Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Writings of Marcel Duchamp

“Can one make works which are not works of art?” ~Marcel Duchamp

An education begins with an introduction to the basic building blocks of any field. In fifth grade we have enough understanding to grasp the reality that in history there is both a recent past and an ancient past. We learn about the main events, the big events that changed our world. It’s all about times and places and dates and circumstances. All this history gives us a foundation in order to later comprehend the ideas behind the events. What moved these men to do the things they did that so shaped the future they had as yet not seen? Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Marx and Engels, Lincoln, Lenin… What were the ideas that so impelled them?

Art history is no different. Our training in the arts may begin with learning about the basic materials and tools artists use and principles about color, line, perspective. The next level includes becoming familiar with the artists, the times in which they lived, the work that they produced. Whistler, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Rodin, Mondrian… Each has a style, and each a place in the grand scheme of things. But so often we simply stop there. We learn that Dali did melting watches and works that were weird, and that Picasso painted the Guernica as a statement about the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. But what were the ideas that impelled them?

Many artists have left behind not only their art, but also writings about that art. Kandinsky wrote, among other things, a book called Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Paul Klee left us his Pedagogical Sketchbook. In my hand is a book titled The Writings of Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp, whose Nude Descending A Staircase created a sensation when it was painted in 1912. His Urinal, a shocking piece of found art when first shown, has been proclaimed by some as the most significant piece of art in the 20th century. Duchamp’s work foreshadowed the conceptual artists and happenings which would catch up to his ideas a half century later.

This blog entry is a review of The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. The cover of the book features Duchamp’s "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even" which is on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The piece, sketched in 1913 and produced over a period of many years, ended up getting cracked on delivery. It is a large glass and therefore fragile, but substantial enough to withstand the shocks it experienced, as we ourselves often are in life.

The first portion of this book of Duchamp’s writings is about this piece, also referred to as The Large Glass, and I feel confident in saying that the multitude of meanings contained therein are completely veiled to the one who has not taken the time to access his notes on the project.

Something of a flow chart is here on pages 20 and 21 with some of the following text inscribed in boxes: Motor with Quite Feeble Cylinders, Wasp Sex Cylinder, Cage (contains filament material), Desire-Magneto, Capillary Tubes, Architectonic Base for the Bride, Oculist Charts, Oculist Witnesses, Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, Water Wheel Mill, The Milky Way, etc. etc. The notes are full of playful suggestiveness and eroticism, even when there is nothing really erotically charged in the piece itself to the uninstructed viewer.

Duchamp’s experiments with chance are equally fascinating. The chapter on his 1914 Box begins with the Idea of Fabrication. “If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane distorting itself as it pleases and creates a new shape of the measure of length.” Many of the notes are incomprehensible, and others impishly humorous, perhaps not unlike Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

The various elements of the Bride Stripped Bare include notes on dust breeding, sieves and funnels, pistons, weights, waterfalls, and the famous chocolate grinder. “The chocolate of the rollers, coming from one who knows not where, Would deposit itself after grinding, as milk chocolate… The grinder is mounted on a Louis XV nickled chassis.”

More than half the book deals with The Large Glass. The following section of the book deals with Duchamp’s transformation into Rrose Selavy. (eros c’est la vie) Much of this chapter is in French and the reader is encouraged to look elsewhere for more about this segment. The Man Ray photo of Duchamp as Rrose probably says enough. Much of the chapter includes explanations of Duchamp’s wordplay in his notes. Straight translation fails to convey the subtleties.

The following chapter is an essay titled ‘The Great Trouble With Art In This Country,” a portion of which details how Nude Descending a Staircase was not influenced by Futurists like Severini but was more about deconstructing forms, as the cubists were doing. “Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought,” Duchamp explains, along with the comment that his aim was increasingly inward as opposed to external. Nude Descending a Staircase, which is also housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, proved to be a necessary stepping stone to The Large Glass, and like a series of concentric circles rippling outward from a stone plunking into a pond, so the chapters of this book constantly reference this formidable piece to which Duchamp devoted nearly a decade of his life.

Bottom line: many artists from DaVinci to Dali were also writers. While it’s true that spectators can interact with a work of art without knowing anything beyond its shape, line, form or substance, we are much enriched if we also take time to read artist statements and the essays, books, letters they have left behind.

For what it’s worth… In the late 1980s I wrote a short story that was influenced by Duchamp and the gradual shift from visual arts to the minimalism and the conceptual presentation of ideas. Later, Terrorists Preying was translated into French in the 1990s and was ultimately included in my 2011 volume of short stories titled Newmanesque.


Top right: Hermeneutic Circle by Eris Vafias, used with permission.
Lower right: Abstract Fragment by Ed Newman

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