Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the painter and mixed media artist, was associated with Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism, though he avoided any alliances. Duchamp’s work is characterized by its humor, the variety and unconventionality of its media, and its incessant probing of the boundaries of art. His legacy includes the insight that art can be about ideas instead of worldly things, a revolutionary notion that would resonate with later generations of artists.
Family Life (1887-1903)
Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887 in a town in northwestern France. His father’s occupation was that of a notaire, a semipublic official of significant local stature, and the Duchamps lived in the finest house in town. Marcel was the fourth of seven children, six of whom survived infancy.
Family interests included music, art, and literature; chess was a favorite household pastime. The home was decorated with prints by Duchamp’s maternal grandfather, who was successful in both business and art.
Even in a family that embraced the arts, it is surprising that all four oldest Duchamp children became artists. First-born Gaston, trained in law, became a painter; he used the name Jacques Villon. Second son Raymond, trained in medicine, became a sculptor; he was known as Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Their sister Suzanne painted all her life, but wasn't allowed any formal training; she became known as Suzanne Crotti after her second marriage. Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Marcel announced that he too intended to pursue a career as a painter.
Student Days (1904-11)
After graduating from the local lycée, Marcel joined his brothers in Paris. He studied at a good art academy, but by his own account he preferred playing billiards to attending classes. Meanwhile he eagerly absorbed a variety of influences from outside the academy — Cézanne, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, and popular illustration.
He sold a few cartoons to Parisian humor magazines. They are interesting because two characteristics of the genre — satirical or humorous content and the use of accompanying text — would become signature characteristics of Duchamp’s adult style. This one depicts a mechanical companion for bachelors: “She undresses.”
This carefully inflected Portrait of the Artist’s Father plainly shows the influence of Cézanne in the freedom of its forms and colors.
Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel shows influences from Symbolism in its dreamlike atmosphere and Expressionism in its exaggeration of physical characteristics.
Among the Fauves, Matisse was the acknowledged master. Young Man and Girl in Spring shows an obvious debt to him in its stylized approach to form.
An allegory of male-female union, this work would be incorporated into a 1914 painting, his next-to-last work on canvas. The later painting, in turn, is a key to his monumental work of 1923, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, another allegory of male-female union.
In The Chess Players Duchamp explored the possibilities of Cubism. It shows two chess players at a table, in multiple views. In the center of the painting are a few shapes like chess pieces.
The players are shown in different positions, suggesting the passage of time. Duchamp gave Cubism an idiosyncratic twist by introducing duration.
The players are weighing their options. One potential outcome results in the capture, by the player on the left, of an opposing piece, held in his hand near the bottom of the painting. A picture of minds engaged in the calculus of chess, this is an early exercise in another continuing interest in Duchamp’s art: depicting the intangible.
Three Paintings (1912)
In 1912 Duchamp would devise a Cubist-inspired technique for depicting motion, then move on to something almost unheard of — abstract painting. Yet by the year’s end he would virtually abandon painting to venture into uncharted territory.
Nude Descending a Staircase shows a human figure in motion, in a style inspired by Cubist ideas about the deconstruction of forms. There is nothing in it resembling an anatomical nude, only abstract lines and planes. The lines suggest her successive static positions and create a rhythmic sense of motion; shaded planes give depth and volume to her form. Motion and nude alike occur only in the mind of the viewer.
Duchamp’s Nude is two parts serious, one part spoof.
Nude Descending a Staircase was among the earliest attempts to depict motion using the medium of paint. Its conception owed something to the newborn cinema, and to photographic studies of the living body in motion, like those of Marey and Muybridge.
It was also an antidote to Cubism’s greatest weakness: Cubist paintings were necessarily static. Instead of portraying his subject from multiple views at one moment, as Cubist theory would dictate, Duchamp portrayed her from one view at multiple moments, as Muybridge did. By turning Cubist theory upside-down, Duchamp was able to give his painting something the Cubists could not: vitality.
But by adopting characteristic techniques of Cubism — the somber palette, the methodical deconstruction of form — while subverting its principles, Duchamp doubtlessly meant to mock its pretensions.
Soon after it was finished, Duchamp’s Nude was rejected by the Salon des Indépendents because members of the jury felt that Duchamp was poking fun at Cubist art. They especially objected to the title, which they felt was cartoonish. Duchamp had painted the title along the bottom edge of his painting, like a caption, which certainly reinforced their impression of his comic intent.
Like the Nude before it, The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes depicts figures in motion, but here they are juxtaposed with static entities. Abstract kinetic figures — the swift nudes of the title — flow in two streams, one ebony and one gold, amid a pair of solid-looking forms, the king and queen. The royal couple are shiny abstract forms which do not resemble any known objects.
Duchamp said the swift nudes were “flights of imagination” introduced to satisfy his preoccupation with movement. They can also be seen as flights of imagination on the part of the king and queen — which makes this painting, like The Chess Players of 1911, about portraying thought.
Duchamp’s next painting delved further into abstraction, creating an image with no counterpart in the visible world. The Passage from Virgin to Bride is a conglomeration of semi-visceral, semi-mechanical forms that suggest fleshly vessels, armatures, and vanes. Shape, color, and space fluctuate, suggesting mutating forms amidst deep recesses.
There is a greater degree of depth than in the preceding paintings, but margins between foreground and background are indistinct. As the eye moves around the canvas, its forms fluctuate in and out, change contours, and shift positions. This is a picture of complicated flux, more than a little confusing to the eye — an apt depiction of the transition from youth to young adulthood. This picture is among the earliest examples of wholly abstract modern art.
After 1912, Duchamp would paint only a few more canvases. He was growing increasingly disillusioned with what he called “retinal” art — art that appealed only to the eye — and wanted to create a new kind of art, one which would engage the mind.
He began to make notes for a large-scale project unlike anything else, which would become his monumental work of 1923, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. In one of these notes Duchamp wonders cryptically “Can one make works of art which are not ‘of art’?”
His next work would take Duchamp far outside existing boundaries of art, into unnamed territory now called conceptual art.
3 Standard Stoppages (1913)
3 Standard Stoppages is a question in a box. It asks whether things which we presume to be absolute — in this case, a standard unit of measure — might be merely arbitrary.
In English “stoppage” means a halt, a suspension of movement. In French it means a cloth patch made of woven threads, like a tailor would make to mend a worn coat. Each of the 3 Standard Stoppages is a randomly-created wave, permanently suspended in a strand of ordinary tailor’s thread.
Duchamp wanted to capture the effect of chance on an everyday occurrence, like Muybridge captured the effect of time on everyday motion. He called 3 Standard Stoppages “canned chance.”
To capture the effects of chance, Duchamp conducted an experiment. From a height of one meter, he dropped a meter-long piece of thread onto a prepared canvas, letting it twist at random. He repeated this procedure three times, fixing the threads in place where they fell.
Where they fell, the threads described three gently curved lines of equal length: a meter transformed by chance. Together they suggest an infinite number of possible meters, including the special case of a straight line.
A few years later, with his Bicycle Wheel and other “readymades,” Duchamp will ask whether some other things which are presumed to be absolute — namely, artistic conventions of beauty and craftsmanship — might also be merely arbitrary.
Chocolate Grinder (1914)
Over the next few years, Duchamp made numerous preparatory studies for his monumental work of 1923, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Among them were several paintings, including Chocolate Grinder.
Duchamp rendered Chocolate Grinder in a style that was worlds apart from either Cubism or Abstraction, a style as crisp and precise as an architectural drawing. The white lines on the grinder wheels are made of threads, like the 3 Standard Stoppages of 1913, but here they are sewn through the canvas and pulled tight.
Another painting, Network of Stoppages, is composed of three images, superimposed. The foremost image is another study for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, consisting of nine connected lines, traced from the 3 Standard Stoppages.
The background, in greens and yellows, is an uncompleted large version of the 1911 painting Young Man and Girl in Spring, rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise. Slide the transparency control to compare Network of Stoppages to Young Man and Girl in Spring. You can discern the torsos of the two main figures, the orb between them, and elements of the tree into which they are reaching.
The third image is a schematic drawing of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, rotated 90 degrees clockwise. The area outside this is blacked out. Painted with a fine line, it is almost invisible in the small version shown here. Slide the transparency control to view a rendition of the schematic.
Young Man and Girl in Spring is an allegory of male-female union, and so is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The network of nine connected lines is a metaphor for this thematic connection between the two works. Network of Stoppages is a painting of the idea behind The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.
Bicycle Wheel & Other Readymades (1915)
Bicycle Wheel was the first of a class of objects that Duchamp called his “readymades.” He created twenty-one of them, all between 1915 and 1923. The readymades are a varied collection of items, but there are several ideas that unite them.
The readymades are experiments in provocation, the products of a conscious effort to break every rule of the artistic tradition, in order to create a new kind of art — one that engages the mind instead of the eye, in ways that provoke the observer to participate and think.
If you want to break all the rules of the artistic tradition, Duchamp reasoned, why not begin by discarding its most fundamental values: beauty and artisanship. The readymades were Duchamp’s answer to the question, How can one make works of art that are not “of art”?
It was an audacious proposal, and to execute it Duchamp employed an equally audacious method: he withdrew the hand of the artist from the process of making art, substituting manufactured articles (some custom-made, some ready-made) for articles made by the artist, and substituting random or nonrational procedures for conscious design.
The results are works of art without any pretense of artifice, and unconcerned with imitating reality in any way.
For a simple construction assembled from two everyday objects, Bicycle Wheel has a lot of aesthetic appeal. Here are five aspects:
The readymades include different types of works: prefabricated objects, assemblages, altered images, and installations. Of course, these categories didn't exist in art in those days.
Prefabricated objects were ordinary manufactured objects, bought right off the shelf or salvaged, unaltered in form. Sometimes Duchamp gave them purposefully abstruse titles, or inscribed them with a nonsensical phrase.
Along its back, this wide-toothed metal Comb bears the phrase “Three or four drops from height have nothing to do with savagery.” Duchamp liked the way the phrase confounded rational interpretation and triggered idiosyncratic associations, engaging the observer’s private imagination.
Other readymades invite other forms of participation. Bicycle Wheel invites the viewer to give it a spin. It was art’s first kinetic sculpture. Traveler’s Folding Item is a typewriter cover, without the typewriter. Displayed near eye level, it invited naughtier viewers to peek under its skirt. It was art’s first soft sculpture.
It was axiomatic to Duchamp that art occurs at the juncture of the artist’s intention and the observer’s response, making the observer a kind of co-partner in the creative process. This juncture, with all its ambiguity, is the domain of the readymades, where they engage the observer in personal, unpredictable ways.
Assembled readymades were constructed of two or more objects. Some were simple, like Bicycle Wheel, which was made by joining two prefabricated objects. Other assembled readymades included custom-made parts requiring the services of hired craftsmen.
With Hidden Noise was made from two specially-engraved copper plates and four bolts, which together enclose a ball of twine, which in turn encloses an unseen object. It rattles when shaken. The object inside is unknown, even to the artist: it was inserted by a friend of Duchamp's, who went to his grave without revealing what it was.
Installed readymades depend on their environment for their meaning. Trebuchet (1918), for example, was originally a coat rack nailed to the floor of Duchamp’s studio. The disposable Sculpture for Traveling (1918) consisted of strips of rubber which could be strung in a web between the walls, floor and ceiling of his studio in any number of ways.
Then there’s Unhappy Readymade, which approaches the realm of the purely conceptual: it consists only of a set of instructions for exposing a geometry textbook to the elements for a designated period of time.
More than half of the original readymades, lost or destroyed, are known today only through replicas.
Duchamp’s most notorious readymade was a manufactured urinal entitled Fountain. Conceived for a show promoting avant-garde art, Fountain took advantage of the show’s lack of juried panels, which invariably excluded forward-looking artists.
Under a pseudonym, “R. Mutt,” Duchamp submitted Fountain. It was a prank, meant to taunt his avant-garde peers. For some of the show’s organizers this was too much — was the artist equating modern art with a toilet fixture? — and Fountain was “misplaced” for the duration of the exhibition. It disappeared soon thereafter.
As surely as it was a prank, Fountain was also, like the other readymades, a calculated attack on the most basic conventions of art. Duchamp defended the piece in an unsigned article in The Blind Man, a one-shot magazine published by his friend Beatrice Wood. To the charge that Fountain was mere plagiarism, “a plain piece of plumbing,” he replied “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.”
At the time, almost nobody understood what Duchamp was talking about. But fifty years later everyday objects would be commonplace in art.
Tu m’ (1918)
Part painting and part assemblage, Tu m’ is more than ten feet wide. The title is a French expression in which the verb is missing (tu m’…), equivalent to “you [blank] me.” The verb must be provided by the viewer.
This would be Duchamp’s last canvas. By this time, he openly detested painting. Two possible readings are tu m’ennuies — “you bore me” — or tu m’emmerdes — a coarser expression with the same meaning.
Tu m’ is a catalog of ideas about painting. Like the readymades, Tu m’ requires viewers to draw their own meaning from its elements.
Among these elements is a long array of color swatches, receding into the distance and zooming into the foreground.
The swatches are painted, but the topmost swatch is “fastened” to the surface of the painting with an actual metal bolt.
Spread across the canvas are are three painted shadows of everyday objects, including some that were readymades.
A long bottle-brush, almost two feet in length, protrudes from the canvas at a right angle.
The bottle brush emerges from a tromp l’oeil rip in the canvas.
The rip is simulated in paint, but it is “repaired” with actual safety pins.
Below the rip is a hand, painted by a commercial sign painter and signed by him, “A. Klang.”
The hand points to a white rectangle rendered in perspective, like a floating blank canvas, immediately below the protruding bottle brush.
Trailing from the corners of the white rectangle are eight gently curved lines, derived from the 3 Standard Stoppages, flowing into the right side of the painting.
From these curves floating ribbons of color, ringed with circles, recede into the distance.
For Duchamp, Tu m’ was a painting about the end of painting. Coming from an artist who disdained art that appealed to the eye, Tu m’ had a lot to say about the future of painting, pointing the way to abstraction, pure chromatics, and assemblage. But it was a future that Duchamp would decline to take part in. He never took up his paintbrush again.
In 1919, Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee, graffiti-style, on a postcard of the Mona Lisa and added the caption L.H.O.O.Q. — pronounced in French el äsh o o kœ, a homophone for elle a chaud au cul, which means “she’s hot in the ass.” It quickly became an icon of the international Dada movement.
Dada began in Zurich but quickly spawned local varieties. The version Duchamp and his friends brought to New York was full of sarcasm and wit, but free of of overt political and social criticism. L.H.O.O.Q. flouted contemporary cultural and artistic conventions, but with humor, not anger.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — also known as The Large Glass (1923)
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — called The Large Glass for short — is made of two large plates of glass mounted in a sturdy frame. On the glass, Duchamp assembled images of imaginary objects in a variety of media: wire, paint, mirror plating, foil, dust.
Duchamp worked on The Large Glass for eight years until 1923, when he abandoned it in what he called a “definitively unfinished” state. Years later, a network of cracks was accidentally added when it was shattered while being moved.
The Large Glass has a reputation for being inscrutable, but it needn’t be. As usual, Duchamp’s attitude is humorous; in this piece, his mode is pseudoscientific, mock-analytical.
It helps to know a couple of things in advance. First, The Large Glass depicts abstract forces, not worldly objects. Second, it portrays a sequence of interactions, not a static tableau.
The Large Glass is a picture of the unseen forces that shape human erotic activity — the realm of ego, desire, and other mysteries. To represent these psychological and existential abstractions, Duchamp created a world occupied by enigmatic but suggestive symbolic objects. The Large Glass is a pictorial diagram of interactions among unseen, abstract forces, as represented by these objects.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even depicts, in diagrammatic form, a chain of impulses and responses that occur when female desire stimulates male desire. The agents of this action are a bride-to-be and her numerous suitors. The Large Glass depicts their encounter, and how fate intervenes in its outcome. It is, in the end, a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations.
The title is a tease, purposely sensationalistic — salacious, even — and misleading. The bride-to-be is the one who initiates the encounter, and she controls its consummation. Her suitors are bumblers, battered by fate and bedeviled by obstacles. She is aloof; they are inept. Consummation is not a guaranteed outcome.
Since it describes a sequence of interactions, it might be instructive to look at The Large Glass in action…
The Large Glass depicts a chain reaction among abstract forces. That’s why Duchamp subtitled it “a delay in glass” — because it shows a sequence of interactions, suspended in time.
This chain of events involves two component sequences, which occur simultaneously and intersect.
One sequence describes the interaction of female and male desire. Let’s call it the Amorous Pursuit. It has a beginning and an end.
The other sequence describes the influence of chance and destiny. Let’s call it the Fate Machine. It is continually in motion.
The Fate Machine is an imaginary mechanical contraption which represents the interaction of chance and destiny. The suite of objects that make up the Fate Machine is shown here. The names for its parts come from Duchamp’s notes for The Large Glass, published in 1934.
Duchamp’s notes for The Large Glass are essential to understanding its content. He said the notes were meant to complement the visual experience, like a guide book, but clarity is not their strength. They are the stuff of sublime nonsense, driven by free association and wordplay, and resolutely anti-rational. Yet they do provide some unambiguous cues for the actions depicted on the glass.
The Amorous Pursuit depicts the interaction of female and male desire. Shown here is the suite of objects that make up the Amorous Pursuit, with Duchamp’s names for its parts.
The nature of this interaction is anybody’s guess. It could mean sexual intercourse, or wedding vows, or an exchange of flirtatious glances. In the abstract realm of The Large Glass it can mean all of these at once.
Duchamp’s notes for The Large Glass describe numerous elements that never saw completion, including the Spiral and the Region of the Splash, shown here. Among the omitted elements, these two are the minimum necessary to complete the action of the glass.
The upper half of the glass is the bride’s domain. The lower half is the bachelors’ realm. Between them lies the Horizon.
It is a universe of dualities: airborne femininity versus earthbound masculinity; fluid, amorphous forms versus rigid, crisply delineated forms. Most broadly, it is the domain of the provocative feminine id above, and the reactive masculine ego below.
Between them lies the Horizon, “the garment of the Bride,” which could also be the boundary of her fleshly being or the threshold of her psyche.
The Fate Machine dominates the earthbound realm.
The Glider, a flimsy metallic construction on elliptical runners, slides back and forth at random.
The Glider represents random forces of fate; chance, the unpredictable.
Encaged within the Glider is a waterwheel, powered by an unseen waterspout (another omitted element). The waterwheel drives the rotary motions of the Chocolate Grinder.
The Chocolate Grinder represents deterministic forces of fate; destiny, the inevitable.
Mounted on an axle above the Chocolate Grinder, powered by the back-and-forth movements of the Glider, is a dangerous-looking pair of gigantic Scissors.
The Scissors represent the oft-hazardous conjunction of random and deterministic forces of fate; where the unpredictable intersects with the inevitable.
In the unhappy place between the blades of the Scissors are the Eyewitnesses, consisting of a lens called the Mandala and three opticians’ charts.
The Eyewitnesses represent visual knowledge.
If you peeked through the Mandala, how much of The Large Glass would you see? None of it. You would look through the glass into the space beyond it, into the visible world that surrounds you.
The Mandala is a peephole which reveals nothing because the world of The Large Glass is a realm of unseen, abstract forces. There, visual knowledge is beside the point.
The Amorous Pursuit begins in the airborne sphere. The Bride is an amorphous cluster of semi-visceral, semi-mechanical forms.
The Bride embodies impulsive desire; pure id, the primal subconscious, set free. Not only is she stripped bare, she has shed her physical form completely, revealing a naked instinctual self.
The irregular oblong shape at top is the Halo of the Bride.
The Halo represents the Bride’s romantic and erotic aspirations. It is a cloudlike apparition which broadcasts the Bride’s dreams and desires, like a “thought cloud” in the comics.
Within the Halo are unpainted blank sections called the Nets.
The Nets represent voids in the dreams of the Bride, whose romantic and erotic aspirations must be fulfilled by a successful suitor. The Nets are the Bachelors’ target. The Amorous Pursuit is like a carnival dunk tank: if a suitor can strike the Nets, the Bride will plunge to his earthbound domain.
Here’s an element described in Duchamp’s notes but omitted from The Large Glass. From her Nets, the Bride broadcasts her desires, but in a language that is unintelligible.
To her suitors, the dreams of the Bride are inscrutable. It is a deficiency that will undo them all.
The Amorous Pursuit begins with an overture from the Bride. She saturates the bachelor’s realm with an invisible “love gasoline.”
The Vapors represents the bride’s erotic impulse. It is free-floating and pervasive.
Below, a bunch of balloon-like pods called the Malic Molds are stimulated by the Vapors. “Malic” (rhymes with phallic) is a word concocted by Duchamp, meaning male-like.
The Malic Molds are the bachelors of this story. As the Bride's antithesis, they embody rationalized desire; pure ego, self-conscious and socially conditioned. Nine are shown, but they represent an infinite number.
In response to the vapors of the Bride, gas forms within the bachelor molds, inflating them like balloons. As it forms, the gas acquires distinctive characteristics from its host mold.
The gas represents the bachelors' erotic impulse. For each bachelor, it takes a unique form. In contrast to the free-floating vapors of the bride, the gas is contained within the podlike bachelors.
The bachelor gas flows out of the molds into conduits called the Capillary Tubes, which converge at their tips.
The bachelors’ odyssey will entail a metamorphosis, followed by a series of obstacles. The Capillaries are stage one of that metamorphosis. Their convergence suggests a tendency to coalesce or conform.
Exiting the tubes, the gas is captured by a series of Sieves, where its trajectory is inverted. It is propelled through the Sieves by a device called the Butterfly Pump, another element imagined by Duchamp but omitted from The Glass.
In the Sieves, the bachelors’ erotic impulses are homogenized and liquified. What began as an infinite variety of responses to the Bride has devolved into a uniform potential to squirt.
Redirected downward, the bachelor fluid exits the Sieves in a single stream. It emerges at an oblique angle and descends, in a Spiral, to a spot below the blades of the Scissors, aligned with the opticians’ charts of the Eyewitnesses.
At this point the metamorphosis of the bachelors is complete. A series of obstacles comes next.
At the bottom of the Spiral, the bachelor fluid rebounds in a Splash, splitting into nine (that is, countless) distinct spurts.
The Splash is the erotic impulses of the bachelors, uncorked. It could be seminal fluid, or a flirtatious glance, or a marriage proposal.
As they hurtle upward, the Splashes pass between the blades of the Scissors. The trajectories of the Splashes may or may not be disrupted, depending on chance.
The intersection of the Fate Machine and the Amorous Pursuit represents acts of fate that might disrupt the bachelors’ course.
Here are two more elements described in Duchamp’s notes but omitted from The Glass. Two entities enable the Splashes to penetrate the Bride’s domain: a Juggler of Gravity (who acts in response to impulses from the Bride), and a mechanism called the Boxing Match (which, it seems, causes distance to collapse).
With these elements added, the bachelors’ odyssey is a hazard-ridden obstacle course.
Despite these obstacles, the Splashes — on some occasions, at least — cross the Horizon and penetrate the Bride’s domain.
Crossing the Horizon can mean unveiling the Bride, denuding her figure, penetrating her fleshly being, or breaching her mysterious psyche. In the abstract world of The Large Glass, it can mean all these things at once.
But, having entered the Bride’s domain, the Splashes miss the Nets. Nine holes in the glass mark their paths.
What is the result of all this energetic churning, all this psychological and existential tumult? Nothing, or next to nothing. The bachelors make almost no impression on the bride. Their mutual desires remain unmet. It’s all over rather quickly, isn’t it?
The cracks in The Large Glass occurred when it broke in its shipping crate, going home from its first public exhibition. After he repaired it, Duchamp said he admired the cracks; they added a new element, contributed purely by chance.
In a pleasing coincidence, the lines of the cracks recapitulate the flow of energy on the glass, from the Halo of the Bride through the Region of the Splash.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations. At the same time, it is also an inquiry into what art can do. It is an attempt to show that artists can depict invisible worlds, not just visible ones, and that art can engage the imagination and the intellect, not just the eyes.
Rotary Demisphere (1925)
This machine creates an illusion of simultaneous rotation in opposite directions. Two sets of spirals appear to fill the space: a long spiral spins out from the center with clockwise motion, while shorter spirals spin inwards in the opposite direction. The spirals occur only in the mind of the viewer: the pattern is made of concentric circles, placed eccentrically.
Rotary Demisphere was a product of Duchamp’s interest in optics and motion. He published twelve other rotary designs in 1935, the Rotoreliefs.
For about a decade, Duchamp stopped making art to indulge his lifelong passion for chess. He achieved tournament status and wrote a weekly chess column for Ce Soir.
With Vitaly Halberstadt, he wrote a book which is arcane even in the annals of chess. It is an analysis of the special case in which both players have lost all their pieces except for their kings and a few immobilized pawns. It is a ridiculous case, interesting only as a thought experiment.
So let’s take a look.
In the problem shown here, White King can penetrate the Black position via two squares, X or O. From there, with or without the first move, White will seize an opposing pawn at a5 or f5 and, in a few more turns, reach the eighth rank with his own pawn, promoting it to a Queen. With a new Queen on the attack, White wins in a few more moves.
To prevent White King from occupying square X, Black King, who has the next move, must occupy b6 on the move after White King’s move to c4, without conceding a two-move advantage to White King in its path to h4 vis-à-vis Black King’s own path to g6, where a symmetrical situation exists at square O.
For more like this, you'll have to read the book.
Box in a Valise (1935-45)
Box in a Valise is portable museum of Duchamp’s works, reproduced in miniature, packed in a customized collabsible case, like a salesman’s valise. It debuted in a deluxe edition of twenty copies in 1940.
Duchamp must have been concerned for his legacy. In 1934 he learned that The Large Glass had been shattered (he would repair it in 1936). More than half the readymades were lost. The 3 Standard Stoppages had been misplaced. Box in a Valise is a mini-museum, a resumé of Duchamp’s life in art, created with painstaking care in the face of a vanishing material legacy.
Duchamp created several curious installations during this period. In 1938, he constructed the venue for the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris.
Outside, visitors were greeted by Dali’s Rainy Taxi, a rain-filled cab occupied by mannequins and thousands of living snails. Inside the gallery, dead leaves carpeted the floor, along with four beds, one beside a pool of water.
Dangling from the ceiling were hundreds of coal bags. The only light in the room came from a charcoal brazier underneath them, making for an extremely dangerous situation (the fire was simulated). Flashlights were provided for viewing the artworks on exhibit.
In New York, Duchamp mounted an exhibition entitled “First Papers of Surrealism.” For the show, Duchamp and his friends strung a mile of string throughout the exhibition space, making it almost impossible to negotiate the gallery space, or to see the works on view.
Duchamp avoided the opening. Instead he arranged for a dozen or so children to show up, playing kickball and jumping rope. “Mr. Duchamp told us we could play here,” they said, which caused some consternation on the part of the show’s exhibitors and benefactors.
Etant Donnés (1946-66)
Duchamp worked on Etant Donnés for twenty years without telling a soul. Only his wife Teeny knew about it, because it occupied an entire room of his studio.
The piece presents the viewer with a massive wooden door. If you were curious enough, you might examine it closely. If you did, you would find two peepholes.
Behind the door is a three-dimensional construction, like a museum diorama. There, in midday lighting a naked woman sprawls on a bed of dry twigs, face turned away, with her legs spread, exposing her vagina. She holds aloft a glowing gas lamp. In the background is a landscape of forests amid mountainous terrain. In the distance, a tiny waterfall shimmers.
The full title comes from one of Duchamp’s notes for The Large Glass: “Etant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau 2. le gaz d’éclairage.” In English: “Given: 1. the waterfall 2. the lighting gas.” Water and gas are the elements animating both The Large Glass and Etant Donnés. But from these common premises the two pieces proceed to astonishingly different ends.
From the artist who courted contradiction all his life, Etant Donnés may be his most surprising. It is thoroughly unlike anything Duchamp made before. Its high degree of artifice is startling from someone who sought to remove the hand of the artist from the creation of art; its verisimilitude is surprising coming from an artist who disdained "retinal art" — art that appealed to the eye.
The Large Glass and Etant Donnés are alternative views of the same event. The former occurs in an unseen, abstract realm; the latter occurs in the visible world that surrounds us. Included in The Large Glass was a peephole into the visible world, which revealed nothing. Here, the peephole reveals all. The two works combine in the mind of the viewer to create an epiphany, when inner and outer worlds merge.
Duchamp’s Legacy (1968)
Marcel Duchamp showed the way to a new kind of art. Compared with the varieties of visual expression that came before, this new art seeks to to engage the imagination and the intellect instead of just the eyes, embraces humor as a valid aesthetic component, and strives to portray invisible worlds instead of just visible ones.
Some of the most fruitful influences in modern art, from Surrealism to Abstraction to Pop to pure Conceptualism, have a common forefather in Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp died peacefully in 1968. His ashes were interred with other family members in the Cimetière Monumental in Rouen. He wrote his own epitaph:
D’ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent
Anyway, it’s always the other guy who dies
I've taken some liberties with the animations for The Large Glass. In particular, the forms given to the Splashes, the Juggler of Gravity, the Messages of the Bride, and the Butterfly Pump are my own inventions, intended only as reminders of their existence in Duchamp’s notes.
My text is, of course, inadequate: far more was left out than was put in. My apologies go to those who feel that I've neglected their favorite aspect of any of these artworks. Anyone interested in Duchamp’s works should begin by reading the books listed on the following page.
My special thanks go to Kate Kanaley, for showing me the way in; Nicholas Meriwether, for showing me the way out; and Hamilton Leong, for his unstinting encouragement all along the route.
Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp was created by Andrew Stafford. For more by him go here.
Contact him at mail [at] understandingduchamp [dot] com.
For further reading
Marcel Duchamp edited by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine is a collection of essays — the ones by Hamilton and d’Harnoncourt are especially informative — along with a catalogue of major works (but not Etant Donnés, which was still undisclosed).
Etant Donnés by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Walter Hopps, ostensibly devoted to Etant Donnés, is also a valuable summing-up of Duchamp’s entire oeuvre.
Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp is a collection of insightful, often humorous interviews conducted by Pierre Cabanne in the 1960s. Translated by Ron Padgett.
It is probably safe to say that The Writings of Marcel Duchamp are unlike anything you have read before. Edited by Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson.
The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp by Arturo Schwarz is the definitive catalogue raisonné, plus Schwarz’s thoughtful exegesis.
For more, visit your local library or search online.
Audio from The American Heritage Dictionary: how to pronounce “Duchamp”
The Large Glass and Nude Descending a Staircase at The Philadelphia Museum of Art; a copy of The Large Glass at the Tate Modern; Bicycle Wheel at MOMA; Fountain at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Other works at the Guggenheim, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Tate, Australia's National Gallery, the Norton Simon, and Walker Art Center. Also Yale and The Met.
Tout Fait, the online review of Duchamp Studies
On Dadaism: The International Dada Archives at University of Iowa Library
On Dadaism, in French: Anne Sannoiullet’s Dad@rt
Copyright © 2008 Andrew Stafford
For the whole show, go to understandingduchamp.com