When Marcel Duchamp arrived in New York in June 1915, he was already famous – or rather, notorious – as the creator of Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). The painting had been the sensation of the Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition to bring European modern art before the American public. Today this dull-coloured dalliance with Cubism looks unlikely to cause offence, but that was not how it struck audiences at the time.
Calvin Tompkins, in his biography of Duchamp, quotes an account of what happened: “People formed queues, waiting for thirty, even forty minutes just to stand momentarily in her presence, venting their shocked gasps of disbelief, their rage, or their raucous laughter…”
For Duchamp, who was only 27-years-old and still in Paris, life went on as usual. The French newspapers showed little interest in the Armory Show and it allegedly took weeks for the artist to learn about his succes-de- scandale. By that stage, Duchamp was already considering whether he actually wanted to be a painter making “retinal art”. When he moved to Manhattan, two years later, he was an American celebrity, although no artist had ever achieved such renown with so slender an output.
The Essential Duchamp at the Art Gallery of NSW is a show that lives up to its name. Almost everything of importance in the artist’s career is included in this compact touring exhibition put together by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When the original version of a work has been lost, a replica has been substituted. When a piece has been judged too fragile or valuable to travel, as with his “definitively unfinished” would-be masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (the Large Glass) (1915-23), it has been comprehensively documented.
With other artists it would be outrageous to make do with replicas and documentation, but for Duchamp it seems perfectly natural. No artist did so much to destroy the hallowed ‘aura’ of the work of art while never managing to put himself out of a job. On the contrary, there are plenty of experts who view Duchamp as the most important artist of the 20thcentury. It’s the greatest smoke & mirrors act in all of art history.
There was a certain element of luck in Duchamp’s ascension. If he hadn’t been diagnosed with a minor heart condition – which didn’t prevent him living to the age of 81 – he would have been obliged to serve in the French army during the First World War. Nobody foresaw the hysterical reaction to Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), which would give him a huge advantage over every other European artist that washed up in New York. Upon arrival, Walter Pach, the chief organiser of the Armory Show arranged for him to stay in an apartment owned by the collector Walter Arensberg, who would become his friend and patron.
The Arensbergs knew everybody in the New York cultural scene and soon Duchamp knew them too. As the regular guest of honour at their soirées, he met the city’s leading writers, artists, critics and collectors. His charm proved invincible, and his career as one of the leading artists of the modern era was launched.
One can’t overestimate the impact of Duchamp’s personal charm. Women were constantly falling in love with him, while men found him to be the most agreeable of companions. The Surrealist generalissimo, André Breton, hero-worshipped Duchamp and continually sought his approval, which he declined to provide.
Duchamp never complained, he never argued. He expounded his ideas with dry humour and implacable logic. He lived a spartan life, unencumbered by extraneous possessions or sentimental attachments. He questioned every received idea.
The poet, Wallace Stevens, with whom Duchamp had dinner within weeks of arriving in New York, wrote a famous poem called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. He might have noted there were more than thirteen ways of looking at Marcel Duchamp.
Viewed from one angle Duchamp was a brilliant iconoclast who transformed art forever. From another he was one of the laziest artists who ever lived, the bulk of his work consisting of gags and puzzles – such as the Mona Lisa with a moustache – delivered at random intervals. From the early 1920s he devoted himself almost exclusively to chess, while finding a novel way of repackaging his early works in the Box in a Valise (1935-41), which contained miniature versions of his greatest hits.
From one angle Duchamp was an urbane, congenial character. From another he was the coldest of personalities who lived his life at one remove from the rest of the world. His insistence on personal freedom meant his relationships were merely skin-deep. Women may have adored him, but those who got closest found his detachment infuriating.
Duchamp would not have disputed any of this. When he mentioned his own laziness, such claims were interpreted as an example of his self-effacing wit, or some cryptic strategy. From the earliest days in Paris he was already bored with painting, indifferent to the pretentions of the avant-garde, and wondering if it were possible “to make a work that was not a work of art.”
His answer was the Readymade, which took many forms over the years, but was always an object found or purchased by the artist. In pieces such as the Bottlerack (1914) there was virtually no artistic intervention. In Fountain, a porcelain urinal was turned upside down and signed “R.Mutt, 1917”. Duchamp’s admirers are still arguing about whether or not the artist wanted us to appreciate the latent sculptural qualities of the piece. The basic idea behind the readymades was that the artist’s work lay in choosing an object and re-presenting it as art. It suggests that “art” is whatever the artist designates as such.
This may seem a simple idea but it did for art what Darwin’s theory of evolution had done for religion. When art became a matter of idea rather than expression it allowed a wholesale re-evaluation of aesthetic achievement. The irony, which Duchamp undoubtedly appreciated when he was being lionised by the artists of the 1960s and 70s, is that all of those objects intended to undermine the aura of the work of art have become venerated icons of modernism. It only serves to underline the ultimate paradox of Duchamp’s artistic career, as the most successful failure of all time.
The Essential Duchamp
Art Gallery of NSW, 27 April – 11 August, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June, 2019