• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Confidence Man

The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture

by Jerrold Seigel
University of California Press, 291 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The Popular Culture of Modern Art: Picasso, Duchamp, and Avant-Gardism

by Jeffrey Weiss
Yale University Press, 331 pp., $45.00

The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp

edited by Thierry de Duve
MIT Press, 488 pp., $29.95 (paper)

New York Dada 1915-23

by Francis M. Naumann
Abrams, 255 pp., $60.00

Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York

edited by Francis M. Naumann, with Beth Venn. Catalog of the Whitney Museum exhibition, which closed on February 23.
Whitney Museum of American Art/Abrams, 304 pp., $49.50

Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Esthetics

by Heather Busch, by Burton Silver
Ten Speed Press, 96 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Le vrai héros s’amuse tout seul.”



For fifty years after he had avowedly ceased painting, Marcel Duchamp spent much of his time advising friends what art works to collect. He helped Katherine Dreier form the one-woman museum of modern art called the Société Anonyme, Inc. When plans were made to donate the collection to Yale University in the Forties, Duchamp wrote thirty-three one-page biographical and critical notices on artists from Archipenko to Jacques Villon. If he had decided, not uncharacteristically, to include a notice on himself as one of Dreier’s artists, he would probably have produced an astute blend of truth and fable, like the others he wrote. Let me imagine such an account by lifting terms and phrases from the notices he did write.

A tournament chess player and intermittent artist, Marcel Duchamp was born in France in 1887 and died a United States citizen in 1968. He was at home in both countries and divided his time between them. At the New York Armory show of 1913, his Nude Descending a Staircase delighted and offended the press, provoked a scandal that made him famous in absentia at age twenty-six, and drew him to the United States in 1915. After four exciting years in New York City, he departed and devoted most of his time to chess until about 1954. A number of young artists and curators in several countries then rediscovered Duchamp and his work. He had returned to New York in 1942 and during his last decade there, between 1958 and 1968, he once again became famous and influential.

With the strong personality of a pioneer, he navigated his own way around the Cubist and Futurist creeds and away from theories of abstraction during the “heroic” period of 1912-1913. An able cartoonist, he also concerned himself with physics and mathematics. From an early age, Duchamp addressed himself to two questions: Can one produce mental works of art not reliant on primarily retinal effects? Is it possible to produce works that are not works of art? His series of manufactured objects—chosen, signed, exhibited, and named “readymades”—and his Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1913-1923, accompanied by extensive published notes and drawings) display a restless playful intelligence that sometimes sought a refined aesthetic state. Duchamp demonstrated that new forms of art could be invented after the domination of Impressionism. An aloof person, he nevertheless enjoyed the loyalty and affection of many friends.

Can we do better than this bare synopsis? The most probing short assessment of Duchamp’s accomplishment can be found in a dozen double-column pages near the opening of William Rubin’s Dada and Surrealist Art.1 Since about 1960 a mass of writings has appeared on every aspect of Duchamp’s life, works, and influence. One discovers, whatever it means, that he never learned to swim, drive a car, dance, or type, that his family supported his becoming an artist even though at eighteen he failed the entrance examination for the Beaux-Arts school in Paris, and that this alleged loner left behind an extensive correspondence with family, friends, admirers, and critics. The young Duchamp comes to life again during the brief chess-playing sequence in René Clair’s and Picabia’s superb avant-garde film Entr’acte (1924). In it, he makes the awkward unrestrained gestures of an adolescent, the way Julien Levy described him two decades later and the way I observed him during a few encounters in the Sixties.

One way to locate Duchamp’s singular case history in the development of modern and modernist art is to enumerate the different roles he maintained quite comfortably and naturally through many social circumstances.

1.Detached and laconic by temperament, Duchamp behaved with an ironic serenity that increased with age. Some considered him a true dandy in the Baudelairean tradition of turning oneself into a work of art, a new post-revolutionary aristocrat. His friend Henri-Pierre Roché gave him the most alluring endorsement: “His most lovely work is his use of time.”

2.In both word and deed, Duchamp was an incorrigible joker. He produced a huge collection of verbal puns and anagrams, among them a few gems (objet dard; anemic cinema). His few mature works of art could be considered visual-verbal puns.

3.These aesthetic puns arose from Duchamp’s role as a frontiersman who thrived on the two borders that he helped make central to the whole modernist foray: the border between art and non-art, and the border between art and life. On these unmapped and now overmapped frontiers, he served as pacifist agent provocateur, tour guide, and tolerated smuggler.

4.As a chess player, Duchamp competed internationally and spent huge segments of time studying chess moves. All his life he trained himself in long-term strategy, exercising his imagination within the inflexible rules of an ancient game.

5.Duchamp was a lady-killer—handsome, slender, quietly good-natured, non-predatory, enjoying the field more than playing it. He could have married many an American heiress. Instead, his first, brief marriage to an unlikely French girl confounded his friends. His second marriage, at age sixty-six, lasted until his death and radiated warm sentiments in all directions. Women formed an important part of his life.

6.Duchamp learned how to withdraw from projects to which he appeared committed. In his mid-twenties he stopped making traditional paintings and devoted himself to irregular enterprises along the outskirts of art. The central theme of The Large Glass appears to be the non-consummation of an intricately proffered and reciprocally desired sexual act. The three women closest to him through most of his life, two of them presumably his mistresses, testified to a “certain deadness,” and to a “strange tendency…to be neutral in relationships.” The benign lady-killer did not conceal his lack of what the rest of us might call a heart. This Tin Man may have found his Dorothy once—but too late.

7.As an advisor to art collectors and galleries and museums, Duchamp had a large influence on the art market in the United States during half a century. John Quinn, Walter Arensberg, Katherine Dreier, Julien Levy, Peggy Guggenheim, Sidney Janis, and Walter Hopps listened to him with confidence. In general his recommendations were sound and free of petty jealousy. Only the more doctrinaire forms of Abstract Expressionism from the New York school provoked him to tart remarks.

This noncombatant abstainer contrived to position himself in the eye of the storm that is still traversing modernist art. Was it luck or canniness? During his lifetime his example supplied an essential impulse for Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art. He gave his blessing to Happenings. For the quarter century since Duchamp’s death, his cultural stock has continued to rise. Amid the flood of specialized studies, catalogs, and collective volumes devoted to him, no reliable full-scale biography had appeared in either French or English until recently. Now we have two new books in English for the intelligent general reader. They carry on the Duchamp saga with effects that I shall have to approach slowly.


A New York and New Yorker writer, Calvin Tomkins published an admiring sixty-page essay on Duchamp in 1962. Three years later the essay led off his book The Bride and the Bachelors, in which Duchamp appears as the bride or paragon of four avant-garde artists: John Cage, Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham. Through chance, humor, and courtship of the commonplace, they all break down the boundary between art and life. The fleshing out of Tomkins’s Sixties tribute has produced a readable, well-documented biography of an elusive figure. The book as a whole argues that Duchamp is an exemplary artist who shaped his life more successfully than his art. Why then does Tomkins open with a chapter on The Large Glass, since he feels obliged to tell us near the start that this multimedia work “sheds relatively little light on the mystery of Marcel Duchamp”? Things become clearer when Tomkins begins at the beginning and goes on to describe Duchamp’s life in workmanlike narrative prose.

Proceeding chronologically, Tomkins divides the life into twenty-eight chapters or clusters of events; they convey the sense of an episodic career, alternating between withdrawal and renewal. Tomkins has discovered a considerable amount of new information from interviews with survivors and offspring of those who were involved with him and from archives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and elsewhere. These materials concern Duchamp’s personal life more than his work as an artist.

Of the six children born to the prosperous Normandy notary Eugène Duchamp and his withdrawn wife, four became artists with parental approval and a modest allowance. At seventeen, with his baccalaureate behind him, Marcel followed his two older brothers to Paris. He took up with the artistes humoristiques and produced cartoons before settling down to paint his way through a two-year recapitulation of the major styles since Impressionism: Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. In a chapter called “The New Spirit,” Tomkins surveys the churning intellectual background of the pre-World War I years, from Henri Bergson’s élan vital to Alfred Jarry’s grossly destructive Père Ubu. One of Tomkins’s sentences here merits attention: “For the most sensitive artists of the period, moreover, the effort to turn life into art might have seemed like the only hope of sanity in a world where Ubu had gained control.” Tomkins sympathizes with the aestheticizing tendencies of the avant-garde in the face of rising political violence. He does not consider how much those tendencies contributed to the development of fascism in Italy and Germany and of Soviet communism in Russia.2

Three chapters on the crucial years from 1911 to 1914, chapters which cover Duchamp’s productive two-month visit to Munich in the summer of 1912, assemble the events in a somewhat confusing chronological sequence. We regain our bearings with Duchamp’s triumphal arrival in New York, the sudden extension of his social life, and his decision to go public with his recent invention, the “readymade.” Its disruptive force gradually overtook that of Nude Descending a Staircase. The readymade is an ordinary manufactured object, like a snow shovel, chosen by the artist, whose signature presumably transforms it into a work of art worthy of public display and admiration. A studio prank grew into a revolutionary gesture directed at the heart of the institution called “art.”

Tomkins treats Duchamp’s first three-year visit to New York in vivid detail. It included the brouhaha over the refusal by the unjuried 1917 Independents exhibition to display a urinal on a pedestal signed R. Mutt, Duchamp’s dummy sculptor. (See page 24.) With this piece, called Fountain, Duchamp entered art history for the second time in three years and then withdrew to Buenos Aires and Europe. He spent most of the interwar years in France, playing serious tournament chess, publishing copies of his notes and miniature facsimiles of his early work, and keeping the women who were in love with him out of his monastic apartment. Without dwelling on either the scurrilous or the scandalous, Tomkins traces Duchamp’s lazy womanizing as a symptom of his character. While all his presumed intimates complained of his aloofness, none seems to have given up on him as a companion. Tomkins unearthed a letter from Janet Flanner to Kay Boyle concerning Mary Reynolds, Duchamp’s mistress of forty years, in her final days. Dying painfully of cancer, Reynolds could not stand having people with her, even friends—except Duchamp. Flanner reports Reynolds’s explanation: “Marcel is the only person I ever met who was not people. He could be in a room with me and I still felt alone.” Tomkins comments aptly that this was a strange tribute.

  1. 1

    Abrams, 1969.

  2. 2

    See my essay “Old Ideas, a New Book” in Salmagundi, Fall 1989, which includes a discussion of Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print