Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Duchamp: Étant donnés…

JUST FOR THE hell of it, and because Marcel Duchamp's final work Given: 1st the waterfall; 2nd the illuminating gas is in the news these days, and because I'm working up thoughts on Duchamp for an exhibition to open next month at the Slaughterhouse in Healdsburg,

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.


Curtis Faville said...

Charles: I've been away for a week at the Santa Monica book fair, doing a booth.

Some day we'll have to have a talk about Duchamp. I got his Large Glass Notes 30 years ago in its beautiful first edition, later traded it away (idiocy!). I read everything I could get my hands on, but missed seeing the Spanish door. It always strikes me that Duchamp wanted everyone to be tarnished by the wicked irony of "peeping" through a privy door. The vicariousness of that act remains one of the central sardonic snickers in his metaphysics.

There was always this "tease" quality to his work. "Come find me"--"but don't pester me with questions!" It's almost a Zen posture. He would play chess for hours, think hard for three weeks and then make a single sentence as a pronouncement, which we were all supposed to ponder. The arrogance!

I see a convergence between Satie and Duchamp. Socrate, the theatre pieces. Something about the monotony crossed with intense patience (and watchfulness).

Charles Shere said...

As a boy Duchamp was fascinated by the huge chocolate-grinding apparatus in a shop window in Rouen. (There is or was until recently a similar apparatus installed outdoors as a sculpture in Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, commemorating the original occupant of that real estate.)

Duchamp's genius has many facets, of course, but one of them centers on his awareness of the difference between looking at and seeing — he prefigured John Cage's similar awareness of the difference between listening and hearing.

I think there's something to be said for the idea that Modernism the beginning of the third of three great ages of human existence: the one preceding the awareness of consciousness, which Julian Jaynes puts at about the time of Homer; then a long age which is characterized by the long slow crescendo of human consciousness; and then a third age that begins with the awareness of the awareness of consciousness.

Of course this third age, like all ages, has slippery end points (the final point not to be reached, I suppose, for several centuries); they overlap to a greater or lesser extent in various regions — geographical, cultural, political regions...

I think you and I use the word "arrogance" differently.