Swapping out pieces in a game of chess is only a smart move provided you hold the most on the board, or at least the strongest position. But a new show at the Barbican in London suggests chess could be a “metaphor of exchange” between the artists it lines up. According to the theory, Duchamp swaps ideas with acolytes: John Cage, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. And yet the Frenchman, superb chess player that he was, came out conceptually on top by the time of his death in 1968.
As things stood by then, Duchamp had relatively few pieces on the board. The Barbican exhibition collects most of the best known: his bottle rack, his urinal, his bicycle wheel, and his large glass.
They are all here in replica form, a gesture that calls to mind a proliferation of chess pieces, the symmetry of left and right, of white and black on the board. Curator and artist Philippe Parreno has set them out right across a two-floor space in the Barbican’s Brutalist main building. Also in the space, two prepared pianos stand in opposition to each other and offer ghostly recitals by Cage while in the center is a dancefloor, also visible from the galleries on the upper floor, much like a board ready for chess.
If this show, which also spent time in Philadelphia, is actually an extended chess metaphor, it presents a snapshot of the war of attrition between Duchamp and the visual arts. As with Beckett in literature, the Frenchman’s boldest moves still haunt anyone attempting to paint, sculpt, or draw their way into art history. And it is common, sobering knowledge that Duchamp appeared to give up art for a period in the early 1920s and devote his life to chess.
Now, we might take comfort from just how good he was at this alternative game. In 1931, Duchamp was a French delegate to the World Chess Federation (FIDE). He achieved the status of chess master and, with the help of tactician Vitaly Halberstadt, even wrote a book on, yes, endgame strategy. It got a title similar to the names of his gnomic artworks: Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled. Retroactively, at least, his newfound passion conferred a depth and intensity of thought upon all those throwaway Dadaist sculptures.
But one thing the show at Barbican reminds us is that chess once flourished in the same milieu as modern art. On display as both painting and print is a cubist portrait of the artist’s brothers going head-to-head at a game in a Paris café.
Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon were doing nothing uncommon — chess was as commonplace in that long-lost cultural age as heated discussions on modern art. As a motif, the chess match is up there with the newspapers, wine glasses, and guitars of painting trailblazers Picasso and Braque. Today, you would have to replace all of those items with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
In a 1964 interview with art writer Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp explained what appeal chess held for him. It comes as a surprise to find him talking about the game as an act of imagination, just without the mystery of art (the quote is taken from Calvin Tomkins’s recent book Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, published this year by Badlands Unlimited):
“It’s complete. There are no bizarre conclusions like in art, where you have all kinds of reasonings and conclusions. It’s absolutely clear cut. It’s a marvellous piece of Cartesianism. And so imaginative that it doesn’t even look Cartesian at first. The beautiful combinations that people invent in chess are only Cartesian after they are explained. And yet when its explained there is no mystery. It’s a pure logical conclusion, and it cannot be refuted.”
But life as a chess player must have been even less lucrative than the life of a pioneering artist in a century that wasn’t quite ready for him. In 1943, the emigré Duchamp designed a travel chess set, which he was all set to mass produce and market with a guarantee that pieces would stay in place. The current show features a leather-bound prototype, pieces all clinging to the vertical board.
Look closely and you may detect a swoosh of equine power in his knights, a certain bloated quality to his bishops and a spectral imperiousness in his tiny queens. There is still an artist’s touch, albeit a subtle one.
So what of the other players in this fabulous show? Cage was a chess fan but is said to have made silly mistakes, with which Duchamp was known to lose patience. When the composer asked the artist to teach him, Duchamp matched Cage against his wife Teeny. On other occasions, Duchamp would play his friend with one knight removed from his starting line up, the Duchamp handicap. And both arrangements were presumably fine with the American who after all wanted only to “be with him.”
One of the most curious displays in the fascinating chess-themed bay at this show is a chunky beige board, all pieces bar a handicapped knight in place, designed with the help of artist Lowell Cross. It has 24 output sockets and a rack of concealed photo-resistors and contact microphones. These were rigged up to control lights and electronic music throughout an exhibition match between Duchamp and Cage at the Sightsoundsystem Festival in Toronto, one of the former’s final public appearances.
As for Johns and Rauschenberg, they get their chess dues from Duchamp with dedicated prints of his brothers in “The Chess Players.” Hooded eyes, bulging craniums and a jumble of pieces in the foreground are here the province of player and artist alike.
It is not clear what Merce Cunningham made of chess, but sporadic performances here at the Barbican show find dancers brought in according to game-like rules designed by the choreographer. Elsewhere, it is hard to look at Rauschenberg’s four-squared “White Painting” from 1951 without seeing so many white spaces on a game board.
When it comes to talent, opening one door will often close another. And yet lines of mutual transit between chess and art remain open in the case of Duchamp.
1932: He publishes on chess and wins the Paris Chess Competition, but boxes up notes on chess in an ironic box from a department store.
1944: He collaborates with Man Ray on an exhibition called The Imagery of Chess, with help from Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, and Dorothea Tanning.
1966: He promotes an art show to support the American Chess Foundation, encouraging donations from 36 friends.
1968: At the time of his death, a work in progress turns out to be an erotic sculpture (“Etant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau/2° le gaz d’éclairage”), despite his supposed retirement.
But the least characteristic work by Duchamp included in this show has all the awesome mystery of art. The eight-foot-high photograph, “Door 11 rue Larray” (1964), looks at first like a Rauschenberg. But in fact this contains a view of the Frenchman’s apartment in Paris. Duchamp fitted this door in a hall, so that when it shut on the bedroom, it opened on the bathroom and vice versa. It rejects the French saying that a door must either be open or closed. So, in fact, the door is always ajar: neither chess nor art, but something else ineffable.
By Mark Sheerin
March 27, 2013
Two years before Marcel Duchamp’s death in 1968, the Belgian director, Jean Antoine, filmed an interview with the artist in his Neuilly studio in the summer of 1966.
This transcript, edited for The Art Newspaper, is the most faithful rendering possible of the way Marcel Duchamp expressed himself. It is a remarkable document that gives us a fresh and immediate insight into his mind. – Michel Baudson
Jean Antoine: When you started out, you painted like everyone else; you created art. Then you became the man whom Andre Breton called “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century”. So, does that mean, since you have given up painting, that you associate painting with stupidity?
Marcel Duchamp: No, not stupidity. First of all, I want to defend myself a little against the charge of being the most intelligent man in the world. It’s fairly easy for someone to call you that, but it’s fairly difficult to convince yourself that you are. And I find it hard to believe, because first of all you have to understand the word “intelligent” in the way he meant it and I’m not sure that I know what he meant; and there are any number of ways of being intelligent. I accept it because it was said by Breton whose opinions I respect greatly, but that’s all.
But you haven’t answered my question about the problem of painting and stupidity?
No, no, not at all. No, stupidity has got nothing to do with it. It’s simply an activity which has been a little overestimated and is regarded as something of major importance. Personally, I don’t believe it is all it’s cracked up to be. It’s one of those human activities that is not crucially important. That’s what I mean; especially now, when it has become completely esoteric and everyone paints, everyone buys it and everyone talks about it. I wonder if it counts for anything at all when it comes to expressing more profound thought.
When you gave up painting, did you believe that painting was dead?
No. First, you know, I haven’t given up painting; if I get an idea for a painting tomorrow, I’ll do it. I didn’t make any hard and fast resolutions at all, of any kind. I simply stopped because I didn’t have anything more to say at the time. I had run out of ideas; ideas don’t come as easily as all that. As I have never been in the habit of working at my easel every morning from eight am, I only feel inclined to work when something stirs me in some way. Then I try to find a way of expressing the idea and there isn’t one. There hasn’t been one for a long time and that’s all I can say. But I didn’t make any hard and fast decisions about giving up painting at all.
Tell me something about your urinal which you sent to the Independents Exhibition, signed R. Mutt?
That was a bit of an exception, as it was sent to the first Independents Exhibition in New York and, as is the case with all the Independents Exhibitions, there was no hanging committee. The whole point of the Independents Exhibition was to enable artists to satisfy their need to exhibit without having to submit their work to a hanging committee. So I sent that piece under the impression that there would be no problem having it accepted and that afterwards we would see how the public reacted to it. But the organisers, or the hanging committee, decided against exhibiting it. It was too shocking, I suppose, even though it was not obscene or pornographic, or even erotic. As the organisers couldn’t find any reason to suppress it or reject it, they dumped the piece behind screens where it could no longer be seen and we lost sight of it for the whole exhibition. We didn’t know where it was and it was only at the end of the exhibition, when everything was being dismantled, that we found the piece hidden away and realised what had happened.
What is more, I was on the organizing committee, so I resigned and I never again exhibited at the Independents Exhibition.
And what about the ready-mades you created afterwards?
Basically, they grew out of a thought process which was perhaps a little too logical, but logical all the same, relating to works made with your hands: you can cut off the artist’s hands and still end up with something that is a product of the artist’s choice since, on the whole, when an artist paints using a palette he is choosing the colours. So choice is the crucial factor in a work of art. Paintings, colours, forms, even ideas are an expression of the artist’s choice. So you can take this even further if you want, by saying: why go to the trouble of using your hands at all? So the idea of making something that is not physically created by the artist, that simply stems from choices he has made, that is, something already created like the ready-mades, was valid—personally speaking, at any rate. But remember, I definitely do not want to create a school of the ready-made; far from it.
As a matter of fact, doesn’t your concept of ready-mades preclude the idea of a school?
Yes, to some extent, but not entirely. But, ultimately, I know there is an inherent danger in the ready-made, and that is the ease with which it can be produced. So, if you were to create tens of thousands of ready-mades per year, that would become extremely monotonous and irritating. So I would recommend restraint in the production of ready-mades.
You yourself provided detailed pointers to the inner workings of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, in The Green Box, which is a sort of instruction manual, and there have also been numerous commentaries by critics.
Do you think that the work is accessible to the general public?
Yes and no, because everything is accessible, you know! The analyses that have been put forward are not necessarily of any value, since I have not offered any explanation myself. That is, I have done something, but I don’t analyse myself and above all I don’t judge what I have done. What I intended is of no interest; what is interesting is the effect the work has on the spectator, on the public who will decide if the work is important enough to survive. If not, if the public decides against it, if they are unmoved by it, then the Glass will be broken and people will stop talking about it, which could quite easily happen in 20 years or 10 years, or even sooner. So, it’s nothing to do with me; I have nothing to say. I created something and it’s up to the public—they decide whether the work survives or disappears.
You don’t trust the judgement of art critics at all?
No. I believe that a picture, a work of art, lives and dies just as we do. That is, it lives from the time it’s conceived and created, for some 50 or 60 years, it varies, and then the work dies. And that is when it becomes art history. So, art history only begins after the death of the work, but as long as the work lives, or at least in the first 50 years of its life, it communicates with people living in the same period who have accepted it or rejected it and who have talked about it. These people die and the work dies with them. And that is where the history of art begins.
In that sense, I believe that the history of art is extremely random. I am convinced that the works on view in the museums and those we consider to be exceptional do not represent the finest achievements in the world. Many geniuses have foundered due to their lack of direction; ultimately they could not find a way of remaining geniuses throughout their life. A simple error of judgement was tantamount to artistic suicide. Their works have disappeared as a result, and there are many more interesting things that have been consigned to oblivion. In other words, this is my understanding of mediocrity. Basically, only the mediocre works created in the past have survived, while the most beautiful works, the finest works, have vanished. This is something I really believe, but I’m not forcing anyone else to believe it too.
Do you hold any specific beliefs about what might be called beauty?
No. Beauty doesn’t come into it, because I am not terribly interested in words like “beauty” and “truth”. These are concepts which are not exactly weak, but they lack substance; they are words and words are extremely dangerous. When you try to analyse a painting using words, you can only manage a very questionable approximation, worse than questionable, because, after all, painting and art in general, especially visual art, is a language in itself, a visual language instead of a spoken language. So it’s already like a Chinese poem that has been translated into English—it doesn’t mean anything any more.
Generally speaking, are you wary of words?
Very much so. I only recognise the poetic meaning of words, that is, the sound of words, their music, which has nothing to do with their meaning. The meaning of words changes every 50 years. The same word, used at the time of Louis XIV, no longer has the same meaning today.
Have you ever been aware of belonging to a movement, a school?
No. I belonged to them in the sense that when I was interested in something I tried to understand it as far as possible and, of course, even tried to make use of it. But the word “school” only leads to the word “group” and, ultimately, only individual works are produced, such as the works of a certain Leonardo da Vinci. It’s down to the individual to emerge from any school or so-called school. The idea of a school in itself is basically of no interest to me at all.
You were, however, closely linked with the Dadaists and then the Surrealists?
Yes, but I probably tried to create my own personal brand of Dadaism, just as each of them had their own brand of Dadaism based on the same ideas but expressed in an intensely personal way.
Do you think that your work would have been possible if these movements had not existed?
Absolutely not. I followed the ideas of various schools at various times, with my own reservations of course, but I was strongly influenced by each school, each time, like everyone else. No-one can escape the influences surrounding them.
Do you think that our century will be the age of Surrealism?
Yes, probably, but I don’t know for sure. Deep down, I believe that our century will not be very interesting compared to other centuries. I think we will be regarded as being rather limited. Ours isn’t a century like the 18th century which is impossible to love but which has its own integrity, an identity. I believe that we will be regarded as a slightly frivolous century, and that we will not be showered with the sort of praise that we have blithely been giving ourselves.
Playing games is an important element in everything you do, I believe. You have played chess all your life and I think that, in the same way, you have always approached your work as a player?
Absolutely. I am extremely playful in that sense and I believe it’s the only form of fun possible in a world which isn’t always much fun. I am inclined to be witty. I regard humour as one of life’s vital ingredients. Sorrow and pain, on the other hand, are not at all essential; there is no good reason for them and people seem to feel obliged to cry much more often than they laugh.
Doesn’t that imply that you don’t take things seriously?
No, not at all; it’s a witty seriousness, black humor, or whatever you want to call it. It’s such a necessary part of life that I don’t even question it.
I would like to talk to you now about what is being done today, which has often been inspired by you. What is your opinion, for example, of Pop Art?
I have a very high opinion of Pop Art; I regard it primarily as a phenomenon that stands apart from everything else this century. Turning its back on influences such as the distortion of art, systematic distortion, anti-photography and anti-perspective, the work of the Pop artists represents a restoration, a reintegration of ideas that are of great interest to me and that perhaps appear extraordinary. Yet their work also represents a very important process, unlike any of the preceding “-isms”, which were always a continuation: Impressionism started the ball rolling, was continued by Fauvism, which was a distortion of it, followed by Cubism, again a distortion but still “retinal”, because the importance of the visual experience was always the decisive factor. With Pop Art, this all changed.
What do you think about the Nouveau Realistes, the creators of the Surrealist Object, whose work takes the idea of the object as its point of departure?
I think it’s very interesting since half the century has been concerned with this question of objects. The word “object” amuses me because no-one talked about objects in the 18th century. This particular interpretation of the word “object” was invented as if to make it virtually some sort of fetish, serving as a basis for an entire movement; and that is what is interesting: found objects, this object, that object. It isn’t sculpture, and yet it is three-dimensional. It has a completely unique quality and is obviously one of the distinguishing features of our century.
But you don’t seem to be advocating it as a way forward?
On the contrary, it may not last but it represents perhaps one way to move away from traditional easel painting, for example. That has lasted for five centuries, which is long enough; especially oil painting, which certainly doesn’t last forever, and may possibly disappear completely. Once, there were frescoes, mosaics and other techniques that were dropped in favour of oil painting.
But, in my opinion, oil painting is far from perfect: it darkens, it needs to be restored, any painting on show has generally been restored countless times and is no longer the painting that the artist originally created.
You have lived on both sides of the Atlantic—you have lived in France and you have lived in the US for many years—and now you are going back there. Have you ever felt as though you don’t belong in either place?
Yes, but I was quite happy to feel like that, precisely because I was afraid of being influenced by my roots. I wanted to get away from that. When I was in the US, I had no roots at all because I was born in Europe. So it was easy, I was bathing in a calm sea where I could swim freely; you can’t swim freely when you get tangled up in roots.
So, European traditions were a sort of net in which you might have got caught?
Exactly. Traditions are inevitably deep-rooted; distance enables you to see more clearly.
You have taken up American citizenship. Should we regard you as an American artist?
Absolutely! Officially speaking anyway, just as I have a passport. But that doesn’t mean a thing in any other way. Biological functions don’t give a damn about nationality; your arm works without knowing if it’s French or American. Officially, since you have to have an official existence, you have a nationality of which you are either proud or fond.
And you are fond of this nationality?
Yes, I’m fond of it. America’s a nice place to live; I have more friends over there than I do here and basically, as far as I’m concerned, nations do not exist; they are a place where you have friends, that’s all.
Do you feel that people understand you better there?
Perhaps. But, most importantly, its just that I have made more friends there. I have not necessarily been understood, because they don’t always try to understand, but the feeling of warmth is either there or it isn’t and that’s the only difference that counts.
If, when you attended the major retrospective of your works that recently took place at the Tate Gallery, someone had asked you: Marcel Duchamp, what have you done with your life? What would you say was your greatest achievement?
Using painting, using art, to create a modus vivendi, a way of understanding life; that is, for the time being, of trying to make my life into a work of art itself, instead of spending my life creating works of art in the form of paintings or sculptures. I now believe that you can quite readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak. These are my conclusions now: I never set out to do this when I was 20 or 15, but I realise, after many years, that this was fundamentally what I was aiming to do.
The Art Newspaper No. 27, April 1993
Interview by Jean Antoine, translation copyright: Sue Rose, 1993
© The Art Newspaper
“When the serious is tinted with humor, it makes a nicer color.”
– Marcel Duchamp