Absurdism, Art, Marcel Duchamp, Photography

What Marcel Duchamp taught me

An exhibition opened in London this weekend featuring fifty artists showing work under the title What Marcel Duchamp taught me.*

Marcel Duchamp was a chess player who also turned his hand to cigar smoking. As a young man, between 1913 and 1917, he invented conceptual art and is regarded as the most influential artist of the twentieth century. However if art was for him a diversion, chess was a lifelong preoccupation.

He spent most of 1916 and 1917 in New York at Marshall’s chess club on 4th Street. In 1918 in Buenos Aires, striving to be a professional player, referring to himself as a “chess maniac”, he played chess for nine months (having carved his own wooden pieces). He returned to his native Paris after the war and in 1923 gave up art to study chess. In 1925 he was third in the French chess championships and was made a chess master. He played for France in the 1928 and 1933 Chess Olympiad. His wife Lydia was driven so jealous by his attention to the game that she glued his pieces to a board to thwart his play. The marriage lasted seven months. Lydia after their divorce wrote a memoir called A Marriage in Check and for years afterwards signed her letters Lydiote. From the early 1930s he was a chess journalist and in 1932 he won the Paris International Tournament. He played the greats of his time: Capablance (lost), Koltanowski (draw), Tartakower (won). In 1935 and 1939 he was the undefeated champion of the French team. In 1943 he invented an endgame problem with no solution that Samuel Becket in 1957 turned into a play, Endgame. His book Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled was published in French, English and German.

In 1913 in his studio in Paris he mounted a bicycle wheel onto an upside down fork which he fixed to a white kitchen stool (seen in replica in the photograph above, with Duchamp). He loved the movement of the spokes when spun in situ and the reflected light that it gave, but he never thought of exhibiting it. This, Bicycle Wheel, was his first readymade and in 1914 the Bottle Dryer followed. After his move to New York in 1915 came Snow Shovel, Typewriter Cover, Hat Rack, Comb, Coat Rack, Corkscrew and most influentially of all the iconic urinal Fountain in 1917. These were mass produced items made in industrial factories that he selected to be his art. These pre-made objects were chosen and declared art by the artist, exhibited as art by the artist, named and signed as art by the artist. Duchamp thus invented conceptual art, the dominant art form of the second half of the twentieth century. His was an art devoid of taste and aesthetics but involved chance, humour and indifference instead: his principles in life. He wanted to escape what he called ‘retinal art’. He had a lifelong quest to relieve art of its seriousness and replace it instead with the comic and with chance. With Bicycle Wheel, Duchamp reinvented the wheel.

There was a permanence about his chess: games played recorded in notation, articles and books published, chess problems written, a Beckett play in the canon, whereas there was an impermanence about his art. All the works mentioned above (except Comb) are now lost. Duchamp’s indifference whilst making them, extended to an indifference to what became of them. He was disdainful of the commercialisation of art. Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Dryer were thrown away when his sister Suzanne cleared out his Paris studio during the First World War. Fountain was placed into the New York garbage after the exhibition organisers refused to place it in their show. The other readymades in New York were gradually discarded. In 1918 he did take photographs of the shadows of at least four of his readymades: “one may consider the shadow of the corkscrew a readymade rather than the corkscrew itself.” In the 1950s and 1960s replicas of the famous pieces were made: an ersatz Bicycle Wheel and Fountain are now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There is a Duchampian irony here: the power of the mass produced utilitarian originals is now signified by exquisitely hand-crafted replacements. The photograph above shows the facsimile copy of the Bicycle Wheel (and its shadow on the wall). It is a photograph of a shadow from a replica of a seminal work of art that was once mass produced in a factory. The smoke from his Havana cigar seems to have more permanence than his readymade.

There is therefore a problem when exhibiting a solo show about Duchamp; there is almost nothing to exhibit. The Barbican Art Gallery put on a Duchamp exhibition, in 2013, about his influence on the American artists Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, and most of the work displayed was by them. At the moment there is an exhibition of Duchamp’s paintings at the Pompidou Centre, Paris (until January 2015); it is padded out with the work of Matisse, Manet (and even Durer). Tate Modern produced a show in 2008 on Duchamp, that had to include Man Ray and Picabia. The current London exhibition What Marcel Duchamp taught me circumvents this problem by making it the work of other artists only. Chris Levine the light artist, for example, has scanned one of Duchamp’s chess pieces and turned it into a hologram. Picasso said of contemporary artists: “They loot Duchamp’s store and change the wrapping”. It is clearly still true today. It is said that there is an obsession with Duchamp’s influence on modern artists, but what else is there to look at?

Chess rather than art suited more his sense of observation and contemplation, the silence, the pure mental state of being, the taking ones time, the love of game. “It is a peaceful way of understanding life. Play with life then you are more alive than people who only believe in religion and art.” Duchamp wanted to counteract the materialistic world with silence, slowness and solitude. His great friend the novelist Henri-Pierre Roche said of him “his finest work was his use of time.” What Marcel Duchamp taught me was the merits of irony, indifference, ambiguity, chance, unpredictability and laziness. Especially laziness: I would have wanted to work, but deep down I’m enormously lazy. I like living, breathing better than working I don’t think that the work I’ve done can have any social importance whatsoever in the future. My art is that of living: each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral. One could say that I spend my time breathing. I am a respirator – a breather. I enjoy it tremendously.

*Fine Art Society, New Bond Street, London (from 17th October until 5th November 2014).

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