milan golob

Rrose Selavy is Marcel Duchamp


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Rrose Selavy is Marcel Duchamp

Palmiro Tiranti (1898-1967)
2012, oil on canvas, 29×32 cm

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Rrose Selavy is Marcel Duchamp

Palmiro Tiranti (1898-1967)

Rrose Selavy is Marcel Duchamp




Milan Golob; Paintings and Duchamp (Rrose in the toilet of Gallery Škuc), 1994, Gallery Škuc, Ljubljana (photo 2008)

Milan Golob; Paintings and Duchamp (Rrose),
Gallery Škuc, Ljubljana, 1994





Robert Harvey
Where's Duchamp? - Out Queering the Field*

It's a facile pun for French speakers to draw "field" out of "Duchamp," since "du champ" means "of the field" or even "out of the field": the pun is nevertheless a serviceable twist for signifying the close link between the work of art that Marcel Duchamp made of himself and the profound transformations that occurred, during his lifetime and since, in the rules of the game played on the field known as the "art world." Those transformations-a veritable revolution like the one the surrealists dreamed of fomenting-required that Duchamp remain staunchly independent of all schools, movements, and formations. Being outside, in itself, was not particularly queer; but the effect that Duchamp had on the field was resolutely queer. Some still maintain that everything in the wake of Duchamp is art, and that therefore nothing is. I will maintain that instead of a tabula rasa, this explosion of possibility for the art-object or otherwise-should be seen as an irregular, unpredictable, delightfully complex terrain. Duchamp didn't clear the field, he queered it.

Grasping what surrealism was-which entails tracing the movements that it impelled and the transformations it accomplished-proves to be accurate (and certainly more interesting) when one ranges over the terrain where Marcel Duchamp willingly allowed his identity to float free of all constraints. This identity anarchy deforms, reforms, and informs the work of art as well as Duchamp's relation to work per se. The result is a recomplexified topography for art in general-a queered field.

"Action" is undoubtedly too strong a term to describe the inflection of seemingly anything that came in contact with Marcel Duchamp-unless one subjects the term" action" to a thoroughgoing critique. For example, if one can accept the counter-intuitive notion that something like "action" can be produced by a person at complete rest, then Duchamp can be considered to have strived to act. To prove to himself and to whomever might care that painters might not be as stupid as the old French adage, "béte comme un peintIe" [stupid as a painter] asserts, we know that he quickly developed the technique of creating art with his brain instead of brawn conducted through the brush. What aesthetics has retained from Duchamp's passage through its field is that ideas not only make art: they axe art, sometimes. We might also consider, for a moment, where" action," considered in all of its possible degrees, is situated within the dialectic of labor and leisure. Alternating with or, apparently sometimes in tandem with periods of febrile and fastidious activity, Duchamp engaged in concerted laziness. These variants of – or deviant manifestations of–"action" deserve the attention of more than a few moments. And I suggest that they bring us near the heart of what attracted Breton to Duchamp and what, at the same time, guaranteed the preservation of Duchamp's autonomy from surrealism.

"Everybody loved him," Gertrude Stein once wrote.[1] How true! Accounts are unanimous in testifying–first and second-hand–that women and men alike were mad about Marcel. At the very least he didn't displease. His mild manner, his wit, his politeness-even when he occasionally expressed disagreement, concern, or stubborn opinion- all worked to incline affections toward him. Women queer and straight desired him with unbound intensity. No doubt lots of men did too. You adore me, you love me: everyone adores Marcel, but often doesn't get loved back. Although I think it's a little outré to assert, as Amelia Jones has, that Duchamp "served as a desired object for many of the artists now termed New York Dadaists,"[2] who could ever attribute anywhere near as much adoration to the likes of Andre Breton? By all accounts surrealism's animator was insufferably self-centered, dictatorial, hopelessly misogynistic, and homophobic.

The premise of this volume is to examine surrealism in light of that which is not surrealist. How then, specifically, does Marcel Duchamp-as other-contribute to the shaping of surrealism? I'll begin, as my prologue suggests, by positing that Duchampian otherness begins in the sheer endearing qualities of the man. This lovability enabled him quite singularly to implement a one-man program to disrupt the stodginess of the art institution. Duchamp's knack for intriguing everyone-including, especially, Breton-is in large part a product of a curiously active form of laziness (a paradox that will have to be unraveled as we go). Duchamp opened a variety of avenues along which this active laziness manifested itself; I will later focus on one well-known one (Rrose Sélavy) and suggest the tracings of a new one. Whereas surrealism, prematurely announcing the revolution, ultimately played into capitalism's propensity to commodify everything, Duchamp parodied the commodification of art and thus never succumbed to the trappings incurred after ideological breakdown.

In this essay, in other words, I will attempt to adumbrate some vectors in the force field of Duchamp's queerness that extend well beyond sexual practices and politics into the realms of aesthetics and, ultimately, ethics. This should enable the reader to see clearly that irreconcilable differences lay between programmatic and worldly surrealism on the one hand and the type and scope of the epistemology that Duchamp's investigations and creations organize on the other.

"All painting and sculpture exhibitions nauseate me," Duchamp wrote to Jacques Doucet in 1925, "and I would like to avoid being associated with them."[3] This expression of position is typical, unwavering, and applies to all exhibitions-even those, including surrealism shows, to whose organization he contributed; even those later devoted to his own work: "I beg you to avoid all exhibitions and events about me," he admonished Henri-Pierre Roche in 1952 (N° 210). His aversion to the dynamics and destructiveness of group activity is such a commonplace corroborated, moreover, by abundant evidence that it's superfluous to rehearse. This fact alone would probably suffice for succinct dictionary work to explain why he abhorred "isms" and was never a Dadaist nor became a card-carrying surrealist. However, before we get into the Duchamp-surrealism dialectic, let me stress that their irreconcilability did not at all preclude collaboration and a certain level of friendship-even with the of times insufferable Andre Breton. It would be dead wrong, in other words, to blithely infer or proclaim that Duchamp had nothing to do with surrealism or, a fortiori, with Andre Breton.

Garbo and Marcel: kindred spirits in the desire to be left alone. "I am managing to live more or less the same way as in Paris," he writes to Man Ray from New York, "no telephone, no cocktail parties-a bit like a badger, but it's the only way to solve the social problem" (23 July 1944, N° 154). Conveying to Brancusi his approval of Francis Picabia's new attitude toward society in 1925: "He's far less militant than before and seems contented with sunshine and the easy life. That's the best way to really tell idiots to fuck off" (N° 86). "The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get successful in the smallest way .... Don't bother naming a few exceptions to justify some milder opinion about the whole 'Art game'" (to Katherine Dreier, 5 November 1928, N° 100). His faithful sponsor would soon suggest that Waldemar George write a book on Duchamp. The reaction came swiftly and with uncharacteristic elaboration: "My attitude about the book is based upon my attitude toward' Art' since 1918 .... It can be no more question of my life as an artist's life: I gave it up ten years ago; this period is long enough to prove that my intention to remain outside of any art manifestation is permanent.... The third question is that I want to be alone as much as possible. This abrupt way to speak of my 'hardening process' is not meant to be mean, but is the result of ‘42 years of age.' Summing up, [p]lease understand, I am trying for a minimum of action, gradually" (11 September 1929, N0 101). Marcel must have the pettiness of cliques in mind when he expresses his exasperation to Pierre de Massot ("from my pissotière I spy Pierre de Massot") that "the bullshit of Paris is boundless" (30 August 1933, N° 106).

Out of this epistolary thicket, a pattern to accompany dogged independence appears: a desire for inertia that materializes in the readymade while identitary promiscuity will provide the decoy.

Fellow Traveller

Isms and schisms, cliques and klatches were not Duchamp's cup of coffee. He'd go out drinking with a few independent spirits in New York, but the only club he ever joined was for chess-arguably the foremost of his passions. And he only tolerated chess players because with them you didn't have to bare your soul. "Nothing as usual. Chess as much as possible: at least chess players don't talk" (to Suzanne Duchamp, 8 January 1948, N° 175). Alone, then, yet perhaps against all odds, Duchamp writes, as late as 1944, that "Breton is the only one I see regularly" (to Roche, N° 159).

Aloof and slick: this was Duchamp's (non-)stance vis-à-vis his peers, even before the notoriety gained by the succès de scandale of Nude Descending a Staircase, N° 2 at New York's Armory Show in 1913. So later, when Breton identified Duchamp as a living precursor of surrealism, his persistent elusiveness only served to augment the hero-worship Breton lavished on him. As early as 1922, Breton wrote to Jacques Doucet that Duchamp was "the man from whom I would be the most inclined to expect something, if he wasn't so distant and deep down so desperate."[4] Typical case of transference, for it was Breton who was desperate to delve programmatically into Duchamp's putative unconscious as he did with everyone in the surrealist inner circle. But as comments he made in the 1950s, disapproving of Michel Carrouges' study of "bachelor machines" amply indicate, Duchamp gave little credence to the theory of the unconscious. Consequently, Marcel Duchamp's (or, rather Rrose Sélavy's) many salacious puns, which to Breton were the most remarkable poetic phenomenon in years,[5] were to Duchamp expressions of fully conscious cognition.

If there was one study on his work that got him really worked up, it was Michel Carrouges' Bachelor Machines, first published with the Arcanes psychoanalytic publishing house in 1954. And in perfectly anti-psychoanalytic terms, he made perfectly clear to Breton what got his dander up and just how Carrouges missed the whole point (which was laughter): "Using the Green Box, Carrouges has brought to light the underlying process with the meticulousness of a sub-mental dissection. No need to add that his findings, even if they form a coherent whole, were never conscious when I was working out my strategy because my subconscious is mute like all subconsciousnesses and that my strategy had more to do with the conscious need to introduce some 'hilarity' or at least some humor into such a 'serious' subject." Duchamp's underlining, twice, of the word "conscious" speaks voluminously of his conviction (that jibes with that of Gertrude Stein, moreover) that there is only consciousness-no unconscious. And his dismissal of Carrouges and his book, Les machines célibataires, could not be more definitive: "For me, there is something other than yes, no, and indifferent-it's the absence of investigations of this sort, for example" (to Breton, 4 October 1954, N° 235).

Nor did he have any particular political convictions. Such apathy would have disqualified him for the kind of fellow-traveling with the surrealists that linked Sartre, for a while, to the Communist Party. Yet he was not at all confrontational in his different with surrealism, like his close friend Francis Picabia was, and he provided steady-if episodic-accompaniment to Andre Breton's endeavors right up to the latter's death in 1966. Indeed, the homosocial dimension of their collaborative friendship did not escape Duchamp: it was "a man-to-man friendship," he explained to Georges Charbonnier in 1961, "one could even see in it a homosexual element, if we were indeed homosexuals. We were not, but it is all the same. Our friendship could have turned into a homosexual one if it had not expressed itself in surrealism instead."

An unwavering heterosexual, or so he says, Duchamp was not absolutely indifferent to the object choices people make, but he was conceptually and performatively experimental in the domain, and went out of his way to defend the role of homosexuals in society. Rrose Sélavy is the most obviously sustained experiment in gender trouble. His œuvre-from Fountain to Étant donnés-is a tautology (or "patatautology") of conceptual experimentation. As for his defense of homosexuality, we have only to consider Duchamp's response to Frank Lloyd Wright's boorish question posed to him at the Western Round Table on Modern Art in 1949 when he'd just said that he did not consider homosexuality to be degenerate: Wright- "You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly in debt to homosexualism [sic]?" Duchamp- "I admit it, but not in your terms. I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual public."[6] I would ask the reader to simply place this in the scales opposite Breton's homophobia as expressed in the infamous "Research on Sexuality." Queneau must necessarily be a "pederast," according to "Dédé," because he finds the "sentimental ideas of pederasts" altogether acceptable; Breton imperiously puts an end to discussion of a subject so abject to him that he cannot even name it.[7]

Radically independent, Duchamp could never join the surrealists. Apolitical and queer (straight or otherwise) avant la lettIe, and Breton's awe of him notwithstanding, he was radically disqualified for surrealism. Yet Duchamp and Breton maintained a certain degree of friendship and, most importantly in this context, Duchamp lent his services to numerous surrealist endeavors virtually to the end of his life. In addition to allowing various works of his to be included in surrealist exhibits as well as providing puns and artwork for publications, Duchamp was the invisible but principal hand behind the design of several famous exhibits. There was the major "Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme" of 1938 organized at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts for which Duchamp created the ceiling environment consisting of over a thousand loosely stuffed coal bags. Then there was the "First Papers of Surrealism" show on Madison Avenue in 1942 where the space among paintings was obstructed by miles of string that Duchamp had strung haphazardly. To add to the confusion, Duchamp incited Sidney Janis's children to run through the maze as they wished while people were trying to look. H they were challenged by an adult, he'd instructed them to answer politely that Mr. Duchamp had given them permission to do so. Trying to revive surrealism after the war, Breton got Duchamp's help with "Le Surréalisme en 1947" which showed in both Paris and New York. They collaborated on the mise-en-scène, but the most significant Duchamp contribution was the limited edition catalog with its "priére de toucher" cover.

All this good will and good humor offered to Breton culminates in the sour note hit after Duchamp good-naturedly helps out once again. But this time the incorrigibly imperious, jealous, sectarian Breton wraps his faithful friend on the knuckles. The "Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanter's Domain" ran at New York's D'Arcy Galleries from late 1960 to early 1961. Breton, in Paris, put Duchamp in charge of selections for the exhibit. Salvador Dali’s work appealed as much to Duchamp's mind as to his eye, and Duchamp continued to appreciate it even after Breton had banished Dali from the surrealist group. Apparently Duchamp thought that Breton had mellowed. But he was wrong again. Breton blew his stack in a letter of protest. Not bothering to defend his decision, Duchamp satisfied himself with a simple expression of vexation: "Dear Andre, Allow me not to prevaricate in the form of 'explanations and excuses.' I simply regret, now, having agreed to organize this exhibition'!" (11 December 1960, N° 265). After nearly forty years of collaboration on a variety of surrealist endeavors, even with his faithful friend Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton had not changed.


Surrealism advocated the unleashing of the (putative) unconscious to engender an artistic vocabulary capable of extending the reach of art from that field's delineation as handed to high modernism by nineteenth- century aesthetics. But the field for experimentation that surrealism purported to broaden proved resistant to their methods of expansion. The spurts of curatorial activity that I have just described were exceptions in Marcel Duchamp's checkered career. Most of the time he had other fish to fry.

As if afflicted with ADD, Duchamp tried his hand at every painterly manner available-impressionism, symbolism, fauvism, cubism – and, then, starting with the readymade, began effacing the boundaries tacitly imposed on the theoretical questions art could legitimately raise. Abetting this febrile impatience, Duchamp embodied affable passivity, a woefully deficient disregard for the virility tacitly required of vanguard artists. Like futurism land Paul Claudel's remark in Le Figaro that it was essentially pederastic notwithstanding), surrealism was heterosexist through and through. Duchamp's practice, on quite another hand, settled in discreet puttering at the pole opposite avant-garde dynamism. Hovering in the vicinity of inertia, cultivating a pondered laziness, Duchamp, however, expanded the field of aesthetics beyond surrealism's stunted program. In this regard, the title of the second edition of Pierre Cabanne's famous book of Duchamp interviews–L'ingénieur du temps perdu–is not only extremely clever, it is revelatory: Duchamp was an engineer both in his spare time but, most intriguingly and improbably, an engineer of spare time.[8]

Duchamp might have been reading Paul Lafargue's tract, Le droit à la paresse, or, more likely, Eugene Marsan's playful Éloge de la paresse. In any case, he appreciated recognizing his own work ethic in the book Man Ray gave him shortly before the former's death.[9] "Lazy" is how he systematically characterizes himself in· his letters. The tone might sound like a lament, but he was quite as content to cultivate sloth as he was to allow dust to collect. Way back in 1913, having just received news about the Armory Show in New York City and the splash that Nude Descending a Staircase, N° 2 made there, Duchamp began a letter from Neuilly to his friend, the connoisseur Walter Pach, in this way: "I have been wanting to write to you for a long time but am so lazy that I don't even attempt to make excuses any more" (2 July 1913, N° 3).

A Duchamp who putters is a Duchamp in tatters. He disperses what energy he has into a multiplicity of odd jobs and dead ends; dissipation is his middle name. Nowhere near surrealist focus and determination. "In tatters" was the pictural treatment he adopted in painting his sisters. Duchamp du signe and Marchand du sel consist almost exclusively of fragmentary writing. His missives are telegraphic. "I'm writing to more or less everybody at the moment. Bores me to tears. It's a pity cables are so expensive: they're so convenient" (to Suzanne, 17 October 1916, N° 13). (How he would have liked e-mail!) He dreams of dictionaries and makes compendia as often as single works: Tu m', boxes green and white, and so on. Rrose Sélavy's puns are disparate despite their consistent salaciousness. And Duchamp's silence ("my only attitude is silence" [N° 117]), as overrated as Joseph Beuys endeavored to claim it was, punches holes in the claims of consistency and consolidation of discourse. He retreated enigmatically, retracting like a hermit crab from social and communal action. Once in his retreat, once in his burrow, however, only then did he focus like a fuss budget.

What Duchamp tirelessly calls his laziness feeds, most probably, on boredom. And plenty of things bored him-even his own protracted work on the Large Glass. Already, in a letter to Crotti in 1918, he had referred to it as that "big piece of trash" [cette grande saloperiej (8 July 1918, N° 19); four years later, he was complaining to Man Ray about what a drag it still was on his existence (April or May 1922, N° 46). But in the interim, he claims (perhaps a bit too much in an effort to impress Ettie Stettheimer, whom he wooed in vain): "Since I don't lift a finger, I want you to work. Dada Logic" (6 July 1921, N° 40).

As executed by Duchamp, work and idleness are often barely distinguishable. "I have been very lazy lately," he reports to Dreier, "that is to say concentrating on the sale of my box which by the way is al-· most a success" (15 December 1934, N° 117). That to Duchamp's thinking active laziness parallels a similarly curious noncontradiction at a global scale finds no better expression than in this remark to Roche on 21 August 1945: "there really is sincere relief at the thought of peace and heightened by the titillating threat of the atomic bomb" (to Roche, 21 August 1945, N° 162). In 1927 Monte Carlo, perfecting his system to win at roulette, he writes to Picabia that the activity "is deliciously monotonous. Not a trace of emotion. As you can see, I haven't quit being a painter: Fortune is now the topic of my drawings" (17 April 1924, N° 75). He thanks Ettie a year later for buying into "my scheme. I sent you a bond, registered delivery yesterday, which is the only one of value among the ones you have seen because it's stamped. If you have another one keep it as a work of art but the 20% will be paid to you on the one I'm sending you with this letter" (27 March 1925, N° 83; MD's emphasis). Arguably, much Duc4ampian idleness is work that creates surplus value out of nothing!

It is truly ironic, given the associations we inevitably make between what Duchamp abhors most about the artistic world and surrealism, that it is to Breton that he explains with the most precision just what the dialectic of activity and idleness is, for him: "It's no longer months now but years that have gone by since I last gave you any sign of life. Clearly you know more or less everything about me as I remain constant in my outward inaction [inaction externe], which unfortunately is accompanied by a tendency toward spiritual stultification due to the current mediocre bullshit firmly established as something for the public good" (to Elisa and Andre Breton, 25 December '1949, N° 185).

Everywhere a Readymade

Proof that the field of art, for us, has been blown wide open and definitively queered comes when we recognize that we are in a world dominated by the readymade. The argument with examples will not be made here. Suffice it to say that by displaying and illustrating Duchamp's recognition (while bringing us to recognize it) of this revolution that he fostered within his lifetime, we fill in a fuller picture of surrealism. Michel Van Peene and Dominique Chateau have begun the project of a catalogue raisonné of readymades.[10] But already, one can see-and I'm sure they can see-that this project is destined to remain "definitively unfinished." In sketching a typology of readymades, Duchamp and Arturo Schwartz were already suggesting that even origins of and destinations for this new way of viewing objects could continue to multiply like a virus not dissimilar from William S. Burroughs' concept of the word virus.[11]

The vision of a world littered with readymades is previewed in 1913. As the first note in the "White Box" tells us, Duchamp was wondering if works-that-are-not-of-art could be made. 12 The affirmative answer is the sinuous line one may draw from the bicycle wheel all the way to the sculptural waste product sculpture so reminiscent in form of Brancusi's PrincessX, baptized Objet dard, and that Ron Padgett slyly translates as "ard Object." Duchamp's telegraphic epistolary style reaches new heights in a 31 January 1954 letter to his sister Suzanne and brother-in-law Jean Crotti. In one line he announced the deaths in close succession of Louise and Waiter Arensberg; on the next, "I've been married since 16 January to Teeny Matisse. No children yet, except for the 3 ready made." Teeny, nee Alexina Sattler in 1906, had three children by Pierre Matisse-Paul, Pierre-Noel and Jacqueline-all born in the 1930s. It was fairly safe to assume that she, now 48, and Marcel, now 66, would have no offspring of their own. But hey! Who needs kids when you've got readymades?

The gamut of Duchamp's readymades contributes to Duchamp's ethic of laziness and their use/uselessness tie in with the queerness. The dust accumulation left patterned by the components of the Large Glass is intricately of or by the artist, yet absolutely gratuitous: all Duchamp had to do was wait. Dust is the physical world's correlate of what humanity offers with sloth. In agreeing with Man Ray to memorialize this field of dust by a photograph, Duchamp brings the ready-made beyond itself, into a realm where the positive photo is of a negative (the dust) of a positive (the bride and bachelors) that is essentially negative because transparent (the glass).

Loafing produces readymades. The solution to man's enslavement to labor is being resolved. A true revolution. "I'm hardly doing any work at all" (to Louise Arensberg, 24 August 1917, N° 17); "I'm not working at anything" (Katherine Dreier, 25 May, 1927, N° 93 h "You win: you've written to me while I am still in a state of bewilderment and idleness" (to Man Ray, early Fall 1942, N° 145). All true enough when one thinks that doing nothing and making readymades is almost the same thing. It's not the ampoule that's important, it's the 50mm[12] of Paris air that counts. Or doing nothing more "productive" than thinking about "a transformer designed to utilize slight, wasted energies such as: the growth of a head of hair, the fall of urine and excrement, laughter, forbidding glances, sighs" (Salt Seller, 191-92). This is what Duchamp will call harnessing the energy of the infra-slim: "when the tobacco smoke also smells of the mouth which exhales it, the two odors are married by infra-slim" (Salt Seller, 194). As another example, Denis de Rougemont went on record quoting Duchamp in 1968 as having said that "the sound or the music which corduroy trousers, like these, make when one moves, is pertinent to infra-slim."

One must waste one's time carefully, precisely, and with economy when putting waste to wasteful uses. Criticism too may become a readymade whose authorship is different from that of the artist by a mere infra-slim margin. In Jean Suquet's book on the Large Glass, Duchamp-recognized a readymade of his own work that perfectly reverses the economy of ownership: "I would really enjoy reading your 'my mirror'" (9 August 1949, N° 181). Here, we see a variant on the R. Mutt attribution for Fountain. Reading Duchamp's instructions to Roche for replacing the Paris Air that Walter Arensberg had broken is a paradigmatic opportunity for measuring the fussiness that an engineer of spare time must maintain in order to queer the field of art: "Could you go to the pharmacy at the corner of Rue Blomet and Rue de Vaugirard (if it's still the re-that's where I bought the first ampoule) - and buy an ampoule like this: 125cc and the same measurements as the sketch [to scale, inserted]. Ask the pharmacist to empty it of its contents and seal the glass with a blow torch. Then wrap it up and send it to me here. If not Rue Blomet, somewhere else-but, as far as possible, the same shape and size. Thanks" (9 May 1949, N° 178). Even vacuous verbosity, when well arranged, becomes readymade words in a can: recounting to Jacques and Gabrielle Villon the 1949 Western Round Table on Modern Art, where he contested Frank Lloyd Wright's homophobia, he wrote: You can imagine what gibberish [bafouillage] but no matter. The conference proceedings will come out in October when corrections have been made and the nonsense [âneries] spoken tidied up (15 June 1949, N° 180).


I never kept sheep

But it's as if I'd done so.

Alberto Caeiro

A rose is not always exactly a rose is not always exactly a rose. A rose bush is different from a climber is different from a rambler. A bush is best trimmed and contained; a climber is best trained on a two-dimensional surface en espalier; but the quality that a rambling rose delivers to the amateur is its prolific and erratic ranging over that thirty-foot cherry tree without, for all that, killing it.

Rrose Sélavy may have been born in 1920[13] and she may have lived a long flourishing life twinned to Marcel, but she was not his only other. To Roche s/he was always Totor (short for Victor), Brancusi and Morice shared the same name (only they could tell the difference, one supposes); s/he was Marcélavy, Marcel Duchit, Martini, Marcel Duche, Duduche, Marcellus, Pierre Delaire, Ducreux and a dozen others, according to indices in various publications. "In 1923," however as Thierry de Duve astutely points out, "the list opened itself to infinity with the ready-made aliases chosen in Wanted."[14] In the text below the mug shot on the wanted poster, the person whose arrest will be rewarded is "George W. Welch [not Bush, but almost] alias Bull, alias Pickens, etcetry, etcetry." All perfectly queer.

With utmost seriousness, Marcel shares his assessments of Rrose Sélavy with those he knows will be interested. "She's something of a femme savante which is not unpleasant" (to Jacques Doucet, 26 October 1923, N° 68). On the practical side, there's even something of the readymade payee for bank accounts in Rrose: twice-in 1933 and 1934-Roche received requests for checks to be deposited in her name. Besides being a bit of a blue stocking, she must have been good at laundering money for her alter ego, Marcel (N°S 104 and 113). "I see everybody," he once wrote with tantalizing contradiction to Yvonne Chastel, one of the many women for whose attentions he longed and who reciprocated with adoration, "but in reality, am close to nobody. It's one of the advantages of my being a pimp [mac]. People have a lot more respect for me than before. Their attitude gives me a big laugh" (IS July 1922?, N° 53). The whores over whom Duchamp lorded it were of course his own selves promiscuously dwelling in paintings, puns, readymades-pawns in his game joyfully played alone on a field now forever queered.

I'd be more than willing to believe (and the cohort of Duchamp scholars who believe similarly is growing) that although Marcel never had sex the way a heterosexual Marcelle would, it was as if he had. For, as feminist and queer theorists have amply and convincingly argued, to have been penetrated so-even in the mode of some Kantian "as if" is to know something of the forces of oppression in the world the way queers and women do. This should be just as clear to anyone as the fact that Alberto Caeiro is every bit as much Fernando Pessoa as Rrose Sélavy is Marcel Duchamp. Alberto and Rrose were not only heteronyms enabling the subjects who carried them to make their art, write their poetry, grind their chocolate: they were fully conscious and navigable ontic givens that enabled ethics based on aesthetics.

Letting identities ramble free and flourish may have begun with Rrose, but it was much more than a simple "game between I and me." Duchamp incarnated the death of the author and thrived on it. Nothing to do with Thanatos, here. For in Marcel's resistance to all norms, Rrose Sélavy is not a defeatist shrug of the shoulder, she is a paean to life. Marcel, you're leading me on (tu m' aguichesj, Rrose rumbles. You feminize and eroticize me in making me you (tu m' es), Marcelle moans. You engender me while taking precaution not to knock me up (m'engrosser). In fact, this queer couple has mastered the art and science of sexless engendering one of the other.


The retorsions that Duchamp was bent on bringing to bear upon the field of artistic creation did not await his (re)birth as Rrose Sélavy. As queer as it might have seemed to some for Duchamp to sign Fountain as R. Mutt, this wasn't convoluted, enough for Marcel. Delighted with himself for the antic, he writes to his sister Suzanne that: "A female friend of mine, using a male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, submitted a porcelain urinal [pissotière] as sculpture. No reason to refuse it: there was nothing indecent about it. The committee decided to refuse to exhibit this thing. I handed in my resignation and that juicy piece of gossip will have a certain value in New York. I felt like organizing a special exhibition for things refused at the Independents, but that would be a pleonasm!" (11 April 1917, N° 15). As the terms I've underscored in this epistolary excerpt may indicate, Duchamp delighted in twisting gender-defined identity to the point that this criterion for identity might dissipate in a pleonastic cloud. As I have endeavored to show, here, Duchamp's work is intrinsically queer-not so much on the side of product as on the side of process.

While the queer purport of Duchamp's work was not (necessarily) fueled by his own sexuality, Paul B. Franklin has convincingly demonstrated its foundations in intimate solidarity with (and knowledge of) queer culture in Paris and New York in the early decades of the twentieth century.[15] In light of Duchamp's position as one of surrealism's others, I would like to supplement Franklin's admirably exhaustive findings with a couple of remarks. We know that over the course of 1922 and 1923, Robert Desnos wrote out some 199 puns, claiming that Rrose Sélavy had telepathically dictated them to him.[16] When Rrose read them, she wasn't overly impressed[17] -either by their quality or by the claim that they came to Desnos through a process not unlike the workings of the unconscious: a psychic level to whose existence he gave little credence. She was nevertheless sufficiently amused to make the queer suggestion that she and Desnos become engaged (Tomkins, 248).

Assuming, as we must, that Breton got wind of Rrose's proposal to surrealist soldier Desnos, it's difficult-recalling the former's imperious (and defensive) censorship of all discussion of homosexuality in the surrealists' so-called "research on sexuality" -to imagine the "pope" much amused. There's plenty of evidence to support the hypothesis that, had the unlikely occurred and Duchamp had become a member of the surrealist group, he would certainly have had to break with them over the sexuality flap. After all, many who did actually join the group cut short their association following the episode: to name two, Queneau quit and Crevel killed himself. Taking their sexism and queer-bashing the further step and rendering them programmatic or axiomatic was just the type of aberrant result of group dynamics that Duchamp avoided by giving the surrealists a wide berth.

The closest contemporary parallels to "Duchamp's masquerade as a woman" that Amelia Jones has identified are "the Baroness EIsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's bizarre, sexually ambiguous self-performances in the streets of New York [and] Charles Demuth's images of non-heterosexualized male desire" (143). Although, as I hope I have successfully suggested, Rrose Sélavy is only the most obvious manifestation of a queerness that cannot be reduced, as Jones seems to do here, to identity performance, I agree wholly that these figures, who were unrecoverable by schools, seriously challenged what those very schools dreamt of challenging. One can no more claim that a lone wastrel-no matter how active-could complexify the terrain of art than that General or Emperor (or even President) so-and-so could single-handedly change the course of human history: both signifying formations are metaphors and, as such, assume mythical power concentrated at the disposal of a unitary alleged human subject. Empirical realization of these tasks is in the empire of networks, thousands of plateaus. The most one can assert with certainty about art (and the world of events) is that the field(s) was (or were) already skewed in the first place. This is tantamount to saying that queerness has everything to do with the nature of the field occupied by the agents we are and that queerness has little, if anything, to do with our putative subjecthood. Duchamp's œuvre stands as proof that the best way to reveal the truly unpredictable complexity of art is not to play the field, as his friends the surrealists endeavored to do, but to let the field play you, me, "us."

* Yale French Studies 109, Surrealism and Its Others, 2006, pp. 82-97.


[1] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York, Vintage Books, 1990), p. 133.
[2] Amelia Jones; 11 'Woman' in Dada: Elsa, Rrose, and Charlie, in Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, ed., Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity {Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), p. 153.
[3] All quotes from Duchamp's letters are found in Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, eds., Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp (Ghent and Amsterdam: Ludion Press, 2000). Translations from the French are sometimes modified by me; Duchamp's letters in English are of course left as he wrote them. Addressee's name, date of letter, and number attributed to it in the above edition will be noted in parentheses in all subsequent occurrences. This letter is dated 19 October 1925 and is N° 85 in Affectionately, Marcel.
[4] Letter dated 12 August 1922, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996).
[5] Cf. Littérature, December 1922.
[6] Douglas MacAgy, ed., "The Western Round Table on Modem Art" in Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt, eels., Modem Artists in America (New York: Wittenborn Schulz, 1951), p. 30.
[7] La revolution surréaliste 11, 15 (March 1928), p. 38.
[8] Pierre Cabane, L'ingenieur du temps perdu (Paris: Belfond, 1967, 1977).
[9] "l really like the praise of sloth [l'eloge a la paresse]!" itoManRay,9 August 1967, N° 281). The note in Naumann and Obalk's edition of Duchamp's correspondence (op. cit.) Identifies the book as Lafargue's Le droit a la paresse, 1880 (The Right To Be Lazy, NY: Gordon Press, 1973). I would contend that it might well be, as Duchamp's exact words indicate, Eugene Marsan's, Eloge de la paresse (Paris: Hachette, 1926).
[10] "Petit catalogue raisonne des ready-mades," Etant donne-Marcel Duchamp 1 (1999): pp. 132-45.
[11] Listes des readymades de Marcel Duchamp, 11 in La raie alitee d'effets. Apropos of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Andre Gervais (Montreal: Hurtebise HMH), 1984.
[12] Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 74.
[13] Cf. letter to Henry McBride, July? 1922, N° 51.
[14] Thierry de Duve, "Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism" in Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon, eds., The Duchamp Effect: Essays Interviews Round Table (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p. 107.
[15] Paul B. Franklin, "Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History," Oxford Art Touma123/1 (2000): pp. 23-50.
[16] First published in Littérature N° 7 (December 1922), these puns were reprinted in Corps et biens (Paris: Gallimard, 1930).
[17] "I forgot to tell Jean [Crotti] in my last letter that I'd replied to Breton about the puns in 'Desnos asleep! Some were really very good but, in most of them, the rhymes were too apparent and sounded much more like Desnos than me" (to Jacques and Gabrielle Villon, 25 December 1922, N° 61).