“By now, art that is based on a concept or language proposition is older than most folks’ grandparents, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that so much 20th-century art leaves us scratching our heads and making a beeline for the crumpets at Starbucks.”—guest blogger Karen L. Mulder
|Rene Magritte, 1928.|
Admittedly, art that relies on a concept to turn the gears in our brains is fragile indeed— it relies on us viewers to make connections with mysterious, even half-tendered proposals rather than providing the traditional visual standbys of good form, technique, or material handling. These days, the ersatz rules of engagement even disallow the use of the word “good,” and if you presume to make an educated or informed response you can’t simply say “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.” (Stalin could, though, and he brutally shut down ‘bourgeois formalists’ like Malevich, who handily reverted to social realism so as to remain out of the Gulag.)
By now, art based on a concept or language proposition is older than most folks’ grandparents, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that so much 20th-century art leaves us scratching our heads and making a beeline for the crumpets at Starbucks.
Testifying to his brand of genius, Duchamp anticipated this conundrum in the early 1900s by foisting the readymade on the art world. This artwork, presented rather than ‘made’ in the traditional sense, consisted wholly of mass-manufactured, barely altered items such as a bottle-drying rack or a urinal. Duchamp’s evocative titles suggested meaning without revealing it. What is one to make of the noiseless Ball of Twine (With Hidden Noise)? Or the clear glass orb titled 50cc of Paris Air? What about a hardware-grade snow shovel propped against the wall with a curatorial panel titled In Advance of a Broken Arm? And what of the iconic Fountain—an accurate nickname for a plumbing fixture, even though it never served its intended purpose as a pissoir or funneled a drop of running water? Duchamp then played with validating (and perhaps transfiguring) the urinal’s status as art by dating and signing it with the fictitious “R. Mutt”—another wordplay on the status of artists in 1917?
|Fountain, a replica of Duchamp's 1917 submission.|
Later on, Duchamp’s main patron and booster, the collector Walter Arensberg, effused about seeing a transcendent Buddha in the form, but Duchamp purportedly assigned no such meaning to his act. On its face, Duchamp’s Fountain was more essentially about the act of entering a urinal in a supposedly avant-garde exhibit in New York that had stridently broadcast its intention to break all the rules. But wait! Fountain was downright rejected. That refusal framed Duchamp’s rationale. Who decided what could be called a work of art? In this case, the avant-gardistes themselves in the cultural outpost of New York decided. They wanted to be taken seriously by the art world but also wanted to project a progressive front, and Duchamp duped them. (btw, Dear ol’ New York was not considered sophisticated on the international art scene until the New York School in the 1950s—ironically generated, in part, by transplanted Europeans like DeKooning and Mondrian.)
|Marcel Duchamp ‘descending a staircase,’ Life, 1952 (a spoof on his iconic cubist piece Nude Descending a Staircase, below, of 1912).|
Duchamp’s resurrection began in the 60s; by the 80s philosophers like Danto and writers like Octavio Paz began issuing their considerations on the great, albeit forgotten impact that Duchamp had levied on modern art. Is it any wonder that two language wizards, a scholar of aesthetics and a Nobel literature laureate, devoted entire books to Duchamp’s mysterious language propositions? Paz’s Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare grew out of an essay composed for the MoMA retrospective on Duchamp in 1973. This was not his first Duchamp piece; he had written about other assemblages in the late 1960s. He was particularly entranced by Duchamp’s Green Box, which included a color photo with ‘explanations’ and schematics for The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even)—a complicated, inscrutable piece that Duchamp decreed “finally unfinished” in 1923. Paz became drawn in by this work’s stubborn inexplicability. So in essence, Appearance is Paz’s attempt to disentangle Duchamp’s process as well as the artist’s firm reluctance to expose his process—which is part of what gives The Large Glass its significance and allure (sort of like Mona Lisa’s smile).
|The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), original in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with shattered glass from shortly after Duchamp completed the piece in 1923.|
I recommend reading Paz in tandem with The Duchamp Book. Clearly written by an art historian and scholar of Surrealism from the Courtauld, this illustrated monograph is part of the Tate’s “Essential Artists” series. It's a compact resource that supersedes the many other series books about Duchamp, and concludes with helpful bits about his timeline, exhibit history, and select commentary. So, while Paz brings the lyricism and poetry, Gavin Parkinson supplies the historical conversation about Duchamp, vastly aided by an encyclopedic quantity of color images. Taken together, these two titles provide engaging and freshly conceived bookends to the art of Duchamp’s insults.
Art and architectural historian Karen Mulder's favorite quote about art comes from Flaubert (and was, of course, purloined by Picasso): “Of all lies, art is the least untrue.” Put that in your croissant and smoke it!
Further reading: Figures and Figurations by Octavio & Marie Jose Paz (Bilingual Edition).