DUCHAMP: A Biography
By Calvin Tomkins
Henry Holt. 550 pp. $35

Go to the First Chapter of "Duchamp"

Go to Chapter One

The Romance of the Ready-Made

By Robert Storr
Sunday, November 24, 1996

"The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated." So said Joseph Beuys, arguably the most influential artist to emerge from Europe since World War II and one of the principal heirs of the aesthetic revolution Duchamp initiated. Though Duchamp's artistic activity encompassed painting (his "Nude Descending the Staircase" was the much-ridiculed star of the 1913 Armory Show), sculpture, installation, word and imageplay, and the curatorial miniaturization of his multifaceted output, the Duchampian revolution hinges above all on his invention of "the ready-made," which consisted of finding a commonplace object and, with or without slight modifications, relocating it in museums and galleries.

The first ready-made was a bicycle wheel mounted on a wooden stool; the most notorious was a urinal signed R. "Mutt," one of Duchamp's several punning pseudonyms, which also included that of his feminine alter-ego, Rose Selavy. By such seemingly gratuitous gestures, repeated numerous times by himself and innumerable times since then by his disciples, Duchamp showed that art depended for its meaning not only on its given or created components but on their specific use, ironic misuse or inherent uselessness. Content, the ready-made argued by example, was context. Within a decade of this radical discovery, Duchamp had slipped into artistic quiescence, dedicating himself to chess, social outings, amorous experiments, discreet business ventures and the hidden creation of one final masterpiece.

It was not until the emergence of neo-Dadaists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in America, and in Europe Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, and later Beuys, that Duchamp's ideas took hold on younger generations. As they did, those ideas changed and were often turned inside out. Thus, aside from Oedipal motives for attacking his artistic father, Beuys protested Duchamp's aristocratic abdication in the name of a greater social engagement between art and the world that he saw implicit in, but unrealized by, the Frenchman's pioneering gambits. Though Duchamp died in 1968 and Beuys in 1986, the evolution of the ready-made is far from over, as is the debate about its positive and negative implications.

Indeed, if the first half of the century, from the birth of Cubism to the burnout of Abstract Expressionism, "belonged" to Picasso, the second half "belongs" to Duchamp. Picasso made a colorful hero, Duchamp a fascinating but oddly colorless one. Even his many romantic attachments had a sad, furtive quality. With any luck, we shall not soon see a movie based upon them. "Surviving" Duchamp seems to have been a civilized affair; by the evidence he was more solicitous of the women he used than Picasso and more loyal to the few he loved. Habitually detached, he was never instinctively cruel.

A thwarted eroticism is the principal theme of Duchamp's major works, in particular "The Large Glass," a hybrid of painting, sculpture and graphic art on which he labored from 1915 to 1923. Its heavily encoded subject is the pursuit of a virgin bride by nine bachelors, all represented by machine-like abstractions. Accompanied by cryptic notes, "The Large Glass" diagrams desire arrested at the peak of anticipation and preserved like a scientific specimen pressed between giant laboratory slides. Duchamp's final effort, "Etant Donnes . . .," to which he devoted himself from 1947 to 1967, is a comparatively naturalistic tableau of the spread-eagle body of a nude woman in a landscape glimpsed through peepholes in a rustic door. For all its stylistic differences, however, it is also a melancholic evocation of passionate communion eternally delayed. Elegant, cerebral, perverse, these strange entities, like the rest of his protean output, were the handiwork of a monkish libertine who sided with Leonardo da Vinci in believing that art was "a thing of the mind" but stipulated that he wanted his work "to grasp things with the mind" in an intensely physical manner.

Although damned as a cultural nihilist by conservatives, Duchamp lived a life almost entirely immersed in and devoted to art. Born into a well-to-do provincial family, he was one of five children, four of whom, with their father's support, became artists. As a young painter Duchamp achieved moderate success but refused to align himself with the Cubist avant-garde in which his brothers had excelled. Then, when striving American bohemians of the Teens and '20s expatriated themselves to Paris, Duchamp went the other way, to New York, where he settled and eventually renounced his vocation. Explaining this retreat to his patron Katherine Drier, he wrote: "Don't see any pessimism in my decisions; they are only a way toward beatitude . . . Please understand that I am trying for a minimum of action, gradually." Although a declared enemy of "retinal" art (read, painting) who despised the commercialization of modernism, henceforth Duchamp spent much of his time advising collectors, dealing on the side, recycling old ideas as multiples, and finally playing the self-deprecating sage. He calmly met his end on the eve of his greatest fame.

The contradictions inherent in this laconically zigzag course alternately fed and starved his creative energies. Conceptually audacious but often passive if not opportunistic in his everyday contacts with the world, Duchamp was a flawed character but an ingenious metaphysical tease who once confessed, "My intention was always to get away from myself, though l knew perfectly well that I was using myself. Call it a little game between `I' and `me'." It might also be called an epochal game between aesthetic skepticism and conviction in which the general public, lured by art but distrusting of artists, the market and the art world, now participates even if they do not recognize Duchamp's large part in setting the rules.

A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the author of several books chronicling the endeavors of Rauschenberg, Johns, Tinguely, and others on whom Duchamp had a decisive impact, Calvin Tomkins has written the first detailed biography of this most perplexing personality. As a young journalist Tomkins met and interviewed his subject, and what he offers is an extended portrait of Duchamp surrounded by cameos of many of those who played a role in his curious progress: writers such as Alfred Jarry, Andre Breton and Raymond Roussel; artistic colleagues such as Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Constantin Brancusi; patrons such as John Quinn, Walter and Louise Arensberg, Katherine Drier, and the Stettheimer sisters, along with his lovers and incidental acquaintances. In all the book is a "Who's Who" of the period, organized around the enigma of someone who went to extravagant lengths to disguise his identity.

Overall Tomkins sidesteps in-depth interpretation of the work, often warning us of the humorless "tribe" of Duchampian exegetes, ready to spoil the fun of the ready-made in the interests of competing academic theories. He is right about that, but the considerable pleasures of Duchamp's work do not obscure its pathos nor relieve our carefully frustrated desire to fathom its mysteries. If, all things said, Duchamp still manages to slip through the wide net Tomkins has cast, it is because the artist never intended to be caught. Duchamp the man remains a puzzle, and in an enjoyable narrative Tomkins tells us much that we need to know in order to appreciate how true this is. In the last analysis, however, it is as a puzzle-maker that Duchamp merits our special attention, and that is the territory of the critic rather than the biographer. For his part, Tomkins has done his job well.

Robert Storr is an artist and critic, and a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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