- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

Marcel Duchamp assumed wildly different identities throughout his career to question the idea of authorship and provoke the viewer. The French-born artist signed an overturned urinal with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” and called it art. He appeared before the camera in drag as Rose Selavy (translation: “Rose, c’est la vie” or “Rose, that’s life”) and cited his female alter ego as an artistic collaborator. He billed himself as George W. Welch on a lithograph resembling a wanted poster for a criminal.

Those are just a few of the personas presented in “Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery. The stimulating exhibition reveals how the artist’s self-constructions were at the core of his cerebral art. He used his likeness to challenge the conventional idea of portraiture as representing the essence of the sitter.

“Portraiture is about pinning down identity but Mr. Duchamp recognized that identity is anything but stable,” says curator Anne Goodyear who organized the show with James McManus, an art history professor at California State University, Chico. “He was very much a catalyst to more recent experimentation in portraiture.”

Mr. Duchamp’s work is not very well known to the public, but it remains a force within the art world. The exhibit certainly proves his authority: It includes works by 55 other artists, including Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Red Grooms, who took inspiration from Mr. Duchamp’s experiments.

Understanding the cross-references between these pieces and those by Mr. Duchamp requires attentive viewing and the show appeals more to the brain than the eyes. The most interesting aspect of the exhibit focuses on Mr. Duchamp’s obsession with celebrity, starting in the 1910s when the idea of a Hollywood movie star was still new.

Playing a huge role in the artist’s self-invention was the still-developing medium of photography. Mr. Duchamp understood its power and continually had his portrait taken by the top talents of the 20th century, including Edward Steichen, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon whose images are among the delights of the show.

Highlighting Mr. Duchamp’s career in this country, the exhibit suggests the artist wouldn’t have been as powerfully influential if he had stayed in France. The Frenchman saw the United States as a place free of European traditions where he could experiment and become a “self-made man.”

In 1915, during World War I, Mr. Duchamp arrived in New York and stayed until 1918 when he returned to France. He came back to this country in 1942 and became an American citizen 13 years before he died in 1968.

Only about a fourth of the 103 artworks in the show are by Mr. Duchamp; collaboration was a hallmark of his career and most of his aliases were photographed by his close friend Man Ray and passed off as self-portraits.

One of Mr. Ray’s most provocative images pictures Mr. Duchamp as the cross-dressing Rrose Selavy (“Eros, that’s life”), a successor to his original character Rose. Wearing makeup, a fur coat and a big hat, the artist used his gender-bending image to mock conventional femininity.

The exhibit presents many contemporary riffs on this 1921 photo, including Italian-born artist Carlo Maria Mariani’s Mona Lisa-inspired painting. More provocative is Yasumasa Morimura’s striking self-portrait as a Japanese version of Rrose. This 1988 photograph updates Mr. Duchamp’s imagery with the addition of multiracial features, including black female hands for the artist’s own.

Lesser-known portraits of Mr. Duchamp, also taken in 1921, focus on a shooting star shaved into his hair. In mimicking the path of the planet Venus, named for the goddess of love, the tonsure is a takeoff on Mr. Duchamp’s persona Rrose Selavy.

This portrait, in turn, is reinterpreted in Douglas Gordon’s “Proposition for a Posthumous Portrait.” Mr. Gordon’s 2004 installation focuses on a human skull bearing a star-shaped hole at the back of the cranium. The skull is displayed on a mirrored shelf so that its image is reflected to recall yet more Duchamp-related creations, such as a 1917 five-way portrait of the artist taken in a New York photo shop.

Another unusual contemporary work in the show is by Brian O’Doherty, a doctor-turned-artist. He transforms an electrocardiogram of Mr. Duchamp’s heartbeat into a “portrait” through a pulsing line of light.

Such inside jokes were a specialty of Mr. Duchamp, who wanted viewers to look below the surface of his controversial work.

Even his early paintings require decipherment, as in the blurry abstraction “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Compared to “an explosion in a shingle factory” by one critic, the 1912 oil provoked outrage at New York’s Armory Show, the first major exhibit of modern art in this country. This explosive response made Mr. Duchamp famous in this country even before he crossed the Atlantic.

In the exhibit, the controversial painting is represented in a recently rediscovered 1937 portrait of Mr. Duchamp. New York artist Daniel MacMorris pictures the artist as a handsome, well-dressed captain of industry posed in front of his descending nude, an image that no doubt pleased the publicity-seeking Frenchman.

From painting, Mr. Duchamp moved on to “readymades,” mass-produced objects such as a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack and the signed “Fountain” urinal. He viewed these items as an antidote to handcrafted “retinal art,” just as he used personal disguises as a way to refresh self-portraiture.

Mr. Duchamp believed art should not stem from unique precious objects but ideas conveyed through reproducible means. To advertise his work, he created the “Boite-en-valise” (box within a suitcase) and filled it with miniature replicas of his best-known works. A variation of the original series is shown in the exhibit to show how this portable museum served as Mr. Duchamp’s visual autobiography.

Always mindful of his reputation, Mr. Duchamp spent his last decade consulting with writers, artists and museum curators to ensure his legacy survived. This exhibit proves his legend is alive and well in posthumous portraits paying tribute to his slippery identity.

WHAT: “Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture”

WHERE:National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Aug. 2

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-8300

WEB SITE: www.npg.si.edu

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