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You step up to the wooden door, a heavy, rustic affair set in a brick arch, and you peer through two small holes conveniently set at around head height. You do this not because you are a snoop, but because this is an installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even so, you feel like a snoop, and worse. As Calvin Tomkins says, no amount of practice or mental preparation will diminish the complicated shock of what you see on the other side of the door.
This has to do partly with the meticulous realism of what is in the foreground, partly with the tacky artificiality of the background; and has everything to do with the failed combination of the two, with your inability to get them to go together or even cancel each other out. The moment you reach for an overall interpretation, you feel you are losing the stubborn individuality of the bits of the scene, their separate stories.
If you decide the stubborn bits are all there is, you feel you are missing a larger message, and trying to make yourself comfortable when you are not. In the foreground, seen through a large jagged hole in a brick wall the other side of the door, is the life-size naked body of a woman, shaved pubis and genitalia open towards you — or, more precisely, an expert imitation of such a body, made of leather on a metal or plaster frame.
But is this a corpse? The figure is anonymous, because the head is cut off, so to speak, by the brick wall and the angle of vision allowed by the holes in the door. The body is lying on an alarmingly real and prickly bed of thick twigs, and — this is where the complications start — the left arm, either still alive or frozen as if in life, is outstretched, and the left hand holds an ancient gas lamp, of the kind known, after the name of their inventor, as the Bec Auer.
The background is a flat and deeply unconvincing postcard-style landscape of woods and mountains, tinted purple for romantic effect. In the far right, twinkling like a pair of shoes in The Wizard of Oz , is a tiny waterfall, an alternating glow simulating, without any real plausibility, the splash of the cascade.
Why is the waterfall so tiny and so kitschy, and what can it have to do with the body? If you work from the title towards the body, the ground seems logically firmer, but also full of traps, invitations to over-confidence. A sexual or homicidal act is being treated as if it were an experiment in physics, as if we could proceed methodically, without a hitch or an emotion, from the gas lamp and the waterfall to the appeased or slaughtered body.
He is reminding us of his irony. Duchamp was born near Rouen in , lived in New York for extended periods on several occasions. He was regularly treated as a founder of Dada and Surrealism, and he was certainly in sympathy with their dedication to irreverence, but he kept aloof from all movements, and indeed from most things.
He was married twice, the second time happily and for 14 years, until he died; the first time for only a few months. For large portions of his life, chess seems to have been his only passion. He played for the French national team, and ranked fairly high in a number of major international competitions. He was perhaps better known for his readymades — the bicycle wheel, the urinal, the snow shovel — than for his paintings. The most famous of his jokes about art was his drawing a moustache and a small goatee on a reproduction of La Gioconda , with the letters L.
This one also has L. The amazing Duchamp collection in Philadelphia is like a race through modern painting — through and out the other side. Here are the major paintings The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes and The Bride , both from , and the notorious Nude Descending a Staircase of the same year, which was the scandal of the New York Armory Show in , and is often taken to represent the arrival of the 20th century in America.
Writers on Duchamp are now a little cautious about his painting — in part no doubt because he was himself so dismissive about it and painted no canvas after Octavio Paz says it looks less like armour than like coachwork or a fuselage. The fact that we can scarcely tell the abuse from the compliments in these descriptions is important, and should send us back to the picture. But the centrepiece of the room and of the collection is the Large Glass , two panels, almost nine feet high altogether, five and a half feet wide, with what looks like a cross between an insect and a peculiar car engine to the left of the upper panel this is the Bride , and a long horizontal cloud the Bride at the moment of her blossoming across the top; with an elaborate array of appliances in the lower panel, representing nine Bachelors and the various bits of machinery they need to get them going.
The pictured elements are marked out by oil paint and wire and carefully preserved dust , and you can look through the painting to see people on the other side — and indeed look further through a window designed by Duchamp himself to a courtyard in the museum.
You can also look at the thing from the back. He published a version of these in a box in ; it appeared in English in book form in , thanks to the patient labours of Richard Hamilton, who also constructed a precise copy of the Large Glass , which Duchamp signed, for the Tate. We also learn that the Bachelors are not going to make it into the zone of the Bride, they are too caught up in their own fantastic mechanisms for that. Our tradition ends with it.
That is, the painting of the future needs to start with it and against it. Tomkins and Seigel, following hints from Duchamp himself, insist on the sense of suspended desire, the delay on the edge of the sexual act which can take place only outside the frame, off the glass.
Man is not generic here, I think. This is what man has done with love, and with woman. Paz distinguishes between two kinds of modern comedy. The comedy of the skeleton is pathetic, he says; the comedy of the machine, which is that of the Large Glass , is frozen. Frozen comedy is good, but a touch too grim. The Large Glass seems cool rather than frozen; but also haunted, full of near-frosty disquiet. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp is the third edition of a book which first appeared in , with a second edition the following year.
The plates are spectacular, and there is an extensive bibliography and an exhibition history. Tomkins regards the splayed body as a kind of triumph. She is queen of the game. This is a dim view of erotic energies, but even then I think it understates the unseating quality of the installation, which is not so readily moralised. The body of the woman dominates our view and our mind, but there is no sign of her dominating any action.
The Large Glass was broken in transit from the Brooklyn Museum to the Connecticut house of its owner. Anecdote has it that Duchamp was delighted with this touch of collaboration by chance, and happily reconstructed the glass with cracks and all. The truth as Tomkins tells it is a little more complicated. There is a symmetry in the cracking There is almost an intention here — a curious extra intention that I am not responsible for, an intention made by the piece itself.
Duchamp is accepting not randomness but an appearance of organisation alien to his own plans, and this became more and more explicitly his theory of art. Unintentional expression would include the work of chance, not an expression or an intention at all except figuratively. Duchamp is often taken to be attacking the very idea of art, and of course he was, endlessly, attacking the ideas of art held by most people in his time, and perhaps by most people now.
But he was very clear on this subject. He is refusing exclusions, or rather, those judgments which take the form of a banishment — this is not just a bad painting, it is not a painting at all — and he is resisting the tyranny of what we think of as taste. But of course he had behind him, in , a lifetime of trying to extend the notion of art beyond all recognised boundaries.
If we think the urinal is not art, is that because it is industrial or because it is rude? Or does anything become art if an artist signs it? Is there beauty lurking in humble plumbing, hidden from us only by our snobbery?
There can be no doubt about his charm, his kindness, his tolerance, his wit, his ability to make other people seem smarter than they were. His friends were infinitely loyal to him, he seems to have had scarcely any enemies, and even his numerous, rather one-sided affairs with women seem to have left little bitterness behind.
Marcel is the only person I ever met who was not people. Equilibre , as Duchamp suggested in one of his better puns, breaks down into et-qui-libre. He cultivated solitude in the way gregarious people often can — the contradictory images of him we get from Tomkins are of a man always alone in a dusty, cluttered studio, not doing much except playing chess, and of a man who was always out to dinner or organising a show — in order to preserve himself for his undefined art, perhaps.
Unless the art was a way of preserving his solitude. But the moment one copies out these fine phrases they seem too heavy, too much the story we feel has to be there, the psychological body we ought to be able to deduce from the kitschy waterfall and the allegorical lamp. Tomkins keeps his speculations and his criticisms to a minimum; but he is a little too unruffled, too solidly settled in the camp of common sense.
Why did Duchamp, the great enemy of habit and repetition, start making copies of his own works? Extreme cases? Our artists will do those for us. The dark Duchamp seems too conventional, serious after all in ways that we recognise.
The light Duchamp seems too thin, too remote from the elusive, unorthodox seriousness of his obsessions and his jokes and his art. Would it be possible to treat him the way he wanted religion to be treated? There are moments, though, when one seems to glimpse a meeting between the dark and the light — one of those spaces that Duchamp called infra-mince , infra-thin. Duchamp seems to be saying that the deaths of others are not events in our life.
The epitaph would then be both a confession and a prescription. It would be a veto, a delay; a way of living one kind of life and missing another. Read More. For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions. Newsletter Preferences.
But it was a series of four profiles he wrote for The New Yorker in the early s — on Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Duchamp — that fully revealed to him the exciting possibilities of art. This was so powerful, that art could be all these other things. I thought we might start where it all started for you: with Duchamp. In what ways do you see his continuing influence today?
Marcel Duchamp was the class clown of the school of modern art. When he drew a mustache on a picture of the ''Mona Lisa,'' he proved that art could be spun from pure adolescent insolence. No other artist accomplished so much by seeming to do so little. The artfulness of his anti-art antics won him a loyal following in the 's, when the art scene took a detour from high-mindedness and became a prankster parade. To Duchamp we owe our current Age of Irony and a culture in which nothing is taken more seriously than the gravely hip joke. Calvin Tomkins's ''Duchamp'' -- the first full-dress biography of the artist -- puts a dark cloak on its bemused and elusive subject.