PRINT October 1994


CAN YOU MAKE a thing have common sense?

Is this the best question?

If common sense has a form, it must be shown; if it is a sign of consensus, there must Be some agreement; if it is a solid meaning, is it a reference, like an object or a concept?

Common sense is not something that we know, only something that we think we know or thought we had.

A green and yellow basket.



“Can one make works that are not «[works] of art»?”1

Duchamp is speaking or, rather, writing himself a note, an early one for the Large Glass (1915-23). A defining note that many have brushed by, ignored in favor of the more arcane, the higher sciences, the words that seem to align themselves with the key words of late psychoanalysis, or deconstruction, or math. And yet it is to the note’s idea that Duchamp came back in the long series of interviews with Pierre Cabanne some fifty years later. Cabanne had wanted him to say something else, but this time Duchamp was not content with his own indifference. They were speaking of the readymade:

Duchamp: Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it. The word “readymade” did not appear until 1915, when I went to the United States. It was an interesting word, but when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a “readymade,” or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it, or describing anything. No, nothing like all that. . . .

Cabanne: But some provocation just the same. . . .

Duchamp: No, no. It’s very simple. Look at the Pharmacy. I did it on a train, in half-darkness, at dusk; I was on my way to Rouen in January 1914. There were two little lights in the background of the reproduction of a landscape. By making one red and one green, it resembled a pharmacy. This was the kind of distraction I had in mind.2

It was a distraction. Duchamp elsewhere talked about it as a quality of contemplation:

In a way, it was simply letting things go by themselves and having a sort of created atmosphere in a studio, an apartment where you live. Probably, to help your ideas come out of your head. To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day. I liked the idea of having a bicycle wheel in my studio. I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. It was like having a fireplace in my studio, the movement of the wheel reminded me of the movement of the flames.3

An amusement, a play with color that turned the pharmacy window into landscape. Or a landscape into a shop window, another of Duchamp’s early preoccupations in his work on the Glass. Another note, dated 1913, about shop windows themselves and what it means to break through them, has to do with coitus.4 The work of art that is not one was tied to commerce and to sex without actually speaking directly of either. But why speak directly?

Cabanne: It is canned chance, too?

Duchamp: Certainly. I bought the reproduction of the landscape in an artist’s supply store. I did only three “Pharmacies,” but I don’t know where they are. The original belonged to Man Ray.

In 1914, I did the Bottle Rack. I just bought it, at the Bazaar de l’Hôtel de Ville. The idea of an inscription came as I was doing it. There was an inscription on the bottle rack which I forget. When I moved from the rue Saint Hippolyte to leave for the United States, my sister and sister-in-law took everything out, threw it in the garbage, and said no more about it. It was in 1915, especially, in the United States, that I did other objects with inscriptions, like the snow shovel, on which I wrote something in English. The word “readymade” thrust itself on me then. It seemed perfect for these things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches, and to which no art terms applied. That’s why I was tempted to make them.5

Moral: do not let your sister pack up your apartment? No, there is no moral here especially, only information: readymades were made not for public but for private distraction. That the shovel was probably exhibited in April 1916 was something that happened to it, maybe, for there are no records of which two readymades were shown that year at the Bourgeois Gallery in New York. Like the other readymades, like the Fountain, which Duchamp probably chose so that it would be rejected by the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in April 1917—so that it would not be shown—the shovel existed mainly in a space outside public exchange, existed in the young man’s studio, which was also his bedroom, not his mind. Cabanne seems not to have paid close enough attention to the Boîte-en-valise, Duchamp’s own package of his work, a suitcase made in that typographic moment of the ’30s, his version of his history, a valise full of little reproductions of his paintings and things, the works that were not works of art.6 The works that were not works of art were shown there in his room, the bed-sit above Walter Arensberg’s apartment on West 67th Street, the reproductions made and retouched to bring the salient thing forward in color. Like the shovel that hung from the ceiling or the coat rack perversely nailed to the floor. Readymades were his things, like the chests of drawers and the Morris chair. His sister understood that about them, which is why she threw the old thing out.

Marcel had not expected that she would. He’d written to her from New York in mid January, 1916, to thank her for her efforts and to ask her a favor:

Now, if you went up to my place you saw in my studio a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack. I had purchased this as a sculpture already made. And I have an idea concerning this said bottle rack: Listen.

Here in N.Y., I bought some objects in the same vein and I treat them as “readymade.” You know English well enough to understand the sense of “readymade” [tout fait] that I give these objects. I sign them and give them an English inscription. I’ll give you some examples:

I have for example a large snow shovel upon which I wrote at the bottom: In advance of the broken arm, translation in French: En avance do bras cassé. Don’t try too hard to understand it in the Romantic or Impressionist or Cubist sense—that does not have any connection with it.

Another “readymade” is called Emergency in favor of twice, possible translation in French: Danger (Crise) en faveur de 2 fois. This whole preamble in order to actually say:

You take for yourself this bottle rack. I am making it a “Readymade” from a distance. You will have to write at the base and on the inside of the bottom ring in small letters painted with an oil-painting brush in silver white color, the inscription that I will give you after this, and you will sign it in the same hand as follows:

[after] Marcel Duchamp7

He was always so technical.

It is not recorded what he said when he learned that the thing in question had been junked.

When he wrote this letter to Suzanne he was still living in the Lincoln Arcade Building (1947 Broadway, at 66th Street), where he shared a studio with Jean Crotti before moving to the Arensbergs’ building in late fall. No photographs were taken at the Lincoln Arcade in 1916. An interviewer coming to call on Duchamp and Crotti in mid April, on the occasion of their impending exhibition the next Tuesday in the Montross Art Galleries, was shown Crotti’s glass painting The Mechanical Forces of Love, and, as an aside, the shovel. Marcel would exhibit only paintings and drawings and the Pharmacy.8 He would simultaneously participate in a group exhibition at the Bourgeois Gallery alongside Cézanne, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault, van Gogh, and Jacques Villon, where he would show the two chocolate-grinder pictures, three drawings, and, unobtrusively in an umbrella stand at the entrance, two unspecified readymades.9 The interviewer, Nixola Greeley-Smith, did not speak of them, possibly because she did not know to speak of them. They had begun instead to speak of love.

She spoke first:

Now love is of course the supreme abstraction. It means everything and nothing. Sometimes everything and then nothing. And in this sense M. Crotti’s picture [The Mechanical Force of Love] is an accurate interpretation of it. So if things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other, maybe M. Crotti’s exceedingly geometrical picture is the supreme expression of the supreme passion. Study it and make up your mind for yourself. Study, also, the drawing of what a pretty woman looks like or perhaps seems like to this artist. For he was good enough to make that picture especially for The Evening World. M. Crotti had said to me:

“A pretty woman is the most insipid thing in the world! As an object of art I have never seen one that I would consider worth putting on a mantelpiece! That pair of rubbers over there”—M. Crotti indicated a pair of large muddy galoshes in the corner of the studio the two young Frenchmen share at No. 1947 Broadway—"is much more interesting and decorative than a pretty woman, considered from the point of view of art.

“In nature I am like every other man, very much interested in pretty women. But I speak to you as an artist—not as a man. As an artist I consider that shovel the most beautiful object I have ever seen.”

With a quick, nervous gesture, the blue-eyed, bearded young man indicated an object to which my fascinated gaze had wandered from the moment I had entered the studio. It was a huge, shiny shovel suspended from the ceiling. The shovel quite evidently had never been used. I do not think either M. Crotti or M. Duchamp would consider it interesting from the standpoint of use. It was there to dispense sweetness and light like muddy galoshes, but of course superior to them and—from the standpoint of art—much more interesting than the very pretty Mme. Crotti, in whose presence this interview took place.10

Time to interrupt Miss Greeley-Smith: the things’ light could be further clarified.

Do not think of these things as decoration. Marcel did not use that kind of language. He would have been on the side of Clive Bell, who two years previous in Art had told the story of his friend with the drill-keen intellect unable to have an esthetic emotion, and who therefore, “having no faculty for distinguishing a work of art from a handsaw,” was “apt to rear up a pyramid of irrefragable argument on the hypothesis that a handsaw is a work of art.”11 A handsaw, Duchamp would have said, is not a work of art, any more than shovel would be. Its advantages would lie in the not-being and the nonidentity.

Take them seriously. That is, take the advantages, the not-being and the nonidentity seriously, very seriously. They do not, however, exist in isolation.

Duchamp in the 1916 interview came forward in defense of pretty women, demonstrating that he knew the attraction of the sexes. (Miss Greeley-Smith seemed relieved.)

“The thing which has struck me most in this country, which has undoubtedly the most beautiful women,” he said, “is the lack of really strong emotions in your men. An American, for instance, if he has to choose between an important business appointment and an engagement with the woman he loves, rings her up on the telephone. ‘Hello, dear,’ he says, ‘I can’t see you today; I must go to the bank instead.’ To a Frenchman that seems very stupid.”

“It IS very stupid,” I admitted. “But the American woman has encouraged the American man to put the bank before her by making financial success the price of her interest. No wonder he worships his work, since he has to work so hard to support her.”

“A queer difference I have observed between French and American women,” M. Crotti said, “is that NOT to love is a defeat for the women of our country, while the American woman regards falling in love as a sort of bankruptcy.”

“Well, it is a defeat,” I said. “It is the greatest of all defeats. Men—particularly American men—are good losers. In love they simply don’t know how to win. But what are we going to do about it? American men are all we have.”

“Ah, yes,” M. Crotti said. “Ah, yes! Perhaps there is no remedy, unless—yes, this is a remedy—more and more beautiful American girls should come to Europe, where we know how to appreciate them!”12

How, you might ask, does this conversation, full of bravado and not a little connerie, bespeak the advantages of not-being and nonidentity? It does not. But it locates the readymade better than any other document: its issues lie beside the work that will not show the romance or the sex; the conversation continued in the play of the things and the absences around them; its words could not comprehend his things and did not try.

See the shovel in relation to love.

A shovel not being a denial of love.

A shovel that is not a substitute for love.

The thing remained aloof.


The readymades were photographed, it is said by Henri-Pierre Roché, in June 1918, when he’d come to New York and stayed at Marcel’s briefly, Marcel being away, and Roché, his lifelong best friend, finding the disarray so beautiful, meditated on “the atmosphere, its purpose, its utility, its generosity.”13 There were earlier photographs, it seems, for Marcel was there in one of them, a ghost who slouched and grinned, an imprint over-shadowed and outgunned by the things, his things. Notice the Fountain, the shovel, the hat rack. They seemed to be more powerful. It was not a situation Duchamp found especially tragic: the things are full of absurdities and jokes. What kind of name was In Advance of the Broken Arm for a shovel? What kind of a name was Pulled at 4 Pins for a chimney cowl? Even the names slipped off the things. Did everything?

Slowly now. The language games here had another element.

The subject.

The subject.

The subject?

Certainly the things and the work that went along with them did not allow the body of the subject to be seen outright. In that way they departed from the business of the Large Glass, which had replaced the bachelors and the bride with metal fittings, objects standing in for subjects and sex going on anyway. Subjects were elsewhere. And this was the source of all Duchamp’s trouble with the Glass, which, despite his best efforts to do something else, looked more like yet another restatement of the Cubist nude than a work that was not a work of art. The Glass used machine parts as if they were characters, not non-beings or nonidentities but better versions of, say, the Michelin man, if the Michelin man could be imagined having sex. The Glass grew mired in this anecdotal quality, in a reactionary sentimentality, a tried if not true romantic plot. Delayed in the Glass, the little figures grew wistful, waiting, mild—ever more of a problem. The notes ran away from the implications of all this solicitation and tenderness. They tried to find it hilarious, or to give it n-dimensions. But the notes testify to nothing so much as the difficulties the Glass continued to pose. Marcel turned and turned the pages. Try as he might, he could not escape.

The readymades were his distraction from those problems and from the work that ultimately showed him that the nude could not be rephrased, not by math, not by color study, not even by precision optics. In the readymades there would be no characters and no confusion of subjects with objects, no Michelin men. The objects stood resolutely apart. The objects did not especially need the subject. Was this common sense?

Midway into the work on the Large Glass, Duchamp wrote directly of common sense, equating it with gravity, the physical pull on objects, the force that gave them weight.14 The weight of the readymade had always been a factor, for in the life of a man who moved apartments and countries every six months or year or so, their ability to travel was a consideration, though not a strict requirement. Some of them went with him to Buenos Aires on August 14, 1918, as did the very pretty Mme. Crotti, by then no longer married. Katherine Dreier tagged along and photographed the shredded shower caps there. They were called Sculpture for travelling and in New York had been stretched across the room. In Buenos Aires they were hung up like a little cobweb, ready to be taken again and later respun. Like the shovel, their position was relative to a life and could change. Other readymades remained in New York to be picked up again in 1920, when he returned to live alone in the basement of a brownstone at 246 West 73rd Street.

But common sense will have a pull on not only matter but memory. Without meaning to exactly, the shovel harked back to the objects set out for students to draw in the public schools of Duchamp’s youth.15 The shovel was part of a general instruction in mechanical drawing, the “language of industry” it was called, and part of an effort to produce literacy in non-esthetic form. That effort by and large worked, but was made at the expense of instruction in the fine arts, particularly the antique and the nude, with the result that the body was not drawn in the Ferry primary schools, no, the body itself was absent, at best one drew the head. At this level, then, common sense came to be taught; or to put it another way, common sense took form. It privileged the objects; it was a force that gave them weight. Its prohibition on the body had the effect of producing a choice: between the body and the line, meaning the technically ruled, geometric line of the mechanical drawing, the kind of drawing Duchamp was doing in order to avoid taste.

It was a choice that Cubism would not make and for which it would suffer harsh criticism when it was first exhibited: since lines were not supposed to be able to tell or elevate the body, the body so rendered by the Cubists was understood as an obscenity or a puzzle. That is why the Glass would try to restate as well as exploit the problem inherent in the choice. During those years, there were readymades, his fires in the fireplace.

By the time Duchamp left for Argentina, the objects had shown him something else: namely, all the advantages of their intractability, their distance from the body, from sex, from concepts, even from philosophy, even from a love philosophy. The Fountain probably played some part in this, but not the instrumental one.16 The Fountain was an inflection of the existing idea of the readymade; the other things were more prominent, less sensational, and just as inspirational: they were the ones actually defining what a thing could do better than a person.

When Duchamp returned to New York in 1920, he restated the problem of his work, hoping to salvage the Glass through this restatement, though that would be futile, so never mind. The Glass did not control his research any more. The work divided differently now in two: no longer the readymade but a new kind of thing, the precision optical machine, and the absent body par excellence, Rrose Sélavy.

The optical machines pushed the business of human sexuality away from themselves: any illusions would not be literal or titled. The Rotary Glass Plates whirred like a propeller, lived with the shovel and the eye charts and the window shade. The room grew very dusty (it sickened Georgia O’Keeffe).17 Lines spiraled into themselves, heedless. Lines spiraled out. There were no other references, no baskets, no little men, no nothing. Only one extreme of common sense.

And the other? It was Rrose, the girl who could be photographed but would never exist. In the ’20s and ’30s she was known not by her photographs but through her work. But more than that, she was the absent body, the one that had always in common sense lain outside the line. She was its dissipated subject, the invisible nude, the form that common sense would not teach and even so would define. She only collaborated in the making of precision optics, related to the higher forms of projection taught to men and not to women in the Ferry school. Which is to say, she took a female role, she followed and she delegated, she worked as Marcel’s signature, he explained to Henry McBride.18 And she wrote, mainly obsessive, dirty, nonsensical puns, puns that took the kinds of conversation that Miss Greeley-Smith had provoked to higher, more salacious forms of play. Still a theater of the sexes, still a kind of talk, but written now by Rrose. The Boîte-en-valise showed them as songs—singing all night ovaries, after the Eskimo blotches, bleach and blow jobs, and a piss taken out of Picabia. Not-being and nonidentity cast their shadows in her words. They would not ever mean.

Think of it this way. Given the readymade, Rrose was the supreme abstraction, the love, a pure figure. Not-seen. Sex in this universe would be understood through talk. Sex in this universe would appear as talk. Sex in this universe would not appear as Rrose herself—that was common sense.

It was all part of a separation that was an operation.

Sex split apart from things.

Things, Duchamp concluded, would exist in a world of absent bodies. Common sense would not bring the two together again. That much Duchamp saw in the flicker of his things.

Fire was not love.

Existence, darling, was elsewhere.

Molly Nesbit is a contributing editor of Artforum.



1. Marcel Duchamp, quoted in Michel Sanouillet with Elmer Peterson, eds., Duchamp du signe: Écrits, Paris: Flammarion, 1975, p. 105.

2. Duchamp, quoted in Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett, New York: Viking, 1971, pp. 47-48.

3. Duchamp, quoted in Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970, p. 442.

4. Sanouillet, p. 105.

5. Cabanne, pp. 47-48.

6. See Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp: The Box in a Valise de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy, trans. David Britt, New York: Rizzoli, 1989, which also provides excellent commentary.

7. Duchamp, quoted in Francis Naumann, “Affectueusement, Marcel: Ten letters from Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti,” Archives of American Art Journal vol. V no. 22, 1982, p. 5. I have slightly modified Naumann’s translation; the French original is to be found in the Crotti Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C., roll 2394, frames 180-81.

8. See Pontus Hulten, ed., entry for 4 April 1916, Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy, texts by Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

9. Ibid., 1 April 1916. Duchamp supplied the information on the umbrella stand in a letter to Marcel Jean, 15 March 1952, quoted in Herbert Molderings, ed., Marcel Duchamp: Briefe an Marcel Jean, Lettres Marcel Jean, Letters to Marcel Jean, Munich: Verlag Silke Schreiber, 1987, p. 47.

10. Nixola Greeley-Smith, “Cubist Depicts Love in Brass and Glass; ’More Art in Rubbers Than in Pretty Girl!,’” The Evening World, New York, 4 April 1916, p. 3. Reprinted in Rudolf E. Kuenzli, ed., New York Dada, New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1986, pp. 135-37. For commentary see Naumann.

11. Clive Bell, Art, New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1914, p. 4.

12. Greeley-Smith, p. 137.

13. Henri-Pierre Roché, quoted in Hulten, entries for 2 June and 6 June 1918. Roché arrived in New York on 2 June 1918, and photographed the room the next afternoon.

14. See Duchamp, note 99, Notes, ed. Paul Matisse, Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1980.

15. I have discussed Duchamp’s use of the language of industry more specifically in “Ready-made Originals: The Duchamp Model,” October no. 37, fall 1986, pp. 53-64, and “The Language of Industry,” in Thierry de Duve, ed., The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991, pp. 351-84.

16. On the Fountain and its history, see especially William A. Camfield, Marcel Duchamp Fountain, Houston: The Menil Collection, 1989.

17. See Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, and New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973, pp. 213-14. For a discussion of what else happened when the optical machines turned, see Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993, chapter 3.

18. Duchamp, undated letter of 1922 to Henry McBride, Henry McBride papers, Archives of American Art, roll NMcB 10, frames 62-63.