here's a short piece I wrote about after seeing the Duchamp centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1987. I apologize to those who know all this perfectly well. This is, after all, only journalism.
[first published in the Oakland Tribune, Dec. 13, 1987]
Marcel Duchamp: Centennial Exhibition
By Charles Shere
PHILADELPHIA— The two indispensable masters of 20th-century art were Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The Picasso centennial, in 1981, was marked by festivities around the world, including an epochal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Duchamp centennial was observed this year — in a low-keyed manner that would doubtless have pleased the iconoclastic, relatively egoless master. The only notice taken among the larger American museums is on view in Philadelphia, where his three great masterpieces are on permanent exhibition.
The big news for Duchamp fans is Philadelphia’s publication of the last remaining major Duchamp text, the “manual’" he provided for the installation of his controversial posthumous masterpiece, Given: 1st the Waterfall; 2nd the illuminating gas.
This is a sculptural installation, dramatically lit, viewable (by only one onlooker at a time) through a pair of peepholes in a weathered wooden door in a dim alcove in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In the 45 years before his unexpected death in 1968, Duchamp had been assumed to have given up all art activity. His greatest work was the unfinished painting on glass, accompanied by a collection of written notes and memoranda, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the “Large Glass"), abandoned in 1923, broken in 1926, laboriously pieced back together in the mid-1930s.
But from 1946 to 1966 he worked secretly on his last grand project, a shockingly erotic yet characteristically enigmatic installation about which opinion is still divided.
Duchamp’s relatively small output — a handful of mature paintings, the Bride, Given... — has been held up as a reproach to the endlessly prolific Picasso. The two artists were opposites in many ways, though they agreed on the central role of the libido in their creative and personal lives.
• • •
The third son in a family of six children, four of whom became artists, Duchamp was born in a small town in Brittany. He moved in with his older brothers, in their Paris studio, when he was old enough to leave home.
At 25 he painted his masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase. The Cubist establishment in Paris objected to its title and he withdrew it from that year’s exhibition, but the following year it created a scandalous success in the famous Armory show of modern art in New York.
Ironically, he had already abandoned painting. For a few months he worked as a librarian in Paris; then he evaded World War I by traveling to New York, where he joined a brilliant circle of eccentrics and modernists gathered around the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Here he continued work on the “Large Glass,’" the tantalizing depiction in abstract shapes of an arcane mechanical tableau on two sheets of glass totaling nearly six feet wide by nine feet high.
The “Large Glass’" is analogous to James Joyce’s final novel Finnegans Wake as a monument of extreme modernism. Together with the prose notes Duchamp took during its elaboration — a body of texts that assume poetic depth and dimension — it provides a bottomless source of philosophical and esthetic speculation and commentary by subsequent generations of artists and critics.
Whether deliberately or not, by 1923 — his 36th year — Duchamp had forged a modern mythology. Its significance has yet to reach the man in the street, but it has influenced generations of fellow artists, from the Surrealists of the 1920s through the conceptualists of 50 years later.
It’s hardly surprising that Duchamp went underground after this startling achievement: how could he follow it? Yet the posthumous installation, whose realistic theatrics achieve the promise of the full title of the “Large Glass" in what amounts to a continuation and inversion of that earlier work, is hardly less complex, resonant and challenging.
Except that it is a closing parenthesis, a work that completes rather than commences a great individual creative gesture.
The ironic secrecy of its conception and execution, the lurid realism of its situation, above all its willful stylistic irrelevance in the context of late-20th-century art — these put Given... outside the realm of the art of its time, again challenging conventional assumptions of the methods and the meanings of 20th-century art.
Duchamp’s centennial is hard to do justice to. Most of his work is in the one museum, and two of his greatest works are unmovable by their very nature. The critical world continues to be embarrassed by his laconic open-mindedness, his challenging intellect, mis deft, virtuosic modesty.
Philadelphia was right to honor the occasion with a deceptively low-keyed celebration: a tidying of its Duchamp gallery and a gathering of significant sketches, maquettes and notes for the “Large Glass" and Given....
Duchamp’s honor and celebration belong to the future. A mainstay of modernism, he is yet to be fully comprehended even by postmodernists. His work will always stand somewhere off the center of the long tradition of visual art, from cave painting through Leonardo to our own time.
But it will continue to challenge and stimulate the best artists and thinkers, propelling new work that gradually filters its bright spirit down into the common culture. It is particularly appropriate that his work should be housed, and his centennial observed, in Philadelphia, the city that gave birth to the United States in a superb merging of reason and revolution.