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.

Tomkins’s most startling pages concern a beautiful, flamboyant, forty-year-old sculptress, Maria Martins, wife of the Brazilian ambassador and a successful Washington hostess. In the years after World War II, she became the one infatuation in Duchamp’s laid-back life. Among other works, he gave her an amorphous abstract painting, Faulty Landscape. Later analysis established that one of the media used was human semen. Yet Martins’s daughter considered the affair “more cerebral than physical.” In any case, Martins apparently gave new impetus to Duchamp’s last major project, Étant donnés…, or Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas, a peephole display of what Duchamp referred to in his letters as “my woman with open pussy.” He sent the preliminary drawing for the faceless frontal nude to Martins in 1947 and worked on the project in secrecy for twenty years. (See page 26.)

During the final decades of his life Duchamp overcame some health problems, married an American divorcée close to the art world, registered his lack of enthusiasm for Abstract Expressionism as too retinal,3 and witnessed the strong resurgence of his status and influence as an artist. Books accomplished the shift, not exhibits. Michel Sanouillet collected Duchamp’s notes and writings of every sort in Marchand du sel (1958); Robert Lebel published the first comprehensive study and illustrated catalogue, Sur Marcel Duchamp, in 1959; and in 1960 the full notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or The Large Glass, appeared in a typographic version designed by the British artist Richard Hamilton and translated by the American art historian George Heard Hamilton. It looked like a conspiracy. The Duchamp retrospective exhibition in 1963 at the Pasadena Art Museum curated by Walter Hopps drew enormous press and critical attention. By this time Duchamp’s gaunt figure moved easily from lecture platform to gala openings to photo opportunities to television interviews. His charmingly accented English had become fluent. The Tate Gallery in London accorded him a major show in 1966.

Two years later in Buffalo, during the last year of his life, he attended the opening of Walkaround Time, a dance by the Merce Cunningham company based on The Large Glass. The set by Jasper Johns reproduced icons from the Glass in inflatable painted plastic shapes. Later, Cunningham described how Duchamp came up the stairs to the stage to join the others for curtain calls: “… Eyes bright, head up, none of that looking down at the steps…. He was a born trouper.” Duchamp died suddenly and quietly that fall in his Paris apartment.

Tomkins does not hide his sympathies for Duchamp’s habits of discretion and restraint. Duchamp: A Biography combines a wide knowledge of both figure and ground with a style that usually handles forward-moving narrative as adroitly as analysis of persons and artworks. When appropriate, Tomkins knows how to distance himself from foolish manifestations of the Duchamp cult. In the following quotation he turns his attention to the artist’s admirers (and overlooks the dangling modifier at the start).

Dazzled by his example, it was all too easy to fall into the seductive fallacy that anything goes. Anything does go in art, as Duchamp had demonstrated with the readymades, but only when art is approached in the way he approached it: not as self-expression or therapy or social protest or any other of the uses to which it is regularly subjected, but as the free activity of a rigorous and adventuring mind. The failure to grasp that essential point about Duchamp’s work and Duchamp’s life has given rise to a prodigious amount of tiresome and self-indulgent art in our time, and in that sense it is certainly possible to argue that Duchamp has been a destructive influence.

Tomkins’s portrait does not abandon common sense. His biography will not soon be displaced. I shall come back to the matter of freedom.


A history professor at New York University, Jerrold Seigel has published a book on Marx and a fine cultural history, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930.4 His recent book on Duchamp is shorter and more ambitious than Tomkins’s. Seigel offers not a biography that follows a peregrine life but a thematic study of Duchamp’s work “to show that his career forms a coherent whole…of identifiable and interrelated ideas and impulses, linked to a set of personal themes that persisted throughout his life.” Only the Italian dealer and author Arturo Schwarz, touting incest and alchemy in his lavish volume The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp,5 has made so sweeping a claim to coherence. Seigel maintains he has cracked the Duchamp code and can lay it before us in 250 pages. In spite of a few lapses in expository prose,6 The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp deserves attention beyond the specialized field of Duchamp studies.

Chapter 2, on the nineteenth-century background, and Chapter 4, on The Large Glass, and much of Chapter 8, on the artist’s sense of self, sustain the reader’s attention. On balance, they outweigh the two weak chapters, one on readymades and one at the end, “Art and Its Freedoms.” Seigel has important things to say about the history of modern art, but his unified Duchamp theory will not staunch the flow of commentary in years to come.

One of Seigel’s first moves is to explain the enormous fame of Nude Descending a Staircase at the Armory show by attributing it to the Weberian charisma of Duchamp’s persona. I find this explanation misleading. Duchamp did not arrive in New York to parade his persona until two years later. His character then struck people as relaxed, attractive, and secretive, the reverse of the divine gift of charisma. Seigel argues pertinently that Duchamp can be seen as the culmination of a long avant-garde tradition from Baudelaire to Jarry, a tradition that includes proneness to a personality cult and scorn for ordinary work and morality, and that offers status as an artist without one’s necessarily producing art. The subtitle of the book enumerates the three familiar subjects it takes up: desire, liberation, and the self.

Early on, Seigel defines desire in Duchamp by quoting and frequently referring back to his cryptic 1913 note about yearning to possess an object displayed behind a shop window and the disappointment that must follow if one obtains that object. In other words, fantasy, imagination, and desire yield a higher reward than their consummation. Then, in the last chapter, Seigel restates the attitude with a new emphasis.

Duchamp’s pure freedom requires that the inner play of fantasy meet the world of material things wholly on the former’s terms: it is lost when one breaks the shop window and discovers that the objects which beckon there only yield to possession by imposing the actuality of their limitations on desire’s infinite wish. Such freedom cannot be experienced through direct interaction with the world, but only at a remove, in the Large Glass’s perpetual delay, the chessboard’s abstraction from social relationships, or the protected enclosure of the Boîtes en valise [i.e., the boxes containing minature reproductions of sixty-nine of his own works that Duchamp assembled in 1939].

Such freedom is “pure” because undiminished by any encounter with the contingent world. Freedom through abstention, through abdication. Is this a new asceticism? A higher hedonism? I am in no sense mocking this line of thinking and behavior.7

Seigel succeeds in showing how the principle of separateness corresponds to parts of Duchamp’s personal life, particularly his relations to women. And the chapter on The Large Glass presents an ironic, even silly, yet impressive work that enacts and celebrates the pure freedom of non-completion—a high-minded version of coitus interruptus (Seigel does not use the term). As other critics have done, including Tomkins, Seigel envisions Given, Duchamp’s lewd “environment” of a faceless woman sprawled in a bed of branches in a field, as the exact opposite of The Large Glass. In the former, one finds nature, an encounter with contingency, consummation, disappointment, disaster. In the latter, one finds a mental world, aloofness, non-communication, heightening of tension, a permanent stand-off. “…Desire’s ability to lift human beings, male or female, into the realm of imagination turns to disillusionment once they settle for mere physical possession.”

Yes, the contrast is clear between the early Glass and his final Given, and Duchamp surely intended it. But Seigel omits an equally important aspect of the Given peepshow. For years the waters had remained calm around the man whose name was made famous by the scandal of the Armory show and again by Fountain, the urinal on a pedestal. Was he really abdicating his niche in art history? It appeared so, for almost no one knew that Duchamp was planning twenty years ahead of everyone else. It took him that long to construct a semi-posthumous explosion that would carry out his most elaborate and carefully timed slap in the face of public taste. Given does display a few features of a moral tale—like a scene of the morning after from The Rake’s Progress. But Given primarily represents a return to Duchamp’s earliest ribald social cartoons. He remains a boy hiding a vulgar word in an acrostic. One anticipated response is laughter—laughter at the private foundation that bought Given, laughter at the curators and trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art who installed it as a full-fledged work of art. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is enacted daily in an august municipal edifice dedicated to monuments of culture. But laughter rarely breaks out.

Duchamp’s better-known challenge to the boundary between art and non-art took the form of the readymade—the reductio ad absurdum of the creative process in which the artist affixes a signature to any designated object. (For example, he canonized a bicycle wheel, a dog’s comb, a bank check, and a typewriter cover.) Duchamp exercised this labor-saving short-circuit a limited number of times; he never (except in cases of loss) chose the same object twice, but allowed facsimiles to be made and sold. How then do these artist-sponsored objects belong to the “coherent whole” of ideas and impulses that Siegel beholds as Duchamp’s life and work? How are readymades related to elaborately conceived, planned, and constructed works like The Large Glass, which “strongly links art with transcendence and with freedom from material existence”? Seigel’s answer relies on a phenomenon central to Duchamp’s mental universe: the homophone, or pun. “Readymade” equals “ready maid” means the Bride eager to attain her long-anticipated “blossoming.” Language alone forges the link. Seigel acknowledges its conjectural nature.

Strangely, no evidence seems to exist that Duchamp was aware of the pun that linked the Large Glass with his turn to ordinary objects: a bride stripped bare is a ready maid. But it seems impossible that he did not know.

I find this a tenuous basis on which to enclose the readymades within the same aesthetic and personal universe as the works over whose manufacture Duchamp took great personal pains. More than punning, I believe, lies behind the craftsmanlike works and behind the seemingly off-handed yet devastating gestures that produced the few dozen items catalogued as readymades. It will take a good deal more probing to reach bedrock.

Increasingly in Chapters 6 and 8, Seigel speaks of Duchamp’s “aspiration to the experience of transcendence,” attested to by his language experiments. The next step in the argument associates Duchamp with Arthur Rimbaud, the precocious poet who abandoned poetry in his early twenties for fortune hunting. Seigel affirms that through calm detachment “purified of the residues of ordinary life,” Duchamp achieved “a radical wholeness like that Rimbaud sought in his more desperate program of sensory derangement.” This insistence on transcendence in a down-to-earth artist makes me uneasy. The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp overflows with keen observations and unforeseen historical perspectives. But the thesis of radical wholeness based on transcendence rests finally on a common misreading of Duchamp. In his notes and sketches and mechanical drawings, Duchamp does begin to look uncannily like Leonardo da Vinci and to encourage our treatment of him as a master. Still, we should step carefully. It is possible to take the court jester of modernism too seriously.


In both Seigel’s study and Tomkins’s biography, Duchamp’s exemplariness for modern artists consists in the freedom he created for himself—for Seigel, freedom to probe his deep self; for Tomkins, freedom to make art. The latter, in his final pages on Duchamp’s liberating influence, declares that Duchamp “demonstrated by his own example that the goal of art is not the work itself but the freedom to make it.” Insofar as the traditions of the avant-garde and bohemia have led us to believe in a myth of personal license without social constraints, they have benefited neither life or art. For in that direction lies not so much the lightness and detachment Seigel and Tomkins envision as the possibility of selfishness, cruelty, and havoc to which they close their eyes. Rimbaud’s life, fully understood, could have enlightened them.

Tomkins and Seigel reconstruct reliable accounts of the fall of 1912 and the spring of 1913. Those months precipitated Duchamp’s decision to abandon the conventions and innovations of Western painting, which he had partially learned, for art by other means. Both books insist on the somewhat mad fascination of Duchamp for Jarry, creator of Père Ubu and the grandiose science of “Pataphysics,” and for Raymond Roussel, whose plays and novels enact a world of pure verbal fantasy. But Tomkins and Seigel deal only glancingly with an important aspect of turn-of-the-century culture. It receives full treatment in a chapter of a recent book by Jeffrey Weiss, The Popular Culture of Modern Art: Picasso, Duchamp, and Avant-Gardism.

Drawing primarily from daily and weekly newspapers, Weiss outlines the history of blague (studio joke, practical joke) and mystification as common accusations brought against artists in France, roughly from Manet to the Cubists and not sparing writers. A notorious spoof of decadent poetry, Deliquéscences, poèmes décadents d’Adoré Floupette (1885) duped so many people that it remains a chapter in literary history. As much to enjoy as to mock the unbridled freedom of the juryless Salon des Indépendants, some wags from the Lapin Agile cabaret submitted a canvas painted by the switching tail of Lolo, a donkey. Displayed complete with Impressionist title, the work was attributed to a non-existent painter, Boronali. The blague was leaked to a guffawing press and, a few years later, inspired one of Russia’s avant-garde schools. It called itself the Donkey’s Tail. Cartoons and columnists treated Fauve and Cubist and Futurist artists as pranksters and charlatans peddling worthless goods.

In 1912 the French Chamber of Deputies was the scene of a highly publicized dispute about the alleged disgrace to the nation and to the Grand Palais of allowing Cubist “criminals” and “thugs” to exhibit their works there in the Salon d’Automne. Weiss documents the fact that the spectacle of an artist signing a blank canvas and fobbing it off as a work of art had a music-hall and cartoon history going back to 1877. The mock school of Amorphism claimed substantial space in the daily Paris-Midi and advocated “leaving it up to the observer…to reconstruct the form.” Duchamp and others would echo those words a half-century later.

Francis Naumann’s near-definitive 1994 monograph, New York Dada 1915-23, as well as the catalog he edited two years later for the Whitney Museum’s recent exhibit, gives extensive attention to the motif of humor in both the European and the American contributions to the antics in New York. But Naumann does not look beyond a machine-age, sexualized euphoria and leaves unexplored the darker realms of blague and mystification. It falls to Abraham A. Davidson, who contributes a brief essay to the Whitney catalog, to detect “a deadly seriousness,” a strain of nihilism, beneath the mischief of the European Dadaists in New York such as Duchamp and Picabia. The more light-hearted American Dadaists such as Man Ray and Joseph Stella were creating a buoyant state of mind rather than undermining a tradition.

The European substratum of blague and mystification, some of it good-natured, some of it conspiratorial, is essential to our understanding of an episode that neither Tomkins nor Seigel treats adequately. Duchamp helped to found the New York Society of Independent Artists, whose exhibitions would be juryless and prizeless like its French predecessor’s. He served as chairman of the hanging committee for the first mammoth exhibit in April 1917, just as the US declared war on Germany. One hour before the opening, he resigned from the board in protest when the sculpture entitled Fountain signed R. Mutt—a man’s urinal on a pedestal—was refused admission as “by no definition a work of art.” Alfred Stieglitz photographed the troublesome fixture and thereby certified it as an aesthetic object. The papers carried the story; the urinal then disappeared from view. Duchamp’s little magazine Blind Man gave a detailed inside account, reproducing the Stieglitz photograph and carrying an editorial and two signed articles defending the sculpture against this exclusion. Only gradually did word get around that Duchamp had planned and executed the incident as a test of the Independents’ good faith.

A published collection of talks called The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp (1991) devotes 150 pages to two studies covering every facet of the Fountain episode. William Camfield summarizes his extensive research on the subject and establishes that, for Duchamp’s admirers, the upstart urinal displayed, like most of the other readymades, formal esthetic appeal that led to its being called both the Buddha and the Madonna of the bathroom. Art history writing has heaped itself high around the hoax called Fountain, treating it as fetish, anti-art, an occult symbol, pure sensuous form, and art-as-philosophy. Camfield is convinced of its evolving place in art history.

In the same collection a Belgian-Canadian art historian, Thierry de Duve, dwells heavily on how Duchamp “put everyone in his pocket” through guile and slyness in the Fountain affair. Waxing enthusiastic in the discussion following his talk, Duve celebrates the fact that a urinal can become art and nominates Duchamp as the “lever with which to lift the aesthetic world again.” Duve goes on to wonder inconclusively about the source of legitimacy for an artist who signs such a work as Fountain into being (are we all artists?) and for curators and institutions who might accredit it.

In the mountain of recent publications about him, Duchamp is presented to us still surrounded by quandaries.


In order to cut through these quandaries, I am prepared to propose that through the long undisturbed stretches and occasional noisy incidents of his eighty-one years, Duchamp accomplished three things. I put them in order of increasing art-historical significance.

1.Before he turned forty, Duchamp produced a few highly personal and original works of art, very different from one another and almost all on exhibit now in one place: the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The barebones list includes The Bush (1910-1911); Nude Descending a Staircase, Number 2 (1912); The Bride (1912); Tu m’ (1918); To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye… (1918); and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923). I have omitted all readymades and his last elaborate construction, Given (1946- 1966). Those who know the works I have listed will not have to be reminded how insistently they take as their theme the sensuous act of looking. This artist of the mind could never tear himself away from the eye he wished to subdue.

2.Working from the casual, underplayed toy of Bicycle Wheel (1913) through the crafty subversiveness of Fountain to the naughty rebus of L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) (Mona Lisa defaced with moustache and goatee), Duchamp devised the readymades as a challenge to the sovereignty of Western art. I continue to see them in a carnival tradition as works of art for a day, which then subside into a collateral status of works in the history of art. They could be collected in an equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution. As the Smithsonian houses Lindbergh’s airplane, which no longer flies, we could construct a museum of disparate objects which used to be art.8

The idea of counterfeit art or art by mere fiat represented by the readymades has bewitched a number of philosophers like Arthur Danto and turned a considerable segment of art criticism and history toward aesthetics and the abstruse discipline of ontology. But in reality the readymades belong to a simpler and more fundamental category of art in general and of Duchamp’s art in particular. When associated with this compulsive verbal and visual punning as a means of jump-cutting between frames of reference, and with unfamiliar media like glass and wood, the readymades come together and flow into a principle of universal metamorphosis. Duchamp is our machine-age Ovid of the industrial object and of everything else within reach. A French window, through carefully controlled yet off-hand permutations including talking with a head cold, turns into Fresh Widow (1920). Duchamp constructed a mock-up of a window glazed with black leather that obstructs rather than permits vision. Using verbal, visual, and metaphysical punning, one can transform anything into anything else. Because they apply the principle of metamorphosis in the highly sensitive area of aesthetics, the readymades locate a collective funnybone. We laugh at our own discomfort about what is and what is not art.

3.Tomkins and Seigel and other reliable writers on Duchamp do not depict him as driven by the search for money, for women, for power, or for an ultimate esoteric or alchemical truth. He turned down contracts from art dealers and proposals from rich women in order to live, like a latter-day Thoreau, with a minimum of needs. He appeared to be content with his lot and to float along responding to requests from others. The rest of his time—several hours a day through most of his adult years—he devoted to an activity in which any floating courts defeat: chess. In one segment of his life, Duchamp was an amused non-participant in the politics, therapies, and binges of self-expression that have importuned artists from the Twenties on. He claimed to have taken early retirement. In another segment, he trained himself unflaggingly to be a victorious commander in a warlike contest requiring vigilance and planning.

Did he ever unite these two sides of his temperament and his life? I believe he did, quite evidently, in the overall strategy of his low-keyed, occasionally scandalous, and stunningly successful career. At some juncture between the unexpected fate of Nude Descending a Staircase (first rejected in 1912 by his own family circle of Cubists, then singled out the following year to become the most publicized work in the Armory Show) and the Fountain episode in 1917, Duchamp decided to make a wager with himself about the artistic and intellectual culture he belonged to. He wagered that he could beat the game by doing virtually nothing, by just sitting around. His minimal, carefully planned tactic required that he sign only a few carefully selected objects. Deftly used, that tactic would bring him the one thing he wanted—fame. And the move coincided with his already-formed scheme to abandon painting in the traditional sense. Draped in arcane notes and irreparably cracked in transit, The Large Glass fit easily into this lifelong mystification. Duchamp, a canny deadpan operative beneath these antics, never gave himself away. The strategy worked perfectly. Yes, he put us all in his pocket.9

He even conned his friends and the Philadelphia Museum of Art into believing that the indecent peek-a-boo diorama Given should be considered a work of art. After all, he had kept it mostly under wraps for twenty years. Half a century after Fountain was excluded from an exhibition, Given was embraced without opposition by a distinguished museum. I continue to believe that the work represents the “ultimate and most daring art-history hoax, perpetrated (with their connivance) upon museums, critics, art historians, book reviewers, stunned public, and himself.”10 Clement Greenberg’s anxious and discerning comments soon after Duchamp’s death suggest that Greenberg entertained a similar view but had no stomach for calling Duchamp a blagueur and mystifier.

But we have learned to respect the tricksters, the Till Eulenspiegels of our civilized condition. In his note for an unwritten preface for The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire advised the artist not to reveal his innermost secrets—and thus revealed his own.

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all those revisions and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

In such a passage, charlatanism comes very close to becoming a synonym of “imagination.” The two great novels of charlatanism that portray a confidence man, Melville’s 1867 work of that title and Thomas Mann’s unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954), convey a latent admiration for the human being who can metamorphose himself into multiple identities. The stranger on Melville’s riverboat performs a wonderfully Duchampian prank on himself, on the other passengers, and on the reader by posting

a placard nigh the captain’s office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given.

No one ever catches up with Melville’s strange impostor—or with Duchamp.

Felix Krull takes pleasure in seeing the world as a chessboard on which he can manipulate the pieces at will and in cultivating his ambition and his knowledge of the ways of the world by spending whole days peering into elegant shop windows. Once again, a novel sheds light on Duchamp’s camouflaged universe. Duchamp’s formation as an artist does not preclude his prowess as an impostor.

Duchamp’s cool achievement lay, beyond his art and non-art works, in the wager he won that he could dupe the art world into honoring him on the basis of forged credentials. On the other hand they were authentic credentials if examined in the light of the alternate tradition of blague and mystification. I can hear Duchamp still laughing among the celestial plumbing fixtures not only at our gullibility but also at inferior con men who seek their reward not in laughter but in money or sex or power—or in conventional fame. When Duchamp climbed up on stage at the end of his life to take his bows, he did not have to look down at the steps. From long and careful calculation, he knew exactly where they were. He had planned it all like a Master.11

This Issue

March 27, 1997