OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 2, Part 3
Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade
The gist of Dadaism was the "gratuitous act," and the most gratuitous Dadaist act of all was Marcel Duchamp's invention of the readymade. One can regard them as experiments in art, or mock works of art, or critiques of handmade works of art, or demonstrations of Dadaist disgust with the very idea of art -- a nihilistic debunking or demystification of art -- but the important thing is that they led to a whole new idea of art: Objects took second place to ideas, to the extent that they became illustrations of them. Duchamp is, in effect, the first conceptual artist, and the readymades are the first conceptual works of art. As he said in 1946, he "wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was more interested in recreating ideas in painting. For me the title was very important." He finally abandoned painting for readymade objects. The question is what ideas they recreated. He wanted art to be an "intellectual expression" rather than an "animal expression," but his very physical readymades -- in a sense, they are more physical than a painted picture, for they occupy real space rather than create the illusion of it -- may be an animal expression in intellectual disguise.
When in 1913, Duchamp "put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down," to use his own words, "there was no idea of a 'readymade,' or anything else."(9) Nonetheless, both the bicycle and the kitchen stool were readymade, that is, they were manufactured, functional, everyday objects readily available in stores, just like the 1914 Bottlerack, which was officially the first readymade. This was followed in 1915 -- the year Duchamp came to New York -- by the snow shovel titled In Advance of the Broken Arm (written in white paint on the lower edge of the back of the shovel). In 1916 Duchamp made a number of what he called "assisted readymades": Comb, With Hidden Noise and Traveler's Folding Item.
Like In Advance of the Broken Arm, all three incorporated language. That is, they were familiar physical objects that became unfamiliar intellectual expressions with the assistance of language -- often a peculiar kind of language. Comb is "an ordinary metal dog comb on which I inscribed a nonsensical phrase: trois ou quatre gouttes de hauteur n'ont rien à voir avec la sauvagerie, which might be translated as follows: three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery." Duchamp adds: "During the 48 years since it was chosen as a readymade this little iron comb has kept the characteristics of a true readymade: no beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly esthetic about it. . . It was not even stolen in all these 48 years!" The precise date and hour of its choice are also inscribed on the Comb, "as information," confirming Duchamp's idea that the "timing," the "snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour," was "the important thing." With Hidden Noise is "a ball of twine between two brass plates joined by four long screws. Inside the ball of twine Walter Arensberg [Duchamp's friend and supporter] added secretly a small object that makes a noise when you shake it. And to this day I don't know what it is, nor, I imagine does anyone else. On the brass plaques I wrote three short sentences in which letters were occasionally missing like in a neon sign when one letter is not lit and makes the word unintelligible." Traveler's Folding Item was a black typewriter cover with the word "Underwood" conspicuously printed in white on it.
In 1916-17 Duchamp made Apolinére Enameled, in which he "changed the lettering in an advertisement for 'Sapolin Paints,' misspelling intentionally the name of Guillaume Apollinaire and also adding the reflection of the little girl's hair in the mirror." In 1917 he made Fountain, a urinal purchased from "Mott Works," a New York plumbing company, and signed "R. Mutt" (not only an ironical misspelling, suggesting that the artist is a mongrel dog or stupid person, but, as has also been thought, a play on the German word "Armut," meaning poverty). That same year he made Trébuchet (Trap), in chess a term for a pawn placed to 'trip' an opponent's piece. (Duchamp supposedly retired from art making in 1923 to devote himself entirely to chess, becoming a champion.) The work was a coat hanger which Duchamp nailed to the floor of his New York studio, where visitors could trip over it. His readymades are in effect throw away pawns -- many in fact were literally discarded, and reproduced after Duchamp became famous and there was museum demand for them -- designed to trip or trap the spectator. He also suspended a Hat Rack from the ceiling of his studio. Perhaps the most famous of Duchamp's language-assisted readymades is L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), a cheap chromo reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa on which Duchamp penciled a moustache and goatee. Below it he "inscribed. . . letters which pronounced like initials in French, made a very risqué joke on the Gioconda," namely, "she has a hot cunt." Duchamp thought of the work as "a combination readymade and iconoclastic Dadaism."
What, exactly, are the ideas that these readymades recreate? They are sexual and aggressive: animal expressions given an intellectual edge -- made ironical -- by being displaced onto objects and into language. L.H.O.O.Q. de-idealizes a woman into a sex object in the act of vandalizing a world famous masterpiece -- certainly one way of gaining notoriety -- and the phallic spoke of the bicycle wheel aggressively penetrates the female kitchen stool. It is a chance sexual encounter resembling that of Lautréamont's sewing machine and umbrella, Surrealism's model for perverse incongruity. Duchamp's language is "a game of 'delirium metaphor'," "a strictly scaled game of nonsense arrayed against the vastness of a dreamlike transparency."(10) Texts become aggressively ambiguous, and sometimes seem altogether obscure, however evocative. Duchamp may have believed in the "precision and beauty of indifference,"(11) but his Dadaism is far from emotionally indifferent.
It tends to combine hauteur and sauvagerie, as in Comb. Duchamp's phrase is not as nonsensical as he says it is: "hauteur" means height, but it also means haughtiness or arrogance -- presenting oneself as superior to other human beings, as though standing on a height above them, and thus dismissing them contemptuously as inherently inferior and below one. Haughtiness and savagery are not exactly opposites: arrogance is a kind of attack on people from above, as it were, while savagery attacks them from below -- instinctively rather than intellectually. Duchamp's assertion that they have nothing to do with each other is meant to throw us off the track that leads to their inner connection. It is a deliberate deception, like the assertion that his phrase is nonsensical. The dissimulation quickly wears thin once one examines Duchamp's language closely.
The perverse incongruity of linking haughtiness and savagery is an example of what Duchamp calls the "ironism of affirmation," as distinct "from negative ironism which always depends solely on laughter." In other words, instead of one term canceling out the other, leaving a vacuum of meaning behind, they are perversely linked or ironically reconciled, deepening their meaning, however incongruous they look together. Ostensibly different, haughtiness and savagery are dialectically one and the same, for they have the same underlying purpose -- destructive dominance over others. Duchamp's Dadaism is no laughing matter. His works in general have a certain "haughty savagery" -- an ironical savagery. Presumably his devious irony makes his savagery superior to the straightforward savagery of the world. It also suggests that he is superior to his own savagery -- that he is haughtily sneering at it. In fact, his irony is an insidious way of mediating his savagery, indeed, a form of intellectual savagery.
The haughty, ironical savagery of the readymades is already apparent in the famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). This "static representation of movement," as Duchamp called it, cinematically dissects a female figure. It is filled with a good deal of Cubist irony -- Duchamp said it was "a very loose interpretation of the Cubist theories" (so loose, I would suggest, as to amount to a mockery of them) -- as well as pseudo-scientific quasi-precision. But the expressive point is that the figure is sadistically obliterated -- reduced to emotional absurdity. Duchamp's painting extends the negative, destructive attitude evident in Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters (1911) to woman in general. He violently "tore up [the] profiles" of his two younger sisters and "placed them at random on the canvas," which is not as humorous as he claims it is. Duchamp's destructive sexuality -- his penchant for violating the female body (even as he ironically identifies with woman, as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy, photographed by Man Ray, ca. 1920-21, suggests) -- reaches a kind of grand climax in his last work, Given: 1. The Waterfall. 2. The llluminating Gas (1944-46). Here Duchamp reveals the Peeping Tom -- the sexually curious child -- he always has been. Looking through the peep holes, one sees a diorama whose centerpiece is a female mannequin, passively reclining while raising a gas lamp (in his youth he made a drawing by gas light). Her vaginal opening is quite explicit, and in fact exaggerated, as though to suggest that she has been slit open. Is she the expression of the young boy's fear of being castrated, and thus becoming a woman -- the recognition that woman is terrifyingly different because she lacks a penis? Duchamp may not really have been happy as Rrose Sélavy. The irony of the name, a pun for "C'est la vie" (That's life), seems to be a reluctant, defensive acceptance of the idea of woman.
Duchamp is a kind of ironical Symbolist poet, using objects and language suggestively. Like the Symbolists, he thought of art as a play of associations and allusions, conveying what the critic Félix Fénéon called "the extreme motility of the idea."(12) His readymades are in effect symbols, in that they are "the interpretation [rather than descriptive representation] of a subject," as the poet Gustave Kahn said a symbol should be.(13) They have "esoteric affinities with primordial ideas," to use the words of the poet Jean Moréas.(14) Duchamp admired the works of Odilon Redon, an important Symbolist artist, famous for his portfolio of prints In the Dream (1879), and his influential idea of "suggestive art." Duchamp especially admired the prose poems of Jules Laforgue, one of which he illustrated in 1911. He planned to illustrate others. Laforgue invented "free verse" more or less simultaneously with Kahn. Duchamp's readymades can be understood as a kind of "free visual verse" -- free because they fuse the visual and the verbal, and wildly free because of the reciprocity between object and idea they establish. Free visual verse began with Mallarmé's "Un Coup des Dés" -- the first shaped poem, as it were -- and came into its own with Apollinaire's Alcools (1913) and Calligrammes (1918), ingenious typographical designs as well as complex poems, often with unusual verbal associations. By inscribing his ingenious poetical statements on objects Duchamp in effect three-dimensionalized free verse. The literal objects become ironical emblems of the idea suggested by the poem, which in turn is ironically "objectified."
Ezra Pound admired "the dance of the intellect among words" in Laforgue's poetry. Duchamp wants us to admire the dance of the intellect among the words in his assisted readymades, and above all between the words and the object on which they are written. Laforgue was also Duchamp's model in the use of language. He invented new words, and ironically juxtaposed "low" and "high" language in his poetry, creating an effect of incongruity. Terms from everyday speech and popular culture were given equal billing with terms from scientific and philosophical language, making for a certain linguistic perversity and excitement. Bored and lonely, and obsessed with death, Laforgue admired Schopenhauer's pessimism. It was transmuted into Duchamp's ironical pessimism. T. S. Eliot once said he wanted to "work out the implications of Laforgue." Duchamp seems to have done so. The writers J.-K. Huysmans, Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, Jean-Pierre Brisset and Mallarmé also "composed the literary microcosm of Marcel Duchamp,"(15) but Laforgue seemed to have been the most important one for Duchamp.
Laforgue justified his word play -- his apparently free verbal associations, combining seemingly incommensurate ideas -- by appealing to Edward von Hartmann's theory of the unconscious. Like Redon, he thought that it was governed by a universal law of harmony, so that all its manifestations made common cause, however different and novel they seemed. "My aim was turning inward," Duchamp declared(16) -- implicitly toward the unconscious. As he said, watching his bicycle wheel turn, or "looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace" (one appears in his last work), created "a sort of opening of avenues on other things than the material life of every day." They were devices for inducing a dream-like, hallucinatory state in which he could free associate according to what Redon called the "secret laws" or "imaginative logic" of the unconscious. Thus Duchamp's works justified themselves in terms of their inner necessity, like Kandinsky's, however much more ironical and destructive Duchamp's "spirituality" was. It is also worth noting that Walter Arensberg was a Symbolist of sorts. In 1921 he published The Cryptography of Dante, "a quasi-psychoanalytic, crypto-linguistic exegesis of The Divine Comedy claiming to have discovered the method for decoding the work's secret meanings. . . . Most significant, however, is Arensberg's engagement with word-play and the sometimes sexual underbelly of cryptic structures -- a preoccupation shared by his friend Duchamp, among others. The cryptographic structures Arensberg decoded include the simple pun, the acrostic, the anagram and the anagrammatic acrostic,"(17) all of which were used by Duchamp.
Before inventing the readymade, Duchamp was a minor painter. His best works were quasi-Fauvist, and he continued to admire Matisse even after repudiating him as the emblematic physical or instinctive painter. Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel (1910), with its "violent coloring" and "touch of deliberate distortion" -- Duchamp's words -- is an important example. The Cubist Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2, Duchamp's most notorious work -- it was described as an "explosion in a shingle factory" when it was exhibited in the New York Armory Show in 1913 -- was even more distorted and violent. By 1918 he had turned completely against what he called "the zoo of painting," as Tu m', his final painting, indicated. The title, short for "tu m'emmerdes" ["you're shitting me," or "you make me angry"] makes the negative point succinctly. Tu m' may be a dictionary of Duchamp's ideas, as he said it was, but it is also a dissection of painting -- a kind of anatomy lesson performed on the corpse of painting. He in effect dismembers painting, not only doing it violence, but carrying modernist distortion to an ironical extreme.
Tu m' has all the ingredients of a painting, but they are strewn randomly across the frieze-like surface, and reduced to signs of themselves. "Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought," Duchamp said with respect to the Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and in Tu m' he reduces painting to its essentials, giving them ironical form: color, evident in a series of color samples; illusion, evident in the shadows of several readymades, which hung from the ceiling of his studio; and line, evident in the curved lines of Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14), "an experiment. . . made. . . to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance." The clue to the meaning of Tu m' is at its center: the trompe l'oeil illusion of a hand, with a pointing index finger (painted by a sign painter named A. Klang, German for "sound"), that emerges from the handle of the shadow of the Corkscrew. This ironical sign of the painter's hand -- it appears at the convergence of two diagonals, the corkscrew's shadow and a shadowy, lightning-like rip in the canvas (another trompe-l'oeil illusion, held together by actual safety pins, with an actual bottle brush inserted in it, making it even more ironical and "intellectual") -- is a kind of punctuation mark in the middle of the sentence which Tu m' is. Duchamp has transformed a standard painting into a syntactically distorted sentence-picture-painting. He has verbalized the visual, as it were, creating a cryptographic calligramme -- a poetic design of "prosaic" signifiers. Simply put, he has made a picture poem -- a poem that is a composite of seemingly incongruous pictorial fragments, each a ghostly shadow, that nonetheless hang together in the big intellectual picture that Tu m' subliminally is.
All this is part of Duchamp's effort -- successful, I think -- to "pataphysicalize" painting. Tu m' may be full of what look like accidents -- may seem to be the result of invisible chance, made visible through ghostly, accidental appearances -- but it is no accident that the shadow of Three Standard Stoppages appears in it. In fact, along with the hand, it makes the strongest, most memorable appearance. It was apparently of special importance for Duchamp. He made Three Standard Stoppages by dropping a one meter long piece of thread from a one meter height "without controlling the distortion of the thread during the fall." Three different threads were used, resulting in three different shapes. Each was attached to a canvas, and the one meter unit of length "was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another." Tu m' is Duchamp's attempt to cast pataphysical doubt on painting -- to render it absurd.
Pataphysics is the ironical pseudo-science invented by Alfred Jarry -- the logic of the absurd he described in Gestures and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911). Jarry, who rode around Paris on a bicycle, often with a revolver -- one wonders if Duchamp's mounted bicycle wheel was an unconscious homage to him (he died in 1907) -- was famous for the play Ubu Roi (1896), a parody usually regarded as the first work in what later came to be called the Theater of the Absurd. The sadistic King Ubu is a symbol of bourgeois stupidity and cupidity. Duchamp's Tu m' is a parody of painting, indeed, a sadistic attack on painting, the bourgeois art par excellence. Duchamp uses all his intellect to suggest that it is absurd and stupid. Tu m' is an absurd, stupid painting, all the more because of its (ironically) "torn" condition, which made it unsaleable -- truly "stupid" from a bourgeois point of view. As he proudly said about Comb, it was a true readymade because it had never even been stolen -- unlike the Mona Lisa, for example -- suggesting that it had no commercial value. It was just a cheap comb made of cheap material, which Duchamp completely ruined -- rendered useless, and thus ironically "immaterial" -- by writing upon it. Duchamp's works were ironically "priceless" -- no price could be put on them because they lacked esthetic value. Indeed, Tu m', like the readymades it ironically incorporates, is deliberately anti-esthetic. They are, after all, not really art in the conventional sense of the term -- just banal objects that had been given intellectual value, which stripped them of economic value. (Ironically, Duchamp earned his living selling other artist's works, especially paintings, rather than his own.) Tu m', then, is an illusion of a painting full of illusions, including real objects that function in an illusory way, that is, simply as part of the picture. The absurdity of Tu m' makes it clear that Duchamp is a Pataphysician. Indeed, he combines in his person the alchemical talents of Doctor Faustroll -- he turns conventional physical painting into unconventional intellectual gold -- with the sadism of King Ubu. Sometimes he seems more Faustroll, sometimes more Ubu -- he thought of himself as an alchemist as well as prankster ("wise guy") -- which is why it is hard to say whether Tu m' turns physical painting into intellectual gold or the esthetic gold of painting into heavy-handed nonsense.
The pataphysical Tu m' would have fitted right in the 1883 Paris exhibition called "Les Arts Incohérents" ("The Incoherent Arts"), which featured bizarre experiments, such as a work composed of a live, carrot-munching caged rabbit with a real cord around its neck that ended up in the mouth of a man painted on a canvas; and a landscape in which the moon was made of real bread and the trees of real goose feathers.(18) But Duchamp's greatest pataphysical painting -- the painting which casts the greatest pataphysical doubt on painting, indeed, which is the ultimate Anti-Painting or negation of painting, all the more so because it ironically resembles a painting -- is The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, otherwise known as the Large Glass. It was started in 1915 and completed by accident, as it were -- or "incompleted," as Duchamp said -- in 1923. On one level it stands to a conventional painting the way a negative stands to a photograph, only one cannot develop a positive image from it -- reproduce it -- which in part is why it is a conceptual painting. It has the format of a painting -- indeed, an ironical diptych, for one half is above rather than beside the other half -- but its two panels are made of glass and framed in metal, and its imagery made of wire as well as paint. Unlike a conventional painting, which is a flat, opaque surface on which an illusion is created, the Large Glass is a see-through painting, creating the illusion of incorporating the surrounding world by way of its transparency. Seen through the Large Glass -- ironically appearing in it as though in a perverse mirror -- the surrounding world seems like a mirage. The scene it depicts is also a kind of a mirage -- a hallucinatory vision of "autistic intercourse," as Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr. calls it,(19) or, as Duchamp himself said (in the Green Box notes), the "love operation" of two machines. It is a futile, ungratifying romance: the Bride machine in the upper panel never hooks up with the Bachelor machine in the lower panel. It should have received the "love gasoline" produced by the Bride's "sexual glands" in its "malic" cylinders, where it would have mixed with the "chocolate" the Bachelor "grinds," forming a greasy "lubricity" that the "electric sparks of the undressing" should ignite, but the tube descending from the realm of the Bride dangles uselessly, never reaching into the realm of the Bachelors. ("Lubricity" is a wonderful double entendre: it means both slipperiness and lewdness. A lubricant reduces friction even as it suggests discharge.)
Duchamp's Bachelor party is a failure: the Bachelors and the Bride don't connect, or else the connection they had is broken, never to be re-established. Lucky for the Bride: The result would have been a gang rape. Perhaps it was a fantasy to begin with: The whole picture is a kind of dream. If a dream is a wish fulfillment, as Freud said, and then the wish fulfilled is not to relate to the Bride. She is, after all, much larger and more intimidating than the Bachelors. The bachelor Duchamp dreams of her, but he doesn't really want to marry her. The Bachelors in fact may be incapable of consummating the relationship, so busy are they masturbating -- so absorbed are they in making their own chocolate. Duchamp once described painting as "olfactory masturbation," and his painting Sad Young Man on a Train (1911) shows him secretly masturbating. The Bachelors in the Large Glass are too busy producing and spending their seed to pay attention to the Bride, as suggested by the fact that they never bother to construct a tube -- get an erection, as it were -- that could reach and fit the Bride's tube. She is simply the pornographic fantasy to which they pay the homage of masturbation.
André Breton called the Large Glass "a mechanistic and cynical interpretation of the phenomenon of love." It is indeed a kind of altarpiece, as its huge size (8 feet 11 inches by 5 feet 7 inches) suggests, but to sexuality not love, which involves the relationship of persons not simply bodies. Even sexuality is negated by being presented as an absurd, somewhat labored mechanical rather than spontaneous organic event, just as the body is negated by being represented as a clumsy machine -- a kind of malfunctioning, even useless robot. Steefel says that the Large Glass is Duchamp's "final commitment to full suppression of all 'human' affect in his work" -- a deadening of affect that confirms the determination to dehumanize the human that pervades Duchamp's work.
The Large Glass brings together the machine and sexual iconography of Duchamp's earlier works, for example, Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighboring Metals (1913) and Chocolate Grinder No. 1 (1913) and No. 2 (1914) as well as Virgin and Bride, and above all The Passage from Virgin to Bride, all 1912, also machine figures. The Large Glass is ostensibly about the sexual initiation of a virgin that occurs when she becomes a bride. But of course she never is sexually initiated -- never makes the passage from virgin to bride. I want to suggest that this is because the Large Glass is not about marriage in the conventional sense: It is an occult depiction of Magna Mater -- the goddess Cybele -- and her male worshippers, who become her priests by castrating themselves. William Rubin notes that Duchamp's masterpiece is "one of the most obscure and hermetic works ever produced," all the more so because it uses all kinds of defunct religious and mythological symbols.(20) But they remain emotionally alive, and bespeak universal feelings, and Duchamp's obscurantism and "mystification," as Rubin calls it, is a way of defending against these feelings in the act of symbolizing them.
The religious myth at the root of the Large Glass is that of Magna Mater: Duchamp's work is a fantasy of submission to the mother -- an unconscious expression of male devotion to the most fundamental, sacred woman in a man's life, a devotion that is sometimes so complete that it prevents him from consummating a relationship with another woman. The mother, after all, was one's bride at the beginning of one's life, and remains the ideal bride, for both man and woman.
The looming, isolated, complex figure in the upper panel of the Large Glass is clearly not of the same order of being as the simpler figures in the lower panel, who huddle together in a crowd, awestruck by her appearance. They are directly below the grandiose goddess, in effect worshipping her -- humbling themselves before her. They are earthbound, she floats in heaven. Her awesome, magnanimous discharge, in effect a display of power and universality -- it is at once organic and geometrical (square eggs in an amorphous body?) -- confirms her grandeur. The realms of the Bride and Bachelors can never meet, because they are incommensurate and irreconcilable, but the Bachelors can pay homage to the Bride, with their own inadequate product. But in fact they have none: the chocolate may be grinding, but we don't see any sign of it, unless it is in the brown color of the machinery and figures. It seems no accident that chocolate is the color of shit -- let us recall that Duchamp reduced painting to shit in Tu m', and note that, "during the course of the Second World War" he became interested "in the preparation of shit, of which small excretions from the navel are 'de luxe' editions"(21) -- suggesting that the "love gasoline" of the Bachelors is in fact so much shit -- glorified grease, as it were. Magna Mater is cloud-gray, luminous and clean-looking in comparison.
The Bachelors are in fact so many neutered pawns of Magna Mater -- the Queen. The game of love is a game of chess -- a game in which the Queen has more power than the King. They can both move in all directions, but he can only move a step at a time, while she can leap as far as possible within the limits of the game. The game is lost when he is captured, but she plays a bigger role in it. In other words, the traditional roles and conceptions of man and woman are reversed: In chess, the male figure is passive, unimposing and impotent, the female figure dynamic, all-powerful and inspiring. She is supposed to use her power to protect her King, but she can also use it to destroy the opposing King, and undertake adventures of her own against his forces. The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912) makes it clear that the Large Glass is an ironic chess game -- a war that has ended in a stalemate. "The chess figures of the King and Queen" are surrounded by "swift nudes," ostensibly "a flight of imagination introduced to satisfy my preoccupation of movement." But they are also a disruptive sexual distraction, suggesting that the marriage of the King and Queen is in trouble. That trouble becomes evident in the Large Glass, which separates them. The Queen is supreme in her domain; the little Kings -- the King goes to pieces, a Humpty Dumpty who has had a fall from power -- are ineffective in their domain. Her machinery clearly works, while theirs doesn't.
Duchamp once said: "A chess game is very plastic. You construct it. It's mechanical sculpture and with chess one creates beautiful problems and that beauty is made with the head and the hands." He also said: "Beauty in chess does not seem to be a visual experience. Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry."(22) As the Large Glass makes clear, the beauty of both chess and poetry is a matter of the position of the pieces or words, which can be intellectually manipulated to all kinds of plastic effect. It is a mechanical sculpture and giant chess game, full of many beautiful problems, both intellectual and physical. It reduces love to pataphysical absurdity -- conveyed by the contradictory perspectives of the upper and lower domains -- even as it ironically proclaims its triumph and inevitability.
The pataphysical character of the Large Glass was confirmed by the way it was "finished." Duchamp stopped working on it in 1923, and it was first exhibited in 1926 in the Brooklyn Museum. On its way back to Katherine Dreier, its owner, the two sheets of glass, which had been placed face to face in a crate, shattered when the truck carrying it bounced. This was not discovered until the crate was opened several years later. Duchamp welcomed this act of chance, and reassembled the fragments -- the sheets had broken into symmetrical arcs -- in 1936. The work had acquired an accidental grace, making it more lively -- the cracks in the glass are the dynamic element in what is otherwise a static representation (the machines had stopped working)-- ironically finishing it. The cracks of chance are the real "liquid elemental scattering" -- the orgasm of the Bachelors -- that the work is about.
Duchamp's enormous success has to do with his ironical language, perverse sexuality and obsession with machines -- the symbol of modernity. He projected his "troubling obsessions" and "personal passions" into them, as Steefel wrote. Duchamp once said to him: "I did not really love the machine. It was better to do it to machines than to people, or doing it to me." The first machine Duchamp pictured, the Coffee Mill (1911), was an ironical wedding present to his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon. "Every kitchen needs a coffee grinder, so here is one from me" -- one that was useless, thus suggesting his dislike of marriage. The Chocolate Grinder (1913) is also a domestic machine, and thus also tainted. The Bicycle Wheel, With Hidden Noise and Traveler's Folding Item are private, enigmatic machines, and the readymades are industrial artifacts put to ironic personal use -- artistic use. Again and again Duchamp uses irony to strip everyday, domestic objects, associated with intimacy, of their sentimental meaning.
Jules Laforgue, Duchamp's model, tried to do the same thing, as Remy de Gourmont remarks: "[H]e sought to free himself from his youthful sentimentalism. Irony was the instrument he used; but his sentimentalism resisted and he never succeeded in vanquishing it. . . . Love, at the first blow, vanquished irony."(23) Duchamp was more successful: Irony vanquished love, after repeatedly abusing it. Laforgue was a master of "sentimental irony," but in Duchamp sentimentality -- any show of affection -- is inhibited by irony. Sentimentality is systematically mocked by being reduced to sexuality, and sexuality is mocked by being reduced to a mechanical event. It turns into an ironical joke on those who engage in it. Nonetheless, for all their ironical indifference, Duchamp's readymades are peculiarly intimate, indeed, as subliminally sentimental as his imagery in general: the mysterious intimacy of love -- of which sexuality is the physical token -- has been displaced onto them, and is responsible for their air of mystery. They are resonant "with hidden noise" -- the noise of love-making. Or else they whisper words of love -- haughty words of savagery, as the Comb the artist uses to make his toilet suggests. This is of course the poetic foreplay that occurs In Advance of the Broken Arm, a metaphor for the problematic penis. It may be too indifferent to perform, even with mechanical indifference -- indifference may be a rationalization of impotence, a masquerade for inhibition. But perhaps Duchamp is referring to the fate of all penises -- to collapse into detumescence after performing, a depressing detumescence if the performance was merely mechanical, that is, loveless.
Duchamp once said there were two poles in art, the object and the subject who viewed it. It was the subject who made the object into art, that is, gave it esthetic and expressive value, however ironically. The subject is implicitly a male voyeur projecting his erotic and aggressive fantasies onto the object -- a Peeping Tom, as it were. Both The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas incorporate the Peeping Tom. The precedent for the peepholes of the latter was established by the magnifying lens in the former -- or rather what had been a series of three magnifying lenses in To Be Looked at with One Eye [From the Other Side of the Glass], Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918). One was at the center of a standard oculist chart. In the Large Glass there are three of them (but no magnifying lens), forming the group Duchamp called the "Oculist Witnesses" to the sexual scene.
"Oculist" suggests "occult": the Large Glass is an occult scene -- a dream picture. To look closely at something with one eye for almost an hour is to put oneself into a trance -- to hypnotize oneself, and thus to be susceptible to suggestion. As Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud said, it is a hysterical state, in which one is in touch with one's unconscious -- with the hidden or dissociated part of one's psyche, that is, one's occult self. A work of art is an occult phenomenon created in a hysterical state of mind: It is a phenomenon created by autosuggestion -- a "vision" suggested to one by one's occult self. All looking is occult, Duchamp suggests, that is, it draws on the unconscious of the viewer. The readymades are occult objects -- objects that hypnotize the viewer into believing that they have a secret or occult meaning. They hypnotize the viewer into believing they are works of art. The Large Glass does the same, partly by the hypnotic character of the chess pieces and machines, partly by the way it has to be seen: up close, to avoid the distraction of the environment seen through it. Seen this way, it draws on the viewer's unconscious, more particularly, his sexual fears and fantasies.
Thus Duchamp's famous optical devices are not simply experimental art, but experiments in hypnotism. Duchamp's first motorized machine, the Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) (1920), is meant to hypnotize the viewer, putting him in contact with his unconscious. It is an occult device -- an occult work of art. Similarly, the Frames from an Incompleted Stereoscopic Film (1920) by Duchamp and Man Ray -- they attempted to film an object from two slightly different points of view simultaneously -- suggests the doubleness of the mind, that is, the difference between conscious and unconscious seeing. It is like a watch swung in front of someone's eyes to hypnotize him. The subtly moving object cannot help but become hypnotic, suggesting that Duchamp's studies in movement -- including the Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 -- are meant to have hypnotic effect. Man Ray's 1920 photograph of b on the lower half of the Large Glass, seen on its face in Duchamp's studio, suggests its hysterical-hallucinatory character. The amorphous dust and the geometrical design forms a hypnotic terrain -- a stimulant to incoherent feelings, seemingly aroused by chance, that is, in the unconscious.
Notes(9) All quotations from Duchamp are from "The Works of Marcel Duchamp: A Catalog," Marcel Duchamp (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), unless otherwise noted.
(10) Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., "Marcel Duchamp and the Machine," ibid., p. 75.
(11) Quoted in Richard Hamilton, "The Large Glass," ibid., p. 67
(12) Quoted in Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 126
(13) Quoted in ibid., p. 174
(14) Quoted in ibid., p. 151
(15) Quoted in Michel Sanouillet, "Marcel Duchamp and the French Intellectual Tradition," Marcel Duchamp, p. 49
(16) Quoted in William S. Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968), p. 16
(17) Francis M. Nauman and Beth Venn, eds., Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996), p. 153
(18) Robert Rosenblum, 19th-Century Art (New York: Abrams, 1984), pp.
(19) Steefel, p. 75
(20) Rubin, p. 20
(21) "Preface by Salvador Dali, L'échecs, c'est moi (Chess, it's me.)," Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne (New York: Viking, 1971), p. 13
(22) Quoted in Anne d'Harnoncourt, "Introduction," Marcel Duchamp, p. 39
(23) Remy de Gourmont, Selected Writings, ed. Glenn S. Burne (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 199-200
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here