PRINT December 1963

Marcel Duchamp

“I force myself into self-contradiction to avoid following my taste.”—Duchamp

THE LEGEND OF MARCEL DUCHAMP, who “turned his back on art” after a brilliant career to devote his en­ergies to chess has never been entirely true. Even if Duchamp gave up oil painting in 1914, and ceased work on his most ambitious project, the “Large Glass,” in 1923, he never abandoned his artistic aspirations (as no artist could), and chess and art were always two forms of exercising his Cartesian mind. He lent his inspiration to the Surrealist manifestations on more than one occasion, of which the Pasadena exhi­bition tells, continued his active participation in the Société Anonyme, which he founded with Katherine Dreier in New York in 1920, and designed quite a number of illustrations, covers and layouts for publi­cations of the Thirties.

It is true that during his lifetime he felt his role to be more that of a conjuror than of a competitive artist; indeed many of his ideas have become such an anonymous part of our visual environment that they are like the combustion—or electrical—machines of our daily use. However one can never be sure how serious his propositions are. With his ironic wit he twists things into ever new ambiguities: a catalyst of the absurd. His only permanent revolt was directed against the bourgeois traditions and what they stood for: nationalism, war, competition, money-making, fame, and this has been the strength of his lifelong attitude.

Four “Nudes,” painted in 1909–1910 in Rouen, his home town, form, with the portraits of his father, the first major group of a clearly defined style, though their connection with other contemporary painters, such as Valloton, Girieux or even Redon, is still recog­nizable. They also evolved the color scheme of pre­dominant earth tints (pale yellow, ochre, brown terra cotta and olive green) that was to stay with him all through his career as a painter. The multiple super­imposed figures, called Dulcinea—five figures of the same woman on different planes—as well as the Chessplayers (1910–1911) are composed in these colors, as are all the abstract pictures which immedi­ately succeeded them. The superimposition of Dul­cinea points in the direction of this new abstracted form-movement that, already in January 1912, pro­duced the finished version of the famous Nude Descending a Staircase.

The years 1911–1912 marked an outburst of creativ­ity and inventiveness in Duchamp’s life that can only be compared with Matisse’s 1905–1906 period and Picasso’s years following Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In this short period Duchamp painted, partly in Paris, partly in Munich, in quick succession, all the impor­tant pictures by which he is mainly known and which, with the exception of Sad Young Man in a Train, are all represented here: the Nude Descending, the King and Queen Traversed by Swift Nudes, the Virgin, the Bride and the Passage from the Virgin to the Bride.

Although the urge to dissect in the cubist manner was a general one at the time, Duchamp nevertheless stood aloof from the static aspects of simultaneity of Picasso-Braque’s analytical cubism and, in his Young Man on a Train and his Nude Descending, was more attracted by the Kinetic motion of rhyth­mically repeated forms, as they appeared in the works of the Futurist painters. Yet the pictorial expression of dynamic motion as an end in itself held only passing interest for him and his mind soon turned to the morphological machines of the Virgin, the Bride and King and Queen (of chess) Surrounded by Swift Nudes.

His brother-in-law owned a pharmacy in Rouen. The phials, retorts, funnels and lab-instruments which he saw there must have impressed him, as he incorpor­ated them in his compositions. But they have an entirely different meaning from Leger’s similar ma­chine-like cylioders, as the titles themselves indicate. For the titles, provocative as they are, were not just whimsically chosen to attract attention. The shocking title of Nude Descending a Staircase refers on the one hand ironically to the Futurists’ outcry Ban the Nude, but on the other it also signifies the first gesture of defiance against the machine-age itself. One should not forget that the human machine (and in this respect the organisms of the Virgin, the Bride, etc., may also be taken as human organisms) is capable of thinking, feeling and even rebelling. It is along this line of thought that we have to under­stand all of Duchamp’s later works. In the conjuror’s book, applying poetic titles to disagreeable objects can make them change their nature.

Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s great patron after his arrival in New York in 1915, and to whom the Philadelphia Museum owes all these oil paintings, visited the Armory Show only on the last day and had not been able to acquire the Nude Descending, which had already been sold. For this reason Du­champ painted for him (over a lifesize photograph) the second version (shown in the Pasadena Exhibi­tion beside the original). Duchamp, like Man Ray, had no qualms about repeating or reproducing his own works, the uniqueness of which he considered of mere commercial value, while on the other hand, with exactly the same logic, he detested the repetitive efforts by which artists were recognized.

This attitude explains to a certain extent his sud­den breaking away from painting, as, according to Andre Breton, “the practice of painting and drawing appeared to him at that moment as a kind of trickery that tended towards the senseless glorification of the hand, and nothing else.”

The last pictures which Duchamp painted in oil on canvas became also the first of a new series in which he was more concerned with the meaning than with the plastic rendering of his subject. These are the composition of the Chocolate Grinder and the large canvas called Network of Stoppages of 1913–1914. The first represents a contraption of three cylin­ders mounted to roll on a round table with tapered Rococo legs. The two versions shown at the exhibi­tion mark the progress and transition from a plastic style with pronounced shadows to one completely flattened, like a colored blueprint or an advertising picture of the time, consciously removed thereby from any semblance to a work of art.

Even for his prior paintings, such as the Bride, Duchamp had drawn his preparatory studies in the manner of an industrial designer, measurements and all, and this now becomes his very medium of expres­sion. The object had entered into a new and more complicated relationship with our imagination, and, like an alchemist, Duchamp was searching for a new metaphysical fourth dimension. This in turn led him to new materials, of which the most immaterial and para-physical was glass.

This phase of Duchamp’s work is, even today, the most mysterious, although a great deal has been written about it by Breton and others, and Freudian theories have been widely applied. It exerted the greatest impact on the future, especially on the Dada and Surrealist movement, as it opened up for the first time the magic of the object world which so deeply affected both movements. Thus, when Du­champ stopped painting in the ordinary fashion, he had already stepped “beyond painting” and was striv­ing for a loftier expression of the dimensions of the mind. With this speculative and painstaking work on the glass he recalls another revolutionary of di­mensions, Fillipo Brunelleschi, the Renaissance artist who outlined the perspective-pyramid on a glass, set up in front of a real view, to prove his point.

The Network of Stoppages, as the pivotal work in this new trend, is painted in part over an earlier, realistic, picture of 1911 which Duchamp used as background unfinished and squared as it was, but its idea is based on another experiment called Three Standard Stoppages, wherein he applied the “law of chance” for the first time. “A straight horizontal thread of one meter falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting at will and gives a new form to the unit of length.” Thus ridiculing geometry and destroying belief in the exactness of physical rules, Duchamp heralded one of the most positive phenomena in modern art, the “chance ele­ment” that was to be so widely exploited by Jean Arp, Max Ernst and many later artists.

The Network of Stoppages, which shows visible traces of the Standard Stoppages on its background, and an affinity to certain illustrations in botanical or anatomical books (Le Petit Larousse Illustre provided more than one idea to later Dadaists and Surrealists) is made of white capillary tubes, spread­ing out from one point, like roots or arteries measured by stop- or check-points, painted in red circles and numbered. In Duchamp’s own explanation the capil­lary tubes are supposedly fi lied with gas, like the tubes running through the figures of another composi­tion, the Nine Malic Moulds. In his writings he remarked: “Establish a society in which the individual has to pay for the air he breathes (air meters); in case of non-payment simple asphyxiation (cut off the air).”

As Duchamp found inspiration for his Chocolate ­Grinder in the machines displayed in the windows of candy-shops, the source of inspiration for the Nine Malic (or male) Moulds had been the patterns and clothed mannequins in tailor shops. The several pre­paratory studies he made for this glass-pane still bear the original title Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries. The meaning is easy to gather: it is a pun on the male sex, (filled with gas, as one says “he is filled with hot air”) to play, as the “bachelors,” a prominent part in the Large Glass which he named The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, and on which he worked since 1913 and continuously during the war years in New York. It was executed, like the Malic Moulds in lead wire and oil, and in it were to be incorporated his former inventions, so that it should represent a sum total of his ideas on eroticism: The Bride Motor, the Bachelor Machine, the Desire Motor, the Apotheosis of Virginity, and so forth.

The Bride, as we know her from the painting, is attached to a cloud with three openings at the top of the glass which stand for the Original Mystery (an association with the church’s “original sin”). The “bachelors” of Nine Malic Moulds are tied in with another early work containing a watermill, which in turn connects with the Chocolate Grinder, by which process also this composition receives its hidden sexual significance. One other glass painting was only partly used, as Duchamp never finished this enter­prise completely, namely the expressive composition at the Yale University Gallery (Société Anonyme Col­lection) which he titled with another enigma, “To be looked at close up for almost an hour.” Underneath a pyramid he inserted a magnifying glass for the peeping Tom, waiting for the Bride to be stripped.

As all his glass panes were broken at one time or another, (the Large Glass while shipped back to the Arensbergs from an exhibition in Brooklyn, 1925) the Nine Malic Moulds was repeated by Duchamp him­self for the Pasadena Art Museum, where it is shown with the cracked original, while the Large Glass of the Bride stripped bare is replaced here by a version made in plexiglass for the Modern Museum of Stockholm.

Hand in hand with the new object world, which emerged with the blueprint or tailor patterns, went Duchamp’s discovery of the real objects or Ready­-Mades. From the Dada object to the Object Sur­realiste on to Pop Art’s Great American Popeye Machine, with built in bicycle-gear arrangement, everything owes its tribute to Duchamp and his first bicycle wheel, mounted upside down on a stool. The now-popular Campbell’s Soup cans come straight out of his Apolinere Enameled, an advertising picture for a commercial enamel paint to which Duchamp only added his inscription. No wonder that such con­temporary artists as Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns own objects of his. Their anti-art tendency is even more obviously expressed in his moustacheoed Mona Lisa which, while imitating children’s favored play, meant a slap in the face to all sacred traditions.

A whole room of the exhibition is devoted to Du­champ’s experiments in precision optic or rotoreliefs (optical discs) which occupied him during his first and later years in New York, satisfying, like chess, his calculating mind. Man Ray has recently told (in his autobiography, Self Portrait), of the construc­tion of the first large roto-mobile and how it burst when set in motion, just failing to decapitate him. Their collaboration finally resulted in the film Anemic Cinema, produced in 1926 in Paris.

In 1938, Duchamp began preparing his Boite-en­-Valise or Box in a Suitcase which contains not only his entire work in miniature reproductions, but also valuable information on the single pieces. It is conceived as a portable museum, and here again Duchamp exercised his foresight, as, with the out­break of the Second World War and the German occu­pation, this was indeed the only luggage he was able to take to the United States in 1942, where he met so many of his old Surrealist friends.

The last section of the exhibition is appropriately dedicated to his activity during and after these years and his contributions to the Surrealist manifestations from 1938 to 1959. Though he always disliked groups and movements, he could not help becoming first a part of Dada, then of Surrealism, and he always kept in close contact with André Breton, even at a time when most others separated from him. Thus, on more than one occasion he acted as Grey Eminence and midwife, suggesting and helping in manifestations, publications, etc. His old capacity to shock was again put to the test when, with Dali and others, he decor­ated the memorable “Exposition Surrealiste” of 1938 at Wildenstein’s fashionable “Gallerie des Beaux Arts” in Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris, by hanging 1200 coal-bags from the ceiling. Similarly he left his mark at the first Surrealist Exhibition in New York in 1942, when the visitors were faced with a labyrinthine set­ting of spiderwebs of string between them and the art works. He designed covers for the magazines View and VVV as well as the catalogs of the two Surrealist Exhibitions in Paris of 1947 and 1959 (both of an out­spoken erotic nature, as are also some of the later objects shown in this section).

To see the whole life work of such a protean and Promethean artist as Marcel Duchamp in one exhibi­tion must be regarded as a rare and even unique opportunity, for which the Pasadena Museum is to be congratulated.

Paul Wescher served as print curator in a number of German museums before World War II. He has been curator at the Los Angeles County Museum, Associate at the North Carolina Museum at Raleigh and Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He has written for a variety of American publications.