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Duchamp
A Biography
By Calvin Tomkins

Chapter One: The Bride Stripped Bare

                                                 Bride above--
                                               bachelors below.

Just under nine feet high and five and a half feet wide, freestanding between aluminum supports, The Large Glass dominates the Duchamp gallery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is too big to take in at one glance. Your eyes travel over it in random patterns, over it and through it, to other viewers moving and stopping, and to the narrow window in back, which overlooks an outdoor courtyard with its central fountain. Prey to distractions of all kinds, the sexual comedy of the Glass verges on farce. Marcel Duchamp called it a "hilarious" picture.

He also insisted that it was not a picture. In one of the working notes that he collected and published in The Green Box, Duchamp refers to it as a "delay." Use "delay" instead of picture or painting ... It's merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture--to make a delay of it in the most general way possible, not so much in the different meanings in which delay can be taken, but rather in their indecisive reunion. Like so many of the Green Box notes, this one has been chipped away at and drilled into and bombarded by generations of Duchamp explainers, an international tribe whose numbers increase each year. Laboring to unlock the mystery of that little word, "delay," they have linked it, among other things, to Henri Bergson's theory of duration, to the medieval practice of alchemy, and to a subconscious fear of incest on Duchamp's part. One Duchampian has suggested that it be read as an anagram for "lad[e]y," so that "delay in glass" becomes glass lady. Duchamp adored puns and perpetrated a lot of them, but his were never as heavy-footed as that. Generally overlooked in the ongoing analysis and microanalysis of Duchamp's wordplay is that it is play. He played with words, juggling a variety of senses and non-senses and taking pleasure in their "indecisive reunion." As he went on to say in that Green Box note, a delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver.

The notes from The Green Box (italicized here) are essential to any understanding of The Large Glass. They constitute the verbal dimension of a work that is as much verbal as visual, by an artist who disdained words as a form of communication but who was fascinated by their other life, in poetry. It should be borne in mind, however, that nobody fully understands The Large Glass. The work stands in relation to painting as Finnegans Wake does to literature, isolated and inimitable; it has been called everything from a masterpiece to a hoax, and to this day there are no standards by which it can be judged. Duchamp invented a new physics to explain its "laws," and a new mathematics to fix the units of its measurement. Some of the notes are simply impossible to fathom. A good many of the ideas in them were never even carried out on the Glass, for that matter, either because the technical problems were too great or because, as Duchamp sometimes said, after eight years of work on the project he simply got bored and lost interest. He stopped working on the Glass in 1923, leaving it, in his own words, "definitively unfinished."

Its full title is La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Note the "Even." This sly adverb, thrown in to discourage literal readings, has also been subjected to endless analysis. One explanation is that it should be read as a pun on "m'aime," meaning "loves me"--that is to say, the bride being stripped by these anonymous bachelors really loves Marcel Duchamp. The tribe can't resist looking for clues to the man in such discoveries, but Duchamp always maintained that his odd little adverb had no meaning whatsoever, that it was just "fun and poetry in my own way," that "the word meme came to me without even looking for it." It was simply a humorous aside, something like the "already" in "enough, already."

Less attention has been paid to the word "her" in the title. There are nine bachelors, and the inference is that they belong to the bride--a male harem, servile and inferior in every respect to their peremptory mistress. The bride has a life center--the bachelors do not. They live on coal or other raw material drawn not from them but from their not them. Although she must appear as an apotheosis of virginity, i.e. ignorant desire, blank desire (with a touch of malice), this bride clearly knows the facts of life. Instead of being merely an asensual icicle, she warmly rejects (not chastely) the bachelors' brusque offer. In fact, she does not reject it at all, but rather uses their lust to further her own intense desire for the orgasm. One note describes The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even as an agricultural machine, an instrument for farming; this seems to suggest fertility, perhaps even birth, but as usual the terms are ambiguous. Other notes establish the bride as a thoroughgoing narcissist, intent on her own pleasure and nothing else.

The notes in The Green Box have a cryptic, absurd, self-mocking bite that is unique to Duchamp. Some are no more than a few scrawls on torn scraps of paper; others run on for pages, with precise pseudo-scientific diagrams and calculations in neat script. Most of them date from the years 1912 to 1915, when the ideas for The Large Glass were coming to Duchamp one after another, but they are in no particular order; he simply jotted them down and tossed them into a cardboard box that he kept for that purpose. At one time he thought of publishing the notes as a sort of brochure or catalog, to be consulted alongside the Glass, but not until 1934, eleven years after he had stopped working on the Glass itself, did he get around to reproducing them. The form he chose then was meticulously and enigmatically Duchampian--a limited edition of ninety-four notes, drawings, and photographs, printed in facsimile, using the same papers and the same inks or pencil leads, torn or snipped in precisely the same way as the originals, with the same crossings-out and corrections and abbreviations and unfinished thoughts, contained willy-nilly in a rectangular green box covered in green suede with the title, La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme (the same as the Glass), picked out in white dots on the front, like a sign on a theater marquee. A typographic rendering of the notes, translated into English by the artist Richard Hamilton and the art historian George Heard Hamilton, was published under the same title in 1960 and since then there have been other versions published in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, and Japanese, so that almost anyone who wants to can now approach the Glass the way Duchamp thought it should be approached, as an equal mixture of verbal and visual concepts. The Glass, he said, "is not meant to be looked at (through esthetic eyes); it was to be accompanied by as amorphous a literary text as possible, which never took form; and the two features, glass for the eye and text for the ears and the understanding, were to complement each other and, above all, prevent the other from taking an esthetic-plastic or literary form." Eight years of work, in other words, on something that could be thought of as an attempt to answer the question he had asked himself, in a note dated 1913: Can one make works which are not works of "art"?

The Glass does have a subject, nevertheless, and a rather popular one at that. Sexual desire, or to be more precise, the machinery of sexual desire, is what we are dealing with here, although we might never suspect it just from looking at the Glass. Only by reading the notes can we follow the stages of the erotic encounter, which resembles no other in literature or in art. Before attempting that, however, a word of warning: as the French critic Jean Suquet points out, Duchamp's machinery only works when oiled by humor.

The Bride is basically a motor, Duchamp tells us. She is, in fact, an internal combustion engine, although her components do not conform to any known model. This bride runs on love gasoline (a secretion of the bride's sexual glands), which is ignited in a two-stroke cycle. The first stroke, or explosion, is generated by the bachelors through an electrical stripping whose action Duchamp compares to the image of a motor car climbing a slope in low gear ... while slowly accelerating, as if exhausted by hope, the motor of the car turns faster and faster, until it roars triumphantly. The second stroke is brought about by sparks from her own desire-magneto. Although Duchamp suggests in two notes, confusingly, that the electrical stripping "controls" the bride's sexual arousal, he makes it clear in others that the bride herself is in full control. She accepts this stripping by the bachelors, since she supplies the love gasoline to the sparks of the electrical stripping; moreover, she furthers her complete nudity by adding to the first focus of sparks (electrical stripping) the 2nd focus of the desire-magneto. The notion of a mysterious female power that is both passive (permitting) and active (desiring) runs through many of the notes on The Large Glass. The bachelors, by contrast, are wholly passive. It is the bride's blank desire (with a touch of malice) that sets in motion the fantastic erotic machinery whose purpose is to bring about the blossoming of this virgin who has reached the goal of her desire.

The mechanico-erotic language of the notes on the bride has no visual counterpart in The Large Glass itself. In fact, the upper glass panel that is the bride's domain shows nothing that even remotely suggests female anatomy, clothed or unclothed. What we see instead is a group of abstract, vaguely insectile shapes on the left-hand side, connected to a large cloudlike form that stretches all the way across the top. Each element on the left has a name, although even today, after seventy years of study and conjecture, it is hard to pin down exactly which is which. The large form at the top left is the pendu femelle, a decidedly unglamorous term meaning "hanging female object"; close examination shows that it does indeed hang from a painted hook at the top of the Glass. Underneath that is a motor with quite feeble cylinders and its reservoir of love gasoline, a sort of timid-power, or automobiline, which, as you will recall, is secreted from the bride's sexual glands. Just to the right of these forms lies the wasp, or sex cylinder, a flask-shaped object that narrows at the top and is capped by a pair of snail-like antennae. Under that is the diagonal, sticklike shape of the desire-magneto--at least, I think it is the desire-magneto; others have located this vital organ elsewhere in the assembly. Just how all these elements combine to produce the two-stroke internal combustion cycle is not really clear to me nor, I believe, to anyone else, and I do not think that Duchamp meant it to be. The whole process, as he wrote, is unanalyzable by logic, and it would not hurt us at this point to suspend our disbelief by a few more notches.

The functioning of the large cloudlike shape at the top is stated fairly clearly. This element, which Duchamp identifies variously as the Halo of the Bride, the Top Inscription, the Milky Way, and the Cinematic Blossoming, is not something that emanates from the bride but is the bride herself, represented "cinematically" at the moment of her blossoming, which is also the moment of her being stripped bare. Three slightly irregular squares of clear (unpainted-on) glass are enclosed within the cloud; these are the Draft Pistons, a sort of telegraph system through which, using a special alphabet invented by Duchamp, the bride issues her commands, orders, authorizations, etc., thus setting in motion the machinery of love-making. This cinematic blossoming is the most important part of the painting, Duchamp informs us in a surprisingly didactic note, forgetting his own interdiction against calling it a painting. It is, in general, the halo of the bride, the sum total of her splendid vibrations: graphically, there is no question of symbolizing by a grandiose painting this happy goal--the bride's desire; only more clearly, in all this blossoming the painting will be an inventory of the elements of this blossoming, elements of the sexual life of the bride-desiring.

Moving to the lower half of the Glass, the domain of the bachelors, we come into a very different world. The forms here are precisely drawn and not a bit abstract, and their functions are spelled out in terms that often sound pitying or contemptuous. While the principal forms of the bride, according to Duchamp, are more or less large or small, the forms of the bachelor machine are mensurable, and their relative positions on the glass have been plotted according to old-fashioned vanishing-point perspective. Freedom of choice in the upper half is offset by a grim determinism in the lower half. The bride imagines and commands; the bachelors react and obey.

There are nine of them, ranged in a tight group at the far left of the Glass, and they are not even men but moulds of men--"malic" moulds, in Duchamp's coinage, reddish brown in color, looking something like eccentric chess pieces. What we are asked to believe is that if molten lead or some other substance were poured into them and allowed to harden, the result would be nine uniformed mannequins: priest, department-store delivery boy, gendarme, cuirassier, policeman, undertaker, flunky, busboy, station-master. Each of these figures has an occupation for which there was (in 1915, at least) no female equivalent, hence the Duchampian term "malic," which does not mean "masculine" (male in French) but rather "male-ish," with perhaps a touch of the bride's malice and an echo of phallic. Empty husks, then, inert and powerless, which wait stupidly for the signal to perform the basic male function that is required of them here.

Below them and slightly to the right stands the Glider, also referred to as the Chariot or Sleigh, a metallic construction on elliptical runners, with a Water Wheel built into it. Farther to the right, in about the middle of the lower glass panel, is the Chocolate Grinder, a thoroughly realistic rendering of a device that one used to be able to see (and the young Marcel Duchamp did see) in confectionery shop windows in France; it has three roller-drums that turn on a circular platform, supported by three Louis XV-style legs. Ascending vertically from the top of the Chocolate Grinder is a rod called the Bayonet, which supports the Scissors, a horizontal, X-shaped form whose handles connect with the Glider on the left and one of whose blades extends to the far right edge of the panel. Seven conelike shapes, the Sieves or Parasols, form a semicircular arc above the Chocolate Grinder and below the Scissors. At the far right are three Oculist Witnesses, circular diagrams used by oculists to test people's eyesight.

The erotic labors of the bachelors are fueled by falling water and natural gas--two resources whose availability in new apartment buildings in turn-of-the-century Paris was often announced by enamel wall plaques reading EAU & GAZ A TOUS LES ETAGES (WATER AND GAS ON EVERY FLOOR). Duchamp introduces these two elements in a note, entitled Preface, that would become a leitmotif in his life and work:

 
                    Given 1st the waterfall
                    2nd the lighting gas ...

The waterfall is A sort of waterspout coming from a distance in a half circle over the malic moulds (seen from the side), except that we don't see it because it is one of the elements that Duchamp never got around to executing on the Glass. In its invisible state, however, it activates the Water Wheel, whose action moves the Glider. The lighting gas is the substance that animates the Malic Moulds. Where does it come from? Duchamp does not say: it is "given." All we know is that at a certain moment the gas, having filled the hollow moulds, escapes from openings at the top of each one and enters the Capillary Tubes, which run horizontally from each mould's summit to a point of convergence just underneath the first Sieve.

When the lighting gas enters the Capillary Tubes, it solidifies there through the phenomenon of stretching in the unit of length. (A Duchampian phenomenon.) As it emerges from the other end of the tubes, though, the now-solid gas breaks up into small needles of unequal length, which Duchamp calls spangles of frosty gas. These spangles tend to rise, since they are lighter than air; they are trapped by the first Sieve, although "trapped" may be the wrong term, for another note tells us that each spangle strives (in a kind of spangle derby) to pass the holes of the sieve with elan. The spangles are a lively lot. Each one retains in its smallest part the malic tint. But as they pass through the Sieves they become dazed, they lose their designation of left, right, up, down etc. They no longer retain their individuality. In their progress through the sieves they change from spangles lighter than air ... into: a liquid elemental scattering, seeking no direction. And Duchamp's note on them concludes, What a drip!

While this spangle derby is going on, other elements of the bachelor machine are slipping and grinding and groaning into action. The Glider slides back and forth with a jerky motion. It is activated by the waterspout falling on the Water Mill, whose turning raises a Bottle of Benedictine suspended from a Hook; after reaching a certain height, this bottle falls, and its fall exerts the pressure that pulls the Glider. We might be in Rube Goldberg territory at this point, except that the great Rube had not mastered Duchamp's playful physics. The Hook is made of a substance of oscillating density, which makes its weight variable and indeterminate. The Bottle of Benedictine goes to sleep as it is being raised, then wakes up and falls vertically, according to the laws of gravity; however, By condescension, this weight is heavier going down than coming up. The Glider's runners are made of emancipated metal, which makes them free of gravity in the horizontal plane; they slide forward when the bottle falls, then slide back again through inversion of friction. The Glider, moreover, sings a melancholy litany as it goes to and fro, a dirge that may express the bacheloric condition:

                           Slow life.
                           Vicious circle.
                           Onanism.
                           Horizontal.
                           Round trip for the buffer.
                           Junk of life.
                           Cheap construction.
                           Tin, cords, iron wire.
                           Eccentric wooden pulleys.
                           Monotonous flywheel.
                           Beer professor.

At the same time but apparently quite independently, the Chocolate Grinder is performing its own malic function. The Chocolate Grinder operates according to the adage of spontaneity, which is that The bachelor grinds his chocolate himself. Does the Glider's onanistic litany trigger this all- too-malic process? We are told only that The chocolate of the rollers, coming from one knows not where, would deposit itself after grinding as milk chocolate. But this seems to have no real connection with the labyrinthine voyage of the spangles.

Sucked through the arc of Sieves by a Butterfly Pump, the spangles have lost their identity and become a vapor of inertia. In this form they arrive at the Drainage Slopes, where they are whisked by a Toboggan on a sort of corkscrew downhill course, past the area of the Three Crashes, to the region of the Splash--more elements that we have to imagine, for they all exist in the notes but not on the Glass. The splash (nothing in common with champagne) ends the series of bachelor operations, Duchamp informs us. In fact, the Splash has just begun a spectacular journey of its own, but the bachelors have nothing to do with that, poor devils. The Splash is channeled through a mobile Weight with nine holes, which "dazzles" it upward, through the Oculist Witnesses and into the bride's domain.

What happens next is magisterially unclear. The Splash somehow gets diverted--presumably by action of the Scissors, whose blades move back and forth in sync with the Glider's motion--into two separate streams. One stream, after passing through the Oculist Witnesses, forms a Sculpture of Drops. Each drop in this sculpture is then projected "mirrorically" to the upper right-hand section of the Glass, where it makes contact with the Nine Shots--nine small holes drilled in the glass, whose erratic placement Duchamp arrived at by firing paint-tipped matches from a toy cannon. Are the Sculpture of Drops and the Nine Shots in fact synonymous? Are they what we think they are (each bachelor having one shot), and if so, does the bride accept or reject them? Duchamp has no comment on this, nor on many other perplexing questions. The other stream of the divided Splash, meanwhile, rises and hits the Combat Marble, just below the intersection of the upper and lower halves of the Glass. This intersection is also known as the Horizon, the Gilled Cooler, and the Bride's Clothes, and it is represented graphically by three strips of glass inserted horizontally between the upper and lower plates. When the dazzled Splash strikes the Combat Marble, it sets off a ridiculously complex operation called the Boxing Match, which, once again, we do not get to see because Duchamp did not put it on the Glass. The Boxing Match is drawn and described in a detailed note in The Green Box, however; it shows a clockwork mechanism that causes two battering rams to move up and down, loosening as they do so the bride's clothes and causing them to fall. Another, much smaller drawing and note shows a Handler of Gravity, who balances a ball on a tray while he perches precariously atop the loosening and falling clothes of the bride. All this takes place not smoothly but jerkily--the throbbing jerk of the minute hand on electric clocks. It is the Boxing Match that brings on the electrical stripping, which ignites the first stroke of the bride's motor with quite feeble cylinders, whose action leads in turn to her climactic blossoming.

Many other operations and pseudo-scientific processes are discussed in the notes, some of them far too complicated to summarize. What they all add up to is still an open question. To some dedicated Duchampians, the message of The Large Glass is anything but hilarious. It has been described as a deeply cynical and pessimistic work, in which the relationship between men and women is reduced to mechanical onanism for two. The Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz called it "a comic and infernal portrait of modern love." To others, though--this writer among them--pessimism doesn't stand a chance in The Large Glass. Running through the notes, in fact, is a high, clear vibration of something that sounds to me like epic joy. Duchamp said that he wanted to "put painting once again at the service of the mind." Since the time of Courbet, he felt, art had been exclusively "retinal," in that its appeal was primarily to the eye. Duchamp went beyond the retinal for the first time in 1912, when he painted his famous Nude Descending a Staircase; a year later, with his early notes and studies for what would become The Large Glass, he entered a new terrain where words and images fused and where the rules of tradition and logic and sensory impression gave way to a state of mind that can only be described as ecstatic. Again and again in Duchamp's notes, there is the joyous sense of a mind that has broken free of all restraints--a mind at play in a game of its own devising, whose resolution is infinitely delayed. The bride, who is queen of the game (as powerful and as mobile as the queen in the game of chess, to which Duchamp gave so much of his imaginative energy), will never achieve her ardently desired orgasm. Her "blossoming," Duchamp tells us, is merely The last state of this nude bride before the orgasm which may (might) bring about her fall. She is like Keats's maiden on the Grecian urn, forever in passage between desire and fulfillment, and it is precisely this state of erotic passage that Duchamp has chosen as the subject of his greatest work. Sexual fulfillment, with its overtones of disappointment, loss, and "fall" from grace, was never an option. The bride, the bachelors, and by implication the onlooker as well are suspended in a state of permanent desire.

Duchamp, who used to say that the artist never really knew what he was doing or why, declined to offer any such explanations for The Large Glass. One of his pet theories was that the artist performed only one part of the creative process and it was up to the viewer to complete that process by interpreting the work and assessing its permanent value. The viewer, in other words, is as important as the artist; only with the viewer's active participation, after all, can Duchamp's bride be stripped bare. When he was close to seventy, though, Duchamp said something that cast doubt on his lifelong skepticism regarding the nature and purpose of art. "I believe that art is the only form of activity in which man shows himself to be a true individual," he said. "Only in art is he capable of going beyond the animal state, because art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by space and time." The strange thing is that after The Large Glass, Duchamp could not seem to find that outlet again. Although his influence on twentieth-century art continued to spread and deepen during the next four decades, he did not produce, until the very end of his life, another work that approximated the scale and ambition of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

The original in Philadelphia deteriorates a little more each year, and the museum's conservators say that because of the way it was made, it cannot be restored. Shattered in transit sometime after its first public exhibition, at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, the Glass was painstakingly pieced together again in 1936 by Duchamp, who claimed afterward that he liked it better with its network of diagonal cracks. Because the original is too fragile ever to be moved from the Philadelphia Museum, four full-size replicas have been made--two with Duchamp's approval and two after his death, authorized by his widow; one is in England, two are in Sweden, one is in Japan.

Although very far from being the most famous art work of our century, The Large Glass may well be the most prophetic. The Glass, together with the "readymades" that were so closely associated with its development--a bottle-drying rack, a snow shovel, and other manufactured items that Duchamp promoted to the status of works of art simply by selecting and signing them--are primary sources for the conceptual approach that has come to dominate Western art in the second half of the twentieth century, an approach that defines art primarily as a mental act rather than a visual one. In the years since his death in 1968, Duchamp has come to be considered a forerunner of Conceptual art, as well as Pop art, Minimal art, Performance art, Process art, Kinetic art, Anti-form and Multimedia art, and virtually every postmodern tendency; the great anti-retinal thinker who supposedly abandoned art for chess has turned out, in fact, to have had a more lasting and far-reaching effect on the art of our time than either Picasso or Matisse. He never really did abandon painting, as the legend has it. Whenever someone asked him about this, he would explain that at a certain point in his career he had simply run out of ideas and that he did not care to repeat himself. In the meanwhile, however, the ideas set loose in the world by Duchamp were quietly spreading among younger artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and performers.

It has been argued that Duchamp's influence is almost entirely destructive. By opening the Pandora's box of his absolute iconoclasm and breaking down the barriers between art and life, his adversaries charge, Duchamp loosed the demons that have swept away every standard of esthetic quality and opened the door to unlimited self-indulgence, cynicism, and charlatanism in the visual arts. As with everything else that we tend to say about Duchamp, there is some truth in this. What could be more subversive than the readymades, which undermined every previous definition of art, the artist, and the creative process? To call Duchamp destructive, however, is to miss the point. What he was interested in above all was freedom--complete personal and intellectual and artistic freedom--and the manner in which he achieved all three was, in the opinion of his close friends, his most impressive and enduring work of art. Heavy-duty art critics who pounce on that claim as a cop-out, a tacit admission of his failure to become a great artist, don't have a clue to the new kind of artist that Duchamp became. Approach his work with a light heart, though, and the rewards are everywhere in sight. Duchamp's work sets the mind free to act on its own.

The Large Glass sheds relatively little light on the mystery of Marcel Duchamp, in spite of unending efforts to locate the man in the work. He was a bachelor for most of his life, to be sure, but there was nothing servile (or hostile) in his relationships with women. Duchamp even acquired a female identity at one point, the blithe and somewhat scandalous Rrose Selavy, who signed a number of their joint works; it was as though, in his quest for complete freedom, Duchamp did not feel obliged to limit himself to the confines of a single sex. Was he sexually ambivalent in his private life, as some amateur Freudians would like us to believe? No, he was not. There is much evidence to suggest, however, that his enormous personal charm derived in no small part from an ability to reconcile, without apparent conflict, the male and female aspects of his complex personality--the MARiee with the CELibataire.

Duchamp is the ultimate escape artist. The Glass and The Green, Box may offer an intriguing portrait of a mind that has been called the most intelligent of our century, but the man himself eludes us and retains his mystery. "The Glass is not my autobiography," he said once, "nor is it self-expression " And what is this book, then, if we concede at the outset that the subject will never be stripped bare? What else but another link in the long chain of non-forgetting: a delay.

© 1996 Calvin Tomkins

Henry Holt

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