TamTam Books News

Friday, November 07, 2003:

Book Review:

MARCEL DUCHAMP: The Bachelor Stripped Bare
By Alice Goldfarb Marquis
MFA Publications

By Tosh Berman (for Rain Taxi Fall 2002)

When I was nine, I met a Frenchman at his art exhibition in Pasadena who had placed a bicycle wheel on a chair, and when I told my teacher about it she was amazed: apparently she had heard of Marcel Duchamp. I totally got into the bicycle wheel, because it seemed like something from my world. The same for his snow shovel "readymade," and for him drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Maybe for grown-ups this was heady stuff, but as a child I was able to accept it without question. Since then, a large industry has evolved which questions and analyzes the works of Marcel Duchamp, the latest example of which is this new biography.

With respect to more books about this 20th-century genius, I say bring it on. Here was a man who devoted himself to chess (even ignoring his first wife, and some think his art as well, for the game), who lived and ate like a monk, and who had a very close relationship with his sister. Duchamp was an artist who was devoted to not being an artist, a chess champion who didn’t need to win a game; he disliked money but worked as an art dealer, and was supported by two or three patrons. His sex life was mysterious, but certain women were devoted to him. So who was Marcel Duchamp?

Like the previous biography on Duchamp by Calvin Tomkins, this one ultimately fails to get inside his head, though that is, admittedly, an impossible task. Duchamp lived in his own world. He resembled his good friend the American artist Joseph Cornell in that he basically built his world from a made up code of ethics, one based on the mechanics of machines and their erotic possibilities as well as poetry that is more cryptic than literal. At least Cornell’s work dealt with pop culture occasionally, but Duchamp was a man of ideas, which he thought about in great detail, scribbling notes which can be more mysterious than the actual artwork itself. (It is commonly thought, in fact, that the notes are his artwork.)

Duchamp reportedly chose his readymades (urinal, shovel, bicycle wheel) as things lacking in beauty or impossible to make ‘aesthetic’ – but undoubtedly there is something alluring about a bicycle wheel suspended on a stool, or the sexual shape of a urinal (a vagina of sorts), or the sleekness of a factory-designed shovel. In separating the utilitarian form the aesthetic, Duchamp revealed the beauty and sense of design in everyday objects.

Marquis’s biography does bring to light the painter Frank Kupka, who lived next door to the artist Jacques Villon (Duchamp’s older brother) and may have been an influence on Duchamp’s artwork. Kupka had a theory that paintings should reflect a philosophical message rather than a pleasing image; he also idolized Leonardo da Vinci for his inventions as well as his art. Duchamp shared Kupka’s take on painting and admiration of da Vinci. He never acknowledged being influenced by the much older Kupka, but they clearly shared a certain outlook on aesthetics.

Given that Duchamp is an impossible individual to figure out, Marquis’s biography is a good introduction, though her belief that Duchamp spent more time working on his ‘mystique’ than his actual artwork is questionable. True, he knew that his personality added a certain aura to the work, but it is the work that remains of interest. Perhaps the key to his artwork can be summed up in his piece in which a single door serves as a bathroom door and the door to a hallway; to open one entrance causes another to be closed.

Tosh // 5:48 PM

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