are represented with disarming frankness.”Copley went on to itemize the shared iconography of the two works, before ending his essay with the coda that he did not want to offer an overly intellectual analysis of Étant donnés: “I can only feel it. I have experienced it. I can close my eyes and see it in detail any time I choose. Both pieces I’m sure were motivated by Marcel’s need to be busy—or, better perhaps to say quietly, his positive feelings about life.”
---- Sadly, the vast majority of subsequent articles and reviews turned to Gray’s error-filled account of Étant donnés rather than to Copley’s personal recollection orto the scholarly essay in the Museum’s Bulletin. Gray had repeated the claim in the Art in America press release that the female mannequin was covered in “pigskin,”whereas Anne d’Harnoncourt and other members of the Museum staff were under the impression that Duchamp had used vellum to cover the mannequin’s torso. Thanks to recent scientific analysis of the two rols of animal skin found in the artist’s studio after his death, we can now say that Duchamp used either cow skin or calf skin for his nude, but the myth that Duchamp used pigskin, which began with Gray and quickly took hold in the media, persists to this day. Indeed, as discussed in chapter two, the use of cow skin was in keeping with the personal nature of the materials used in Étant donnés.
---- Many of the factual inaccuracies in the Art in America press release and Gray’s subsequent essay carried over into the next two press accounts of the work in the United States, both of which were published in Philadelphia newspapers on July 1, 1969. After receiving the release on June 30, Helen Rothbardt reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Étant donnés had been presented to the Museum under the “greatest secrecy,” but that “in some manner unknown to the museum” Art in America had “got word of it and published an article about the work in its current issue.” Rothbardt’s article included Evan Turner’s objections to the magazine’s press release, not only for prematurely breaking the silence on the work’s existence but also for the way in which it handled the story; however, she could not resist ending her piece with a description of the nude mannequin, which she had not yet seen, reporting that it was made of pigskin and had a “look of tranquility.” The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin was more thoughtful in its coverage of Étant donnés, described by the reporter as a “nude figure in a landscape,” and the article included an interview with Turner, who called the work an “environmental sculpture” made up of many materials, which had come to the Museum through the “splendidly generous gift” of the Cassandra Foundation.
---- The lurid nature of the Art in America press release and the scandal-mongering essay by Cleve Gray in the magazine itself had obscured the work’s dignity and significance, and set the tone for its subsequent critical reception. When Étant donnés finally was unveiled to the general public on July 7, 1969, it provoked a storm of controversy. In a 2008 interview, Turner asserted that the magazine’s “vulgar and unnecessary” press release, coupled with Gray’s “undignified” article, “did exactly what we were trying to avoid,” turning “a serious and important work of art into an art world joke—the plaything of a dirty old man.”
---- In stark contrast to Gray’s piece, the essay in the Museum’s Bulletin provided a scholarly, succinct, and well-argued account of the work and its art historical context while carefully avoiding the pitfalls of over interpreting its content and meaning. Turner reported to the Duchamp Committee that “the critical success of the Bulletin article is clearly considerable,” although he lamented that several of the Museum’s members had objected to the reproduction of Objet-dard on page 39, due to its seemingly unmistakable resemblance to a bent phallus or dildo (FIG. 3a.18). As Turner pointed out, these outraged members clearly had not read the Bulletin article, which revealed that the work was part of the mold that Duchamp had used to construct the nude figure’s left breast. Despite these complaints—which indicate that a semierect penis was far more scandalous to Philadelphians at that time than a peephole view of a spread-eagled nude woman with an open vagina—the Bulletin essay established beyond doubt that the Museum took the tableau-construction seriously and recognized its importance for the history of art.
A PORNOGRAPHIC HOWL
First-day observers had mixed reactions to Étant donnés, with one anonymous visitor declaring, “It is a shocker. I’ve never looked at anything that gave me quite the same feeling.” Joseph Pride, who lived locally, called the work “more sensationalism than art,” while hippie-garbed, former Philadelphian Barbara Landau said she liked the piece but nonetheless thought it would raise “a pornographic howl” that would force the museum to close the installation. Turner and his specially appointed Duchamp Committee vigorously countered such arguments, especially when the work was described as a scene of rape, defilement, or even death. Such readings were often based on speculation and hearsay that took place prior to the experience of actually viewing Étant donnés, which Turner believed defied description: “All words about the piece become meaningless in encountering the experience itself.”
---- In reality, the vast majority of complaints the Museum received from the more than four thousand visitors who saw the work during the first seven days of its public exhibition pertained to the height of the peepholes, which were too high for some viewers; however, Turner refused to provide a stool, since he regarded the height of the door’s eyeholes to be “the greatest asset in dealing with children.” As a jubilant Turner related to Teeny Duchamp,
A note left by an elderly, disabled woman who, “after limping with cane [for] miles and miles,” arrived at the Museum only to find that she was not tall enough to see through the eyeholes, confirms Turner’s remarks about such complaints during that first week.
---- The Museum did receive several written protests from members of the public regarding what they believed to be the work’s shocking and offensive subject matter, as well as numerous telephone complaints, and there were many verbal exchanges with guards and staff members in the galleries. Helen S. Marks, for example, explained in a letter to the Director that she was intimately familiar with the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, and the art galleries of New York City, but “nothing prepared me for the shocking disappointment I experienced when looking through the peep holes in the Wooden Door.” She had visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art with her seventy-two-year-old mother and fifteen-year-old son, and expressed her astonishment that “anything that offensive would ever be shown in an Art Museum. Adults can take this kind of stuff, probably they have become quite callous in many ways, but for the sake of our youngsters, who come to the Art Museum quite unprepared for such a display, it should be removed immediately.”
---- In a letter to Turner that accused him of “playing flack to a fraud,” Mr. and Mrs. Donald A. Gallagher expressed similar opinions. “Why on earth should our great Museum and its Director,” the couple asked, “prostitute their position as taste-makers by puffing up and promoting such utter trash?” Finally, Philadelphia resident Edward Herbst vented his rage in an angry acrostic that he sent to Turner, in which the letters of Duchamp’s surname were used to express his litany of complaints about Étant donnés:
Herbst’s letter concluded that “Etant donnes doesn’t deserve to be behind the ‘Peephole Door’ let alone behind the Museum’s doors, east + west.”
---- Despite such vitriolic outbursts, Turner declared himself pleased with the “by and large enthusiastic” response of the first week’s visitors, especially those more than five feet tall, but he remained nervous about press reaction, which thus far had produced only sensationalistic accounts of the work. In a second interview with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Museum’s Director decided to go on the offensive, describing the Cassandra Foundation’s gift as “a significant coup” for the institution and the city. “Everyone is deeply impressed by the piece,” he continued. “It is the most important single work of a contemporary artist put on exhibition this year.” Turner placed his faith in John Canaday, the art critic of the New York Times, to turn the tide of public opinion, since “whether he likes the piece or not, we can be sure the [article] will necessarily be a thoughtful one.” With this in mind, Turner invited the critic to see the work before it went on public display and provided him with galleys of the as yet unpublished Museum Bulletin. Sadly, Turner’s hopes were dashed when Canaday wrote a flippant and somewhat salacious article that “infuriated” Bill Copley and everyone else directly involved in the project. Canaday’s article was all the more disappointing because he had discussed the work at length with Turner, who had allowed the critic to preview the installation only because he believed it would be preferable “to have his story based upon fact [rather] than on rumor.”
---- The New York Times review took its cue from the cheap sensationalism of Cleve Gray’s earlier prose, as when Canaday claimed that the sexual exhibitionism on display would not have been out of place in a production of Oh! Calcutta!—a reference to Ken Tynan’s theatrical revue that was shocking off-Broadway audiences in the summer of 1969 with its groundbreaking introduction of full-frontal nudity to the American stage. Canaday further bemoaned what he called the “sterile slickness of this final Duchamp work,” which he compared unfavorably to the porno tropic tableau-constructions of cast-off objects and urban detritus by American artist Edward Kienholz. “For the first time, this cleverest of 20th-century masters looks a bit retardataire,” he argued, since Kienholz’s grossly deformed and mutilated doll-prostitutes had gone so far beyond the stereoscopic Étant donnés as to make “Duchamp look like Bouguereau.”
---- Having failed to convince Canaday of Duchamp’s serious intentions, Turner was delighted to learn that Nessa R. Forman would be writing a “long story on the piece” for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin: “This couldn’t please us more because she did her M.A. history of art thesis at Penn on Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’ and even met with him in New York. Her devotion to the piece sight unseen can be assured.” This time, Turner’s instincts proved correct, as Forman wrote a sympathetic article that placed the tableau-construction within the context of the artist’s previous oeuvre: “Although the work looks radically unlike anything else Duchamp ever did,” she argued, “it bristles with cross-references to Duchamp’s other work.... And like the other works, it subverts our assumptions about reality.” Turner’s only objection to Forman’s piece was its repetition of the fallacious claim that the work went on public display “for adults only,” although the offending three words were excised from later editions of the newspaper, following complaints from the Museum.
---- Another review that pleased both Turner and d’Harnoncourt was John Perreault’s article in the Village Voice, which described Étant donnés as “one part allegory, one part mythology, one part pornography, one part metaphysical geometry, one part hymn, and one part slap in the face—a criticism of all other art, art history, and even of the viewer who may be foolish enough to allow himself to be seduced into its labyrinth of multiple meanings.” Perreault’s review emphasized the work’s “infinitely mysterious” qualities and ended with a prediction that Duchamp’s “apotheosis of enigma” would mark the end of the Western tradition of art. Richard Roud, writing in the Manchester Guardian, seemingly concurred with this assessment, declaring the work to be “one of the most important works of art of our century,” due to the fact that it “calls into question the whole nature of art.”
---- Time magazine also bucked the trend of lurid reporting and described Étant donnés as “a triumphant denouement” to Duchamp’s career that wrapped “all the themes of his previous works into one immensely charming paradox.” The article included a rare interview with Teeny Duchamp, who at that time was on her annual summer vacation in Cadaqués but had answered questions over the telephone. “He wanted to make a direct statement without words,” recalled the artist’s widow. “Something you look at and just feel.” Her short yet emotionally powerful statement reassured Turner, d’Harnoncourt, and the entire Museum staff, all of whom felt vindicated for their unstinting support of Duchamp’s work and ideas in the wake of a scandal that imperiled future funding of the institution and threatened to close the installation.
---- Censorship was certainly in the air, since two weeks before Étant donnés went on view a performance of Bruce Jay Friedman’s controversial play Scuba Duba in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park was closed down by the police due to its graphic presentation of an interracial sexual relationship between a married white woman and her African-American lover. Turner candidly told Teeny that he found the Time article—which had ended with a poetic description of Duchamp’s evocation of Eros and the “strange sense of flesh, poignant and vulnerable as a falling leaf”—rather startling for “its unbelievably saccharine overtones, but nonetheless [it] is certainly a report which will be useful in the long run.” However, the favorable coverage in Time and the Evening Bulletin was outweighed by other media reports, especially those by local television stations, which as Turner noted had “tried to nurture the negative notes that might have been expected.”
---- Most critics compared Étant donnés with the work of Edward Kienholz and other American artists of the post-Abstract Expressionist generation, such as Bruce Conner, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and George Segal. One artist frequently invoked in discussions of the piece was Paul Thek, whose gruesome 1967 installation Thek’s Tomb, which contained a body cast of the artist attired in pink clothes and shoes, was shown at the Stable Gallery in New York the year before Duchamp died (see fig. 3.32). The brutal hyperrealism of Thek’s tableau self-portrait, which was made some twenty years after Duchamp began his Étant donnés project, erroneously suggested to some critics that the artist had responded to contemporary works of art. Indeed, as the Philadelphia Inquirer gleefully reported, Duchamp’s little secret was not only that he was aware of “American artists of the Pop persuasion, kinetic artists concerned with motion, and designers of ‘happenings’ and ‘total environments,’” but that he was working—as recently as 1966—“in closer harmony with it than anyone had reason to believe.” Such statements were in fact supported by the essay in the Museum’s Bulletin. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of recent developments in contemporary art, especially on the West Coast, Hopps made a powerful yet ultimately flawed case for the impact of work by younger artists such as Kienholz and Segal on Duchamp’s final piece.
---- With or without Hopps’s words to guide them, many of the pioneering voyeurs who pressed their faces against the weather-beaten door and peered inside thought they saw a shocking image of sadistic violence and sexual mutilation. Newspaper interviews published at the time reveal that viewers found the work “disgusting,” “distasteful,” “shocking,” and “pornographic.” Philipp Frings, a German visitor to the Museum, “felt the reclining nude looked like a cadaver on which they would perform autopsies in a medical school,” while Philadelphia resident Arthur Zbinden told a local newspaper that he “was expecting an assemblage of weird things, but not such a graphic depiction of a woman.” It fell to Chestnut Hill art history student Marion “Kippy” Stroud, the future founder of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, to defend the work, which she believed to be “totally nonsexual” and “not at all shocking” (fig. 3.33). What impressed her was “the feeling of voyeurism involved in pressing your nose up against the door and peeking in.” She also thought there was another dimension to the viewing experience in “knowing there was someone behind you watching you.”
---- Although Stroud’s musings on voyeurism and the carnality of vision embodied in the work placed her firmly in the minority, they were subsequently supported by John Russell, who wrote a second article on Étant donnés for the London Sunday Times after seeing the work firsthand in the fall of 1969. On September 17, Russell visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accompanied by Richard Hamilton and his wife, Rita Donagh, the art historian Suzi Gablik, fellow artists Jasper Johns and Robert Morris, and several other friends and colleagues. D’Harnoncourt recounted the day’s memorable events in a letter of October 4, 1969, to Teeny Duchamp, who was “dying to know what happened with the English invasion.” The visit had begun with Johns getting hopelessly lost while attempting to drive to the Museum from the sleepy suburb of Merion, where he had visited the Barnes Foundation in the morning. “Everyone was confused but in high spirits,” recalled the young curatorial assistant, and once Johns was reunited with the group they were greeted by d’Harnoncourt and Turner in the Duchamp galleries before viewing Étant donnés one by one. The work had a profound impact on everyone, but none more so than Hamilton, who “seemed extraordinarily moved.” D’Harnoncourt touchingly ended her letter to Teeny with a report on “the lady in the room beyond the Large Glass,” who is “doing very well. Really, it is as if Étant donnés had always been here, although I remember 11th Street so vividly; it seems so serene and inevitable here now.”
---- The visit ended with an animated discussion over dinner and encouraged Russell to write his second article on the work, which appeared in the Sunday Times on October 5,1969. This piece remains one of the most thoughtful and insightful essays on Duchamp’s tableau-construction, and almost certainly reflects the conversations that had taken place in Philadelphia among the artists, curators, and art historians who debated the origins and meaning of the work. Russell’s article credited Duchamp for the insistence with which Étant donnés “overthrows the conventional nature of museum experience,” and recounted the writer’s own realization, after seeing the work, that “every museum is in essence a peepshow and everyone of its visitors an eavesdropper: a sneaky sort of fellow who presumes to peer at the secret life of works of art. It took Duchamp to formalise this state of affairs and to cast the latest and not the least substantial of his major works in such a form as to make Peeping Toms of all who come to see it.” Russell went on to describe in detail the individual elements that make up this “meditation on the nature of artistic experience,” before comparing the work to the art of the past: “This bizarre assemblage comes out as a unified poetic statement; the nude is as compelling as the great late nudes of Titian, the landscape as all-comprehending as the symphonic landscapes of Rubens or Courbet. The new piece is to naturalistic art what ‘Ulysses’ was to the novel: apotheosis and farewell in one.”
---- In contrast to Russell’s thought-provoking essay, many American journalists continued to revel in salacious accounts of Duchamp’s environmental sculpture featuring a “pigskin” nude that they perceived to be a scene of “sexual invitation, sadism, rape, [or] death.” The resulting scandal ensured that the Museum tripled its attendance, with more than 13,000 visitors in the first week alone, 4,277 of whom came specifically to see Étant donnés, but the tabloid-style stories of rape and dismemberment undoubtedly hindered the public’s understanding of the work.
MISS CHERRY DELIGHT
So what is going on here? What can account for the near uniformity of these responses to a highly complex work that was created over a period of two decades? Looking back from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, it is clear that many of the first visitors to spy through the peepholes of Étant donnés looked at Duchamp’s brightly lit diorama and connected what they were seeing with the work of Edward Kienholz. Indeed, there is a stunning visual similarity between Duchamp’s primal scene and Kienholz’s disquieting multipart environments, such as Back Seat Dodge ‘38 (1964; fig. 3.34) and The State Hospital (1966; fig. 3.35), as well as other works by postwar American artists, including Robert Whitman’s rarely seen 16mm film Window (1963; fig. 3.36), which as Walter Hopps remarked bore an uncanny resemblance to Étant donnés in its voyeuristic portrayal of a naked woman pruning a rosebush in a garden located on the other side of the window through which we observe her.
---- Hopps’s own encyclopedic knowledge of Dada and Surrealism, including Hans Bellmer’s depersonalized dolls (see FIG. 3a.19) and Kurt Schwitters’s Hannover Merzbau environment (see FIG. 3a.20)—which contained a section entitled the “Sex-Crime Cavern,” featuring a small plastic figure of a bloody female nude whose mutilated corpse was covered in red lipstick—must have had a significant impact on the work of Kienholz. One of Hopps’s closest friends, as well as his business partner in the short-lived Ferus Gallery, which they opened together in Los Angeles in 1957, Kienholz was exposed to many of the key sources for Étant donnés, even though his own work diverged from Duchamp’s cerebral approach to art making and reveled instead in the macabre and abject.
---- Hopps was cognizant of the fact that Duchamp was keenly aware of recent developments in sculpture and assemblage, since the two men met frequently during preparations for the artist’s 1963 retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, and often discussed the postwar generation of artists in both Europe and the United States, including the work of Kienholz, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jean Tinguely. Indeed, Duchamp saw Kienholz’s 1963 exhibition at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York, which included the tableau-construction Roxys (1961; fig. 3.37). A lifesize re-creation of a notorious whorehouse in Las Vegas, this work places the viewer in the awkward position of client or voyeur as he or she encounters the artist’s mechanically driven fetish dolls in a dysfunctional, walk-in environment. The grossly deformed and mutilated doll-prostitutes are arranged in a variety of sexual poses that reveal Kienholz’s debt to the perverse poupées of Bellmer, although he manages to surpass the German artist in his attention to detail, even going so far as to name each mannequin (Miss Cherry Delight, Cockeyed Jenny, and Five Dollar Billy, for example), and giving them specific roles to play. When Hopps asked Duchamp how he liked Kienholz’s 1963 show, he laughingly replied, “Marvelously vulgar artist. Marvelously vulgar. I like that work.” When told of the artist’s response, Kienholz said, “Well, that’s nice. I like his work too.”
---- In the Museum’s Bulletin essay on Étant donnés, Hopps presented Kienholz as a largely self-taught artist, immune to the history of modern art, but most impartial viewers can detect an undercurrent of Surrealism in works such as Back Seat Dodge ‘38, with its voyeuristic depiction of two adolescents (the male formed by open mesh chicken wire, the female rendered in cast plaster) engaged in sexual activity in the back of a truncated old Dodge. The work owes a strong debt to Salvador Dalí’s slimy Rainy Taxi (see FIG. 3a.21a,b), exhibited at the entrance of the 1938 Exposition International du Surréalisme at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris, in which two mannequins—a shark-headed male chauffer in the front seat and a blonde female passenger in the back—were subjected to a torrential downpour of rain inside a car while live Burgundy snails inched their way across the figures’ artificial skin. The exhibition date of Rainy Taxi clearly resonates with the title of Kienholz’s own multimedia assemblage of recycled materials—what he called the “left-overs of human experience”—scavenged from junkyards and automobile graveyards.
---- Like Étant donnés, Kienholz’s subversive, multipart environments were highly controversial when they were first exhibited. In 1966, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, spearheaded by Warren M. Dorn—who at the time was running for governor of California—tried to close down the artist’s midcareer retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art following objections to what were perceived as the pornographic imagery and lurid sexual subject matter of works like Back Seat Dodge ‘38 and Roxys. The resulting scandal ensured front-page news, countless editorial-page cartoons, and a large attendance for Kienholz’s exhibition, which took place just three years before Étant donnés was publicly unveiled, leading many critics and viewers to assume erroneously that Duchamp had made his assemblage in response to the California artist’s infamous retrospective.
---- To situate Duchamp’s work within the context of American art of the 1960s is to ignore the fact that his preliminary studies for Étant donnés predate by almost twenty years Kienholz’s abject assemblages, as well as George Segal’s sculptural tableaux featuring white plaster figures whose bodies were cast from life (fig. 3.38). This inconsistency was recognized by the art critic Colette Roberts, who viewed Étant donnés in August 1969 in the company of the Ukrainian-born American sculptor Louise Nevelson, and wrote a review for Le Courrier des États-Unis in which she argued that Duchamp had been happy to play the role of father figure to the “Flower Children” while cultivating his own garden in secret. The distance between the dates of Duchamp’s final work and those of his followers is further highlighted by the actual genesis of Étant donnés in the late 1920s, as evidenced by an often overlooked reference in Julien Levy’s autobiography, Memoirs of an Art Gallery, in which the New York art dealer recalls that Duchamp by that time had begun making ambitious plans and drawings for a life-size, remote-controlled female mannequin, which the artist viewed as a sort of “machine-onaniste.”
---- Although none of the drawings that Levy saw Duchamp making for this project has survived, their presence is felt in the earliest studies for Étant donnés. A 1949 photograph of an early plaster version of the female torso reveals that Duchamp made very few changes to the work over the next two decades (FIG. 3a.22). His initial idea, as seen in the 1948 drawing Reflection à main (Hand Reflection; FIG. 3a.23), was for the mannequin to hold up a mirror in which the viewer/ voyeur would meet his or her own image; even though the artist eventually replaced the looking glass with a Bec Auer gas lamp, the basic composition of the nude for the tableau-construction remained the same. Not only were Duchamp’s ideas thus fully formed by the 1960s, but many of his studies and erotic objects relating to Étant donnés were by then well known—through exhibitions and the sale of limited editions of works such as Female Fig Leaf (FIG. 3a.24 and FIG. 3a.25) and Objet-dard (FIG. 3a.26) in the 1950s and early 1960s—to artists such as Kienholz, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Segal, who were encouraged by Duchamp’s example to construct their own works using found objects or body parts cast in wax or plaster to represent the fragmentary human form.
---- Without the aid of voluminous notes, such as those that accompany The Large Glass, viewers of Étant donnés were forced to find their own frames of reference by which to navigate and decipher Duchamp’s final work. Helped by Hopps and d’Harnoncourt’s essay and perceptive reviews, visitors to the Museum found many rich yet surely serendipitous associations between Étant donnés and the challenging contemporary art practices of their day, including assemblage and installation art. In contrast to their American counterparts, European critics and art historians discerned a rather different artistic lineage for Duchamp’s posthumously revealed work, tracing it to Surrealist mannequins and Dadaist images of death and dismemberment, such as Hans Bellmer’s debased dolls and Max Ernst’s astonishing photocollage Die Anatomie Sehulfertig (The School-Prepared Anatomy), of 1921 (fig. 3.39), in which segments of a woman’s dissected body are combined with mechanical elements and placed in a tin tub. But once again, it is the violence of such imagery that seems so remote from the scopophilic pleasure of Duchamp’s last work, which is almost elegiac by comparison.
---- As we shall see in the next chapter, which focuses on the reception and legacy of Étant donnés, this emphasis on the female nude as the victim of a frenzied rape or sex murder perhaps has programmed viewers to accept unthinkingly that they are spectators of a sadistic crime. More often than not, the lurid details attributed to Duchamp’s work do not match the actual scene on display, which appears to be devoid of trauma. The splayed nude is often described as a corpse or carcass that “holds up the lamp as if locked in rigor mortis,” while the diorama setting has been called “the site of an atrocity” despite the absence of any obvious wounds to the body. However, as the art historian Molly Nesbit has lamented, why do so many commentators speak of violence when confronted with the famous view of the lady’s crotch, “which, albeit spotlit, is hairless, dry, stretched almost beyond recognition, and bloodless,” rather than point to the work’s resonance with voyeurism, seduction, and the construction of erotic desire?
* Taylor, Michael R.; Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés, Philadelphia Museum of Art & Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 169-181, pp. 187-189. (Published on the occasion of an exhibition held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Aug. 15 - Nov. 1, 2009.)
 John Russell, “Riches in a Little Room,” London Sunday Times, May 11, 1969, p. 54.