PRINT October 1974

Jean Dupuy

IN 1968, THE FRENCH ARTIST Jean Dupuy—then forty-two—built Heart Beats Dust, a tall red-lit plastic box. Inside, a membrane stretched over a speaker throws up dust in time to the monitored and amplified beat of spectators’ hearts. The piece was a hit, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, and Dupuy became the star of participatory tech-art exhibitions around the country and in France.

Heart was a kind of summa, a piece which coalesced out of a number of separate concerns. Atmospheric dust clinging to the plastic surfaces of his early work constantly annoyed him. At length it came to fascinate him, much as Duchamp had been fascinated by the accumulation of dust on the Large Glass. He decided to see if he could make a geometrical form out of dust, something concrete out of something atomized. Only later did he think of using the energy of the spectator’s body to move the dust to form. This participatory aspect of the piece made it successful. In fact, Dupuy says, he regrets he didn’t title the work Pyramid Cone instead.

Now, six years later, Dpuy has constructed another summa, Table Periscope. Table and Heart are nodes in his development, seamlessly synthetic and clear expressions of a convergence of practical and artistic concerns. Dupuy’s masterpieces (too bad that word’s so dried up) are peculiarly susceptible to a success based upon misinterpretation. Anyhow, Dupuy says, he is irked now by the frequent public exclamation about Table, “It’s like magic!”

Dupuy presented Table in the second of two shows in his studio, “About 405 East 13th Street (2).”1 “About 405 . . . (1),” was held in 1973, and the unexpected response led to this year’s exhibition, which included the work of nearly 40 disparate artists, young and old, known and unknown. Dupuy organized these shows, which amalgamated certain underground tendencies, as an alternative to the strictures of a gallery situation. Unlike the galleries—clean, self-effacing marketplaces—the pieces at 405 were crammed together, unidentified, and shown without commercial motive. Like the “An-architecture” show at 112 Greene Street gallery,2 the two exhibitions had the feel of manifestos. Most of the works were loosely related, dealing as they did with the space and/or the architectural facts of 405. The first show pleased Dupuy more than the second because it was nearly invisible, the pieces more subtly in touch with the givens of their site. It was almost, he said, as if a meta-studio had arisen within the real one. Dupuy’s own works for “About 405 . . . (2)” are sited within his studio to such an extent that to adapt them to another place would prove difficult.

With these pieces Dupuy enlarges the optical systems (of mirrors, lenses, and lights) he had previously confined to his earlier wooden boxes and collages. For Floor Mirror, Dupuy cut two holes in his floor, one at the east and one at the west wall, and stuck a mirror in each. A stage spotlight, shining into the mirror near the east wall, sends a strong beam under the floor. Looking into the hole at the west wall, one sees the long thin corridor formed by the floor joists. Except to carpenters and wreckers, it is a strange sight, and peculiarly scaleless. This dusty region beneath the floor might be a mineshaft, or, an archaeological excavation. It’s the first Earthwork in a floor that I’ve seen.

Floor Mirror, as a lateral section, can be related to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting,3 a bisected house in Englewood, New Jersey. Although Dupuy’s mirror setup is tiny compared to Matta-Clark’s grandly scaled act of art, neither piece relates part to part as a means of underscoring the clarity of architectural structure. Rather, like an anomic archaeology, these works reveal raw tectonic mysteries.

Two other mirrors placed by Dupuy reflect the sky. One, stuck in a hole in the wall, catches sky at the top of a bricked-up chimney shaft, the other through ventilation pipes. A third mirror piece, Window Mirror, shows something of Dupuy’s working method. Two windows in the loft “open” smack onto the brick wall of the building adjoining 405. Dupuy was irritated by this architectural absurdity—“It’s a Magritte,” he said, “and I didn’t like it so much. I’m not so Surrealistic.” To counter the effect, Dupuy placed a strip of mirror just outside the window to reflect the sky. Beyond the ironic contravention of a Surrealist reality, Window Mirror is striking because it introduces light illogically. The mirror glares during the day like a fluorescent tube. The parts of the optical system become disjointed: a patch of light reflected on some ceiling tiles does not make them seem illuminated, merely cleaner.

Dupuy began Window Mirror as part of an optical system that would enable him to know the weather from his bed. At one point, he thought to drill through the adjoining wall to the church beyond so that, as he said, he could watch the Mass in bed like a Spanish king in the Escorial. There were practical problems with this installation—the plaster from the drilling would have fallen conspicuously into the church—so for “About 405 . . . (1),” Dupuy substituted an audial project, placing twin microphones in a back wall to monitor the sounds in an adjoining beauty parlor.

Like Marcel Duchamp, from whom much of his sensibility derives, Jean Dupuy is a tinkerer occupying himself with seemingly practical problems that result not in a practical solution, but in art. Many of his earlier works make reference to Leonardo da Vinci, a key figure for Duchamp as well. Da Vinci’s proto-science—his interminable notebooks, and what Vasari called "an infinite number of follies”—adumbrates both Duchamp and Dupuy’s esthetic investigations.

The triple parallelism (da Vinci, Duchamp, Dupuy), marked out by allusions in the work of both modern artists, charts an attitude—the artist’s self-justification. Artists working with abstract elements address “hard art problems” (composition, color, formal vocabulary) in an apparent effort to free their work from allusion and mystery. Dupuy’s works result from a problem-solving that is bemused and ruminative. Frequently they can surprise him. He abdicates, then, his claim to any real position from which to explain them, since he did not seek to control or pattern the actual and mental elements of his work in the first place.

This surprise, this mystery, animates meaning in Duchamp’s esthetics—the idea that the artwork is completed by the spectator’s apprehension of it, so it maintains no constant meaning, either in itself or over time. Okay. This could boil down to a truism. But Dupuy converts this theoretical mechanism into literal strategies of secrecy and surprise. His box pieces, outwardly anonymous, only reveal their contents through peephole lenses. They are virtually unphotographable. They must be physically encountered, each lens inspected in turn. Among the many drawings and collages Dupuy has made that relate to his boxes, one especially preserves evidence of this participatory contact. In Table Periscope, spectators look through a lens stuck in a sheet of paper within an open portfolio lying on a drawing table. The ancillary “drawing” is simply this paper marked by the accumulated sweat of many foreheads, and accompanied by two tiny photos of the piece in use.

The autobiographical iconography (autoreflexive is better since the pieces aren’t narrative) of several boxes underscores the intimacy engendered by the physical contact between face and piece. The autoreflexion in these pieces also resonates to the strains of myth. Dupuy said that the Narcissus myth in particular (alluded to by peephole views and scents of the narcotic flower Narcissus vulgaris), amplifies the idea of the spectator looking at him/herself.

During the four days that “About 405 . . . (2)” was up, the lens, antechamber of the sophisticated optical system that is Table Periscope, revealed Dupuy sitting at a table in the loft above, as well as a video image (off a monitor upstairs) of the back of the spectator’s head peering into the lens. Table is a synthetic work that references Dupuy’s drawings (the table and portfolio), boxes (peephole lens), and mirror pieces (the optical setup and view through the ceiling). But the synthesis is more than the sum of these experiments.

Alan Moore



1. For the record artists in “About 405 . . . (1),” held May 4–14, 1973, included: Joseph Alessi, Brendan Atkinson, Charles Atlas, Claudio Badal, Michael Breed, Norvie Bullock, Stephen Crawford, Juan Downey, Dupuy, Karen Edwards, Dana Egan, Jeanne Gollobin, Paul Jay, Fred Krughoff, Shigeko Kubota, Gianfranco Mantegna, Lizbeth Marano, Gordon Matta-Clark, Antoni Miralda, Charlotte Moorman, Antoni Muntadas, Chris Murphy, Nam June Paik, Marc Rattner, Larry Rivers, Richard Squires, Fred Stern, Terry Stevenson, Patrick Waters, and Irene Winter. “About 405 . . . (2)” included Laurie Anderson, Atkinson, Atlas, Kathryn Bigelow, Jim Cobb, lay Craven, Crawford, Frazer Dougherty, Downey, Dupuy, Bob Fiore, Rosalynd Friedman, Phil Glass, Gollobin, Deedee Halleck, Susan Hartnett, Jene Highstein, Nancy Holt, Jerry Hovagimyan, Jay, Poppy Johnson, Philip Kaplan, Kubota, Emile Laugier, Mary Lucier, Jeffrey Lew, Mantegna, Marano, Matta-Clark, Muntadas, Donald Munroe, Murphy, Claes Oldenburg, Patty Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Rivers, Lynda Rodolitz, Joan Schwartz, Alison Sky, Tony Smith, Anita Thacker, and Hannah Wilke. Lists supplied by Dupuy.

2. The “Anarchitecture” show, March 9–20, 1974, grew out of discussions between Tina Girouard, Suzie Harris, Jene Highstein, Bernard Kirschenbaum, Richard Landry, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Richard Nonas. All work was presented untitled in a uniform 16'' x 20'' photographic format as expressions of the group’s discussions.

3. Although Splitting has been destroyed, it is discussed by Laurie Anderson and the Art-Rite staff in Art-Rite, Summer 1974, pp. 4–5; by Liza Bear, interview with the artist, Avalanche, September–October, 1974; and by Al Brunelle, Art in America, September–October, 1974, pp. 92–93.