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“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. 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 …
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