PRINT January 2010



Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1º la chute d’eau, 2º le gaz d’éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . .), 1946–66, wooden door, bricks, velvet, wood, leather, metal armature, twigs, aluminum, iron, glass, Plexiglas, linoleum, cotton, electric lights, gas lamp, motor, 95 1⁄2 x 70 x 49". Exterior view. © 2010 Estate of Marcel Duchamp/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

SOONER OR LATER, anyone working in the sphere of contemporary art has the dawning awareness that someday all this will fall away: The projects and dialogues that are so familiar now, however resonant or even crucial in the present context, will inevitably sink into obscurity or become opaque, their salience lost, only to be reconstructed in approximations by scholars and other enthusiasts decades from now (and that’s the best-case scenario). Perhaps even more disquieting is the occasional sense that such opacity already exists everywhere around us, and that the stories of contemporary art, in fact, always stand at a kind of remove. Every public endeavor contains within it countless occluded histories rarely if ever divulged (lest their true significance evaporate when articulated in open air). For all we can come to know—creatively, critically, academically—there is always something else withheld or displaced, whether purposefully or merely by chance. And in some instances, this kind of refraining is done by way of the secret, that willful mode of obfuscation that operates at the very crux of the personal and the public, joining them together while, at the same time, holding them apart.

In this issue of Artforum, it is precisely the unstable yet persistent nature of secrecy that seems richest in artistic potential. In fact, among the subjects discussed in these pages, a certain withholding of knowledge is uniquely privileged in practice, and found capable of endowing those stories we do know of art with greater capacity for meaning. Obvious in this regard is the example of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, discussed here by curator and art historian Helen Molesworth. Considering the enigmatic piece that the former Dadaist crafted intermittently for decades behind closed doors—and surmising the work in light of its recent exposition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—she seeks to situate it amid the artist’s day-to-day circumstances. We learn of the diorama’s germination and development in a hidden compartment in Duchamp’s New York studio, for instance, and then perceive that evolution against the biographical backdrop of his three great romances (discovering that the female figure in the artwork is cast from his different lovers’ body parts). On first reflection, these new details should seem revelatory, decidedly influencing our understanding of the piece, rendering it increasingly transparent. But Molesworth underlines the perpetual inscrutability of Étant donnés and, what’s more, proposes that the work is most compelling for its fundamental—and intended—unknowability. For if Duchamp’s personal experiences find expression in this work, she suggests, their manifestations only place viewers in a position analogous to that of the artist. Étant donnés is impossible to capture by camera, or with the naked eye, and in all its facets can never be remembered quite correctly. Thus the work continually draws our attention to that fleeting specificity that inevitably attends any kind of sustained intimacy: a perpetuity of partial knowledge, even when it comes to the object (and subject) of one’s love and desire. As Molesworth says of such a relationship, “The couple knows that which those outside it cannot, but internal to the couple there are secrets as well, things that cannot be known.”

Providing an unanticipated corollary here is Lynda Benglis’s new project for Artforum, for which the artist has culled images from grids of Polaroids she made in 1974 and 1975—each one actually called Secret. As she conveyed to art historian Richard Meyer, who pens an introduction to this project, these grids largely meet the expectations created by their title: Seldom shown and rarely (if ever) discussed in print, they consist of so many glimpses of the personal landscape within which her artwork arose. In this way, the pictures give a palpable sense of the breathing cultural context for her work. “Benglis approaches secrecy not as a mode of absolute concealment but rather as a form of private knowledge that may be rendered in visual terms to be shared with others,” Meyer writes. “It is . . . a reminder that the texture and syntax of everyday life may also be the makings of art.” That said, aside from a single grid plainly related to Benglis’s famous 1974 advertisement in this magazine, it’s hardly clear what new perspectives on her artwork proper these “secrets” might offer. Indeed, if the artist calls these grids “poems,” with each image acting as a word in its grid’s syntax, then her close-ups of flowers and human figures indeed possess the literary form’s allusive complexion, its intimate opacity and generosity in concealment—as if to suggest that we cannot, after all, expect that biographical detail here would offer any key for decoding the artist’s other work.

If the sharing of such personal secrets doesn’t finally elucidate an artist’s creative production, perhaps the significance of the gesture lies more in the conditions of reception. What does it mean, after all, for a secret to be shared? Intriguingly, both Molesworth and Meyer bring up the idea of our having to set aside “control” and “authority” when approaching these particular projects. For Molesworth, it’s only by acknowledging and embracing such vulnerability that one can possibly grasp the import of Duchamp’s work (and the magnitude of the commitment it implies); for Meyer, this openness actually has great implications for contemporary criticism, even inviting a “fresh approach.” The presence of these two discussions in this issue, then, seems more than mere coincidence, with Duchamp’s and Benglis’s respective secrets coming to term at a moment when a new vulnerability is wanted in writing about art—a time when, perhaps, critique no longer functions as it once did, since the very cultural conditions that provoked its specific articulations have by now largely passed. This is not to say that art doesn’t still demand analysis and unpacking—or that it no longer need disrupt our sense of consensus—but rather that, in changed times, a different manner of contemplation is sometimes called for, and that this approach might arise now through a different negotiation of the contemporary relations between public and private.