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Art: Variations on an Enigma

6 minute read
Stefan Kanfer

Marcel Duchamp, who died in 1968 at the age of 81, is universally acknowledged as a founder of modern art. But then, had he died in 1923 at the age of 36 he would also have been universally acknowledged as a founder of modern art. The difference between the oeuvre of the young man and the old is one, and only one, major piece.

What happened in those intervening years? Neglect? Young artists constantly acknowledged their debt to the aging experimentalist. A new career? The master had no other interests save a lifelong fascination with the game of chess. No, it is simply that Marcel Duchamp was secretly working on an indecipherable masterpiece: Marcel Duchamp. That is the only important work missing from the Philadelphia Museum’s exhaustive reclamation project, “Marcel Duchamp: A Retrospective Exhibition.”

The exhibition forever annihilates the notion of Duchamp as enfant terrible breaking windows in the temple of art. From the beginning, Marcel, the son of an haul bourgeois notary in Rouen, was recognized as a prodigy. At 17 he joined his brothers in Paris to study art; in a 1904 work his technique already reveals a mature painter under the heavy, almost suffocating influence of the past. Even The Chess Players (1911) bears the shadow of Cezanne in its formal palette and in the calculated arrangement of figures. The rebel remains disguised in traditional tones−or in the Fauvists’ coat of many colors−until The Sonata. Here, he gently anatomizes his family into the planes and facets of early Cubism.

Then, in 1912, comes the most disputed canvas of the prewar epoch. “The first study was almost naturalistic,” Duchamp remembered. “At least it showed some hunks of flesh. Right after that, though, I started in to make a painting on the same subject that was a long way from being naturalistic.” It was a way from which no traveler returned. Nude Descending a Staircase was at once the scandal and centerpiece of exhibitions from Paris to New York. The work was no mere rendering of cubist theory. It was mechanistic, sensual and impudent. It held nothing sacred−not even iconoclasts. Thus Nude performed the heroic task of simultaneously galling public, critics and the avantgarde. At the New York Armory show a reviewer spoke for his fellows when he described it as an “explosion in a shingle factory.” Crowds had to be restrained from damaging the painting. Back home, Futurists and Cubists considered the naked body an improper subject for artists. Even the Duchamp freres, Jacques and Raymond, asked their brother to withdraw either the painting or the title. Duchamp removed Nude from a Paris show, but the act was, he said, “a turning point in my life. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that.”

Excluded from movements, Duchamp cut his solitary path to recognition. Wit, spontaneity and above all irony−the imposition of the actual upon the ideal−became his guiding principles. As the Philadelphia exhibition happily recalls, he exhibited a Mona Lisa with mustache and a prized collection of dust. Sometimes he showed found objects under the punning name Rrose Sélavy; in a fit of ennui he invented a new art form, “readymades,” prosaic articles given fresh contexts. One, a snow shovel, is labeled In Advance of the Broken Arm and signed by Duchamp. The other, entitled Fountain and signed R. Mutt, received a little more attention in its time (1917); it is an unadorned urinal. These are less creations than gestures, nosethumbing at academia, at mass production and, finally, at art itself.

As antiart, Duchamp’s work became a lunatic cornerstone for Dada, the movement that celebrated disorder, chance, anarchism−anything to reverse the stultified, rational societies that had led to World War I. Thereupon, Duchamp renounced canvas forever. He became a fixture of the New York art scene, painted on glass, composed musical pieces by making a random choice of notes, and dropped pieces of string, then froze them to a board with a glue.

All this was preamble to his immense glass-and-metal masterwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. This rich, elusive composition is a bulwark against interpretation; it contains satires and celebrations of mechanics, Christian mysticism and sexual fantasy−including some of Duchamp’s cherished obsessions, a “male” chocolate grinder and a mechanical bride with a reservoir of “love gasoline.” The Bride is no facile construction, as Duchamp makes clear in detailed annotations reminiscent of Da Vinci’s code notebooks. The artist worked on his construction for eight years, then abandoned his Bride−and art−in 1923. Incomplete, indecipherable, broken and repaired, the large glass structure is still instructive and hypnotic.

Creative Spirit. So is Duchamp. In his “retirement” Duchamp summed up his early fatigue with “retinal” art. “I was interested in ideas,” he recalled, “not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting again in the service of the mind.” It is the mind that still reacts, both to Duchamp’s career and to his immeasurable influence. His works now appear to be essences, concentrations of theory and expression that have nourished the creative spirit for six decades. His juggled compositions antedate John Cage by a generation. His readymades anticipate the objects of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Rauschenberg has dedicated works to Duchamp; such disparate artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder and Yoko Ono have paid him tribute. Abstract Expressionism, Op art, even structures that destroy themselves have their roots in Duchamp’s work and spirit.

Yet this cannot mask a crucial absence in all but a few of Duchamp’s early paintings. The man who consecrated the second half of his life to chess has about his work the air of supremely intelligent, bloodless derision. There is almost no sign of human affection or concern; only the shrewd, anticipatory aspect of a mocking prophet.

That prophet would have more to mock today. Shortly before he died, Duchamp complained: “In my day artists wanted to be outcasts, pariahs. Now they are all integrated into society.” The épater la bourgeoisie act gets harder every day. Each new outrage is given a price tag and immediately sold to some collector−frequently as an investment. The vast, despised leviathan−the middle class−has entirely swallowed the artist and his followers. Yet this too is an irony that Duchamp might have enjoyed. As the Philadelphia Museum visitor walks through Duchamp’s striking prefigurations, it is possible to imagine, from deep inside the whale, the dry, ironic sound of the last laugh.

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