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
From certain angles right now, the options in contemporary art appear to be purity and impurity. On one side stands art that screams money and off-the-charts fabrication costs. On the other, art of physical modesty that whispers obscure ideas and above-it-all pretense. And yet in both directions you can find slickness and a certain paucity of content — or substance, sustenance or genuine pleasure. Sometimes it seems more like a case of choosing your poison.
At the moment two exhibitions in Chelsea define these extremes and their fuzzy dichotomy. On the shiny, happy, money side is the German artist Anselm Reyle’s first solo show at the Gagosian Gallery flagship space, on West 24th Street — by now the Fort Knox of contemporary-art galleries. Mr. Reyle’s array of metal sculptures and wall reliefs with bright chromed color and occasional LED lights qualify mostly as exceptional high-end lobby art.
The “no money, please, we’re-intellectuals” side of the spectrum is represented by the brainy art collective known as the Bernadette Corporation. Its latest efforts consist primarily of a long poem, in a typewriter font, displayed 10 sheets at a time under Plexiglas on 13 attenuated tables, and 38 photographs in black and white and color of wan young models in jeans. The display can be found at Greene Naftali — a purveyor as much of ideas as of artistic product — on West 26th Street.
Both exhibitions are, on the surface, attractive, impeccably presented destination shows, and I enjoyed both, up to a point. Gagosian especially, since light entertainment seems to be the aim. Even on a normally quiet Tuesday afternoon, the yawning spaces chez Gogo were surprisingly crowded with gallery regulars, tourists and student groups. The gallery is widely known as a reliable source of with-it art spectacle, whatever the level of quality.
In that regard Mr. Reyle does not disappoint. In an interview in Art Review last December, he said he got energy from being called cynical and having his work described as kitsch. So let’s just say that, compared with Mr. Reyle’s show, a large triptych by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (he of the Louis Vuitton handbags) that is on view in another part of the gallery looks unusually impassioned, profound and lovingly hand-worked.
Titled “Picture of Fate: I Am but a Fisherman Who Angles in the Darkness of His Mind,” the Murakami is dominated by the exotic karajishi, or “China-lion,” who guards the threshold of Japanese Buddhist temples and is a frequent subject of Chinese and Japanese artists. With waterfalls, and pours and drips of paint flowing here and there, this creature stands on a mountain of skulls with richly colored interiors. The painting is a marvel.
Mr. Reyle’s show is titled “Monochrome Age” and forms an extended parody of, and homage to, abstract art, which he has said he wants to make popular. Over all his pieces suggest a combination of the gleaming physical perfection of Jeff Koons and the perceptual tricks of Olafur Eliasson, but there are asides to Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and others.
Just inside the door a gorgeous double loop of bronze surfaced in highly reflective purple (via a process called chrome optics) stands nearly eight feet tall. It wears its title, “Eternity,” lightly and almost seems pliant, like a lasso of grape-flavored gum. It belongs to the lava-lamp school of art, and the light-dark grain of its makassa-veneer base adds an Art Deco note. Nearby, “Philosophy,” a huge, chromed, double-sided grid, ripples with biomorphic bulges. But it also has flat portions, as if the entire piece were squeezed between two enormous planes while still molten. It resembles a midcentury Modernist screen on steroids.
The show is up and down. Kitsch may be the only word for a sculpture consisting of several tall, vertical chrome pylons punctuated with drippy, woundlike gashes that glow with changing LED colors.
Neo-Geo Redux seems the proper label for silver-chrome bales of straw (make hay while the sun shines?). Reliefs of a crumpled, Mylar-like material evoke exaggerated disco versions of Piero Manzoni’s autochrome reliefs, which were exhibited in this space last year. Heavier numbers involving trash cast into brightly chromed aluminum wall reliefs are tarted-up examples of the oldest assemblage trick in the book.
The show’s final gallery, devoted to smaller works, brings back an earlier version of Mr. Reyle, before he was blessed with a seemingly unlimited budget. Especially wonderful is a smallish sculpture in electric blue bronze. It suggests, as if on purpose, a large pile of what inspired the term “filthy lucre.”
At Greene Naftali, the Bernadette Corporation is proving that the only thing more uncomfortable than reading small type while standing up, as so much early Conceptual Art required, is reading it while leaning over tables. The poem, “A Billion and Change,” has a title that resonates with just about everything these days, and runs to 130 manuscript pages, divided among 13 slim, plain wood tables. (These may or may not be a comment on the tables featured in the ebullient, excess-prone Guyton/Walker show at this gallery last summer.)
“A Billion and Change” shifts from one poetic format to another — free verse, four-line stanzas and so on. It is entertaining line for line, vivid in language and chock-full of references to recent world and art-world events. It also includes some childhood memories that sound real. Little of it sticks, but the totality is extremely polished.
Occasionally Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms came to mind (“Driving is not really liberating”). But in the main the consistency of tone is extremely impressive, given the collective nature of the process.
The poem is definitely an achievement, but it is “The Complete Poem” that matters. This consists of the manuscript as well as the tables, which are being sold individually, a clever attempt at commodifying something that is usually widely available in book form. As yet there are no plans for publication.
The poem’s shifting genres, coupled with the beautiful young people standing, lolling and flinging their hair about in the photographs, bring the phrase “exquisite corpse” to mind, and with that the idea of the randomness of talent and good looks. But the show’s news release set me straight. Bernadette is contrasting two forms of work, writing and modeling. The group commissioned the images from the fashion photographer David Vasiljevic, asking him to organize a shoot similar to one he recently shot for Levi’s.
Perhaps the collective is also contrasting work done using one’s personal appearance and work done using something more internal and personal. I hope so, but as these two chic exhibitions battle to a draw, I wonder.
By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
A west wind has been blowing through ICA lately, carrying with it art and artists from California. A recent program “Pictures and Props” (occasioned by ICA’s current exhibition of the work of Jennifer Bolande,) explored the work of West Coast artists working on the fringes of Hollywood. I suppose that’s no more surprising than artists in Alaska making art about snow, but it does seem slipperier, if only because Hollywood is such a slippery place. Questions of masquerade and authenticity, of surface and illusion, come with the territory.
Curator Bennett Simpson, who started his career at ICA and is now at MOCA, talked about the artist William Leavitt whose first museum retrospective, William Leavitt: Theater Objects, Bennett curated last summer. Leavitt grew up in the Midwest and went to L.A. to finish his National Guard service, which turned out to be conducted on the back lot of a Hollywood studio. In the year of the Watts riots, combat training was done using the studio’s props and sets. Leavitt stayed on in Hollywood, building sets and making props, and also making paintings and writing plays. Many of his paintings were made to serve as props on the sets of those plays.
There is a weird, quiet menace sometimes, and other times a human poignancy, in Leavitt’s art. You don’t see people, but the animals, plants, and objects you do see often seem human, for instance the pair of lawn recliners at dusk which seem almost to be communicating. And there are curtains—especially red velvet ones—about which Bennett says, “There’s never anything behind the curtain, it’s our imagination that allows us to think there is.”
Leavitt also makes installations: fake palm trees stuck in cement with a boom box twittering birdsong; a recreation of a California patio. Nothing’s happening in these places, but Leavitt creates a haunting sense that something might happen soon. The play is always about to begin, or maybe it has always just ended, as in a dream where we are always arriving too late and everyone has gone.
Kathryn Andrews, an artist whose work will be part of ICA’s upcoming exhibition First Among Equals, also makes art that explores what it means for something to be real. “After art school I spent seven years making and destroying objects,” she says. “At the end of the day, I was always left with a pile of debris.”
After that, she gave up making art for a while. To try something new, she organized a show of other artists. But then, something unexpected happened. Kathryn found herself making works for that show, works which inhabited a kind of liminal territory, visibly part of the exhibition, yet unsigned and unattributed. Functionally, they enhanced the other work in the show—for instance, a kind of sculptural line separating two works on a wall.
As Kathryn moved back into making art, this interest in responding to the work of others remained with her. She started renting props from L.A.’s copious prop shops, first making work in response to them, and later incorporating the props into her sculptures and installations. “Gift Cart,” for example, consists of a shiny stainless steel cart holding bright but battered wrapped gifts that Kathryn rented (these days she goes for 99-year leases). Why rent wrapped gifts, she wondered, when it would be faster and cheaper to wrap empty boxes yourself? It was a Hollywood puzzle.
Paradox interests both Kathryn Andrews and William Leavitt. As Bennett Simpson says, “The prop is like the rematerialization of conceptual art’s idea.” The prop is an object—but it’s also the idea of the object: a stand-in.
“In L.A. I’ve started calling it the new medium,” Kathryn jokes. “Like, Oh, I’m a sculptor. Oh, I’m a prop artist!” She says, “One of the things I’m trying to do is remove the sign of my hand from the work.”
In Leavitt’s work, by contrast, the hand of the artist is very present. “It’s old-fashioned work in some ways,” Bennett says. “It’s about creating an atmosphere, a mood.”
Still, if you make paintings that you think of as props, certain old-fashioned art values—for instance the value of conservation—may not apply. Toward the end of the evening, Bennett tells a story about installing Leavitt’s show at MOCA. One day the registrar came over to Bennett, very concerned. They had found a hole in the painting “Jaguar (from The Tropics).”
Bennett called Leavitt to break the news.
Leavitt was blasé. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I made that hole a long time ago. It doesn’t make any difference.”
February 10, 2012
Was Marcel Duchamp’s game-changing art, from oils to signed urinals, really the product of a vast and rigorous intellect? Mark Hudson is not so sure.
I’m watching a flickery, tantalisingly brief video-clip of Marcel Duchamp being interviewed in 1966 for BBC Two’s Late Night Line-Up, by Joan Bakewell. It has the feel of an unlikely encounter: on the one hand, the archetypal dollybird intellectual, who is still very much with us; on the other, the so-called Father of Conceptual Art who had produced his most famous work back in 1917. Yet there he is, two years before his death, hatchet-faced but supremely affable, dragging occasionally on a cigar, explaining himself in disarmingly simple terms and in excellent English.
When the clip cuts out, after just over a minute, what sticks in the mind is a comment he makes just before the screen goes blank: “Artists often do things without knowing why they do them,” he says. “I never ask myself why…” Then he’s gone.
He never asks why? You might be forgiven for thinking that conceptual art would be all about asking why. But then very little about Duchamp – one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of art – is as you’d expect it to be.
If Picasso was considered the defining artist of the age for most of the 20th century, the Spaniard has been relegated over the past couple of decades to the role of a mere precursor to the man who, proverbially, changed the world by signing a urinal and calling it art. Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917 – a china urinal laid on its back and signed R Mutt – has taken on the iconic status once reserved for creations of the order of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It has become the work that removed art to the cerebral realm from the physical – or the “retinal” as Duchamp liked to call it – enabling Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance Art and just about every other significant development of the past half century. It is the work, in short, that got art where it is today.
A new exhibition at the Barbican, in London, looks at Duchamp’s influence on and interactions with four key post-war American figures: composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But what of Duchamp himself? While he’s universally characterised as the arch-conceptualist, does that label do justice to what Duchamp did or who he was?
“I was expecting this very rarefied French intellectual,” says Duchamp’s biographer, Calvin Tomkins, of his first meeting with the artist in New York in 1959. “But he seemed more American than French in his willingness to talk about any subject on any level. A lot of my questions must have seemed ridiculous to him, but he turned everything I said into something amusing. For him the conversation was a game. He turned everything he did into a form of play.”
Born in Normandy in 1887, Duchamp was one of seven children of a well-off and eminently respectable civil servant, four of whom became artists. Though they remained less well-known, his elder brothers Gaston and Raymond – who worked under the names Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon – found a degree of success developing the Post-Impressionist and Cubist ideas they encountered early in their careers; the younger Duchamp, who joined them in Paris in 1904, worked through the major modes of the early 20th century – Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism – in quick succession.
“They aimed for fame,” Duchamp later said of his brothers. “I had no aim. I just wanted to be left alone to do what I liked.” While Duchamp is associated with Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism, he never aligned himself with any one group. Arriving in Paris at the height of the early Modernist ferment, Duchamp knew everyone, and formed friendships with Francis Picabia, Man Ray, André Breton and many others. Yet Duchamp’s radiant amiability had about it, in Tomkins’s words, “a touch of opacity” – it kept people at a distance.
Duchamp aspired to a kind of sublime detachment – what he called “the beauty of indifference”. But doesn’t an insistence on indifference so often mask its opposite? In his biography Tomkins suggests that Duchamp’s compulsion to debunk art with a capital A and his lifelong aversion to retinal art – which appeals principally to the eye – may have been inspired by something as banal as his early rejection by the esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
“He had a number of resentments in relation to his early career,” says Tomkins. “This indifference was something he grew into in reaction to that. For him it was a positive thing, because it meant he could let things go.”
It was a quality that extended into his art. If Duchamp wasn’t interested in “asking why” in the sense of investigating his own motives, he was equally oblivious to history, social issues, the way the world looks and just about everything else art has traditionally been about. “Rather than ask why, his art asks how,” says Duchamp scholar Paul B Franklin. “It’s about intellectual process. He described his art as a game between I and me – between subject and object, the initiator and the receiver.” And this game extends to the relationship between artist and viewer.
“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” Duchamp maintained. “The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting [it] and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
Duchamp’s best known painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, an ingenious, if slightly mechanical amalgam of cubism and Futurism, was one of the causes célèbres of the Armory Show, the exhibition that gave America its first scandalised exposure to Modernism in 1913. Little known in Europe, Duchamp arrived in New York, aged 26, to find himself a celebrity.
America was to feature prominently in his life. He moved several times between Paris and New York before settling in Greenwich Village in 1942, becoming an American citizen in 1955. In America he felt freer, he claimed, less burdened by tradition. No less important was his 40-year relationship with the millionaire collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, who were to acquire 85 per cent of his admittedly tiny output.
Having achieved a degree of success through painting, Duchamp abandoned it. The first of the “readymades” – objects he transformed into art through the simple act of choosing them – a bottle rack, appeared in 1914. The supposedly world-changing Fountain didn’t appear until three years later. It was never officially exhibited, and after being photographed for posterity by the modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, the work was thrown out with the rubbish.
Duchamp’s real preoccupation at this time was the work he considered his magnum opus, the dauntingly opaque The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even – aka The Large Glass, an obtusely symbolic arrangement of variously insect-like and mechanical forms, sandwiched between two monumental sheets of glass. Representing the never-consummated courtship of a Queen Bee-like bride and her platoon of bachelor drones, the work has given rise to a whole forest of interpretations. The artist’s own notes, invoking the transmission of semen-like fluids and gases between different elements in the work, only served further to obscure matters.
One of the most discussed works of the 20th century, which exists none the less in a category all its own, The Large Glass was abandoned by Duchamp in 1923, after eight years of work, as “definitively unfinished”. When it was shattered in transit in 1926, Duchamp patiently repaired it, claiming the skeins of spiderweb cracks only improved the work.
Having said all he had to say and not wanting to repeat himself, Duchamp gave up art in 1923, in favour of playing chess, and for most of the rest of his life wasn’t considered a practising artist. He was, however, assembling one major final installation in his cramped New York studio: Etant Donnés, a peephole into a meticulously realised life-size landscape with a naked woman, which occupied him from 1946 to 1966.
But that wasn’t much to show for 20 years of work. In interviews, Duchamp would sigh when recalling the effort his early paintings had cost him. Could it be that his desire to remove art from the retinal to the cerebral was inspired less by a passionate interest in the phenomenology of the object than by, well, laziness?
“He fully admitted his laziness,” says Franklin. “He enjoyed thinking, smoking, playing chess, talking with friends. He liked working too, but when it suited him, and at his own rhythm.”
And in some respects, Duchamp was hardly a conceptual artist at all. “Certainly he was as concerned with the idea as the result,” says Franklin. “But at the same time he loved working with his hands. He had a 19th-century enjoyment of craftsmanship. When he started making his Boîte-en-Valise (a collection of reproductions and replicas) in 1935, he could have used rapid modern printing techniques, but he insisted on using hand-coloured stencils, simply because he loved the process. It ended up taking six years.”
By the late Fifties, Duchamp was an almost forgotten figure, subsisting very modestly in New York, giving chess lessons and advising art collectors for small remittances, in the company of his second wife Teeny, the last of a string of companionable but detached relationships.
The emergence of a new generation of American artists who acknowledged him as an important forebear – Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns – boosted his reputation, while his first retrospective in 1963 (which took place, significantly, not in Paris, but in Pasadena), created an unstoppable momentum of interest around his name, which built into the “Marcel Duchamp” phenomenon we know today.
Duchamp’s transcendent cool – his fondness for the flip but magnificent gesture (“I’m not an artist, I’m a breather,” he told one French critic), his insistence on maintaining his artistic freedom even at the cost of not producing anything – perfectly suited the mood of the baby boomer era. He became a kind of hip grandfather figure to the international avant garde, a role he maintained even after his death in 1968.
Yet if Duchamp’s influence is still everywhere in contemporary art, you can’t help feeling there are whole dimensions of his work that remain little understood.
“He had the capacity to entrance you with just his presence,” says Tomkins. “But I always felt there was a lot about him that I would never know and nobody else would either. You could say the same about his work. The Large Glass has been endlessly analysed, but there’s something inscrutable at the base of it, that no one’s ever fully got to grips with – and I’m not sure it’s possible to.”
Did Duchamp himself fully understand what he was doing?
“Who knows? He was always one step ahead of the rest of us, that’s for sure.”
By Mark Hudson (13 Feb 2013)
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is at Barbican Art Gallery
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013
The Residue of a Flare Ignited Upon a Boundary, 1969
Lawrence Weiner is a sculptor whose medium is language. His texts describe material processes and physical conditions; they delineate space and indicate location. Since 1968, when he concluded that the actual construction of a work was not critical to its existence in the world, Weiner has authored hundreds of linguistic artworks. Prior to this time, his material sculptures had been prefaced by titles that dictated the means of their fabrication. When the outdoor installation A SERIES OF STAKES SET IN THE GROUND AT REGULAR INTERVALS TO FORM A RECTANGLE—TWINE STRUNG FROM STAKE TO STAKE TO DEMARK A GRID—A RECTANGLE REMOVED FROM THIS RECTANGLE (1968) was damaged, Weiner realized that the essence of a work is textual and not physical. This led him to the following formulation, first published in 1968, which continues to outline his conceptual approach to art making.” The artist may construct the piece. The piece may be fabricated. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.”
In a radical restructuring of the traditional artist/viewer relationship, Weiner shifted the responsibility of the work’s realization to its audience, while also redefining standard systems of artistic distribution. A work such as A STAKE SET (1969) can be made or merely spelled out on a museum wall, but it can also be read in a book or heard if uttered aloud. Weiner’s art can literally be disseminated by word of mouth. Much of the early work rehearses simple actions involving basic substances—pouring paint, digging trenches, removing plaster—and, like all subsequent examples, are stated in the past tense to avoid the authoritative tone of a command. Others are more spectacular, involving firecrackers and dynamite. THE RESIDUE OF A FLARE IGNITED UPON A BOUNDARY (1969), a piece that Weiner actually executed in Amsterdam for the Stedelijk Museum’s pivotal 1969, Conceptual art exhibition Op Losse Schroeven: Situaties en Cryptostructuren (Square Pegs in Round Holes: Structures and Cryptostructures), is poetic in its ability to evoke vivid imagery, while at the time suggesting coded systems of communication. Weiner gradually extended his engagement with language to ready-made structures, such as idioms, clichés, and proverbs, which underscore the contingent nature of meaning when encountered in different contexts. The Christian burial recitation “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” becomes, in nonliturgical circumstances, a simple meditation on materials and processes of transmutation (EARTH TO EARTH ASHES TO ASHES DUST TO DUST ).
Richard Serra has been called ‘the world’s greatest living sculptor’ yet for some his sculpture is just so much dead metal, an ugly display of unremitting, bludgeoning monumentality. Weight and Measure at the Tate, his two forged blocks of steel grossing almost 80 tons, and his black oil and wax ‘drawings’, stapled to the walls of the Serpentine Gallery, affirm, if not exactly the artist’s popularity in the public imagination, then at least his persistence and endurance.
There’s no phone and fax shows for Serra, no mail-order art, no sudden swerves and switches in style every few seasons, and definitely no bullshit. And, you could say, not much fun either. The last, combined with Serra’s attitude to work, probably signals part of his popularity with museums. Serra is nothing if not serious; I mean serious. He even looks the part. Tough, seriously tough.
Richard Serra’s reputation is also that of an on-site, hard-hat, hands-on sculptor. He hangs out at the forge and the foundry, and cuts the crap with the guys in the steelyard. He patrols windy urban plazas and makes lonely perigrinations to volcanic islands and temples on the Nile, sketching the while. He sizes up the gallery and museum, builds full-scale models in sandpits, directs the traffic of forklifts, and eyes inconvenient architectural details, like the columns in the Tate, with a view to their possible demolition. But for all the legwork and preparation, the surveys and note-taking and the apparent obduracy and intransigence of his materials, he’s an improviser. This can be a bit terrifying when he’s improvising with heavy industry, performing a balancing act with a steamship’s tonnage of steel, and it doesn’t make things easy for institutions or planning authorities, for curators or building supervisors, or for the armies of toiling technicians.
Maybe they’re all masochists. The museum director wakes in the night, soaked in a battery-acid sweat, wondering if his beloved, spacious halls will still be standing in the morning. But Serra’s site-specific, and no mistake – he’s probably down in the cellar right now, shoring things up with the help of a structural engineer.
To install Weight and Measure, those two, simple blocks which seem disconcertingly small given their weight and mass, the Tate had to reinforce the basement and shore up the floor with enormous T-beams, H-beams and hidden hydraulic supports drilled right through the floor from the basement below. Each exhibition is a major logistical exercise, even when the artist presents his work in modern German museums, beneath the floors of which are nuclear bunkers, designed to withstand megaton blasts and the weight of the entire building above, should it collapse.
Pursued for over a quarter of a century, Serra’s work has been a honing-down of what sculpture is, could be and might be. His sculptural syntax is narrow, his vocabulary of forms is, in several senses, truncated, and even his repertoire of materials is limited. But these are the limits he enjoys working against, if ‘enjoy’ isn’t too frivolous a verb. What, in a lesser artist, would make for a very boring career, lends his work unusual authority and gravitas. Improvising, for Serra, means bringing his own constraints to bear against the unique situation of each show, and in particular the constraints of the site itself. This isn’t only a matter of staging the work, the choreography of materiality, volume and mass, within a given space. Serra is, equally, choreographing space itself, dramatising it, condensing and expanding it. For Serra, space is more malleable than metal. His sculptural concerns would be traditional enough, were it not for the extreme degree to which he challenges the materiality and even fabric of the museum, our expectations of public space, and the ways in which we occupy it. He puts even the architecture around his work under duress. Perhaps it is in recognition of this that Serra has earned a wary respect, and a rota of almost annual museum shows and public commissions to prove it. His work endures in a peculiar way.
As much as his forged slabs, arcs and blocks of steel lean, stand, shunt, prop and balance, enduring is what they do best. They seem to slow time down, and are both timeless and full of a sense of time. Their equilibrium has an air of permanence – and this goes for the drawings too – which is not the same as a sense of stasis, and makes the spaces and architecture around them feel provisional, even when they themselves are venerable, historic settings.
There is another kind of endurance: Serra’s public, outdoor commissions endure and slough off not only criticism, approbrium and City Hall know-nothings, but also vandalism, graffiti, fashion and being pissed on – mostly, anyhow. His grandiloquent outdoor pieces are not in themselves necessarily intimidating or alienating, and certainly haven’t been intended as sullen and arrogant impositions on public space. By night his massive yet airy sculpture in London’s Broadgate turns itself into an intimate little pissoir for the already alienated; those dispossessed suburbanites who unhappily find themselves caught short between the wine bar and Liverpool Street Station, whence from they will depart, to the half-timbered, cardboard-stuccoed estates and off-the-peg villas of Theydon Bois and Loughton.
Serra’s is a style of no style, the most enduring style of all, if you can achieve it; at best it is grace without manner, an achieved inevitability. At worst it is only pomp, bigness, rusted melancholy in the Late Industrial, Egyptian manner.
One might say – Serra Refuses. Serra refuses to decorate, ornament, or augment. Serra refuses compromise or coercion. His is an art of confrontation. There are no dreams here, no expression or expressionism, no classicism, no constructivism (whatever Robert Pincus-Witten or October might have said), no overt sentiment, no fudge, fidget or cant. Serra seems to have taken on board Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Rules for the New Academy’, notwithstanding the painter’s remark that sculpture is what you trip over when you back up to look at a painting. (Definition of the difference between a sculpture and an object: you trip over an object but a sculpture falls and kills you). Not for Serra the bon bouche, the little frippery on the plinth, nor even the kind of portentous metaphysical talking-up that the work might easily encourage. Not for him Druidic or Masonic pronouncements, not for him the spiritual nick-nack picked from the Jungian garbage heap, or the Stonehenge Lode Stone, the Mars Bar From Outer Space that opens Kubrick’s 2001. Neither is he the man of the monolith and the monosyllable – he has talked of the intensity of the way in which a ‘sliver of plaster’ by Giacometti holds the experience of presence within the space around it, and the way Degas’ small sculpture Young Dancer Aged 14 ‘drinks the whole space of the room right into its grasp’. And for all his wariness of the associations which we might bring to his work, he also recognises their inevitability- in this respect he leaves us to it, even where the works are signposted and labelled with titles, notes and dedications.
His work may indeed seem taciturn, unyielding, largely humourless and relentlessly, joylessly masculine (even though he works in constant consultation with his wife, Clara Weyergraf Serra). Yet both his sculptures and drawings are also peculiarly attuned to the spaces they at once occupy, deny and counterpoint. Serra’s work’s appeal rests in the fact that it is not about objects, or surfaces, in themselves. More – and Serra reiterates this point – it is about time and memory as much as things in spaces. For all their mass and solidity, for all their physicality, here-ness, matter-of-factness, don’t-fuck-with-me,-just-take-it-or-leave-it-ness, his sculptures are not quite as solid as they at first appear. Loss and absence, too, play their part (as they do in any art worth thinking about). All that is solid does indeed melt into air. In Serra’s case, though, it might be more a matter of cutting, even of wounding the space around the work, and our perception of it, as of melting into it. As you approach, the leading edge of a rolled-steel arc cuts like a ship’s prow into your vision, ploughing into human territory, leaving you in its wake. The edges of the black drawings splice the walls like blades, and cast no shadows. The word revenge comes to mind, but won’t quite focus. Revenge and the fear of death, shoring oneself up against death.
Mutability as well as permanence, the living and the dead litter the works: Guernica-Bengazi; Fassbinder; Two Forged Rounds for Buster Keaton; For John Cage; For Samuel Beckett; Two For Rushdie. Work is done ‘in the name of’ Cage, Keaton, Beckett, Rushdie – and in a sense, perhaps, Serra’s unerring path continues in the name of Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson, two close friends who died when they were all three at the cusp of their formative years. A sense of maturity, too, or at least a desire to make the sense of endurance palpable, might in Serra’s work have something to do with his mother’s suicide. At least Serra is around, alive, to confirm, deny or ignore all this; but it is clear that his activity as an artist stems as much from an ethical as it does from an aesthetic position. He is very particular about what he doesn’t want to do. The negatives, the no’s to this and no’s to that, as much as they might be seen as evasive, are pointers to what cannot, or will not, be said. The silences in Serra’s conversation tick away like time-bombs, as he glances between the black wall drawing and the whiteness of the wall itself.
The twin foundations of his work, abstractness and concrete specificity, are not inhuman. They are properties we imbue things with and experience for ourselves, as messy, lumpy, subjective, divided creatures. Serra seems as aware of the limits of language as he is of the limitations he brings to bear on his art – the two, in his work, are not unconnected. We construct our own horizon, or death does it for us, beyond which it is impossible to go. Abstract Torture is the title of a 1974 drawing; Threats of Hell that for a recent sculpture.
‘Black’, Serra has said, ‘is a colour that absorbs and dissipates light’, and ‘you can cover a surface with black without risking metaphorical and other misreadings’. Serra covers a gessoed, nubby linen with tarry, greasy blackness. The commercial oil and wax paintsticks he uses have been remelted into gummy, resinous slabs. This giant crayon is rubbed into the canvas, burned-in in the manner of traditional encaustic painting and then reworked in situ, on the gallery wall, once the canvas has been cut and tacked in place, the lower edge flush with the floor, grounded. They occupy the rooms they inhabit with a measured, tailored stillness, and the scale and positioning of the four-square shapes restructure our sense of the interior space of the architecture. Recalling these drawings, one remembers the room as much as the canvasses themselves, and the memory of having been there. The rest is just metaphors and misreadings. He told me that his works were not momento mori.
By Adrian Searle
Frieze Magazine, Issue 7, November-December 1992