PRINT February 1979


Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare

Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare (New York: The Viking Press, 1978), 211 pages.

Marcel Duchamp has been known for his inactivity in the art world as much as for his activity. In Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare Octavio Paz sets up a duality between Duchamp’s modus operandi and that of Picasso: the silence of Duchamp set against the incessant production of Picasso. Paz pairs these two as the greatest artists of the 20th century, yet in all his writing there is very little actually stated about Picasso’s work, except to say what the work is not. Duchamp, then, is Paz’s real hero.

What do Duchamp and Paz have in common? Both believe in the power of words, and in “mental reality.” Paz is best known, particularly in Mexico, for his several volumes of poetry. Indeed, Duchamp is surely Paz’s artist because he is such a verbal artist—a poet’s artist. What Duchamp sees, as Paz states it, is “invisible reality.” Paz’s ability to understand contemporary art stems from his cultural-historical studies in Mexican society. His credentials for interpreting Duchamp are perhaps more appropriate than those of an art historian, since Paz is adept at interpreting the role of the artist within a society, rather than the role of the artist as simply art-maker.

Paz must see the inactivity of Duchamp as representative of the lack of production in his own country, and in contrast with the industrialized nations’ need to overproduce. For him Picasso’s constant production of art as synonymous with the “overproduction” of commodities in the industrialized nations. Duchamp works differently; his art is occasional and is not always in the form of a finished, completed work. Picasso’s work is art-work; Duchamp’s is idea-work.

Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare consists of two essays. The first, “The Castle of Purity,” which was published in 1970 and then expanded into its present form, defines the problem of modern art as Paz sees it. In Paz’s view, this century has so far produced only one important idea—and that is the idea of criticism. “The Castle of Purity” describes and explains the Large Glass, while the second essay describes Duchamp’s later work, largely unknown until Duchamp’s death, referred to as the “Assemblage” and entitled: Etant Donnés: 1˚ la chute d’eau, 2˚ le gas d’éclairage (Given: 1st The Waterfall, 2nd The Illuminating Gas).

The essays describe Duchamp’s ability to not make art, and instead to make ideas. There is within the book, particularly in the first essay, an uncomfortable antinomy between Paz’s admiration of Duchamp’s ideas and his basic contention that there are no significant ideas in this century. Paz solves this problem in the second essay. Duchamp was able to create ideas precisely because he did not adhere to a discipline of producing specific works of art—such as sculptures or paintings. By varying the media of his expression, and by withdrawing from any one specific artistic discipline, he was able to avoid criticism.

Duchamp’s readymades, which were constructed objects requiring only Duchamp’s signature, evidenced a final nonmaking of art. Paz describes this progression in Duchamp’s works beginning with his paintings of mechanized movement, and evolving into the readymades. Duchamp’s transition into three-dimensional forms—the readymades as sculpture—was no more difficult than his transition to the use of words in his works. Duchamp is a visual artist who turns to word images. Duchamp chooses words because of their power over visual images in presenting a mental reality. His use of words marks the beginning of conceptual art.

Duchamp’s Green Box, 1934, consists of written notes and documents that explain the Large Glass. The Large Glass (and later the “Assemblage”) is both a painting and a sculpture, and the Green Box is a written form of both. Duchamp was able to escape the protocol of referring back to previous works within the art historical tradition by using separate artistic disciplines as reference points for one another. According to Paz, this transition from one discipline to another is essential to Duchamp’s work. Whereas Picasso is known for working on forms, within a particular discipline, Duchamp would use several different media for each artwork. Duchamp was thus freer than Picasso, having no need to produce large quantities of art, since he used several different media and had only to adhere to the particular governing idea. Picasso, however, was forced to work out the formal physiognomic changes of each artistic discipline that he worked within.

Paz’s background is in philosophy, and he reads Duchamp’s work philosophically. For art historians, Paz’s weak point is that he does not trace the lineage of Duchamp. He cites Duchamp within a continuum of thinkers, but forgets to show him within a tradition of artists. Paz is unable to show the transition between Duchamp and the conceptual artists but perhaps this is his point. Though conceptual artists, also use words, they rely on analysis rather than poetics. Analysis is aligned with criticism for Paz, and it is the opposite of the poetic approach. Paz perhaps sees Duchamp as unique in his successful combination of words with imagery. At any rate, putting Duchamp in this perspective makes it easier to be critical of the problems of most current conceptual art.

Unlike most conceptual artists, Duchamp was able to use words as imagery, rather than only in analysis. His art was based on a close alignment of metaphors from several disciplines, but it did not reduce those metaphors to simple categorical documentation. Duchamp used words as an artist, relying on their descriptive abilities, rather than on a scientific-analytic mode of documentation.

It becomes evident from Paz’s writings that criticism as a mode of thought or inquiry is synonymous with the advent of the machine age. The step-up of mechanization and industrialization meant an increase in critical and organizational work (managerial work to direct and maintain the production machines). And simultaneous with this industrialization came a decrease in creativity. The rigidification of the critical approach was designed to protect machines from their own breakdown. Machines were then produced to safeguard us from our own critical thoughts.

Although Duchamp’s readymades are manufactured objects, Paz sees Duchamp as being anti-machine because of the manner in which he uses these objects. His readymades, though produced, are not productive, since they function on our senses in an unpredictable manner. As Paz states: “The only mechanical devices that inspire Duchamp are those which function in an unpredictable manner, the anti-machines.” Duchamp is interested in contradictory machines because he believes in chance, that “nonproductive, productive” activity.

Eroticism, on the other hand, is, for Paz, the opposite of criticism, and it is what motivates the creative process. Paz has chosen to write about Duchamp’s Glass and the “Assemblage” because of what these works teach us about eroticism. Hence the subtitle of the book, based on the proper title of the Glass itself (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even): Appearance Stripped Bare. The art in Duchamp is stripped bare for the concept; the image is an idea. Such an erotic image is not one that is static and ever-present (as in pornography), but one that is fleeting, or delayed (as the Large Glass is called a “delay in time”). As Paz says of Duchamp, “. . . painting has been up to now—all to the good—an art of appearance: the representation of what we see, with our eyes open or closed. But it is also good that a painter should decide to opt for invisible reality and to paint not things or images, but relationships, essences and signs” (p. 13).

Paz’s earlier book entitled Conjunctions and Disjunctions (1974) is a sociological examination of eroticism, interpreting eroticism in Eastern vs. Western societies. In Marcel Duchamp he interprets eroticism on the individual level. Duchamp is an erotic artist because he does not adhere to specific images, or specific words, bypassing static and reified imagery for fleeting erotic imagery. Duchamp’s ideas are motive images. The absence of lively eroticism in a culture comes not from unobtainable imagery, or repressed imagery, but from too much reified imagery. The static and apparent image of God that is prevalent in Western civilization is an example; contrarily, Eastern culture maintains an etherealized imagery for the divine, resulting in a more virulent sexuality (particularly in Tantric tradition), and standing in direct opposition to the sexual repressions of Western culture.

If Conjunctions and Disjunctions was written to express religious eroticism, Marcel Duchamp was written to express an artistic eroticism. Art and sex are linked, for Paz, in Duchamp’s work. Duchamp’s images are erotic, fleeting—as is his method of working. which is occasional, and in which production alternates with long-delayed pauses. Duchamp’s work shows the sexuality of making art, and thus it hints at the secret of the artist’s craft: reproduction.

Essences and signs are the basis of eroticism, in direct opposition to criticism, which is based on mechanical rigidification, exactitude and precision. Conceptual artists, rather than depending on and being supported by the precision and exactitude of their technologized materials, tools (specifically the camera) and procedures, should be producing “delayed moments” and fleeting events—erotic stimuli. Duchamp creates an imagery that self-destructs as the image turns into idea, and back into an image again. Paz also states that Duchamp’s works can all be seen as variations of an icon. The Nude Descending A Staircase; The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even; the “Assemblage”; all depict the same image in either closer or more distant views. In the “Assemblage” the image is turned into its three-dimensional form: a sculpture. There the viewer must peek through a crack in the door to see the particular scene. The viewer most readily sees voyeuristically. but finally, given Duchamp’s series of delays, the viewer has the chance, according to Paz, to see with clairvoyance.

Duchamp is able to present both the most public image and the most veiled image simultaneously. At one time we see the image, another time the idea, and then back we revert to an image in a new form. Paz explains the elusive quality of eroticism in Duchamp’s iconographic Bride: “The body of the Bride—the body of reality (its appearance)—‘is the result of two forces: attraction in space and distraction in extension.’ The Bride is stretched out on her bed of branches and thus is extended, distended, distracted, and drawn away from her point of attraction: we, the mirrors that reflect her. . . . During certain intervals the body is free and not subject to attraction; at others it is determined by it. While these intervals last, the body is outside time.”

Duchamp is an erotic artist because he delays the production of his images, in order to produce ideas. He is a teasing artist.

John Robinson