PRINT April 1998


Arturo Schwarz

ARTURO SCHWARZ CAN be happy. His relation to Marcel Duchamp has by now become a permanent part of the artist’s story. His own account of Duchamp’s life and work, which made its initial appearance with the first edition of this book in 1969, is another, much more controversial, less joyous matter, but Schwarz has already received his criticism, wears it as a badge, and grandly, even proudly, gives us virtually the same account again. Anyone who cares at all about Duchamp’s work will be happy, too, for the appearance of the new edition of his long-out-of-print Duchamp catalogue raisonné. Expanded and revised, it is in many ways an extremely beautiful book. Who would not be happy to own it? But is happiness a matter of ownership? This catalogue raisonné goes far beyond most in that it harbors nests of parables and a host of moral tales.

As a very young man (he was fifteen), Schwarz had gone from Egypt to Paris, falling in with André Breton (it was 1939). The author of Nadja had a strong effect on Schwarz; as a sign of his admiration, the Duchamp catalogue raisonné would later be dedicated to Breton. Since the ’20s, Breton had held up his friend Duchamp as a model for younger Surrealists; in 1934, when the Green Box was published, he honored it with “Lighthouse of the Bride,” the first long discussion in print of the Large Glass, putting the box’s mass of loose notes into a narrative order (something Duchamp himself did not do). After the war, Breton gave the poet Jean Suquet the task of writing about its mysteries; his books have since become classics of the Duchamp literature. Breton would also promote Michel Carrouges’ Les machines célibataires, a book on the bachelor machines whose impact would be felt later in the reflections of Deleuze and Foucault on the artist. But Breton seems not to have given Schwarz a promotion or assignment, leaving him instead to find his own way.

When Schwarz initiated a correspondence with Duchamp and began to develop the project of a complete catalogue in the mid-’50s, he was hardly the first to come to Duchamp with an idea for a book. Robert Lebel was at work on his monograph Sur Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet was editing Duchamp’s writings, and Richard Hamilton would soon begin his English, typographic version of the Green Box. Schwarz had his own way of working with Duchamp: he provided business opportunities for him in the form of a series of editions, notably the new prints Duchamp drew from the figures in the Large Glass and the late series showing couples, their sources usually taken from the history of art, passing their own erotic charge. The most famous of their projects, however, would be the group of readymades, resuscitated and remade, in 1964.

And yet if Duchamp worked with Schwarz, he did not confide in him, did not give him power of executor, did not, in the French way, trust him. He would still have a friendship with Schwarz and help him with information that made possible the first catalogue raisonné, but never paid much attention to the interpretations of his work that Schwarz was preparing. He once attended a public lecture in London in which Schwarz unveiled his theories, congratulating him afterward but apologizing for being unable to hear a thing he said. More devastating, however, was the fact that Duchamp did not let Schwarz in on the Étant donnés, the work he’d been making in secret since 1946, to be revealed only after his death in 1968. In other words, he did nothing to prevent his friend Schwarz from falling headfirst into the sharp part, the teeth of the trap.

Schwarz learned of the Étant donnés in 1969 while his book was being printed and hastily wrote a short account of the work that had been denied him. He graciously forgave Duchamp and soon put out a second, even more complete edition. Twenty-five years later, for the third edition, Schwarz now incorrectly assumes that everyone else does collaborate with him, including the Duchamp family. For their own various reasons, everyone else does not. Almost every Duchamp scholar I know can tell of works that do not appear in Schwarz. (Mine is a small contribution, a drawing of crab glasses, years ago stolen and never recovered, that Duchamp made in the summer of 1956 at the MacDowell Colony for Denise Browne Hare to give as a birthday present to Clifford Odets.) Schwarz’s catalogue is doomed, it seems, to incompleteness. This is not the place to go into a long list of emendations. A bruit secret has a word game that should read “BAR AIN”; it is important to know that the arm in the Étant donnés has been cast from that of Teeny Duchamp. Suffice it to say that the uninitiated should beware: the scholarly apparatus here should not be taken as the unflawed sum of all that is known.

In the course of the last twenty years of this story, the catalogue raisonné as a genre has become something of a dinosaur. In practice it more often than not falls to dealers to make these catalogues, as they are the ones who begin to keep the inventories and have the problem of monitoring the market, if only to protect their own stock. Both the catalogue raisonné and the museum exhibition catalogue have become the outward signs of possession, of what can be had and loaned. Both are false signs, for, of course, neither art nor knowledge can ever actually be fully possessed by a book. For Duchamp’s work, a subtle alternative is to be found in Ecke Bonk’s 1989 designed edition of the Box in a Valise, Duchamp’s own solution to reproducing his works, uncommented, in print and in miniature. Bonk has put the Box in a Valise into pages, detailed the techniques used in its making, and provided annotations, each now an indispensable resource. By breaking with the genre, he made it possible to see the work as work, not bound by the conventions and framing falsehoods that arise whenever one calls Duchamp’s work a work of art. For Duchamp was not at all interested in having language dictate the terms of his work. That Schwarz takes up the business of producing a traditional catalogue raisonné is only the first indication that there is something else about Duchamp, not just the Étant donnés, that has always escaped him.

Schwarz developed a long and involved interpretation of the Large Glass that is traced through the rest of Duchamp’s work. He sees a pattern of allegorical incest (Duchamp’s newly married sister Suzanne is designated as the unreachable Bride) and another pattern of androgyny, all of which is attached, rather arbitrarily, to world myth and alchemical lore. Consider, for example, his account of the readymade shovel In Advance of the Broken Arm: “This Readymade illustrates the strength of the castration complex in Duchamp’s psyche; he calls a shovel—an unmistakeable phallic symbol—a ’broken arm.’ The Sanskrit word for shovel is langala and is related to the word for phallus, langula; the Austro-Asiatic languages use the same word for phallus and shovel; and Rabelais calls the phallus ’nature’s ploughman.’ Quoting an article entitled ’A Broken Arm for a Broken Marriage Vow,’ Freud writes that one of the achievements of dream-work is the translation of a latent thought into a pictorial form; the same could be said of artwork. This Readymade, therefore, may be a reference to Suzanne’s broken marriage vows, and its symbolic significance could also be seen as warning Duchamp against being tempted to take advantage of the situation and Suzanne’s newfound freedom.” Suzanne, you see, had recently divorced. It is amusing to see Schwarz ignore the work of Jacques Caumont and Jennifer Gough-Cooper (in Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life, the catalogue to the Palazzo Grassi show), who have shown that Duchamp fathered a child with a married woman just before the Large Glass was conceived. It is not at all amusing to see Schwarz’s dismissal of Duchamp’s marriage in 1954 to Teeny. But then a happy marriage ruined his idea and competed with his friendship.

Schwarz’s theories have become a curiosity, although some of their assumptions continue to animate the Duchamp literature. Psychoanalytic interpretations of Duchamp’s work appear with great frequency, most written as if there were no tension at all between a Freudian or Lacanian way of conceiving the unconscious and that expressed by Duchamp. For Duchamp never showed any interest in the ideas of either Freud or Lacan; indeed, he avoided Lacan when he could. In a 1960 interview on French radio with Georges Charbonnier, he took Surrealism down a few pegs and then turned to criticize those who would think to use words to express or formulate the unconscious. He would not classify egos. He left the human spirit free to follow many paths at once. Schwarz was only one of many to benefit from his tolerance. He did not repay it in kind.

Is there a moral end? Schwarz’s book is a monument that has risen out of gratitude and a desire to express a deep attachment. He seems not to understand that his interpretation shows him constantly wanting to transform, to change his friend. He expresses intimacy by appearing to tell a hard truth. All he has expressed, however, is the gap between his wish to possess his friend completely and the fact that he did not. In this, he is not alone; one thinks of other writers, their heads also in traps. Such interpretations need only be read as the way that someone else can think, or the way for someone else to love. These are not impulses that any of the rest of us would want to deny. However, we can choose not to share in them.

Molly Nesbit is a contributing editor of Artforum.


Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, 2 vols. 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 1997).