Duchamp and Circumstance

Taking a page from Duchamp’s master plan

Eliot Elisofon, Marcel Duchamp descends staircase, reproduced in Life magazine, April 28, 1952. Photo: © Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images. Courtesy Marcel Duchamp Archives, Paris.

MARCEL DUCHAMP, BY ROBERT LEBEL WITH MARCEL DUCHAMP, ANDRÉ BRETON, AND H. P. ROCHÉ. New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2021. 252 pages. 

TOWARD THE END of his life, in 1966, Marcel Duchamp was asked why he had never had a solo exhibition in his native France. “I don’t know. I never understood. I think it’s a question of money,” he replied. “The dealers have nothing to gain from me. . . The museums are run, more or less, by the dealers.”

This candor was calculated, all part of Duchamp’s schtick. Since the mid-1920s—after a terrifyingly productive decade in which he reimagined Cubist painting, invented the readymade, and completed his landmark sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23—Duchamp had purposefully assumed a position on the peripheries of the art world. While the self-proclaimed “anartist” was still secretly working on his final work, the installation Étant donnés, 1946–66, his public contributions were mostly limited to chess tournaments. But it would be a misrepresentation to say he had quit the art gig altogether. He released editioned works, did some dealing, and designed the odd exhibition or window display, as well as covers for books and magazines. He also spoke and wrote about his past work and when, in the late 1940s, the art historian Robert Lebel approached him about the idea of putting together a monograph and catalogue raisonné, he embraced the project enthusiastically. The resulting publication, titled Sur Marcel Duchamp and eventually released in 1959, reflects the paradoxical posture that Duchamp liked to maintain: that of the artist who didn’t really make art.

Robert Lebel with Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, and H. P. Roché, Marcel Duchamp (Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2021). Photo: © Association Marcel Duchamp/ProLitteris, Zurich, 2021, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Publishers.

I recently received a hefty parcel in the post. Hauser & Wirth had sent me its new facsimile of the English trade edition of Sur Marcel Duchamp. The facsimile comes in a sienna orange clothbound box accompanied by a short publication about the genesis of both the original book and the reissue. Duchamp’s estate is not represented by Hauser & Wirth, but it is obvious why the gallery’s publishing arm would want to be involved in this project. These days, Duchamp’s dominance in the canon of art history is uncontested, even if during his lifetime—as the texts in the supplementary publication point out—the situation was a little different.

The book itself comprises a significant chapter in Duchamp’s story. Over the best part of the 1950s, the artist underwent extensive interviews with Lebel, in person and via written correspondence (the letters are compiled in Paul B. Franklin’s enjoyable 2016 book The Artist and His Critic Stripped Bare). He designed the different versions of his monograph—grand-deluxe and deluxe editions in French and trade editions in French and English—with its French publisher, Arnold Fawcus of Trianon Press, and produced three new artworks that were included in the fancier editions. One of these, a hand-torn piece of origami paper showing the artist’s long-nosed silhouette, appears as an image on the clothbound box containing the facsimile. (In a characteristic pun, Duchamp annotated his Self-Portrait in Profile with the phrase “marcel dechiravit,” which translates to both “Marcel tore this quickly” and “Marcel torn to pieces”: a comment on the processes of biography, perhaps.) The facsimile, beautifully produced by design studio fluid, also features the hand-glued, or “tipped-in,” color plates that appeared in the trade editions. These can be lifted to reveal black-and-white illustrations underneath—Duchamp liked to invite audience interaction with his works. The publication, like so many of Duchamp’s extracurricular activities, can be understood as an artwork in its own right. Even the catalogue raisonné section has a Duchampian inflection. In a classically self-referential moment, the book’s title actually appears in the list of works, under the entries for the pieces produced for the grand-deluxe and deluxe editions. A prefatory note from Lebel warns that dates and dimensions should not be taken too literally, for they have been supplied by an artist “who does not believe in the need for strictly accurate statistics, even where his own biography is concerned.”

Marcel Duchamp signing the labels “Eau & Gaz à tous les étages” for the deluxe edition of Sur Marcel Duchamp at the Trianon Press offices, Paris, September 23, 1958. Photo: Richard Lusby, courtesy Marcel Duchamp Archives, Paris.

Apart from Duchamp’s famous 1957 lecture “The Creative Act” and a couple of short essays by H.P. Roché and André Breton, Lebel wrote the bulk of the text, a series of chapters tracing the artist’s biography until the late ’50s. This too was signed off by Duchamp, who compared reading the monograph to “look[ing] at oneself in the mirror.” That said, Lebel’s text makes amusingly short shrift of the artist’s personal life. On his first wife, a single sentence: “Mention should be made at this point of the brief interlude of his first marriage, with Lydie Sarrazin-Levassor [sic], which occurred in June and ended in October.” But in general the prose is ceremonious and stuffed with superlatives, rather undermining the vision of Duchamp as a seasoned outsider concerned less with his artistic legacy than with honing his middlegame. Per Lebel, Duchamp was driven by a mission “to desacralize works of art at the very moment when our age tended to invest them with the highest value” (emphasis Lebel’s). Yet his early paintings and readymades are “magic” and “magisterial,” even prophetic (“having foretold Freudianism, he has also foreseen relativity,” writes Lebel).* The more ephemeral projects since the 1920s are “visiting cards which he casually leaves here and there to remind us of his watchful presence.” Who’s playing God now?

Spread from Hauser & Wirth Publishers’ 2021 facsimile of Marcel Duchamp (1959). Photo: © Association Marcel Duchamp/ProLitteris, Zurich, 2021. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Publishers.

For Lebel, these contradictions are part and parcel of Duchamp’s irreducible genius. I am inclined to agree: The intrigue and the fun of Duchamp is that, like his beloved puns, you can never boil him down to one thing. Lebel’s text concludes with a discussion of The Large Glass, an “enigmatic monument” layered with symbolism in which Duchamp has “restored a reason for existence to the work of art he meant to abolish.” For all his renegade moments, here was an artist making a serious masterpiece, replete with meaning—and valuable: It passed through the hands of Duchamp’s most dedicated patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg and Katherine Dreier, before winding up on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The monograph itself was instrumental in the artist’s eventual canonization. While Sur Marcel Duchamp struggled to sell on its release, and Lebel was annoyed because no gallery or museum in Paris would host an exhibition to promote it, critics were much more receptive. For Calvin Tomkins, who would later write a biography of Duchamp, Lebel’s efforts had successfully placed its subject “near the summit of the modern movement.” Another reviewer, Matthew Josephson, observed that the book had preserved “the legends that make Duchamp a sort of Magian figure for modern times,” bringing “this enigmatic and disturbing man. . . more clearly into view.” Over the following decade or so, the artist’s profile steadily rose, with major shows at the Tate in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, at last, the Pompidou in Paris (the last two posthumous). On the outpouring of praise after his friend had died, aged eighty-one, in 1968, Lebel wrote: “While happy that Marcel’s death did not go unnoticed, I suffered a bit. . . from the belated enthusiasm that people, who we do not like much, have shown loudly.”

* According to Lebel, “Freud was still little known in France” in the 1910s. At that time, “news of his research had not yet. . . penetrated to artistic circles.” Einstein’s theory of general relativity was published in 1915.