PRINT May 1986


IT TOOK MARCEL DUCHAMP exactly one year, from Sonate (Sonata) in August 1911 to Mariée (Bride) in August 1912, to make his way through Cubism. He had been a rather eclectic painter until then, seemingly uncommitted, and not too gifted either. But the production bracketed by those dates displays an extraordinary and enigmatic concern for painting, Cubist in appearance, yet invested with an irony and an eroticism absent in orthodox Cubism. It is as if, quite suddenly, a compelling desire to establish his identity as a painter set in, and as if he understood, albeit unconsciously, that Cubism was both a mandatory path toward this identity and a transitional style which avant-garde art would soon abandon, and which he would have to betray at the same time that he adopted it.

Painted in Munich right before the painting entitled Mariée, and right after the two drawings both called Vierge (Virgin), Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée (The passage from virgin to bride) represents a crucial point of passage in Duchamp’s life and work, one in which, I believe, he accomplished his desire to become a significant painter and, by the same token, one in which something was revealed to him about painting’s loss of historical significance. If you are not a “born painter,” if the smell of turpentine does not lure you into the studio every morning naturally and easily, as it did Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso, then you have to labor hard toward being born as a painter. But once you are born, once you have witnessed your own birth-to-painting, have taken a revenge against uneven talent and asserted your name as a painter, why do it again? Wouldn’t you repeat yourself, “stupid as a painter” (as Duchamp used to say), and indulge in a craftsmanship altogether obsolete as such? For it may well be that in industrialized society the specialized craft called painting has become useless in the face of mechanization and division of labor, as they replace the craftsman in most of his social and economic functions, and that it must be felt as impossible by whoever has the ambition to push art beyond those functions and have it carry on a meaningful tradition. The hackneyed issue of the “death of painting” is inseparable from both the objective conditions that have made painting useless as craft and the subjective feeling that has made it impossible as tradition. In pursuing it, you would do no more than yield to the solitary pleasure that Duchamp called “olfactory masturbation.”

Unless, of course—but you don’t have to be a born painter for this, Paul Cézanne certainly wasn’t—what you do is reinvent painting, give it a new meaning by acknowledging what has happened to it, and give the idea of painting, not the craft, new birth with each canvas. Suprematism was the practice of that idea, and so was Neoplasticism. So were Orphism, Simultanism, Synchromism, Amorphism, Unism, and purism in general. The switch to abstract painting comprised the crucial step in the recognition of painting’s demise as craft and its instant rebirth as idea. For most of its early practitioners, this switch occurred late in 1912 or early in 1913, and after a passage through Cubism which was also a resistance to it.

Exactly at the same time, in the same Cubist context, with the same awareness of the cultural challenge of industrialization and the same mixed feelings toward the fate of painting, Duchamp, instead of abandoning figuration, abandoned painting altogether. No sooner had he come back from Munich, in October 1912, than he told himself, “Marcel, no more painting, go get a job.”1 Two months later, with Erratum musical and then with the Stoppages-étalon (Standard stoppages), he started to rely on chance as a substitute for craftsmanship. By the end of 1913 he had invented his first readymade, the Roue de bicyclette (Bicycle wheel), and had almost completely sketched out the project for La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even; or the Large Glass, 1915–23). The readymade (and to a lesser extent the Large Glass) is the other side of Duchamp’s abandonment of painting. If Duchamp had relinquished every artistic ambition in abandoning painting, no one would speak of him today. Obviously the readymade is, among other things, Duchamp’s way of registering his abandonment of painting, of getting it on the record. If only for that reason, the readymades belong to the history of painting, and not, for example, despite their three-dimensional appearance and qualities, to that of sculpture.2 I wish to show that the readymade, on many counts, ought to be reinterpreted today as something that establishes a paradoxical link with the history and the tradition of painting. Such a reinterpretation by no means exhausts the historical significance of the readymade. But it is a key issue right now, in the face of an art world in which, once again, an avant-garde strategy, sometimes dubbed “appropriation” and openly indebted to the idea of the readymade, is pitted against a return to painting which equally appropriates the past (though not the same one, perhaps) while it disavows the precedent of the readymade.3 To put the readymade back in a theoretical context, which is the issue of specificity (or purity) attached to the word “painting,” and which is also the art-historical context in which it appeared, as an offspring of Duchamp’s abandonment of painting, has priority over another reinterpretation which will, in due time, see the readymade in the institutional context of the generic term “art.”

Although the issue of specificity has presented itself to every art practice during Modernity, nowhere has it been more acute than in the practice of painting. Modern literature and poetry have sought to isolate and define “the literary” and “the poetic” (or, more generally, “the text”), modern music has gone after pure “musicality,” modern theater, even, has come to think of itself as the enactment of sheer “theatricality.” But it was in painting that this self-referential striving for purity became both the exclusive object of esthetic theory and the all-encompassing subject matter of practice. In other words, it was in painting, and nowhere else (not even in sculpture, which merely took it over from painting), that the idea of abstract art came into being Numerous accounts of the history of abstraction—above all, Clement Greenberg’s—have described “Modernist painting” as an activity that, through a succession of reductions, sought to assert its ultimate pictorial identity. As historical accounts, these descriptions are by and large correct. But—and this is the irony of Greenberg’s success and failure—they are only correct when uttered from a vantage point where one no longer takes issue with the question of specificity because the belief in it, as a theoretical explanation, has vanished. The mannerism and the eclecticism displayed by much of today’s art are obvious symptoms that we no longer believe in “Modernist painting.” Yet the so-called critique of formalism, the so-called demise of Modernism, and the so-called advent of post-Modernism are also symptoms, and they tell us that a different kind of formalism, as a method, and a different kind of Modernism, as an interpretation of what actually happened in Modernity, will soon be called for.

In retrospect, manneristic and eclectic periods of art history have always been a sure sign that some theoretical reshuffling of the cards was in the making. More often than not—as with Mannerism proper in relation to Quattrocento Renaissance art—such reshufflings were concerned with epistemological aspects of the breakthrough period that had necessarily remained unconscious to the pioneers themselves. The eclectic confusion of mannerism is in itself an interesting attempt to come to terms with those unconscious aspects. Yet it makes little sense until the enigmas of the breakthrough period have been unraveled. I think that we are witnessing such a phenomenon right now. Not only the comeback of figurative painting but also the representational images (a “return of the repressed”) put forward by much of today’s “appropriation art” are attempts to deal with aspects of early abstract art, unconscious to the artists of the time and left uninterpreted by the historical accounts of abstract art that were congruent to it, such as Greenberg’s, because they partook in the same belief system. I also think that the time has come when, one by one, the enigmas of the period that saw the birth of abstract painting can be unraveled. Indeed, this is the work of Duchamp’s readymade. When I say that priority should go to a reinterpretation of the readymade that posits it in the context from which it emerged, I don’t so much mean that it will be reinterpreted by its context, although this is true too, as that it will reinterpret its context, theoretical and historical. Unraveling the historical context common to the readymade and abstract painting is the subject of this article. But I could not even begin if the reshuffling of the cards that is the readymade’s achievement had not already produced some reinterpretation of its own theoretical context.

Hence this thesis, which takes stock of Duchamp’s intervention in the history of “Modernist painting,” and which, in accordance with what he himself called “a kind of pictorial Nominalism,”4 inherits reshuffled cards. Although “Modernist painting” sought to assert its ultimate pictorial specificity, it was not the establishment of painting’s essence or identity that was at stake, but the assertion of its name. With every significant reduction, or abandonment, that the history of Modern painting has carried with it—from the abandonment of chiaroscuro by Edouard Manet, of linear perspective by Cézanne, of Euclidian space by the Cubists, of figuration by the first abstractionists, down to the abandonment of figure/ground relationships by how many generations of allover or monochrome painters—through all these changes the controversial issue has been, How dare you call this a painting? One might think that what was at stake was an ever-reduced definition of painting, but if that had been the case, painting would indeed have met its doom the minute it discovered its ultimate criterion, flatness for example. As is all too visible now, painting—good and bad—is very much alive. Besides, if flatness could have been the ultimate definition of painting at the moment of its death, it could also have been its primary definition at the moment of its birth, or rebirth, as it was indeed dreamed to be, long before Greenberg, by Alexander Rodchenko, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and, why not, Maurice Denis. It is true, of course, that the frantic production of theories, manifestos, pedagogical programs, and philosophical constructions that accompanied the succession of reductions making up the history of Modern painting amounted to a relentless endeavor to justify that these things manufactured by the Modern painters be called paintings in their own right. They were intended not so much to provide the public with criteria and definitions as the artists themselves with ideas regulating their own judgments.

Regulative ideas should not be confused with rules or criteria. Just as imitation, for example, was a regulative idea for classical painting, and not simply a rule to abide by or to transgress, so flatness has been one of the major regulative ideas of Modern painting, one that for some time stood for painting itself. Now a very wide array of painted artifacts—belonging to different times, done in different techniques, partaking in different cultures, and proceeding from regulative ideas as different and opposed as imitation and abstraction, for example—still have in common that they have been judged worthy of bearing the same name, “painting,” and in the eyes of modern Westerners this is what makes them belong to the same history or specific tradition, that of painting. The history of painting is on the one hand the history of its regulative ideas and on the other the history of its name. The ideas make up the historical “contents” of this name, and they vary according to historical conditions and individual sensibilities. The procedures—formal and conventional, esthetic and ideological, linguistic and institutional, economic and political—through which the name is attributed to something make up its historical “form” at any given time.

Modernity has been that particular time in history in which the practice of painting has been regulated by the idea of its own specificity, or purity, or autonomy, in a reflexive application of the idea of painting upon its name. Therefore, it has also been the period of history in which the attribution of the name “painting” to a thing, at a pinch anything that would respect, in Greenberg’s terms, the “essential convention” of flatness, has become the issue at stake in this reflexive judgment. Within that period the foundation of abstract painting was a crucial moment, the moment in which the calling of a thing by the name of painting, and even of “pure painting,” explicitly became the key issue of the artist’s (and the viewer’s) esthetic judgments—explicitly yet to some extent unconsciously. What occupied the consciousness of the various founders of abstract painting was the ideas regulating their judgments and the feelings through which these ideas were themselves evaluated. Fondness for the flat surface was among those feelings, but a much stronger incentive was fear and hope: fear that a craft reduced to the mere coating of a surface would no longer deserve its name, and hope that it could be redeemed, if it could only prove meaningful. Thus what occupied the mind of the first abstractionists was their anxiety to prove that a surface covered with colors, and that had abandoned every readable link with nature, was nevertheless “readable,” that it was a language of sorts. Hence, for example, Mondrian’s attempts at establishing the universal linguistic value of his vertical/horizontal symbolism, or of his triad of primary colors. For Mondrian and for virtually every founder of abstract art, primary colors, or color itself, in the singular—“pure color,” as it was called—became the basic signifier of the new language, the “essential,” “natural” metonym for pure painting, itself a metaphor for art, and art being an allegory for life, with all its emotional, ideological, and even political aspects.

Thus Wassily Kandinsky, anticipating the advent of abstract painting as early as 1904, boldly prophesied,

If destiny will grant me enough time I shall discover an international language which will endure forever and which will continually enrich itself. And it will not be called Esperanto. Its name will be Malerei [painting]—an old word that has been misused. It should have been called Abmalerei [non-painting, counterfeit]; up till now it has consisted of imitating. Color was seldom used for a composition (or, if so, it was used unconsciously).5

As is obvious from this quote, color, used consciously and outside the conventions of imitation, was intended to be the cornerstone of a new international language which would at last deserve the name of painting. In Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (On the spiritual in art), written between 1909 and 1911 and published late in the latter year, Kandinsky, who kept postponing the actual passage to abstraction out of fear that it might be confused with decorative art, nevertheless proceeded to lay down the theoretical—or ideological—bases upon which abstract painting was to be grounded as, to quote the title of chapter six, “the language of forms and colors.” His argument starts with a color’s name: “When one hears the word red, this red in our imagination has no boundaries. One must, if necessary, force oneself to envisage them.”6 It then proceeds to link this very abstract work of the imagination with the formal and material conditions that could make it into the basic element of an immanent pictorial language: “If, however, this red has to be rendered in material form (as in painting), then it must (1) have a particular shade chosen from the infinite range of different possible shades of red . . . ; and (2) be limited in its extension upon the surface of the canvas, limited by other colors that are there of necessity.”7 Linguists would say that what Kandinsky does in this passage is establish the paradigmatic and syntagmatic conditions of pure color as a language (on Roman Jacobson’s axes of selection and combination). Indeed, this ideological foundation provided the painter with a rationale for a major break with tradition, which would nonetheless deserve to be called Malerei, not Esperanto.

Looking back, as early as 1913, upon his foundation of the abstract language of pure painting, Kandinsky stressed the subjective aspects of his passage to abstraction, aspects much more important to him, even, than the “objective” or “linguistic” ones, because it was only in them that abstract painting would find its “inner necessity.” In Rückblicke (Reminiscences), he recalls a few intense esthetic experiences which he sees in hindsight as having been endowed with enough inner necessity to have justified his passage to pure painting. One of them, dated from adolescence, is described as follows:

As a 13- or 14-year-old boy, I gradually saved up enough money to buy myself a paintbox containing oil paints. I can still feel today the sensation I experienced then—or, to put it better, the experience I underwent then—of paints emerging from the tube. One squeeze of the fingers, and out came these strange beings, one after the other, which one calls colors—exultant, solemn, brooding, dreamy, self-absorbed, deeply serious, with roguish exuberance, with a sigh of release, with a deep sound of mourning, with defiant power and resistance, with submissive suppleness and devotion, with obstinate self-control, with sensitive, precarious balance, living an independent life of their own, with all the necessary qualities for further, autonomous existence, prepared to make way readily, in an instant, for new combinations, to mingle with one another and create an infinite succession of new worlds.8

Lyrical as it is, and written in hindsight, this text roots the very foundation of the abstract language in a personal—eventually mythified—esthetic experience that links the naming of painting to that of color. Color is thought of as a strange living being, autonomous and rich with all its pictorial potential. In Kandinsky’s memory, it is also seen as bursting out of the tube, virgin, as it were, yet propelled by “inner necessity.’’ The text presents the tube of paint, then the palette,9 next the virgin canvas,10 and finally the brush as the elements of a potential language that has already deserved its name of painting, but also as the protagonists of an utterly erotic experience which the rest of the text then proceeds to develop into an erotic act, complete with all the machismo and, eventually, the colonialism that one expects to be associated with an expressionist ideology of art: ”And then comes the imperious brush, conquering [the canvas] gradually, first here, then there, employing all its native energy, like a European colonist who with axe, spade, hammer, saw penetrates the virgin jungle where no human foot has trod, bending it to conform to his will."11

In other words, the passage to abstract painting is of the kind ironically referred to in Duchamp’s Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée. No one’s artistic ideology could be more opposed to Kandinsky’s than Duchamp’s. His own brand of colonialism (“Le nègre aigrit . . . ” etc.) resembles that of Raymond Roussel in Impressions d’Afrique (1910). And his own brand of self-defeating machismo (“On n’a que: pour femelle . . . ,” etc.) would leave the “rapist” a bachelor keeping his hands busy with “olfactory masturbation.” It is striking, then, that when he came to defining eroticism (which, by the way, he wanted to turn into a new artistic “ism”), the example Duchamp came up with was, just as in Kandinsky’s recollection, the tube of paint: “Eroticism is close to life, closer than philosophy or anything like it; it’s an animal thing that has many facets and is pleasing to use, as you would use a tube of paint, to inject into your production, so to speak.”12

Duchamp painted Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée in Munich, where he could have met Kandinsky. It is unlikely that he did so, but there is some evidence that he bought Uber das Geistige in der Kunst in Munich, in the second edition, dated May 1912, and that he annotated it in the margins, trying to translate some passages. But even if we had no biographical support at all, it would still be obvious, I believe, that Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée has everything to do with the passage of a whole generation of painters to abstract art. The dates coincide perfectly. As far as the Parisian painters are concerned, Duchamp’s transit through Cubism is congruent with that of Robert Delaunay, Mondrian, and Auguste Herbin, and it seems unbelievable that Duchamp would not have been taking note of what was happening around him. And as far as Munich is concerned, it is very possible that the issue of pure color, repressed in the Parisian Cubist context but highly visible in the context of the Blaue Reiter group, triggered an intuition at the same time very close to that founding Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism, and diametrically opposed to it. Instead of a “spiritual revelation” authorizing the coming into being of a new-born language called Malerei, what Duchamp got out of Le Passage de la vierge à la mariée was the same revelation with an ironic, skeptical twist: the tradition of craftsmanship that had been called painting until then, and that Kandinsky called Abmalerei, was indeed no longer viable, but to maintain its tradition alive was not to found it anew on some idealistic tabula rasa; it was to record its name so that it significantly conveyed both the tradition and the means of interpreting it, that is, of relating it to the very conditions that had made it objectively useless and subjectively impossible to pursue.

In the aftermath of Munich came Duchamp’s abandonment of painting, and, a little later, his coining of the readymade. Only many years after, when the readymade had left its indelible imprint on Modern art history and Duchamp had achieved the reputation of the world’s most influential artist, did he, tongue in cheek, give “little explanations” of the readymade that are absolutely luminous when read literally. In an interview with Georges Charbonnier in 1961, Duchamp stated,

The word art, etymologically speaking, means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of the blue, the quality of the red, and always choosing the place to put it on the canvas, it’s always choosing. So in order to choose, you can use tubes of paint, you can use brushes, but you can also use a ready-made thing, made either mechanically or by the hand of another man, even, if you want, and appropriate it, since it’s you who chose it. Choice is the main thing, even in normal painting.13

If the word “art” means making, and if making means choosing, then we are left to draw the most general conclusion possible: art means choosing. But what is striking, in regard to this level of generality, is the extreme particularity of the chosen example: “Making something is choosing a tube of blue. . . . ” It is as if art in general could stem only from choices specific to painting. “Choice is the main thing, even in normal painting.” The hint is that the readymade is a sort of abnormal painting.

In an interview with Katherine Kuh in May 1961, Duchamp, playing ingenue, explicitly stated that he did not believe in the avant-garde ideology of the tabula rasa.

Let’s say you use a tube of paint; you didn’t make it You bought it and used it as a ready made. Even if you mix two vermilions together, it’s still a mixing of two readymades. So man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready-made things like even his own mother and father.14

Just as nobody can avoid carrying the oedipal weight of “mother and father,” so the painter too bears the burden of tradition. It has been handed over to him, encapsulated in a ready-made tube of paint. At the Symposium on the Art of Assemblage, in October 1961, Duchamp went further: “Since the tubes of paint used by the artists are manufactured and ready-made products we must conclude that all paintings in the world are ‘readymades aided’ and also works of assemblage.”15 Here the “little explanation,” read literally, suggests that since the prerequisite of the painter’s practice is an industrial product, the very definition of painting is now moving toward that of the readymade. Finally, in an interview with Francis Roberts in October 1963, he let it be inferred, with “reciprocal” irony, that the readymades could be understood as “paintings unaided.”

A readymade is a work of art without an artist to make it, if I may simplify the definition. A tube of paint that an artist uses is not made by the artist; it is made by the manufacturer that makes paints. So the painter really is making a readymade when he paints with a manufactured object that is called paints. So that is the explanation.l6

Indeed, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s Purloined Letter, the explanation stares us in the face. Not that we are, from now on, to take all paintings for readymades, or the readymades for paintings. But the clue was certainly there to be picked up. Asked for a definition of the readymade, Duchamp answered with an example instead, and that example was always the tube of paint One cannot help but see in this an ironic mimicry of the Modernist reductivism that sought the fundamental elements of a visual language and erected them into metonyms of painting itself. For Duchamp as for Kandinsky the tube of paint is an origin of sorts, the locale of an initial choice in which the making of a painting is grounded; it is charged with erotic power and endowed with “linguistic” potential; it refers to pure color, considered as the elementary signifier of a pictorial language reduced to its essence. But the lyrical eroticism that Kandinsky saw bursting out of the tube of paint is here castrated: not only does the tube remain sealed, it also remains concealed in every readymade, as a secret example of choices that Duchamp, of course, never made explicit, and of which snow shovels and bottle racks are elaborate allegories.

Nowhere is the difference in ideology between Kandinsky and Duchamp more visible than in the opposition of these two descriptions of pure color: Kandinsky’s “strange beings . . . which one calls colors” are Duchamp’s “manufactured object that is called paints.” Pure color is a regulative idea in Kandinsky’s practice, and he felt obliged to justify it by giving it the ontological status of a living being; but for Duchamp it is flatly a thing, already made, a dead commodity And what the one calls “colors,” the other calls “paints.” Obviously, Duchamp’s regulative idea is not the specifically pictorial, it is not pure color liberated from imitation and standing for the main element of “an international language which will endure forever,” whose name will be Malerei. Duchamp’s regulative idea is the practice of the name of painting itself: “a kind of pictorial Nominalism.” What was at stake for the founders of abstraction, namely to assert that the name of painting be given to a mere surface covered with pure colors and basic forms, became for Duchamp the subject matter of a practice that no longer was painting, but that was apropos of painting.

Thus the readymade is art about painting even before it is art about art. The art of painting means making, said Duchamp, thereby quoting a very traditional definition of art as skill and craftsmanship. But if craftsmanship has been rendered objectively useless by industrialization, then skillful making must also be subjectively felt as impossible by the sensitive artist. This is, “even in normal painting,” the “inner necessity” of painting, the necessity that drove Kandinsky and the other early abstractionists toward the abandonment of almost every traditional convention of painting, and Duchamp toward the abandonment of the craft itself. Gone is the making, what remains is the name. Gone is the skill, the talent, what remains is the genius, the wit. Asked by Denis de Rougemont to define genius, Duchamp replied with a pun: “l’impossibilité du fer” (the impossibility of the iron/l’impossibilité du faire, the impossibility of the making).17 Since making means choosing, the implied syllogism leads to the conclusion that genius lies in the impossibility of choosing. And since the privileged example of such an impossible choice is “a tube of blue, a tube of red,” then genius lies in the impossibility of painting—provided, of course, that this impossibility, ending in the abandonment of painting, be recorded, acknowledged, and pried open to a possible and paradoxical interpretation. This is what the double entendre of the pun achieves, the actual making of this Witz (joke) made of iron and irony.

Two, at least, of Duchamp’s readymades are “three-dimensional puns” made of iron. Trébuchet (Trap, 1917) is a coatrack nailed to the floor so that one stumbles (trébucher) on it.18 And Peigne (Comb) is an iron comb similar to those used by the Cubists to paint fake wood, and bearing the date of Duchamp’s choice of it: February 17, 1916. In French, the name of the object reads as the name of the impossible necessity of painting. The verb peindre (to paint) can no longer be conjugated in the indicative, but is alluded to in the subjunctive: que je peigne! In French, this verbal mode also acts as an imperative; its best translation would be something between “I ought to paint” and “If only I could paint.” The pun in Peigne, its genius, is that it acknowledges and quotes the name of painting as at once necessary and impossible. Duchamp coined it almost as a Freudian slip—but probably a feigned one—11 days exactly after he did another, literary readymade entitled Rendez-vous du 6 février 1916. This is a text, painstakingly composed through the following method: Duchamp decided that he would write sentences, grammatically correct, but making no sense at all. An impossible task if ever there was one: having chosen the first word of the sentence, Duchamp would then proceed to choose the next, scratching every choice until he was satisfied that no meaning was produced.19 Such a method, which, by the way, is diametrically opposed to André Breton’s automatic writing, mimics the unconscious in its interplay with censorship to the point where virtually every word that slips through can be said to be significant. And in this text we find the sentence “Conclusion: après maints efforts en vue du peigne, quel dommage” (Conclusion: after many efforts toward the comb, what a pity). The proximity of the two works leaves no doubt that what is referred to in Peigne is an intricate set of feelings toward painting, involving nostalgia, impotence, and jealousy, but also joy, irony, and revenge. Painting had become impossible, and the artist who had worked so hard—mainly during his “Cubist” period—to become a painter worthy of the name could not simply abandon it without a certain melancholy.

But painting has not become impossible. The fact that industrialization has bereaved painters of their traditional social function as purveyors of images does not in the slightest make the practice of painting objectively impossible. It makes it useless in regard to this traditional function, but it does not forbid it, nor does it ipso facto suppress the availability of its specific technology or repress the transmission of its know-how. On the contrary, it can be argued that economic progress has made it possible for many more painters to coexist than was ever the case prior to the industrial revolution. The impossibility of painting is merely a feeling, the subjective signal accompanying the awareness of its objective uselessness. Melancholy is one of the names we can give to this feeling. It is at the root of every avant-garde art practice at least since Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarmé, and Manet. Yet it is not alone: enthusiasm and melancholy are (have been?) the twin feelings of avant-garde art. The former has (had?) to do with the active anticipation of an indeterminate future, the latter with the detached contemplation of an overdetermined past. Short of suicide—cultural or other, there have been enough cases—melancholy needs enthusiasm; without it, it lapses into regressive academicism. Conversely, enthusiasm must be accompanied by melancholy, otherwise it produces infantile avant-gardism. In other words, the feeling of impossibility, which as such entails a necessity (what is impossible cannot happen), ought to be converted into a free and willful assertion of possibility: what is felt and judged as impossible should not happen). Its “not happening,” which avant-garde art accounts for through an active destruction of tradition, is a potential, a supply of future possibility It means not only “not happening anymore,” but also “not happening yet.”

Thus Duchamp speaks of “the figuration of a possible (not as the opposite of impossible nor as related to probable nor as subordinated to likely); the possible is only a physical ‘caustic’ (vitriol type) burning up all aesthetics or callistics.”20 Peigne is the “figuration” of just such a caustic (or, in Duchamp’s French, “un mordant physique,” something that bites), as is suggested by his humorous aphorism, “Classer les peignes par le nombre de leurs dents” (Classify combs by the number of their teeth).21 The work refers to painting as it is both impossible and possible, i.e., on the one hand, felt and judged as doomed by industrialization and therefore having to be actively destroyed or abandoned, and on the other, retaining a potential that lies precisely in this abandonment, understood as the postponement of any pictorial “happening” and therefore of painting’s final demise.

It is here, by way of “explanation” of this very thin potential or possibility, that Duchamp once again calls in the tube of paint as an example: “The possible is an infra thin. The possibility of several tubes of paint becoming a Seurat is the concrete explanation of the possible as infra thin.”22 Apparently we are brought back to where Kandinsky had left us: to the enthusiastic experience of seeing “these strange beings . . . which one calls colors” emerge from the tube, ready “to mingle with one another and create an infinite succession of new worlds.” Yet there are three differences. (l) The tubes remain sealed, and therein lies their possibility as “infra thin.”23 Only if their potential to become painting is never actualized do they retain it. (2) If the tubes were to be opened, they would not yield an “infinite succession of new worlds,” they would “become a Seurat.” They do not enthusiastically announce the birth of abstract painting and its universality, they point to a singular example of painting signified by a proper noun. (3) This example belongs to the past, not to the future. It has already happened, yet it is presented as not happening yet. Georges Seurat, with his reputation, is fictionalized as a would-be painter. The history of Modern painting is melancholically looked upon in hindsight as if it still had its future, while its achievements already belong to the past.

Now the question raised by this “explanation” is, Why Seurat? Why not “the possibility of several tubes of paint becoming a Duchamp,” for example, or “becoming a painting” in general? Why is this particular name recalled for the potential it entails? Is it not an invitation handed over to us posthumous readers of Duchamp’s note to reinvestigate the history of Modern painting as if it still had its fu ture? Does it not suggest that although Modernism might be over, it still retains a potential fu ture in the form of a post-Modern rereading of Modernism? Does it not compel us to have a second look at the feeling of impossibility that has propelled the history of Modernism, and to relocate that feeling in the objective conditions that have made painting useless? Why not start, then, by relocating Duchamp’s feelings for Seurat in those objective conditions? We would see that Seurat’s relation to the tube of paint is also Duchamp’s link to Seurat. “The greatest scientific spirit of the 19th century, greater in that sense than Cezanne is Seurat, who died at the age of thirty-two.”24 Subjectively speaking, the link between Duchamp and Seurat, their common feeling, is their equal contempt for the hand, la patte. As early as 1886, Félix Fénéon commented as such upon Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à la Grande Jatte (A Sunday afternoon on the Grande Jatte, 1886): “Here indeed is la patte useless, and trick effects impossible; there is no place for bravado; let the hand be clumsy but let the eye be nimble, perspicacious, and well learned.”25 It was this abandonment of handicraft that Duchamp amplified to the point where he abandoned painting itself:

From Munich on, I had the idea of the Large Glass. I was finished with Cubism. . . . The whole trend of painting was something I didn’t care to continue. . . . There was no essential satisfaction for me in painting ever. And then of course I just wanted to react against what the others were doing, Matisse and the rest, all that work of the hand. In French there is an old expression, la patte, meaning the artist’s touch, his personal style, his “paw.” I wanted to get away from la patte and from all that retinal painting.26

Duchamp’s admiration for a painter as “retinal” as Seurat is rooted in their common indictment of la patte, and this in turn offers the possibility of a new reading of early Modernism, which, far from taking the positivistic naturalism of Neo-Impressionism at face value, relates it to one of its most important technological conditions, the tube of paint.

Although tin or copper tubes were already in use in England at the end of the 18th century for the preservation of watercolor, it was only around 1830–40 that tubes of oil paints began to be available on the market. The American painter-turned-paint-manufacturer John Rand is believed to have been the first to produce oil paints in tin tubes on an industrial scale. As long as painters had to grind and mix their pigments themselves, the movement known as pleinairism was a technical impossibility. For John Constable or the Barbizon painters to leave their studio and paint outside, directly from nature, the availability of tubes of paint was a prerequisite. One cannot imagine them carrying along the bulky equipment that the preparation of paint on the premises would involve. Certainly, pleinairism was one of the first episodes in the long struggle between craftsmanship and industrialization that underlies the history of “Modernist painting.” It was also one of the first instances of an avant-garde strategy, devised by artists who were aware that they could no longer compete, technically or economically, with industry; they sought to give their craft a reprieve by “internalizing” some of the features and processes of the technology threatening it, and by “mechanizing” their own body at work.

Once plein air painters submitted their skill to the constraints of on-site production, of course, they entered explicit competition with photography. This competition was carried on by Impressionism and Divisionism, and in the end it probably comprises the true specificity of Modern painting. For photography is the principal locus of industrialization’s incidence upon painting, and the camera, therefore, also the principal mechanizing device that the painters had to reclaim, which they did by mimicking it and investing it with subjectivity. But another equally important though often overlooked incidence of industrialization upon painting lies in the tube of paint. If pleinairism would have been impossible without the availability of ready-made oil paints in easy-to-carry containers, the palette of the Impressionists was itself an esthetic doctrine already reflecting upon this new state of things. It was limited to the colors of the prism, and thus it excluded black. Although the justification for this exclusion was naturalism—there is no black in nature—what the doctrine really did was organize the act of painting as a series of choices within a standardized logic of colors. The Divisionist (or, loosely called, Pointillist) technique first developed by Seurat rationalized this production process even further, explicitly turning the hand of the painter into a clumsy machine which operated in steps and rejected the blending continuity of handicraft. It also entailed an esthetic ideology reflecting on this subjective “industrialization” of the painter’s hand, and openly acknowledging the resulting division of labor. Not only was the hand severed from the eye, but also the maker from the author and the spectator. In classical esthetics the function of authorship was a combination of skill and culture: form and content meshed into one another through artisanal craftsmanship. The author was the maker. The spectator’s function was to be in a state of passive receptivity, also called disinterestedness or contemplation, and to exert taste, to evaluate the degree of excellence in skill and culture displayed by the maker.27 The esthetics of Divisionism set up a new division of labor: authorship now included spectatorship, and excluded, as far as possible, the simple mechanical task of making. The maker (the hand) remained “passive,” inasmuch as it simply obeyed, “clumsily” and “automatically,” the commands of the eye already encoded in the readymade discriminations provided by the paint manufacturer’s color charts. The spectator, on the other hand, was asked to blend the pointillist encoding of the colored image on his or her retina, and became an active partner with the artist (who is of course also the first spectator of the work). From this time on, esthetic reception was no longer contemplation and could no longer be “disinterested.” Even taste, as innate faculty or acquired culture, did not matter as much as the injunction to synthesize the image on the retina and, through a reflexive movement of the mind, “nimble, perspicacious and well learned,” to constitute its phenomenological status. Despite the positivistic intent of Divisionism, this is not to say that there was no room left for esthetic judgment. But the esthetic judgment was not exclusively a judgment of taste anymore, and it did not appreciate how the author/maker succeeded in meshing skill and culture. It became, so to speak, a second-degree judgment, the reflexive movement of the mind which took the beholder’s retinal task as a springboard for a phenomenological choice that in itself was not retinal at all, but critical and mental.

When Duchamp said, “It is the onlookers who make the painting,” he took stock of this epistemological redistribution of the traditional division of labor within esthetics. When he equated art with making and making with choosing, he made this epistemological redistribution explicit. When he identified genius with the acknowledged impossibility of making (that is, of choosing, that is, of painting), he laid bare the necessary feeling of melancholy at the root of significant avant-garde art. And finally, when he referred the paradoxical and retrospective possibility of choosing to the possibility of “several tubes of paint becoming a Seurat,” he offered an invitation to reinterpret that portion of the history of Modern painting that goes from pleinairism to Divisionism so that it might posit the historical and esthetic importance of Seurat in the economic and technological conditions that had made the practice of painting objectively useless, subjectively impossible, yet possible nevertheless.

The readymade’s potential to allow a rereading of Modern painting as if it still had its future does not stop with Seurat and Divisionism. It extends into the very context in which it appeared in 1913, the birth of abstract painting. The tube of paint was Duchamp’s ironic response to what was the question at work in the genesis of abstract painting, the question of pure color. The concern with pure color is in fact a century or so older than abstract painting proper, and has its roots in two different and very opposed traditions. The first, which is psychological and symbolic, starts with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (Toward a theory of colors, 1810) and makes its way in the history of 19th-century painting and painting theories, mostly German and Central European—through Philipp Otto Runge, Caspar David Friedrich and the Nazarenes, the German Romantic esthetics of the sublime, subsequent Farbenlehren such as Wilhelm von Bezold’s, and the announcement of an abstract ornamental art in Viennese Sezession circles at the turn of the century (Karl Scheffler, Arthur Roessler, Adolf Hoelzel). It eventually leads to Kandinsky’s theorization of pure color as an elementary signifier of pure painting. František Kupka’s own passage to abstraction equally owes a lot to this tradition, although it is also, and very significantly, indebted to the second tradition of pure color, which is essentially French and has its origins in Michel Eugène Chevreul’s researches on simultaneous contrast.28 First published in 1839 and republished in 1889, Chevreul’s memoir, which is a complete, scientific, and systematic theory of color, had already inspired Eugène Delacroix when, in a climate of both Symbolism and positivism, it became the theoretical ground for Divisionism. The new doctrine was laid down in writing by Paul Signac, who soon became the leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement, even before Seurat’s death, in 1891. He defined the “basic principles of Neo-Impressionism” as such: works “painted only with pure hues, separated, balanced and optically mixed according to a rational method.”29

Toward the end of the century, Signac’s theoretical justification of an art “guided by tradition and science” was no longer believed in. The Symbolist interest in irrationality had outgrown the positivistic confidence in scientific rules, and the objective naturalism inherent in Impressionism gave way to the subjective concerns of Expressionism. Yet there is a formal continuity between the practice of Signac, Maximilien Luce, Henri Edmond Cross, or Théo van Rysselberghe and that of early Fauvism. Between 1904 and 1906 Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Maurice de Vlaminck, and André Derain were all painting in a loosely pointillist manner, decorative and devoid of theoretical claims. Moreover, many of the artists who would a little later become the Cubists had a pointillist period at the same time: Georges Braque, Derain, Delaunay, Jean Metzinger, even Mondrian. Indeed Cubism, especially the dogmatic Cubism of the Puteaux group, was a reaction against the superficial decorativeness of Fauvism and Neo-Impressionism and an attempt to provide painting with a new set of theoretical tasks. Partly thanks to new reception conditions which had put Cézanne’s reputation far above Seurat’s, the issue of pure color was momentarily abandoned and even repressed. Hence the general dullness of palette in Cubist painting. But it emerged again, toward 1911–12, in the practice of Mondrian, Kupka, and especially Delaunay, coinciding with the advent of abstract painting. It involved a new reading or a new reception of Chevreul’s theories, made possible by a new intellectual context—the combination of Symbolism and positivism had given way to that of Simultanism and structuralism.

In poetry, the interest in simultaneity, indeed the passion for it, as evolved by Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, was itself a late offspring of Symbolism. In painting, it developed as an aspect of the ongoing speculation on the fourth dimension among the Cubists and the Futurists. It was left to Delaunay to bring this rather loose concern together with Chevreul’s theory of simultaneous contrast, and to produce in his work and in his writings a new doctrine of painting, which he called Simultanism. The issue of pure color no longer worked in the service of an esthetics of imitation (as it did for Chevreul himself and, to a large extent, for the Neo-Impressionists); it was fully translated into a new esthetics borrowed from poetry, and whose outcome was, in Delaunay’s words, “the ABC of expressive methods that derive from the physical elements of color creating new form.”30 Now, despite Delaunay’s mention of the “physical elements of color,” the “elements” that he wanted to provide the theoretical ground for abstract painting were not physical but linguistic, or semiotic: “the ABC of expressive methods. . . . ” Chevreul’s system was no longer read as an application of physics to the realm of perception psychology (a typically positivistic bias), but as the establishment of a linguistic system through which color could “speak” without reference to the representation of nature. Numerous parallels, starting with the prevalence given by both to synchronicity over diachronicity, can be drawn between Chevreul’s theory of colors and the new, structuralist theory of language put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure in exactly those years preceding the birth of abstract painting. Of course, none of the pioneers of abstraction had read Saussure at the time, and Structuralism became an “ism” only fifty years later, when the work of Saussure became the model for a reading strategy applicable to virtually every “signifying practice,” painting included.31 But what in the ’60s became a matter of deconstruction was first a matter of construction. What was at stake around 1913 was not the analysis, or the ideological critique, of the “pictorial language,” it was its synthesis, the ideological constitution of painting as a language.

Both Delaunay and Kupka openly acknowledged Chevreul and Seurat as their sources. Duchamp, as we know, also acknowledged the importance of Seurat (and thus indirectly of Chevreul). The same interview where he rails against la patte ends with this conclusion: “The only man of the past whom I really respected was Seurat, who made his big paintings like a carpenter, like an artisan. He didn’t let his hand interfere with his mind. Anyway, from 1912 on, I decided to stop being a painter in the professional sense.”32 To become, I suppose, a painter in the nominalist sense, since all around Duchamp in 1912, what was unconsciously at stake for all those painters who sought to found the “ABC” of “an international language which will endure forever” was the assertion or reassertion of the name of painting, as Kandinsky had prophesied in 1904: “And it will not be called Esperanto, its name will be Malerei.” Well, for Duchamp Malerei spells out Peigne: painting at once possible and impossible.

The feeling of painting’s impossibility was the subjective signal accompanying the awareness of its objective uselessness, that is, of the painter’s social inefficiency in an industrial culture. In a word, the painter was replaced by the machine. The camera, of course, comes readily to mind, but here again the incidence of the newly available tubes of paint should not be overlooked. The fact is that the bachelor no longer grinds his chocolate himself. Duchamp spent eight years on the Large Glass, meticulously transferring its elements—the Mariée in her domain, the Machine célibataire (Bachelor machine), of which the Broyeuse de chocolat (Chocolate grinder) is the central piece, below—from sketches and preliminary works. He could not have relinquished the painter’s slow, artisanal activity without mourning it and recording the process. The bachelor’s (i.e., the painter’s) impossible desire for the bride (i.e., painting) is not only encapsulated in the ready-made objects, which indefinitely postpone its fulfillment, it is also, and by way of a very fastidious manual work indeed, melancholically referred to the objective uselessness of the chocolate grinder: “The ‘useless’ of the chocolate grinder must be the brushing stroke over some invisible spots that the bachelor secretly maintains.”33 With all its onanistic connotations referring to painting as “olfactory masturbation,” the Machine célibataire is a self-portrait in disguise, whose very personal meaning also resonates with the historical conditions that led Duchamp to officially record his abandonment of painting in the readymade, on the one hand, but also to “secretly maintain” the cherished activity of a painter-bricoleur, on the other. It portrays the painter jobless and useless, since the “basic element” of his or her craft, the fabrication of pure color, has been taken over by industry Painters no longer grind their own color, they buy them in ready-made tubes. But the Machine célibataire also portrays the painter as he mimics this industrial process, taking the guise of a color-grinding machine. Duchamp, like Rand, planned to turn paint manufacturer: “For the final colors, make up all the colors of the picture before using them, and put them in tubes, with labels (for being able to correct, retouch, etc.).”34 Ironically, it is the color of chocolate, brown, the most impure of all colors, that in Duchamp’s allegory stands for pure and elementary color. He calls it molecular, natural, and native.35 And when, years later, in Moonlight on the Bay at Basswood, 1953, he used actual chocolate for pigment, the irony of the chocolate grinder came full circle.

It may seem that the fact that painters do not grind their own pigments anymore is a mere consequence of the availability of industrially processed tubes of paint. Yet this fact is crucial in understanding the cultural changes that disrupted the tradition of painting, and that made the Modern tradition a sort of antitradition leading to the demise of painting as craft and the idea of its rebirth as language. In the old days of painting, the grinding of colors, along with the making of stretchers, the gessoing of the canvas, and other preparatory practices, was not considered a subordinate activity Cennino Cennini prescribed it as an important, almost amorous process in which the echoes of Duchamp’s “olfactory masturbation” can already be heard:

Start grinding color by color: take a porphyry slab, not too polished, half an arm long on each side. Take another porphyry stone to hold in hand, Oat underneath, in the shape of a bowl, and smaller, so that the hand can grip it firmly and steer it here and there as it wishes. Pour your oil on the color and grind it for about half an hour, an hour, as long as you want, for if you ground it a whole year long the color would only become better and better.36

Despite the increasing intellectualization of painting from the Renaissance on, the humble, mechanical task of grinding colors remained an important part of the painter’s know-how, endowed with alchemical powers and jealously protected as a secret knowledge. Moreover, in the days when young painters still had to learn their skill as apprentices to a master, the transmission of the workshop recipes played a considerable role in keeping the continuity of tradition. It was a symbolic gesture, a sort of passport to autonomous professional life which the master handed over to the apprentice only when he judged him worthy of it. As academic training began to replace workshop apprenticeship, the grinding of colors of course lost some of its secrets, and the passing on of the grinding recipes some of its symbolic value. By the time of the industrial revolution, it certainly was not a privileged procedure in the transmission of tradition anymore. But interestingly enough, the less privileged it became, the more it was idealized by those traditional artists who, witnessing the industrial revolution, were afraid for art’s survival, and whose only answer to the new challenge was to seek to revive the gilded age of craft. From John Ruskin and the PreRaphaelites down to the foundation of the Bauhaus, and all the way through the Arts and Crafts movement and the evolution of the Kunstgewerbeschulen in Germany, the nostalgia for handicraft and, as far as painting is concerned, a certain fetishization of the grinding of colors can be felt. In most cases the concern for painting technique went hand in hand with a frightened refusal of industrialism and a more or less avowed hatred of Modernism. It is therefore not surprising that as late as 1921, almost a century after the invention of the tube of paint, such a leading authority on painting technique as Max Doerner, in his book Malmaterial und Seine Verwendung im Bilde (The materials of the artist), would start his chapter on oil paint with this sentence: “It is recommended that the painter grind his own colors.”37

Absurd and pathetic as it sounds in retrospect, Doerner’s admonition to painters to grind their own colors is highly symptomatic, and quite understandable from an academic standpoint. His book is not a neutral treatise on technique, it is a surreptitious sermon against Modernism:

The painter of today must become more conscious of his responsibility for the permanency of his work than is unfortunately the case. Many a painter of today lives to see his own handiwork go to pieces in his lifetime because he abused his materials. Before one can become a master, one must first have been a disciple. Those who do not believe this will pay the penalty sooner or later. There is no short cut to becoming a good painter, to quote [Joshua] Reynolds.38

What is at stake is duration, tradition, and continuity. No short cuts should be allowed in discipline and apprenticeship. Even relying on ready-made pigments is not innocent, and would lead painters to abuse their materials. When one considers the general contempt among Modernist painters for la patte, durability, and other overvaluations of sheer technique in the light of Doerner’s reactionary defense of tradition, one comes to think that this contempt was neither accessory to their stylistic innovations nor simply and deliberately provocative. It’s not as if Mondrian and Malevich had no other aim but the destruction of the painting tradition as it hitherto existed, and did not seek to transmit their own work to future generations. What they in fact understood and worked for, and what Doerner absolutely refused to acknowledge, was that the mode of transmission of culture that constitutes a tradition had been radically changed. As the function of authorship no longer rested on the making, but to a certain extent included the function of spectatorship, artistic culture was no longer transmitted from one painter to another in the private space of the workshop, nor even in protected institutions such as painters’ guilds and academies. It had gone public from the very outset. A Modern painting is addressed to the layman even before it is conceived, partly because it anticipatively incorporates the spectator’s esthetic judgment, partly because it is destined to land in the marketplace, and partly because the means of production, tubes of paint among them, were in the marketplace already, available to anyone.

No padlock restricts access to the profession of Modern painter. Anyone, even unskilled, can be a painter, and anyone, even uncultivated, is entitled and even asked to judge painting. The constitution and the transmission of the Modern tradition is in the hands of the public. The gist of the Modernist utopia is to have enthusiastically embraced the new conditions set forth, if only symbolically, by the availability of tubes of paint, and to have projected its tradition into the future, not in the form of a chain uniting the possessors of a specific technique and connoisseurship, but in that of a universal language hopefully accessible to everyone. As the chain of tradition has been broken, so the distinction between artist and nonartist is no longer an a priori, and the very definition of art has become a public matter settled by the vox populi, with the obvious risks of yielding to fashion and demagogy. Doerner saw this, but could neither interpret nor accept it: “Today most artists work independently of one another, but in the days of old masters each artist was a link in a chain, a part of a tradition. . . . Today every artist is expected to turn out a new hit each season in the manner of a vaudeville performer.”39

The Modernist utopia has failed. No new tradition has been constituted on the basis of an elementary universal language made of, for example, red squares, yellow triangles, and blue circles.40 Instead, we have had “the tradition of the new.” But it has not simply replaced tradition in the old sense; new hits are turned out regularly in the marketplace, but they do not constitute a tradition per se. Yet a tradition there is, and it is called, until further notice, the avant-garde. What did in fact constitute it started with the explicit recognition of what Doerner sees as dissolving tradition: the fact that artists work independently of one another. And this brings us back to the portion of art history that starts with Divisionism and leads to the birth of abstract painting, and that Duchamp’s readymade puts into a new perspective. The Société des Artistes Indépendants was established in 1884, in the wake of Divisionism, and Signac was closely associated with its foundation. Between then and 1908, when he was appointed its president, the Société’s annual salon played host to the slow academization of Divisionism into Fauvism. It is certainly not a matter of chance that the epistemological redistribution of the division of labor within esthetics, which was the theoretical achievement of early Divisionism, should have been associated with a claim for independence. And it is equally significant that the salon’s motto should have been “Ni récompense ni jury” (Neither prizes nor jury). That meant that the general public was now officially invited, for the first time in history, to play a part in the authorship of a new tradition.

The New York Society of Independent Artists, founded in 1917 and modeled after the Parisian Société, had the same motto: No jury, no prizes. It pushed the despecification of the status of artist even further than its French equivalent, since anybody was accepted into its first exhibition provided he or she paid a $1 initiation fee and a $5 annual fee to the Society. It was here, in February 1917, that a readymade by Duchamp, the famous (or infamous) urinal baptized Fountain and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” made its first public appearance. The scandal occasioned by “the Richard Mutt case” brought into the open the epistemological redistribution of authorship, craftsmanship, and spectatorship initiated by the Divisionists and the Independants. Craftsmanship was done with, radically Authorship seemed to be reduced to a signature affixing a name to a chosen anything. And spectatorship became the unsigned repetition of that choice. The making was the choosing, and it did not matter whose choice, since “it is the onlookers who make the painting” (or the sculpture), and since, with regard to this already-made urinal, Duchamp was merely one onlooker among many This particular work, however, was not anonymous but overtly pseudonymous, and what mattered was that the choice was a split responsibility It was both Marcel Duchamp’s and Richard Mutt’s. Or it was Richard’s, the rich collector (Walter Arensberg) who, according to one (dubious) version of the story, bought the urinal, and Mott Works, its actual manufacturer. Or, again, the choosers could be Mutt and Jeff or you and me. Indeed, they ought to be you and me. We Moderns have been left with the responsibility of deciding whether or not this thing should be called art. And as we post-Moderns all know, it has been, so the question is now futile. What is not, however, is the choice of the name. The readymades have been called art, through a two-headed speech act which sidesteps the traditional esthetic necessity to call them, say, sculpture, and therefore art. For sculptures they are only in appearance, and can be called such only if they are called art first. They do not stem from a sculptor’s practice, and never belonged to the specific craft and tradition of sculpture. But they do stem from, and stepped out of, a painter’s practice, and paradoxically belong to the specific craft and tradition of painting. To the “Modernist” tradition, that is, of which the stuff has been—at least since Seurat, throughout the birth of abstraction, and down to the “ultimate” monochrome painting—the abandonment of painting as craftsmanship.

The advent—the apparition, as Duchamp would have said, in contradistinction to the appearance or look—of the readymade does not spell out the end of painting. It records Duchamp’s personal abandonment of painting, and this abandonment is in no way final as far as art history at large is concerned. The readymade has not turned the subjective feeling of painting’s impossibility into an objective ban on painting. It merely suggests that no “Modernist painting,” let alone “post-Modernist painting,” will have any profound historical significance if it does not proceed from that feeling in one way or another Duchamp’s move from painting “in the professional sense” to pictorial nominalism also reveals what was at stake in Modern painting, especially for the first abstractionists: to assert or reassert Malerei, the name. It seems in retrospect that the condition for this revelation was that the specific name of painting had to go underground for a while, hidden behind the generic name of art as a “delay in glass,” or as a pun in Peigne. It has now come out from under, and, I believe, in a way that has special relevance today. For the latency period, the “delay,” is now over, the most blatant symptom of this being that the tube of paint has been reopened, with the results all around us. What this means is that the name of painting is no longer at stake in contemporary practice, and neither, for that matter, is that of art. Modernism, in this sense, is over. The era that saw the idea of (pure) painting, or of (autonomous) art, regulating its practice through a reflexive application of itself upon its name, while seeking to define the limits, the conditions, or the “essential conventions” of the objects so called—this era is behind us. But Modernism, in another sense, is not over. The facts of industrialization, the commodification of art objects, and the prevalence of the technologies of reproduction over those of production are still very much with us, and increasingly so, in fact, despite our so-called postindustrial society Thus the objective uselessness of art practice, its lack of use value, as some might say, is still with us too, and all the more so as its exchange value is boosted at the same rate that art is absorbed by the entertainment industry. In such circumstances, the subjective feeling of painting’s (or art’s) impossibility remains the source of a significant cultural practice. Painting is not objectively meaningless, whether it is abstract, “flat,” or reduced to its “basic elements,” or whether it is figurative, “crafty,” appropriative, or apparently expressionistic. On the contrary, any and all of these features can well point to the necessity of resisting the imposed division of labor between producers, or reproducers, on the one hand, and consumers on the other, and can demand of the spectators that, now as then, they be part of the authorship of tradition, of culture. But the same features, if they do not display an awareness that the name of painting or of art is no longer at stake, run the risk of playing into the hands of the leisure industry, for which painters are simply the mythological tokens of a past culture.

So the dividing line is not between painting and “appropriation art” or any other form of “anti painting.” It is between those who seek to push the Modernist tradition into oblivion and those who seek to guard it against such loss of memory. It used to be that the conservatives in the art world were traditionalists. The neoconservatives of today are antitraditionalists. Whether they openly dread the revenge of the philistines or secretly comply with it, the result is that they hasten it. By necessity or by design, they have abandoned the protectionist requirements of the pre-Modern and, out of disillusionment or cynicism, the libertarian utopias of the Modern traditions. In so doing, they have left uninterpreted both the demise of the former and the failures of the latter. As a result, history is now on the loose, prone to any kind of looting, while the cultural stakes of the breakthrough period are being forgotten or, worse, repressed. That it should be everybody’s and anybody’s business to judge art is precisely the epistemological—and political—heritage of the Modernist culture that the neoconservatives of today tend to repress. The self-application, since the Indépendants, of the regulative idea of painting upon its name was indeed to be the historical content of Modernism: the duty to judge freely, in matters of art and culture, and, symbolically, in matters of ethics and politics as well. This is what the name Malerei stood for when it was thought of as that of a future, universal language. We may have had to relinquish that ideal, but we must not forget what it once meant.

Hence this provisional conclusion: whether what today’s art scene offers to our appreciation is painting or something else is not an issue. Whether it is called painting is not an issue either. The dividing line has never been between two “essences,” the specific and the generic, painting and art. And it is no longer between two names, that of painting and that of art, despite the appearance of the delayed and repeated effects of the readymade’s apparition in the history of Modernism, and despite, also, the symptomatic attempts of some neoconservatives to make the name of painting into the issue again. The dividing line is between two attitudes toward the tradition of “Modernist painting,” toward its past utopias and its present failures, in other words toward its history: either parody or irony Neither attitude, or strategy, is faithful to that history, neither is naive, and neither is subject to clear-cut criteria. Both can make use of any media and technique, be they oil on canvas, cibachrome transparencies, broken plates, or hand-made reproductions of reproductions. Both can proceed through mocking, distortion, quotation, contempt.

Parody makes history into a myth. When it speaks of painting it presupposes it not as a universal language but as the privileged vehicle of a privileged group, the painters and their patrons. Parody’s address to the spectator is a complacent appeal to the spectator’s willingness to associate him- or herself with this group and to surrender free judgment. It is predicated on the convention that artist and beholder share the same history and then proceeds to shatter this convention. Nihilistically or cynically, parody ignores historical facts and interpretations as they happened, and reruns a Hollywood version of the past. It calls in history, or art history, as a pre-Modern epic in a post-Modern setting, which is to say that it seeks to do away with the claim to universality or cosmopolitanism that is essential to Modernism, and to restore the communal roots, be they national, racial, or sexual, that any epic needs. Since, fortunately, it cannot succeed, parody calls for the fusion of authorship and spectators hip into a common mythology which is nothing more than an agreed-upon narrative circulating among members of the art world, and setting both the artist and his or her audience apart from the rest of society.

Irony, contrary to parody, is a reminder that authorship includes spectatorship, or that spectatorship entails authorship, not through fusion or empathy, but through decision and debate. What the “producers” and the “consumers” of culture share is not a myth but a responsibility, that of judging and interpreting their culture. Irony recycles history as much as parody does, but it never takes history for granted, it never assumes the past by convention. Its caustic effect is in fact to reopen the case of history as a locus of dissent and jurisprudence. What irony confronts is precisely the given fact that conventions are shattered, that criteria are uncertain, that judgments are undecidable. This is the common ground of “post-Modernism,” our sensus communis, when universality cannot be postulated anymore, not even as a utopian horizon. And this is the heritage of Modernism that needs to be guarded. Irony is, as Søren Kierkegaard said, the passage from esthetics to ethics.

It follows that the dividing line between parody and irony is in and by itself neither esthetic nor ethical. It provides none of us with a set of criteria, based either on taste or on ideology, with which to wander through the artworld. It is itself to be judged by dint of feeling. Of course, the range of feelings that art can arouse is quasi infinite, and in any case unpredictable. But if the Modernist tradition has taught us anything, it is certainly that among all possible feelings, that of the impossibility of art—and of painting in particular—was and remains a relevant one. When its presence in a work of art is in turn felt by “the onlookers who make the painting,” its result is a choice—the choice, for example, that would put the work of Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, or Anselm Kiefer on the side of parody, and, with sometimes similar subject matters, the work of Piero Manzoni, Marcel Broodthaers, or Gerhard Richter on that of irony Like the Large Glass, the history of Modernism is “definitively unfinished”—no more than a string of examples, open-ended, and for everyone to add his or her own.

Thierry de Duve reaches an history and theory at the University of Ottawa. His book Nominalisme pictural: Marcel Duchamp, la peinture et la modernité, collection Critique, Paris: Editions de Minuit, will shortly be published in English by the University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, in a translation by Dana Polan.



1. Interview with James Johnson Sweeney, 1956, in Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London Thames & Hudson, 197 5, p. 133. I am aware that Duchamp did not totally abandon painting in 1913, but he certainly abandoned it in a Modernist sense. Tu m’, 1918, is actually his last oil on canvas.

2. Their only historical link with sculpture is that they may in part stem from the Cubist practice of collage. But from the vantage point of 1913, that link is really with the future of sculpture—with Constructivism, or Merz, for example; they themselves are offsprings of Cubist painting.

3. The reception history of the ready made shows several episodes where the idea of appropriation was claimed by some artists and critics to oppose the continuation of the painting tradition. It was called “sovereignty of choice” by André Breton, and in the heyday of Conceptual an u was often referred to as “de-” and “recontextualization.” But it is in the Popart episode, and especially in its French equivalent, Nouveau Réalisme, that the word “appropriation,” thanks for the most part to Pierre Restany, came to be equated with “the readymade strategy.”

4. A note from 1914 (in Salt Seller) says, “Une sorte de Nomalisme pictural (contrôler)” (A kind of pictorial Nominalism [control]). The word “Nominalism” appears in two other notes: note 185 (also dated 1914) and note 251 (undated), published posthumously in Duchamp, Notes, ed. Paul Matisse, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980.

5. Quoted in Hans K. Roethel and Jean K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1979, p. 13.

6. Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, in Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, vol. l, Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, p. l62.

7. Ibid., p 163.

8. Reminiscences, in ibid., pp. 371–72. My italics.

9. “Praise be to the palette for the delights it offers; formed from the elements defined above, it is itself a ‘work,’ more beautiful indeed than many a work.” Ibid., p. 372.

10. “At first, [the canvas] stands there like a pure, chaste maiden, with clear gaze and heavenly joy—this pure canvas that is itself as beautiful as a picture.” Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 372–73.

12. “Marcel Duchamp Speaks," interview with George Heard Hamilton and Richard Hamilton, London, BBC, 1959, published in Audio Arts Magazine vol. 2 no 4, London, l976.

13. Unpublished interview with Georges Charbonnier, Paris, Radio Télévision Française, 1961. My translation.

14. Interview with Katherine Kuh, 1961, in The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 90.

15. “A propos of Readymades,” in Salt Seller, p 142.

16. "I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics: interview with Francis Roberts, 1963, published in Artnews vol. 67 no. 8, New York, December 1968, p. 47.

17. Denis de Rougemont, “Marcel Duchamp, mine de rien,” 1945, in Preuves no. 204, Paris, February 1968, p. 45.

18. When Duchamp had a replica of Trébuchet made by the Galleria Schwarz, Milan, in 1964, he specified on the blueprint, “Fer, pas cuivre” (Iron, not copper).

19. “There would be a verb, a subject, a complement, adverbs and everything perfectly correct, as such, as words, but meaning in these sentences was a thing I had to avoid. The verb was meant to be an abstract word acting on a subject that is a material object; in this way the verb would make the sentence look abstract.” Quoted in Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970), p. 457. See also the project entitled Crécelle (Rattle) and dated September 1915 (Salt Seller, p. 7l), for an instance in which the verb peigne (as the subjunctive of peindre) “was meant to be an abstract word acting on a subject that is a material object.” The connection to the Cubist practice of painting fake wood with the help of a comb is obvious as is eventually, the abstract outcome of Cubism.

20. Salt Seller, p. 73.

21. Ibid., p. 71.

22. Duchamp, Notes, note I. The note is undated, but it is probably from the late ’30s. The oldest dated text relative to the infra thin is note 35 (op. cit), dated July 29, 1937.

23. “Infra thin” is in Duchamp’s vocabulary the word for esthetic judgment inasmuch as it is never an esthetic experience, never actualized, but always kept potential and suspended. It is not a noun but an adjective, says Duchamp (Notes, note 5); it is not the name but the undecidable act of naming.

24. “A Complete Reversal of An Opinions by Marcel Duchamp, Iconoclast,” Arts and Decoration, New York, September 1915, republished in Studio International vol. 189, no. 973, London, January–February 1975, p. 29.

25. Félix Fénéon, “Les Impressionistes en 1886,” in Au-delà de l’impressionisme, Paris: Hermann, 1966, p. 66. My translation.

26. Quoted in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, New York: Viking Press, 1968, p. 24.

27. The passivity and involuntariness of esthetic experience is an essential point of doctrine for every esthetic theory that is a theory of taste, as opposed to “esthetic attitude-theories.” It will have to be shown how Duchamp’s readymade subverts and displaces both groups of theories.

28. Eugène Chevreul, De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés considéré d’après cette loi, Paris: Pitois-Levrault, 1839.

29. Paul Signac, D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-impressionnisme, Paris: Hermann, 1978, p. 166. First published in 1899. My translation.

30. Arthur A. Cohen, ed., The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, The Documents of 20th-Century Art (New York: Viking Press, 1978), p. 16.

31. The starting signal for this might be seen in Roland Barthes’ “reversal” of Ferdinand de Saussure, when, in Eléments de sémiologie (1964), he suggested that semiology should be seen as part of linguistics, rather than linguistics as part of semiology.

32. In Tomkins, op. cit., pp. 24–25.

33. Duchamp, Notes, note 115.

34. Ibid., note 80.

35. “There is one single native chocolate color which serves to determine all chocolates.” Salt Seller, p.85.

36. Cennino Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), p. 21. Written ca. 1400. See also Xavier de Langlais, La Technique de la peinture à l’huile (Paris: Flammarion, 1959), pp. 332–33.

37. Max Doerner, Malmaterial und seine Verwendung im Bilde, 1921, Eng. trans. The Materials of the Artist, London: Granada Publishing, 1977, p. 143. Doerner was a very academic but prominent character on the Munich art scene while Duchamp was there. He was Dozent at the Royal Bavarian Academy and chairman of the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Förderung rationeller Malverfahren, a society that had been founded in 1884 in order to mediate between the paint manufacturers and the painters. A few weeks after Duchamp’s departure from Munich, Doerner, who thought of himself, so to speak, as the Ralph Nader of the painters, began giving a series of public lectures on painting technique. One wonders whom these lectures could actually have reached. Obviously, Doerner was pursuing the dream of rallying the scattered community of painters back to tradition.

38. Ibid., p. 316.

39. Ibid., p. 315.

40. See my article “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?,” Artforum vol. XXII no. 1, September 1983.

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