My Favorite Martian

August 2nd, 2013  |  Published in July-August 2013

My Favorite Martian

By Tim Kennedy

It wasn’t easy to find the Lenbachhaus Galerie in Munich last summer. We crossed the street and consulted a street map several times but ultimately discovered that the gallery was actually underground and attached to the Subway. The exhibition space had the feel of a two-story corridor into which you descend and was akin to the subway itself – vaguely Brutalist with low, strategic lighting and perhaps distantly related to Marcel Breuer’s Whitney.  The Galerie had organized Marcel Duchamp in München 1912 in honor of Duchamp’s stay in that city form June to October one hundred years ago.

This was a beautifully presented show, which included Nude Descending a Staircase as well as the works that Duchamp produced in Munich – a series of drawings plus The Passage of Virgin to Bride and Bride, paintings with strange, mechanically inspired forms that would become the core of his painting on glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. Other material in the exhibit included the usual collection of Duchamp ephemera such as copies of The Green Box, the trail of breadcrumbs (photographic facsimiles of notes, drawings and paintings) that enable the viewer to make sense of the forms and actions in The Large Glass as well as Box in a Valise, a mini retrospective of reproductions of works from Duchamp’s career designed to fold up into a suitcase.

The printed material created to accompany the exhibit, little pamphlets on a variety of topics, threw light on the work and the artist to an unusual degree. One of the pamphlets dealt with Max Bergmann, a conventional German painter of cows and country life that Duchamp had known in Paris and who lived and worked on the outskirts of Munich. Bergmann had extended the invitation to Duchamp to come to Munich. Another pamphlet contained a series of fascinating speculations on what Duchamp could have seen at technological museums and trade fairs in Munich including an internal combustion engine cut away to expose its workings. The exhibition catalog, English in one direction and German in the other (a Duchampian solution on its own) is excellent.

In our time it has become increasingly clear that Duchamp has been the most influential of any artist from the last century – for good or ill.  There is no area or idea in art today that his career had not already touched. In regard to questions of authorship and the production of the work of art Duchamp introduced the idea of the Readymade three years after his sojourn to Munich. His notion of artistic expression viewed the artist as a kind of empty savant rather than willed actor – he also held that the viewer has as much say in regard to the meaning of the work of art as the artist. Narrative entered his work through the introduction of mechanical forms about which he wove elaborate and often hilarious, scatological mythological parodies of sexuality. He played with conventions such as gender by adopting a female persona as part of his work. He gradually dismantled his own painting process through the rejection of purely optical techniques in favor of unusual materials that worked in service of his ideas. He explored and actively manipulated the context in which the work of art is seen through the actual form of works such as The Large Glass, but also through how works of art are framed conceptually with pieces like the Box in a Valise where Duchamp literally becomes his own historian and press agent.

How did Duchamp come to be in Munich at all?  In March of 1912 Duchamp sent his recently completed Nude Descending a Staircase to the Salon des Indépendants for its inclusion in the show. The inspiration for the painting had come from a poem by the Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue. Duchamp was slated to exhibit in a room with the other “Puteaux” Cubists. Puteaux was the Paris suburb where his older brothers, the artists Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, lived and worked.  The theorists of the group, Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger were offended by the painting, particularly by the title due to its “literary” nature, but also because the painting depicted a figure in motion rather than at rest. Gleizes and Metzinger sent Duchamp’s brothers to ask Duchamp to change the painting’s title. Duchamp responded by removing the painting from the exhibition. He harbored a great resentment toward his brothers in relation to this incident and was soured toward the idea of exhibiting as part of a group forever. Subsequently the painting was shown in Paris to little or no reaction, but a year later the painting was the scandalous success of New York’s Armory show – it was a painting famous enough to be parodied – and was purchased by a San Francisco collector.  It is no wonder that Duchamp came to distrust the vagaries of taste and understood how much appreciation of work hinges upon the context in which it is shown.

Duchamp had followed his brothers into the artist’s life; his sister Suzanne became an artist as well. There is a tendency to dismiss the less famous siblings of famous artists, but one could argue that there is a Duchamp family aesthetic, particularly in regard to Jacques Villon. Villon, Duchamp’s oldest brother, was a terrific draftsman and printmaker. In his middle and late style his forms grow organically from a series of steeply diagonal diamond forms and regardless of his choice of subject the work can bring to mind images of crystals or Pierrot’s costume. In his paintings Villon favors unusual and complex color harmonies constructed from triads of secondary and tertiary colors. A fine linear element that frequently survives into the final stages of a painting can be discernable through the edges of planes or a fine cloisonné inserted between the forms.

In his paintings Duchamp frequently took the same approach as his brother. In Nude Descending one can also see the cloisonné of dark linear elements, although in Duchamp’s painting they have a much more insistent, rhythmic and directional quality. The painting also suggests motion and the passage of time very effectively. The viewer’s eye moves from the upper left of the composition to the lower right through sweeping arcs of parallel lines – Duchamp literally referred to this as “Parallelism”.  The sense of movement is sometimes pushed along by tighter arcs of dashed lines to suggest direction and a swinging motion. The painting becomes a vessel for the so-called “fourth” dimension that became the obsession of critics such as Guillaume Apollinaire. Many suggest a relationship between Duchamp’s paintings and Italian Futurism, but Duchamp claimed to have been unaware of their work or ideas. Marcel was not the only Duchamp to suggest movement in this work. The Horse, a sculpture by Duchamp’s brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon suggests the power contained in the form of a coiled spring. This strategy of embedding a spiral form in a composition is a device that Jacques Villon would adopt on occasion as well.

Duchamp’s Nude has another feature in the form of light, which I have never seen commented upon: a warm light seems to emanate from the figure due to the dark field surrounding it – the nude glows from the inside. Light is an unusual quality for any Cubist or Futurist painting to possess. The Cubists do not appear to have placed much of a premium on these tenebrist qualities – a technique dating from the time of Caravaggio and Rembrandt – so perhaps they can be forgiven for overlooking it.

Tenebrist tendencies as well as Duchamp’s preoccupation with time can also be seen in the paintings that Duchamp produced in Munich, The Passage of Virgin to Bride and Bride. In Munich, Duchamp lived near the Alte Pinakothek, which he would visit frequently; he would go to see the Lucas Cranach nudes. Duchamp admired the ability of the old master to evoke a sense of flesh and aspired to incorporate this quality into his own work. He succeeded in producing two paintings that suggest a strange interior space that is at once fleshy and mechanical and began to spin an elaborate narrative populated with a series of strange personages and substances such as “love gasoline” or a “desire-magneto”.  Notes elaborating on these forms became the core of The Green Box mentioned earlier. These are the nascent forms and story for what would become The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. A good account of this disjointed, vague and never quite logical, narrative can be found in The World of Marcel Duchamp by Calvin Tomkins.

Bride is a beautiful painting. Seeing it for the first time inspired the Surrealist painter Matta Echaurren to abandon his study of architecture and to pursue painting. Again, the forms within the painting seem to be arranged in a glowing interior space – this space could depict figures in a room or it might allude to the anatomical workings of hidden viscera. Nothing is clear. Duchamp referred to the bulbous form with a long neck emerging from its top at the center of the painting as the “wasp” or “sex cylinder”.  The rhythms and qualities of motion implied in Bride are not quite as insistent and emphatic as those in Nude Descending a Staircase. It is a gentler, perhaps creaky, pulsating motion set up by spindly forms suspended from rods. The forms might be constructed from materials such as canvas or wood or glass – like airplanes from Duchamp’s time. The character of the motion is different from the Nude as well; instead of the dissection of a physical act such as walking, this suggests the transformation between states of being – virginity to sexual initiate. Perhaps it is not a physical depiction at all, as some suggest, but is rather a psychic or spiritual portrait.

The authors of the Lenbachhaus Galerie catalog make many convincing proposals concerning the origin of the forms in the paintings including possible visits by Duchamp to anatomical museums, a technological museum and a trade fair. At the trade fair he would have also been exposed to a number of commercial techniques including painting on glass and photography, both of which were included in The Large Glass.

There is some evidence that Duchamp became familiar with Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art during his stay in Munich. In his book Kandinsky is critical of the French search for pure painting, art for art’s sake. Kandinsky distained the French rejection of a search for a meaningful subjects on the grounds that they would be too literary – the qualities that got Duchamp in trouble with the Puteaux group in the first place. Kandinsky also advises that in a search for a new approach toward depiction, that the artist must eschew a personal touch in favor of the real qualities to be found in the subject depicted. One of the reasons for doing this is to get away from the personal taste of the artist. Duchamp must have taken this advice to heart because he eventually embraced the techniques of mechanical drawing and projected perspective for his new work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, which was initially intended to be an oil painting. Its vertical format was meant to suggest a religious composition from the Renaissance. Later he had the idea to do the painting on glass, which further subverted the perspective systems that he was using. At some point Duchamp seems to have taken a vow not to repeat himself as an artist. Perhaps this explains the obsession with new techniques – an attitude that is simultaneously admirable and adolescent. Duchamp seems to be running as fast as he can from the School of Paris.

I would argue that Bride is Duchamp’s last straight up painting. The works that followed were either technique driven endeavors in the service of an idea, such as the Chocolate Grinder and The Large Glass or a pastiche like Tu m’. It was Matta’s belief that upon his completion of The Bride Duchamp was confronted with a choice between toiling in the vineyards of painting (like his brother Villon) and complete artistic freedom. He chose the freedom of what he preferred to call the life of a respirateur – a breather. Duchamp really did stop painting on canvas for good with Tu m’ in 1918.

For all of his desire to jettison his own taste – and as he ages this is a point that preoccupies him – Duchamp never succeeds in eliminating it entirely, even in his Readymades. The Readymades date from before and after his time in Munich. He had already chosen the Bicycle Wheel and the Botttlerack while he lived in Paris but he had not yet conferred upon them the status of Readymade. He developed the idea behind the readymade in 1915 when he was living in New York. Critics have proposed that Duchamp’s work draws upon the imagery of alchemy. Duchamp never bothered to refute this other than to say that if he was acting in an alchemical fashion he was not aware that he was doing so. If one could make an argument that dross was being transformed into gold, his Readymades make the case. A good example of his taste surviving in a Readymade can be found in Why Not Sneeze?

Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy? was a commission for Katherine Drier’s sister. Katherine Drier was the wealthy socialite behind the Société Anonyme, Inc., a precursor to the Museum of Modern Art, and Duchamp’s patron. I always picture her as a figure similar to Margaret Dumont playing against Duchamp’s Captain Spaulding. I can only imagine what her sister was like. In any case, she rejected the commission when Duchamp presented her with the piece, which consisted of a birdcage filled with little marble cubes polished to resemble cubes of sugar, a porcelain dish, a thermometer and a cuttlebone. “Why Not Sneeze, Rose Selavy?” is printed in black adhesive tape on the bottom of the cage. It is not entirely clear whether “Rose Selavy” is a signature by Duchamp’s alter ego or a question addressed to her. The joke is how heavy the piece is when the viewer tries to lift it expecting the cubes to be made of sugar. This is not a piece without formal and poetic properties:  the cubes rhyme with the bars of the cage, the thermometer wants to take the temperature of the inert “sugar” cubes, the cuttlebone pines for a parrot. Where is the bird?

Duchamp claimed to have given up art for chess in 1923. Of course, this was not true. He produced a number of works after 1923 including a major secret work, Etant Donnés, now permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Arensberg Collection. That painters stop painting is not necessarily a tragedy, but Duchamp was a very good painter (I would put Duchamp’s Portrait of the Artist’s Father, Seated from 1910 up against any artist’s painting from the time) so it is natural to long for more. But perhaps we are able to absorb his body of work and appreciate it as a unified statement simply because it is so clearly finite. As an artist Duchamp is simultaneously brilliant, infuriating and funny; in his work he consistently transformed the familiar into the strange. His point of view was so unusual it can seem at times to be not quite human – like the proverbial man from Mars – but that is its value.  As a personality he is always mysterious.

–Tim Kennedy

Editor’s Note:  We had hoped to post a picture for our readers of every work of art by Duchamp he mentions, but, alas, got caught with the financial demands of various art servers, who seem to own the rights to the use of images even when a museum owns the originals (Aeqai writer Shawn Daniell interviewed one of these companies about l8 months ago for aeqai).  Then , after we could negotiate the fees slightly downwards with the first “server”, we were informed that there was a second one, which would also ask for fees.  Since aeqai doesn’t have in the range of the total of $500 requested, we are unable to offer our readers these images.  Many of them may be familiar to you, and four of them are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, if you want to check their sites.
We have been under the mistaken impression that these things are free on the internet.

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