paintings 1 2 3 4 5 a b c -
- A B . . . . . . . new
list of paintings ...
titles of ...
paintings not created yet ...
← gallery 16 →
Marcel Duchamp as Rectified Readymade
Dead and Alive — Duchamp's Multiples
Those who believe that Marcel Duchamp was an artistic reticent who produced an objects only rarely and reluctantly would have benefited from a visit to the Duchamp exhibition recently organized by Galerie Ronny van de Velde in Antwerp. Occupying all three floors of the gallery building were nearly 400 items of Duchampiana: paintings, photographs, prints, multiples, machines, magazines, posters, films, drawings, readymades, rectified readymades, assisted readymades, imitation rectified readymades, semireadymades, and replica readymades-an accumulation that pointed up the fact that when people say an artist hasn't produced much in the way of art, they usually mean that he hasn't produced much in the way of painting or sculpture. The van de Velde show included very few paintings and sculptures. The vast bulk of the show consisted, one way or another, of reproductions after Duchamp's own prototypes. And there were just a handful of these prototypes: the famous Large Glass, a dozen or so readymades, less than a dozen early paintings. Duchamp was endlessly inventive in his repackaging; he managed to spin these few themes and images out into the hundreds of items on view without suggesting either incapacity or opportunism. No one understood better the art-potential of reproduction.
More radically than any artist before him, Duchamp sought to divorce the art idea from the art object. It's a divorce that altered the theory and practice of art in the second half of this century, inspiring movements from Fluxus to Conceptual Art Appropriation. Duchamp's emphasis on intellectual gratification, has suspicion of the sensual pleasures of vision, and his linking of economic materialism and artistic materialism, have become a kind of moral code for art production. But the Duchampian distinction between idea and object had particular and profound implications for reproduction — re-production both as a source material for the artist (the readymades were all mass-manufactured, that was basic to their importance), and as a tool for art-making. It is the similarities and dissimilarities inherent in visual references to the same thing that allows Duchamp's art to function.
Duchamp's most popularly famous work is undoubtedly L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919 - a mass-produced reproduction of the Mona Lisa, customized by Duchamp's pencil mustache and goatee: and an impertinent retitling. (The initials, said aloud in French, sound like the French for "she's got a hot ass.") It is the fact of reproduction that allows the work to occur at all, that allowed it to seem an offhand gesture, that allowed it to be rude without being hateful. The viewer is never quite sure whether it is the Mona Lisa that is being sullied, or the endless reproductions (which, after all, damage the "aura" of the original) that are being insulted. In 1941, Duchamp made a print of the Moustache and Beard of L.H.O.O.Q. - rehashing his own work, minus Leonardo's contribution, and producing an image that functioned only by reference to his own (endlessly reproduced) earlier piece. Twenty-three years later, he added the mustache to some 35 Mona Lisa postcards, producing an L.H.O.O.Q. "rectified readymade" edition. And finally, in 1965, there is the L.H.O.O.Q. Rasée (Shaved) – a straightforward readymade postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa, "presumably" in an edition of 100, unadorned by anything save Duchamp's signature and the note: RASÉE / L.H.O.O.Q - which is to say, by a verbal reference to his own original, which has suddenly reversed positions with Leonardo's, the Mona Lisa is now presented as a modified Duchamp.
Marcel Duchamp; Coatrack, 1964.
Duchamp strove for, and often achieved, a splendid confusion about the status of originality and reproduction (a far greater confusion than that brought on by Sherrie Levine's copies of Walker Evans's photographs, where the situation may be perverse, but is at least perfectly clear). For example, the readymades: the urinal, the bottle rack, the coatrack, the bicycle wheel attached to the seat of a wooden stool, the various other uninspiring items that Duchamp acquired and declared to be art. These are textbook pieces of 20th-century art, illustrations of the thesis that it is the will of the artist, not the appearance of the object, that determines what art is; the idea that originality lay not in the manufacture but in the gesture. What is usually glossed over in the textbooks is the fact that virtually all the readymades that we see in museums, in photographs, in slide lectures, are not things picked up by Duchamp on some grimy pre-war Parisian street, but editioned replicas produced in 1964. Many of the "originals" don't even exist. Not only is their production unoriginal, even the gesture is second hand.
(Given all this, what would otherwise be a bizarre use of reproduction in the van de Velde show actually seems reasonable: in addition to all the reproductions by Duchamp, and with Duchamp, and after-Duchamp-but-signed-by-Duchamp, van de Velde arranged for several full-scale photographic reproductions of canonical Duchamp works from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including a poster-like Nude Descending a Staircase, a glass-sandwiched transparency of the Large Glass, and a truly odd rendition of Duchamp's swan-song peep show, Etant donnés: 1 la chute d'eau, 2 Ie gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The illuminating Gas), where one looks through holes punched in a photo-mural cardboard door at a photo-mural of Duchamp's psychosexual diorama. One has to wonder why they stopped short of the Philadelphia Museum's most memorable gift-shop item: the Large Glass shower curtain).
A slightly different angle on this same issue occurs with the Large Glass and its various support materials. As we are always told, what appears to be the usual surrealist hodgepodge of body-bits and machinery is actually an elaborate condensation of strategy and symbolism, which took Duchamp the chess player more than eight years to develop. Duchamp set up what amounted to a cottage industry based on the explication of the Large Glass: he published photographs of it, etchings of it, a boxed set of facsimiles of his notes and drawings of it. There are at least three different miniature replicas. None of these things (with the possible exception of the Large Glass itself) is of any great interest without the others. Everything depends on reproductive reference.
But the masterpiece of the van de Velde exhibition is not the Large Glass, but the de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (Boîte en Valise), the laptop retrospective of his own career that Duchamp produced (in a number of slightly different editions) between 1941 and 1968. Built like a Barbie doll's traveling wardrobe, the Boîte en Valise is divided into little compartments for miniature replicas and facsimiles of the artist's work – a dollhouse-sized urinal, an ampule of Parisian air, a small Large Glass – anywhere from 68 to 80 items in all (depending on the particular edition). The Boîte contains, in its tiny area, almost as much useful information about Duchamp's work and career as the comprehensive van de Velde show, and it makes clear that what is interesting in Duchamp is not so much any given object, but the relationships between them (as in the various states of L.H.O.O.Q.). The Boîte also has the advantage of having a physical character entirely appropriate to Duchamp's esthetics – that of a game. It is the size and shape of a boxed chess set, a backgammon game, an old-fashioned set of checkers – a scale that invites the detailed, even obsessive, perusal that Duchamp's art requires.
Duchamp's fascination with chess is well known, and I suspect that one's patience for Duchamp is probably directly related to one's fondness for the kind of mental maneuvers of chess games. The changes in his art are like the motions of chess pieces: flips, inversions, neat geometric reversals. He never bends things just slightly out of shape nor invents wholly new rules. The claim is often made that Duchamp "played chess as if it were a work of art." It might be more accurate to say that he made art as if it were a game of chess. He is repeatedly described as "a strategist," "a gamesman" – words that emphasize intellect, or worse, a kind of brittle cleverness. This is not quite fair, for Duchamp's art is as graceful, charming, and witty in the realm of the cerebral as Watteau's is in the realm of paint, but the realm of the cerebral can be hard to get to.
What becomes clear, walking through room after room of Duchampiana, is the extreme inefficiency of objects in conveying Duchamp's ideas. The net effect of the mass of things brought together for the van de Velde show – and of the insufficiently gripping character of any single one – is that they operate more as documents than artworks. The exhibition comes to resemble an ethnographic or historical show, replete with masses of small items, many of them repetitious, piled up as evidence for theories and events that still need to be accompanied by large blocks of text.
Most of the things in the van de Velde show are not particularly pleasing or rewarding to look at. It would be easy to dismiss this as a result of the inadequacies of reproduction, were it not for the fact that it is true of Duchamp's work generally – of the reproductions, the unequivocally "original," and everything in between. In fact, the critical relationship is not that between the reproduction and its prototype, but that between the art object and the idea it is intended to express.
In a 1961 address on the future of art, Duchamp opposes the “retinal approach” to art (by which he meant something associated with the pleasures of looking) in favor of one that appeals to "auxiliary interpretation” (by which he seemed to mean something associated with the pleasures of thinking) and concludes that the artist of the future will go underground and probably stop producing objects altogether. (Duchamp himself never did stop producing objects - the last years of his life were among his most productive, at least quantitatively.) But his vision of a non-retinal art remains a utopian one, an ideal art for ideal people who do not and will not exist. In the meantime, exhibitions remain retinal events and people remain (for want of a better term) retinally motivated. Ultimately – at least in an exhibition – it is the object that must speak, and for most of us, the richness and power of art lies in that unstable ricochet between "retinal impression" and “auxiliary interpretation," between what you see and what you get, between the dead object and the live idea.
(ARTS MAGAZINE, February 1992, pp. 13-14)