PRINT December 1971

Meaning in the Art of Duchamp (Part I)

DUCHAMP’S WORK IS AS RESISTANT to a strict iconographical analysis as it is to appreciation on the level of abstract form. The “Readymades” demonstrate most succinctly the misdirected nature of an interpretation limited entirely to the vocabulary of perceptual formalism (although by means of iconic affinity and similarity of execution, the lesson of the “Readymades” extends to all his work except the early Impressionist and Fauvist paintings). The iconographical project of a one-to-one mapping of conceptual symbols onto arbitrarily determined plastic units of Duchamp’s various pieces falls under a like suspicion. The type of intellectual bricolage indulged in by both Arturo Schwarz and Jack Burnham borders on a subjective autonomy which threatens to lose all contact with the work at hand. This is especially the case in Schwarz’ attempt to construct almost ex nihilo a psychological myth of the artist as moral hero by the random logic of associating points in Duchamp’s oeuvre with scattered memories from his own extensive readings in psychology, religion, and anthropology. Burnham’s systematization of original discoveries by Ulf Linde concerning the symbolic repetition of certain elements from medieval alchemy into a finished structure of interpretation bears a measure of justification in the light of his conclusions. Burnham’s argument that Duchamp’s work is a series of meditations on the truth value of art as a philosophical medium, and thus has art itself for its content, is generally convincing. But the strange admixture of alchemical cosmology and the jargon of structural linguistics obscures his thought and weakens the force of his thesis. Furthermore, despite his protests to the contrary, Burnham’s style of semiotics becomes a familiar sort of iconology, an attempt to establish the meaning of the art object transcendentally, through an external reference. By transferring the locus of artistic meaning to the plane of verbal expression, Burnham has merely displaced what remains problematic in and of itself, and so he has avoided the central issue of elucidating the legitimacy of Duchamp’s claim to meaning. That it is at all possible to put into a proposition the fact that the critic or art historian is “sympathetic to the artist’s work,” and therefore “understands” the nature of Duchamp’s crucial move whereby the responsibility for the content of esthetic meaning is placed almost solely with the viewer and more specifically with the art historian, necessarily implies a more fundamental structure which creates in the sympathetic critic the very capability of filling in the meaning. In the end an elucidation of this more fundamental structure will do more justice to the extraordinary significance of Duchamp’s art than will the imposition of any transcendent and external systems of thought.

Any insight into what Duchamp means must have as a preparatory groundwork a preliminary discussion of how Duchamp means. The extraction of content presumes an awareness of the ways in which this content makes itself known. In this respect Lawrence Steefel’s illuminating essays on the origin of the Duchampian experience in a viewer-object tension of physical and interpretative depth provide the basis for all succeeding discussion. Simply stated, Steefel’s argument is that Duchamp establishes (at least in the works of his Cubist period) physical depth as a metaphor for iconic depth and places the vortex of meaning in the dynamic tension between expectation and denial of depth (and icon). It is necessary to remark the importance of the transition envisioned by this metaphor. The ambiguous nature of the vanishing point and strict perspectival organization are familiar concepts for modern art. Steefel’s description of the violent collapse of an infinite multiplicity of infinitely deep vanishing points into an impenetrable surface texture in The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride (1912) might read as a general statement of the essence of Cubism, albeit pushed to its radical extreme by Duchamp. “One may hope that a penetration of the depth of the image may result in a break through the ambiguities of its three-dimensional structure, but this is obstructed by the dense web of substance which lies between us and any horizon we can imagine or construct.”1 A powerful force is at work, however, which restrains this purely perceptual dynamic from settling into the uneasy resolution of abstraction (as in the case of Mondrian), namely the fact that the interior subject, so highly suggestive while never really resolvable into bounded and autonomous forms, is supported by an extraordinarily reverberatory title with allusions to previous works and beyond. The viewer’s demand that the interior be localizable by a transcendent referent meaning is frustrated by his own utter liberty, as regards finding this meaning, into a “Dada blankness” which is the poetic analogue for flatness of surface. This expansion of a perceptual tension of physical distance into the metaphoric realm of depicted content places Duchamp beyond the two (and really quite similar) halfway strategies of didactic art and abstraction.

Yet Steefel’s analysis, sound as it may appear within the limits it sets for itself, falters when one tries to apply it as a formula to the totality of Duchamp’s oeuvre, and, in the end, is inadequate even to The Passage. . . . The most obvious objection concerns Steefel’s lack of concern for the specific iconic shattering and significatory interplay inherent in the interior of the works. The later works especially would indulge in significant and highly structured syntactical reciprocity between words and pictures, pictures and objects, etc. But even in The Passage . . . the title functions at a more significant level than as a mere, formal scaffold for an empty analogy to content-interpretation. In a sense Steefel goes to the other extreme of posing against absolute content (which was Schwarz’ strategy), absolute form as the basis for the Duchampian experience. Clearly a mediating term must insert itself between these absolutes. But how?

We can approach our objections to Steefel from another angle. It is self-evident, if barely acknowledged, that the roots of Steefel’s interpretation can be traced to Heidegger’s analysis of Van Gogh’s paintings of peasant shoes in his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Statements such as, “If there occurs in the work (of art) a disclosure of that which is in that, what, and how it is, then there is here an occurring, a happening of the truth at work,” and “in this way with hardly any effort, what is at work in the work came to light: the disclosure or opening up of what is in its being, the happening of truth,”2 prefigures Steefel’s change in emphasis from the representation of truth to the process of truth. In attempting to apply this analysis point-for-point, however, Steefol loses its essential character. This is most evident in his conclusion and his attempt to provide a transition into a short discussion of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1913: 925). The references to being-with in this passage imply a profound misinterpretation of Heidegger and a disservice to the complexity of The Bride. . . . By reducing being-with to a relation of the self with the self and thus making the category needlessly metaphysical, Steefel is forced to resort to the psychological category of narcissism and speak of the “suffering Duchamp” in order to find a satisfactory explanation of the structure of the experience he has just revealed in his analysis of The Passage. . . . If The Bride . . . is a projection of Duchamp’s self as Steefel claims, the insight gained by revealing the art work as a process is shattered once again into a dichotomy with the viewer on one side and the art object on the other.

The problem will show itself in its clearest light if we think of the difference in the level of self-consciousness between Duchamp and Van Gogh. However radical and newly aware Van Gogh may have been, he still operated with the tradition of a direct access to the art experience by means of the faculties of perception. In Duchamp this access is not only frustrated, it is put into question at a conceptual level. Thus an analysis of Van Gogh will not pro vide a formula directly applicable to Duchamp. Again a mediation is necessary between an endless search for hidden content and the attempt to reduce Duchamp to the barest outlines of the primary experience of art.

In order to explicate this mediation I will pose a specific problem for discussion: the nature of the internal referents in The Bride . . . with special attention to the references between the notes in the various boxes and the objects depicted.

It is strange that Duchamp should make the remark: “You cannot find any language to speak about painting. Painting is a language of its own. You cannot interpret one form of expression with another form of expression. To say the least you will distort completely the original message whatever you say about it,”3 and yet not only write out a complete set of explanatory notes concerning The Large Glass but also take the trouble personally to publish them. Clearly a different relationship is meant between these notes and The Large Glass than the usual representation of images (painting, sculpture, or any group of objects which exist in and of themselves in the completeness of the work) by words (whether simple titles or elaborate critical adjuncts). This new relationship must be under stood as more strictly analogous to the way words explain one another in the interior of a poem or even to the internal attraction between words and pure sounds in vocal music. In fact, in this respect, Duchamp’s The Bride . . . has a quite definite historical precedent in Wagner’s desire for a Gesamtkunstwerk, a transcendence of the limitations of the isolated senses into a discovery of the essence of art—a desire, nevertheless, which (avoiding the pitfalls of official Symbolism and other naively synesthetic movements) passed through the purging experience of Mallarmé’s work. (The content and implications of this heritage will be explained later.)

In a different sense, however, the experience of Symbolism provides the key to under standing the system whereby Duchamp unites objects, images, and words into a cohesive, nonrepresentational, nondescriptive unity. An interesting historical fact which none of Duchamp’s interpreters have observed is that he had a short “Symbolist” phase among the multitude of styles in his early painting (“Symbolism” this time understood as a general sensibility in the plastic arts and taken in its broadest sense to include such diverse and often peripheral figures as Rousseau, Gauguin, Moreau, Maurice Denis, and Pierre Girieud). Both Steefel and Schwarz are quite right in recognizing the new, almost magical content in the works extending from Dr. R. Dumouchel (1910) to Young Man and Girl in Spring (1911), but both fail to recognize the roots of all these works in the late Romantics. The heavy black outlines used to delimit the nudes in The Bush (1910–1911) and The Baptism (1911) recall not only Fauvism but also the black outlines employed by Denis in paintings such as October Evening (1891). In the same way the figure-encompassing brushstrokes of some of Denis’ later work find their echo in Draft on the Japanese Apple Tree (1911) and Young Man and Girl in Spring. Even more persuasive than a decidedly minor figure like Denis, however, is the evidence of the influence of Paul Gauguin. The muscular swarthy female nudes of Paradise (1910), The Bush, and The Baptism find their counterparts in Gauguin’s Tahitians. Most surprisingly, however (particularly in that it has been overlooked) is the exact similarity in pose and action between the male in Young Man . . . and the central figure in Gauguin’s mysterious panel From where do we come, What are we, Where are we going? And, of course, the female in the Duchamp portrait is merely a mirror image of that stance. It is not uninteresting that Duchamp’s friend, Girieud, should have written a monograph on the subject of Gauguin.

But what does the historical establishment of roots in “Symbolism” imply for the meaning system in Duchamp’s art which we proposed to explicate? In the first place, it is with this group of works that Duchamp’s highly suggestive titles first make their appearance. Words like “Baptism” and “Paradise” add shades of meaning not found entirely in the visual experience. It is these titles which will offer the foundation for the greatly expanded system of linguistic signification in The Bride. . . . Furthermore, the spirit of Symbolism’s attempt to achieve absolute meaning in the pure art experience divorced from all merely physical (in this case “retinal”) substances will continue to haunt Duchamp’s work.

It is only with the Cubist paintings that the titles become semidetachable from the painting. Clearly by the time of such etchings as Two Nudes, One Strong and One Swift (1912) and paintings as The King and the Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), the title and the painting are set in dislocated balance against one another a la Lautreamont. There is just enough interior object delimitation to keep the title from being a mere decorative apparatus as is oft en the case in abstract painting; but the images equally resist settling into any clear figures least of all those denoted by the titles. This is the sort of relationship so brilliantly analyzed by Steefel. In each of the paintings taken individually, not only do the interior plastic forms coalesce into a coherent if dynamic syntactic whole, not only do the phrases which compose the titles read in traditional grammatical hierarchies, over and above this each painting and its title are equivalent clauses in an all-embracing complex sentence in which lies the “meaning” of the art work independent of, and irreducible to, merely painting or merely language. As a refinement of this fundamental meaning structure, the paintings and titles develop in a parallel fashion.

As the titles intensify the imagery from an unidentified nude to portraits of chess pieces to a virgin and finally a bride, the paintings themselves explore all the possibilities of arranging motion pursued at blinding speeds arriving in the end at the swiftest motion of all in The Passage . . . and then at an image of absolute stillness in The Bride. Our first reaction is that these two works are ah image of unspeakable violence. The futuristic speed straining from left to right superimposed on the tension between the baroque tendency to swirl forms organically and the Cubist urge towards shattered but static geometric planes, as well as the vaguely intestinal character of the forms, all work together to give the impression of a fleeting glimpse of some unspeakably sadistic activity. Our fleeting glimpse is confirmed by the opportunity for a lingering view of the results in The Bride where we find the juxtaposition of the mental concept bride and the static trompe l’oeil space exhibiting either the remains of a flayed human or an alchemical apparatus. In any event, each individual painting and title, by means of associative relationships with the other paintings and titles in this series, shows itself as one face of a unity—a frozen image of a constantly shifting totality but, for that reason, not the denotative expression of that totality.

Thus the Cubist paintings offer for the first time hints of a complete art experience where the work itself exists in the twofold representation of painting to world and word to painting. By this means Duchamp transcended Impressionism (but, no longer searching to merely revoke sculptural space, he did so at a much more radical level than had Cézanne or Cubism) and his own earlier “retinal” inclinations. Furthermore, it is at this point that Duchamp abandons painting, performs the experiments with the Repairs Standard (Stoppages Etalon; 1913), discovers the first “Readymades” (1913) and begins work on The Large Glass.

The series of Cubist paintings was, in the end, a clearly unsatisfactory solution for Duchamp regarding. the problem of surpassing sensualism. Really any abstract or semiabstract painting which fulfills the qualifications of the preceding analysis and has a sufficiently interesting title could be said to embody such a parasensualist experience. Matta Echaurren’s—or even some of the work of Ernst—are possible examples. It was necessary, therefore, that Duchamp continue to develop his art to a point at which words and things would possess an even more fundamental relationship. Still, Duchamp would be careful to insist upon the continuity between his work in painting and the whole range of his subsequent activities by devices such as the three-layered Network of Repairs (Résaux des Stoppages; 1914) the foundation of which are traces of what was to have been a more monumental version of Young Man. . . . It is as if the artist intended a specific artifact (a sort of gestural document) of the sudden transformation whereby less identifiable objects and processes were to take over and, in a sense, realize the concerns which occupied Young Man . . . which, as demonstrated by Schwarz, was a kind of epic coda, a summarizing recapitulation of the themes of the “Symbolist” period and a prophecy of the coming transition. But, the superimposition of the merest shadows of the incomplete painting and the chronologically limited chance-activity being inadequate evidence of Duchamp’s intent, he left no doubt as to the exquisite poise of this moment of transition by painting the images of the fallen threads. The mean are now recognized to be utterly inadequate to, and even clumsy in the face of, the image to be transcribed, and, for all practical purposes, painting is given up forever. Duchamp’s development out of painting which has its locus in this one work is paradigmatic and crucial (and analogous to but much more far-reaching than Mondrian’s development into environmental abstraction): the complete and well-documented remains of the slow draining of esthetic content from art.

Duchamp’s move away from painting to the activity of The Bride . . . might be interpreted as a switch in his chosen influence from Symbolist painting to poetry. Duchamp’s personal preference for Mallarmé is well known: “Modern art must return to the direction traced by Mallarmé: it must be an intellectual and not merely an animal expression.114 Mallarmé’s particular project was to achieve the Gesamtkunstwerk by transcending language into the pure realm of sensual unity: ”Peindre non la chose mais l’effet qu’elle produit.11 His special problem was to overcome the double gap between the word and what it represents and also between the word’s meaning and its sensual presence. His strategy was to overdetermine a word’s meaning by placing it within a highly charged syntactical context. But what was meant to be a subjectivized external art experience was nevertheless produced in the case of Mallarmé by internal part relationships in his poems. In this ontological sense he is very close to Van Gogh. Now Duchamp’s achievement in The Bride . . . is to externalize (strip of its thingly, purely existent, character) the work as well as the effect which it produces. How this manifests itself in concrete terms occurs at a number of points which it will be the concern of a great part of this analysis to dissect, but in a preliminary fashion we can state that Duchamp introduced the precise object of which the word was a representation and also sharpened the overdetermination of meaning to the point at which the discovery of a single denotative meaning is made almost dependent upon an act of will on the part of the spectator.

It would again be unwise to begin a comparison of Duchamp and Mallarmé from the groundwork of a possible shared meaning since any such analysis presumes we are already in secure possession of the “meaning” of the work of both artists. And, as we saw at the beginning, it is meaning and the possibility of meaning which is the object of our research. Thus when Octavio Paz, for example, points out that “between the Nude (Descending a Staircase #2) and (Mallarmé’s) lgitur there is a disturbing analogy: the descent of the staircase . . . there the solitary spirit will be confronted with the absolute and its mask: chance,” we sense that the parallel is perhaps legitimate but somewhat meaningless. It is fairly straightforward in this case, furthermore, that Jules Laforgue probably acted as a mediating agent since a preliminary study of Duchamp’s painting was an illustration of Laforgue’s own staircase poem Encore à cet astre.

Concerning the system in which this meaning is cloaked, however, a likeness would indicate a similarity of attitude toward the presentation of content which does not depend upon an empirical historical influence; and we have already seen how Duchamp’s erstwhile participation in “Symbolism” was the stimulus for his development in this respect. Important for our concerns are their attitudes not merely towards surpassing and embracing “the limits of painting and poetry” but also regarding the construction of an individual work which would in some sense be definitive. In this respect, Mallarmé’s version of Duchamp’s The Bride . . . is something called the Book: “A Book interpretation of man sufficient to our most beautiful dreams.”5 This Book would collapse, into one moment, the realization of the aspirations of all the arts. “The conviction of the dignity of poetry which led Mallarmé to make of it the very raison d’être of man who also caused him to subscribe to the ambition, so common in France in the nineteenth century, of a work which would include the achievements of all the other arts . . . L’Oeuvre, le Grand Oeuvre. . . .”6 It is clear that The Bride . . . plays the same role, at least within the context of Duchamp’s personal thematic concerns, of the one absolute work which surpassed even the continually reapplicable technical apparatus of synesthesia.

The novelty of Duchamp’s approach to this absolute art work manifests a similarity in spirit between the two artists which leaps across the movements immediately inspired by Mallarmé. “The evident superiority of poetry for (Mallarmé) gave it a claim to use other arts as its servants. Something of this synthesis of arts he was to find in Wagner, but he did not fall into the Symbolist error of equating poetry and music and was prepared to write to René Ghil: ‘I will find fault with you for only one thing: that is, in that act of just restoration which must be our own to reclaim all from music . . . you allow to grow a bit faint the ancient dogma of verse.’”7 The banality of the representations Duchamp places on The Large Glass and the clearly antiesthetic basis of the surrounding “Readymades,” as well as the important function performed by the notes if the work is not to sink into abstraction, all convince us that Duchamp shares Mallarmé’s prejudice for reflective content. Ghil presents a good example of what both Duchamp and Mallarmé attempted to avoid (and probably Wagner also but at a lower level of self-consciousness). It was especially Ghil, believing that the essential step beyond Mallarmé must be a systematization of the latter’s rhythme essentiel, who brought out concretely the theme in Symbolism which tended towards the unity of the arts. He projected a future of Instrumentation Verbale which would unite in the letter the pure sound of orchestral music, in the word the emotive power of suggestion, and in synesthesia the power of poetry to recall colors. The greater number of the movements which would capitalize on Wagner and Mallarmé (there is an affinity between Ghil, the Bauhaus theater, Kandinsky’s monumental art and contemporary happenings and environments) can therefore be read as an attempt by art to attain the Work (the Book) which is the condition of the possibility of art: but the tools of this attempt were misinterpreted in the sensualist terms of what remained a fundamentally classical esthetic. Duchamp’s contempt for all sensualist art casts his use of various media into a different perspective: it is not a mere totalizing experience which is in question here, but rather a setting into play, for participatory reflection, a game of signs and transcendences.

A remarkable possible inspiration for the recently discovered alchemical imagery in Duchamp could be drawn from a comment made by Mallarmé that the merging of all books into one Book would be “The Work, the Great Work, in the words of the alchemists, our ancestors."8 It is interesting to speculate that Duchamp’s interest in alchemy might have been stimulated by Mallarmé. It is of even greater interest to discover that the Middle Ages also had a possible recipe for an Absolute Work. In two important respects, however, Duchamp’s The Bride . . . differs from Mallarmé’s Book.

In the first place, the poet’s work would have been “at once a book and a recitation . . . whose details (arrangement of pages, financial possibilities, number of speeches, etc.) are worked out with minute care.”9 Duchamp is, of course, temperamentally quite the contrary to this description. While he did lavish care on The Large Glass, the dominating characteristic o.f his attitude was by far indifference; Mallarmé, on the other hand, who did include elements of chance in his work, sought a control as nearly absolute as Duchamp’s passivity. Surely Duchamp made it a point never to occupy himself with the arrangement of pages nor with financial possibilities. This indifference, furthermore, is a manifestation of a much more basic metamorphosis in the nature of the Work: “Yet the Book (the capital letter is obligatory here) which was to be Mallarmé’s masterpiece was never written. All that remains of it is a series of enigmatic notes . . . .”10 The frustration of Mallarmé’s project was occasioned by his death, but we know that external circumstances had nothing to do with Duchamp’s abandonment of his project nor with the vital part played by the series of enigmatic notes in its interpretation. Perhaps Duchamp learned something from what Mallarmé was not yet in a position to know, and produced at will what the poet experienced by chance, a Work never accomplished because irreducible to material existence but which leaves its traces in the remnants of a work of art.

Seeing The Bride . . . as the result of two trends: first, of his own work during the course of which the original unification of the painting and title into an ineffable nonvisual, nonverbal art is expanded into an entire structure of wordimage interrelationships, and second, of the tradition of Symbolist poetry and of the project of the unification of the word with what it represents, provides an adequate basis for at least outlining Duchamp’s intricate system of meanings. The structure can be represented in a preliminary fashion by means of a diagram:

Green Box—Notes—Large Glass—The World—The Truth.

(Analogous to the Green Box are the other two boxes of notes published later and to the original Notes the constellation of “Readymades” and other indefinite works which participate in the theme of The Large Glass.) The published version of the Green Box is an icon (in Cs. Peirce’s sense of the term) for Duchamp’s working notes. These, in their turn, attempt to translate linguistically the objects in The Large Glass which, taken as a unity, are a mirror of the world and an attempt to reduce the world to one unified statement. And the “Readymades” and other independent objects and meaning, introduce questions of scale, reflect on the representative nature of the Glass, etc. I said that this model was preliminary because, taken literally it might give the wrong impression. With the experience of the Cubist period behind him, Duchamp could not be expected to regress to the point where all these elements act as mere signs of one another. Rather they possess the character of being equal partners in a larger intangible art work. Furthermore what I have chosen to call “The Truth” is merely the unifying power on the part of the spectator. It precedes the work as much as it is a result of the work. Thus the way Duchamp means in The Bride . . . might best be represented by a circle:

The Large Glass The primary unit of this circle is, of course, the Large Glass itself. As an internal structure concerned with the problems of painting it can be analyzed independently (keeping in mind the tempering presence of the other elements). In subtle ways The Large Glass radicalizes the problems of perspective and object delimitation which first became concerns in the Cubist paintings. In terms of the creation of illusory spatiality the work has an almost Joycean richness. The problem of obscuring the vanishing point, which was first dealt with in The Passage- . . . by filling the picture plane with a facade of indistinguishable movement, is handled in The Large Glass in a playful manner as if the question of the unity of space into an absolute stigmē were no longer so pressing. In the first place, a specific vanishing point was planned for the work right under the Top Inscription. This we know from the notes. But the existence of this vanishing point is purely conceptual since the last thing it does is to serve its function of unifying space—a fact that is underscored by the amoebalike self-replication of this point into three, and eventually nine, distinct locations on the picture plane. The result is, of course, that these points exist as mere facts, alienated from their duty and from both the real and virtual space which surrounds them. As if this were not irony enough, Duchamp overlays extra gestures of undercutting this pictorial technique in order to emphasize its palpability (gestures such as his plan to indicate the nine points by shooting paint-tipped matches out of a cannon). Eventually the nine points are constructed by means of drilling holes in the glass with the result that they become simply an annoying intrusion into the literal space of the glass and their original function is entirely subverted.

The problem of spatiality does not end with the vanishing point by any means. The two other most obvious elements in the spatial determination are the choice of transparent glass as a planar surface and the aureoles of spatiality projected by each of the independent elements. The function of the transparent surface is simultaneously simple and complex. On the one hand, the construction of space is realized by the presence of empirical givens. The picture not only frames a real scene, it constantly points beyond itself in a gesture of illusionistic renunciation. The presence of the world fills the work. Nevertheless, the manner in which the eye discovers “real space” is also called into question by devices such as the disturbing presence of the nine vanishing points and the curious shallowness projected by the other forms. The same dialectic of depth vs. absolute flatness which we recognize from The Passage . . . is at work in the act of transparency.

The interstitial clash of multiple spatialities produced by the figures demonstrates The Large Glass’ secure roots in the discoveries of Analytical Cubism. The extent to which Duchamp has surpassed Cubism, however, is amply demonstrated by the fact that for the first time qualitatively different types of space are juxtaposed. The composite of nine malic molds, for example, and the water mill sleigh projects the extreme one-point perspective of a good engineering diagram. At the same time the centrally positioned chocolate grinder imposes the shallowness of an Art Nouveau advertising poster. The circles further to the right add the frustrating ambiguity of an oculist’s chart. Finally, above the entire construct of the Bachelor Machine hovers the bride in the form of the trompe l’oeil intestines we recognize from the painting The Bride. We should not forget, furthermore, that the presence of the real world haunts the background of this plane, casting into embarrassing shallowness the most carefully constructed perspective.

Cubism, even in its most hazardous distortion of planes, never explored the possibility of different conceptions of space. There always existed the implicit assumption of a unified form of space (namely a three-dimensional geometric grid) delineated into its component planes. In the case of The Large Glass the stubborn presence of the independent objects presents several alternatives to the grid. What Duchamp accomplishes is a new poetics of spatiality whereby the jarring copresence of conflicting spatial alternatives echoes the clash of words and their meanings in the verse of Lautréamont or the prose of Roussel. The essential nature of the notes is as a radical expansion of the pictorial title into a unity of no longer merely equal importance but also equal complexity. The various manifestations of the Work (which in the Cubist paintings settles into individual works) are now united in a nonserial, circular movement. In addition, Duchamp gains the advantage that the words are no longer limited to nominalizing phrases and he can explore the entire grammar of language.

Willis Domingo



1. Lawrence Steefel, Jr., “The Art of Marcel Duchamp,” The Art Journal, Winter, 1962–63, p. 73.

2. Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, New York, 1964, pp. 664–666.

3. Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, p. 195.

4. Marcel Duchamp in Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp or the Castle of Purity, trans. Donald Gardner, London, 1970.

5. Stephane Mallarmé, Collected Works, Middlesex, England, 1965, p. xxvi.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.