|Marcel Duchamp was a French/American artist who worked in painting, sculpture and film. His work is associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, his radical practices influenced the development of all Western art after World War I. He worked as a personal advisor to modern art collectors including Peggy Guggenheim, Alfred Barr, and James John Sweeney, and was thus instrumental in shaping the tastes of the Western art world during this period.|
|The Arts Arena | Harriet Lye|
Born in Blainville-Crevon in 1887, Duchamp moved back and forth between Paris and New York for much of his life, becoming an American citizen in 1955. He was a playful and whimsical man who subverted conventional artistic processes and contemporary definitions of art, art-making, and art-marketing. In the 1910s, with his invention of the “ready-made” series – a series which constituted pieces and every-day objects that he selected for their “pure visual indifference” – he opened the way for extreme avant-garde movements and practices. In dubbing a urinal “art” and naming it Fountain, he exploded the 20th century art world. Despite producing relatively few artworks, he moved quickly through the avant-garde circles of his time.
All artistic movements that use objects taken from daily life – whether to enchant and startle, like the Surrealists; to allude to, criticize, or even “cast a poetic light on consumer society” as the Pop Artists and Neo-Realists did; or, as with the Fluxus movement, to reconcile art and life – can thank Duchamp for being the first to transgress the established academic customs. Duchamp broke the straightjacket of traditional mediums and made it possible to use and incorporate any object, with or without artistic transformation. He believed that the object becomes “manufactured” simply in seizing it from its original circumstances and re-appropriating it into the setting of a studio or museum space. Both the artist and the viewer are complicit in the elevation of the ready-made object to an art-object. Duchamp said that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
In addition to revitalizing every day objects through his art, Duchamp questioned and challenged theories of aesthetics, questions which culminated in the 1970s with the birth of conceptual art. Duchamp is the modern artist who most directly questioned the nature of art: when does something become art? What processes are sufficient in manufacturing art? He followed the tradition of intellectual artists such as Leonardo de Vinci, and anticipated the self-referential questions that Joseph Kosuth later probed.
Duchamp cites his creative family as his primary artistic influence. He is the third of six children, four of whom are recognized artists: painters Jacques Villon and Suzanne Duchamp, sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Marcel himself being the most famous. His elder brother Jacques was Marcel’s true artistic mentor; when he was starting out, Marcel sought to imitate his brother’s “fluid and incisive style.” At 14, Marcel’s first serious attempts at making art were drawings and watercolours of his sister Suzanne.
Marcel studied academic drawing with a teacher who “unsuccessfully attempted to protect his students from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and other avant-garde influences.” After schooling in Rouen, Duchamp continued his studies in Paris and attended the Académie Julian from 1904 to 1905. During this time Duchamp drew and sold bawdy cartoons that played with visual and verbal puns. The interplay between words and symbols was a theme that engaged his imagination and infused his artistic practice for the rest of his career.
It was always his brothers, however, who provided the greatest sense of inspiration and community. Due to his eldest brother Jacques' membership in the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Marcel Duchamp's work was exhibited in the 1908 Salon d'Automne. The following year his work was featured in the Salon des Indépendants. Of Marcel Duchamp's pieces in the show, critic Guillaume Apollinaire – with whom he later developed a good friendship – criticized what he called "Duchamp's very ugly nudes." In 1911, at Jacques Duchamp's home in Puteaux, the brothers hosted a regular discussion group that came to be known as the Puteaux Group. The group consisted of artists and writers such as Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Roger de la Fresnaye, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, and Alexander Archipenko. The collective’s output was dubbed Orphic cubism – a term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire – for their focus on pure abstraction and bright colours.
Duchamp was uninterested in the Cubists' seriousness and rejected their focus on visual matters; he cited the work of Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, whose approach to art was quietly individual rather than outwardly anti-academic, as having the most influence on his work during that period. Later, in 1912, he experimented with the syncretistic Cubist style in his painting Nude Descencing a Staircase no.2, adding an impression of motion by using repetitive imagery inspired by the dynamism of the Futurists. He was interested in “unravelling movement” rather than the Cubists’ goal of deconstructing space. He submitted the painting to the Cubist Salon des Indépendants, but jurist Albert Gleizes found the work too scandalous and asked Duchamp's brothers to have Marcel withdraw the painting, paint over it, or change its title. Duchamp refused: "I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that."
He later submitted Nude Descencing a Staircase no.2 to the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which displayed works of American artists and was also the first major American exhibition of modern trends coming out of Paris. American show-goers, accustomed to realistic art, were shocked, and the Nude was at the centre of much of the controversy. The scandal elevated Duchamp’s status, and he sold four paintings, financing his move to New York City in 1915, where he found himself a celebrity. In New York, he created the Société Anonyme along with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray, which was the beginning of his life-long involvement in art dealing and collecting. Around this time, in 1920, Duchamp and Ray collaborated on another project: photographs of Rrose Sélavy, one of Duchamp’s pseudonyms, were taken by Man Ray, and began disseminating through the art scene. The name is a pun, intended to play on the French "Eros, c'est la vie." Through the 1920s Man Ray and Duchamp collaborated on more photos of Sélavy. Duchamp later signed several creations with this pseudonym, including a sculpture Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy?
It was in New York City where Duchamp developed his most famous works: The Large Glass incorporates his interests in physics, chance and mathematics, and Fountain is his most well-known ready-made. Duchamp took frequent breaks from the art world, and in 1918 he spent some time in Buenos Aires playing chess. Chess, in particular the “endgame,” is an important theme to understanding Duchamp’s attitude towards his artistic career. He declared that “the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem... I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” In 1968, Duchamp played a chess match with avant-garde composer John Cage at a concert entitled Reunion: “music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath the chessboard, triggered sporadically by normal game play.”
After his hiatus, Duchamp returned to Paris in 1923 and, in effect, was no longer a practicing artist. He continued to be involved with the art world, however, as a private consulter to art collectors. He also worked with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood to publish a Dada magazine in New York called The Blind Man, where the Dada movement had a less serious tone than its European counterpart. The Surrealists wanted to create a cohesive exhibition (which in itself would be a creative act) and they called on Duchamp to do so: he designed the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition, which was held at the Galerie des Beaux-arts in Paris. After moving back and forth between Paris and New York between 1925 and 1942, Duchamp made New York City’s Greenwich Village his home in 1942.
Duchamp’s fame increased after the Second World War. In the 1950s, a new generation of American artists – including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – escaped the dominant movement of Abstract Expressionism and recognized Duchamp as a precursor to their work as Neo-Dadaists. Duchamp was also a member of Oulipo.
Duchamp’s work started out as a private pursuit and most of his ready-mades got lost during his successive moves or were thrown away. In 1964, Milan’s Schwartz Gallery worked with him to re-create eight of his ready-made works, and it was only these re-creations that reached the mainstream. The reproduction of this series sparked a new thought on a central concept in art history: the term original when applied to ready-made art was something of a misnomer already, and the reproduction of “original” artwork further probed this question. Duchamp further complicated this problem, signing his works “Marcel Duchamp, Antique Certifié” (‘certified antique’) on some of the objects. The reissue in 1964 of his ready-mades completed the world-wide dissemination of this radical, eminent artist’s work.
Marcel Duchamp died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, in 1968. His grave bears the epitaph, "D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent;" or "Besides, it's always other people who die."