- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

Do we really need another book on Marcel Duchamp? For decades, there's been something more than a cottage industry surrounding the French Dadaist and inventor of the "Readymade" the commercially available, everyday object (such as his famous urinal) consecrated as an art object simply by being placed on display in an art gallery or museum. Which is strange, because his output was extremely slender (even when you throw in the copies and copies of copies of his works he made) and that there is really very little to say about any of them.
Still, the books and articles keep coming. On the face of it, then, there would seem to be very little rationale for "Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare" by Alice Goldfarb Marquis. After all, Calvin Tompkins' "Duchamp: A Biography" is less than a decade old. Why publish another so soon?
But Ms. Marquis' book may turn out to be the one indispensable Duchamp companion. It isn't because she breaks new ground she largely recapitulates what we already know, although she does lead us down some interesting byways, such as a chapter in which she explores the parallels between the artist and Leonardo da Vinci. (Which are deeper and more complicated than his famous "L.H.O.O.Q." caption at the bottom of a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa.)
The difficulty faced by anyone writing about Duchamp is the task of separating truth from pretense, honest motivation from playacting and pretense.
She does this well. No, her main contribution is to have written the most sober appraisal yet of this artist. Hagiography and Duchamp usually go hand in hand. And while Ms. Marquis clearly likes her subject as one has to if one is going to undertake a project of this kind she doesn't stint in her critical appraisals, even going so far as to nearly almost, but not quite puncture the mythology surrounding this artist.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was the son of a French provincial notary, and brother of two important modernist artists Jacques Villon, a painter and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, an early modern sculptor. Duchamp's contribution to 20th-century art history was to turn the definition of art and an artist on its head, but he didn't start out that way.
Duchamp's early efforts are traditional in that they reflect contemporary artistic ideas: Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. His breakthrough work at least from the point of view of garnering the public's attention, was the 1911 "Nude Descending a Staircase," a Cubist-Futurist composition suggesting the passage of a form through space. Almost instantly, the painting was a "succes de scandale."
Duchamp submitted it to the 1912 Salon des Independents in Paris, which refused to hang it, despite the fact that friends of his family were on the jury. A year later he showed it in the Armory Show-New York's and indeed the whole country's baptism by fire when it came to advanced art, where it caused a similar uproar. (The American modernist Mark Tobey later dismissed it as "an explosion in a shingle factory.")
But at that same time he had invented if that's the right word the Readymade, which not only cemented his reputation as a provocateur, but at a stroke overturned all the assumptions governing not only modern art but all previous art. A work of art no longer had to be the product of an artist's hand, it could be commercially made. And it need no longer be the product of his imagination, but could be randomly chosen by the artist. Most of all, it need not result from or address itself to an act of visual perception but from the workings of the mind-thinking not looking.
Duchamp spent the rest of his life as a kind of semi-artistic hermit. Indeed as Ms. Marquis makes clear, Duchamp's physical withdrawal was of a piece with an emotional and psychological withdrawal from the world that had begun very early in life. She speaks of his "obsession with distance" in his relations with people, and the fact that he "avoided revealing his inner self" through his comments by making them witty or deliberately ambiguous. (In this regard he could be callous and cruel as well, ignoring a daughter he'd fathered out of wedlock, and later marrying a woman to whom he was utterly indifferent during the seven days their marriage lasted.)
Over the rest of his life, Duchamp involved himself with projects of one kind or another (such as his famous "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even") that never seemed to be finished and never producing very much work of any consequence. And he played a lot of chess. Yet his reputation increased in inverse proportion to his output, so that by the time of his death he was regarded as an artistic godfather to the postwar generation of artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were reacting against Abstract Expressionism.
Ms. Marquis tells all this and more with a welcome clarity and judiciousness. She subscribes to the widely held theory that Duchamp's anti-art impulses derived from both sibling rivalry and a kind of aesthetic claustrophobia: the success of his older brothers and what he saw as the entire apparatus of modernism with its movements and celebrities left him with the need to do something radical and extreme in order to distinguish himself as an artist.
Yet she clearly recognizes that the difficulty faced by anyone writing about Duchamp is the task of separating truth from pretense, honest motivation from playacting and pretense. She manages to do this, too, noting quite early that "Staircase" "has also attracted a great deal of earnest analysis, to which Duchamp often responded in equally earnest terms, so earnest that a veil of mockery envelops it."
It's this kind of hardheaded attitude that's been so absent from discussions of Duchamp, and it's the reason that Ms. Marquis's book is the one anyone inclined to explore this subject should read first.

Eric Gibson is the Leisure & Arts Features Editor of the Wall Street Journal.


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