Les Cases Conjugèes: Hommage à Teeny Duchamp

Musée National du Jeu de Paume

Teeny Duchamp died peacefully, not quite ninety, ever the lady, at home in Villiers-sous-Grèz on the Wednesday before Christmas. She will be much missed by those who knew her. For those who never had the chance, something of her light could still be seen last spring in this small but elegant homage at the Jeu de Paume, which was conceived by Daniel Abadie, curated by Olivier Grasser, and realized with the help of Teeny’s daughter, Jacqueline Monnier-Matisse. The show consisted simply of portrait photographs, chess sets and memorabilia, a large drawing of Teeny by Henri Matisse (the father of her first husband, Pierre), and a set of palms. It showed some of Teeny’s interests both before and after her marriage to her second husband, Marcel Duchamp. Best of all, it showed something of her.

It all went together with art, but not for art’s sake. Teeny had the gift of calming and clearing the air so that others might speak, create, and be. She could make a space as open as anyone liked; she was by turns funny, ironic, cutting, kind to children, sophisticated, not prudish, early morning and late night. From the beginning, her life was shared with many artists, for whom such a space was as golden as it was necessary and rare. But for her, these artists, many of them great ones, were present to the world directly, naturally, as a matter of course—and treasured like friends.

It follows from this that Teeny Duchamp never turned her husband into myth. This would be perhaps the greatest gift she gave those of us who never knew him. For Teeny spoke of art as it existed in life, in real time, in the slow motion and experience of people: art rose above none of those things, but was not diminished either; it simply was part of everything, as opposed to being everything; it added something; it, too, could be treasured like friends. No wonder Duchamp would want to marry her; no surprise that he would want her to collaborate with him on the Etant donnés. He would also be the one to teach her chess, his, and subsequently her favorite game. Theirs would be a long, happy conspiracy of play.

After his death she would do the duty of the great artist’s widow, receiving a growing wave of Duchampophiles. They would come to lunch in Villiers; she would hear their requests and ideas, by and large listening with that courteous, knowing indifference Duchamp himself always seemed to maintain. Any idea was good—indeed, Teeny loved a good idea—although ideas that circumscribed the man or attempted to unduly control the work might suddenly find themselves exiled. No one would own Teeny’s husband; in her presence no one would presume to control the effects of his work. Insofar as possible, she kept him, and it, free.

The Jeu de Paume homage did her the same favor, centering on the chess that brought her and her intimes to many tables: the photographs show them all playing, talking, focused, or just smiling at one another over the years. Details, like John Cage’s bright yellow hat, acquire the status of family secrets. They forgather with the chess sets made by Duchamp, and Man Ray, and Alexander Calder; there was the chess table temporarily removed from her living room. Not everything would be explained, it would just be there, or pictured there, one more trace of a rich existence, like the overtall Victorian chair that Teeny and Marcel picked up from Max Ernst, a chair, she once said, that gave rise to much wry speculation about what level of human activity it had been designed to contain.

They would not all have gathered in the chair to read palms. That was something Teeny did before she took up with Marcel. And hers always being a life shared with artists, she would persuade her friends to let her print their palms; the exhibition displayed the handprints of Picasso, Matta, Miró, Matisse, Chagall, and Breton. These lines were her stoppages, the palms as touching as the photographs, but in another way, the hands of friends a further testament that Teeny made no distinction between history and life. It was in reality the finest of distinctions. The Jeu de Paume is to be congratulated for finding a way to show, as well as honor, it and her.

Molly Nesbit