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Taking Duchamp to Another Level

>From today's NY Times. Though not directly book arts related I found it
relevant and interesting. I also still like Duchamps work.


Taking Duchamp to Another Level


n 1913, a decade before Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess, he took a
bicycle wheel into his studio and mounted it on a stool. He liked to watch
it spin. The next year he took home a bottle rack. In a letter to his
sister, Suzanne, he said it was a sculpture "already made." For the next
few years he collected common, mass-produced objects, treated them as art
and called them readymades: a snow shovel (which he named "In Advance of
the Broken Arm"), a urinal ("The Fountain"), a hat rack, a comb and a dozen
or so more.

The influence of Duchamp's readymades on 20th-century art is incalculable.
Without Duchamp, would Jasper Johns have painted flags and targets? Would
Andy Warhol have made his Brillo boxes? Would there be any Conceptual Art
at all?

Well, take a deep breath and imagine art without the readymade. Last month,
Artnews reported that Rhonda Roland Shearer, an artist, had been trying for
two years to prove that Duchamp's readymades are not really mass-produced
objects. She thinks he altered or made them all, then cunningly covered up
the evidence to create a time-release surprise.

To Ms. Shearer, this is like discovering that "there was no historical
Jesus." She explains: "You can't just say he was a jokester and move on.
What happens to the artists who took the readymade as a sacred truth? It
has meant too much to the people who believe it."

This has caused a small stir among Duchamp scholars. First is the factual
question: Could she be right? Second, and perhaps more to the point: Would
it matter?

Ms. Shearer has spared no expense to prove her case. She has 10 research
assistants and a bank of computers working for her. She has bought hat
racks, coat racks, advertising signs, bicycle wheels, postcards of the Mona
Lisa, snow shovels, perfume bottles and urinals as well as old catalogs
advertising the above. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, the author of "Duchamp in
Context," calls her work "all the scholarship money can buy."

But there are complications even money and drive can't overcome.

Duchamp himself admitted altering some of his readymades, including
"Apolinaire Enameled" (a sign for Sapolin enamel paint whose letters
Duchamp changed to honor the poet Apollinaire) and "LHOOQ" (a cheap
reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which Duchamp added a mustache and beard,
which is now on display in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition, "The
Museum as Muse"). Duchamp called these assisted or rectified readymades.
Ms. Shearer is not fazed by Duchamp's admissions. She insists his
alterations always exceeded what he claimed. For example, she thinks that
before adding the mustache and beard to the Mona Lisa, he painted in his
own face.

The assisted readymades aren't the only troublesome cases. Many of
Duchamp's readymades -- the bottle rack, bicycle wheel, snow shovel,
urinal, coat rack and hat rack -- vanished during his life. They have been
preserved only in photos of his studio, in replicas that he sanctioned and
in miniature models and photographs he packed in his Boite-en-Valise (his
museum in a suitcase, which is also displayed in "The Museum as Muse"). So
in many cases, Ms. Shearer is working with circumstantial evidence. She
doesn't mind. She says the absence of the original readymades supports the
idea that they never existed as advertised.

This is Ms. Shearer's case against the readymades so far.

Duchamp's readymade glass ampoule, which he named "50 cc of Paris Air," is
larger than any that would have been readily available to pharmacists. (And
she has a tape of a man from Corning Glass saying so.)

The readymade perfume bottle with Man Ray's photograph of Duchamp on it
(now owned by Yves Saint Laurent) is green, she says; the real bottles are
peach-colored (like the empty but still-fragrant one that Ms. Shearer
bought for $650).

The readymade snow shovel, which now exists only in photographs and
replicas, "would hurt your hand" if you tried to use it, Ms. Shearer says,
because it has a square grip. And it doesn't have the normal reinforcements
to keep it from breaking. (She has hired people to make her a snow shovel
like Duchamp's and use it until it breaks.)

There is more: the birdcage is too squat for a real bird, the iron hooks in
the photograph of the coat rack appear to bend in an impossible position,
the French window opens the wrong way, the bottle rack has an asymmetrical
arrangement of hooks and the urinal is too curvaceous to have come from the
Mott Iron Works, where Duchamp said he bought it.

"It is not just one case," Ms. Shearer says. It's one thing after another.
You start feeling like a fool for taking him at his word," she says. "Does
this make him more interesting? Absolutely. He has been dead since 1968,
but it's as if he's alive now, because we have a whole new set of objects."

As Ms. Shearer explains in a two-part article in the journal Art and
Academe, it is time to stop thinking of readymades as objects Duchamp
brings home from the store and start seeing them as "objects that he drags
from the unconscious mind." She says that Duchamp was influenced by the
mathematician Henri Poincare's concept of the fourth dimension and she says
the readymades were created to evoke it. She calls Duchamp's readymades
"three-dimensional shadows" of his "fourth-dimensional creativity machine."
(Don't ask.)

If Ms. Shearer has proved nothing else, she has proved an irritant to
Duchamp scholars. Although some are impressed by her frenetic research and
her extensive collection of Duchampiana, they grumble that she is using her
money (some from Paul Mellon) and influential connections (including her
husband, Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard professor) to get attention. (She has
arranged a symposium at Harvard University on Duchamp and Poincare,
starring herself.) They scorn her "scientific method." And they are
astounded that a hobbyist can get so far. Molly Nesbit, an art historian at
Vassar College, says Ms. Shearer has introduced the kind of
"overinterpretation" fans tend to make.

But why does anyone care? At this point in history, does it matter if all
the readymades were Duchamp-made?

David Joselit, the author of "Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941,"
says no. It doesn't matter now whether Duchamp's readymades were
mass-produced commodities or objects made to look like commodities. The
point is, "everything is a commodity," and there are some commodities we
choose to call art. All of Duchamp's readymades are assisted in some sense,
he says. "They were transformed the minute he inscribed them."

Other critics are not so blase. Ms. Henderson says it does matter whether
there was a genuine readymade, at least to start with. "The key issue is
the first readymade, the bottle rack" of 1914. And "at that point Duchamp
had no audience to fool by manufacturing a fake object," she says. He had
no motive for deception.

"You have to have the concept of the readymade before you challenge it,"
says Francis Naumann, the author of a forthcoming book, "Marcel Duchamp:
The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." After that,
it matters less and less. Once Duchamp established the idea of a readymade,
he was constantly monkeying around with it. He offered a "shaved" version
of the bearded Mona Lisa, and even created a "reciprocal" readymade: "Use a
Rembrandt as an ironing board."

In any case, even if Duchamp intended to deceive, the readymade "has
already affected a half century of artists," Naumann says. "You can't take
that away."

The readymade proved that "a work of art only is a work of art if you
accept it," Naumann says.

The readymade proved that "art is a set of relationships, not a thing,"
Joselit says.

The readymade proved that "everything and anything can be art," says
Thierry de Duve, the author of "Kant after Duchamp."

So maybe the readymade is safe and sound. But what about Duchamp? "My
opinion of Duchamp would change if she's right," Naumann admits. "It would
be a grand act of deception."

Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation, is more blunt. "I guess it's
possible that he made a commercial porcelain urinal and a grooming comb.
But what would I think of him if his great contribution was as a ceramicist
or a woodworker? I think it would make him far less important." Of course,
"that wouldn't change the readymade; that's part of the discourse now."

"But if she's right," he adds, "I have no interest in Duchamp."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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