Celebrating a Duchamp Masterwork

BY Arts Desk  September 11, 2009 at 6:34 PM EDT

During the last two decades of his life, Marcel Duchamp appeared to have given up art for chess, publically claiming he had gone underground. But hidden in his New York apartment was the final, enigmatic piece he had been working on for 20 years: an erotic, sculptural tableau he titled Etant donnes: 1. La chute deau, 2. Le gaz declairage (or “Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas”).

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of its public premiere, a new exhibit called ‘Marcel Duchamp: Etant donnes’ brings the work — and the intimate life of the man who created it — to light, so to speak. Housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969, it was the first site-specific art piece ever created for a particular museum. But many visitors may have been in the same room and never even known it was there.

From a distance, all one can see of this work are two dark peepholes in a large, old Spanish wooden door, set up against a broken brick wall. But approach the door in the dark room, and put your eyes up to the peepholes, and a startling landscape is illuminated. Through the door, the viewer sees part of a nude, female body, her legs splayed atop a bed of twigs. We never glimpse the face of “Our Lady of Desires” — as Duchamp often referred to the creation — only a lock of her hair. Behind her is a glittering, trickling waterfall (whose effect is not dissimilar from the kind of pastoral LCD panoramas found in Chinese restaurants today), and she holds a glowing, phallic-shaped lamp (i.e. “the illuminating gas”), an old fashioned, French Bec Auer style, which Duchamp had first sketched as a young boy circa 1902.

The peaceful (though potentially sinister) creation did not have such a serene reception. Upon its unveiling in 1969 at the PMA, an uproar ensued; museum attendance tripled. “That presentation of a female nude…especially a kind of peephole thing — I think it just touched all of these hot buttons to do with the sexual revolution,” says Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the PMA, who organized the exhibit.

Hanging Gas Lamp (Bec Auer), c. 1902. Image Courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of ArtThe American painter Jasper Johns once called the piece the strangest work of art in any museum. Even this year, the New York Times described it as both ‘bucolic and freakish.’

In the Duchamp oeuvre, that amounts to par for the course. Duchamp first confronted the artistic dogma of the times with “Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2” in 1912. The painting — part cubism, part creative coup — was rejected from the salon in Paris because, according to the organizers, a nude does not descend the stairs; a nude reclines. “So painting has rules, it has regulations,” Taylor explained. “And from then on, [Duchamp] is going to try to break those rules and regulations whenever he can.” His ready-mades followed, including the infamous “Fountain,” a standard urinal, signed with a pseudonym “R. Mutt (1917).”

“I have forced myself to contradict myself,” Duchamp once said, “in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

But in spite of his renegade resume, one theme emerges as a constant. From one nude to the next, Duchamp excelled in the distillation of male/female relations. “Eroticism is the only -ism I can believe in,” he once said. That wide-ranging store of sensuality is almost entirely housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where 95 percent of all Duchamp’s work resides, including the stunning “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass)” (1915 – 1923), his seminal piece that captures the mechanics of mating through his delicate placing of dust and wiring inside large plates of glass.

'Manual of Instructions: Etant Donnes'To help scholars and academics unravel that complex work, Duchamp left a trove of clues, small cards and writings collectively known as the Green Box. But Etant donnes exists as a sort of tabula rasa for art historians and audiences, being one of Duchamp’s only pieces about which he never spoke, commented or left any treatise. He did, however, bequeath to the museum a notebook (complete with Polaroids) on how to dissemble and re-assemble the work (after his apartment lease expired in the fall of 1965 he had to undergo the process himself and documented it in a book recently reissued by the PMA, the Manual of Instructions).

The new exhibit does more than reveal his process (letting us see, for instance, the tin cookie can that still houses the motor that moves the waterfall behind the scenes). It also exposes the mechanics of love, the physics of the collaborative, artistic connection that was Duchamp’s driving force: his affair with Surrealist sculptor (and wife of the Brazilian ambassador), Maria Martins, as well as his second wife, Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp, whom he married later. Not only did his two lovers each work with him on the piece, but the female figure is based on Martins’ body and has blonde hair like Teeny. Though many interpret the piece as a violation of the female figure, Michael Taylor says that the love letters Duchamp traded with Martins tells a different story. “That he wanted to create a three-dimensional tableau diarama for this woman, I think attested to the fact that there were different feelings involved….he wasn’t angry, he was in love.”

Duchamp himself inspired a fair number of homages. Merce Cunningham’s 1968 “Walkaround Time” featured a set designed by Jasper Johns, with inflatable, clear plastic forms on which he had painted the elements of The Large Glass, elements that could be rearranged during the performance. (Later that year, Duchamp played a chess game with experimental musician John Cage on stage — with microphones and TV screens hooked up to the chess pieces.) The artist Hannah Wilke (1940-93) did her own (literal) Duchamp takeoff: filming herself performing a striptease through the glass of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, in the PMA’s gallery. (That film is now on show as part of the Etant donnes exhibit.)

Another artist who can claim creative lineage from Duchamp is Marcel Dzama, a young Canadian artist who lives and works in New York, but grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he first picked up a book about Marcel Duchamp because they shared the same first name. “Any artist that says he’s not influenced by Marcel Duchamp now is kind of lying to themselves,” Dzama told Art Beat. “I would say he’s more important than Picasso is to artists now.” After finding creative kindred spirits in the artists of the Surrealism and Dada movements, Dzama helped start his own collective, The Royal Art Lodge, in 1996, with his friends and his then 12 year old sister Hollie. The group relished playing Dada’s games, including the “exquisite corpse” — an exercise where one artist starts a drawing and many others finish it, folding back the previous work each time.

That (playful) dedication to drawing helped Dzama develop his own particular pastiche — a mash-up of vintage (borderline-kitschy) subject with a hint of hard news. In some of his drawings, mobs of stylish gun molls perform acrobatics around Guantanamo-inspired hooded men. Dzama says, though, that since the Obama administration took office, he finds his new work has changed: “It’s still slightly violent, but it’s not as world-weary as it was before.” In subdued shades of red, green, browns, against flat cream backgrounds, Dzama’s drawings remain composites of 20th century culture and beyond.

His work has caught on among the hipster set; he did cover art for Beck’s album “Guero” and “They Might Be Giants,” and has illustrated many book covers for McSweeney’s, the independent publishing house and literary site.

And in all his work, from drawings to dioramas, to his newest ventures into film and dance, Dzama is eager to honor his influences. Last year, he riffed on Duchamp’s Etant donnes, in a work titled “Even the Ghosts of the Past” (2008). “I was floored by the entire work and how it was constructed and how it relied on the viewer to see the work; it wasn’t just hanging on the walls, you had to come into this kind of situation.”

For his upcoming retrospective, which will also feature new work, Dzama will reveal his newest homage, “A Red Box for Marcel” in honor of Duchamp’s Boite-en-valise, a tiny museum in a box, in which Duchamp re-created the entirety of his life’s work in miniature. Dzama’s box will feature all new miniature works: “It’s all original work that are meant, in some ways, to be destroyed. It comes with a target and little equipment to destroy the artwork.” Though Dzama doesn’t quite believe anyone will destroy them, one can imagine that a man like Duchamp might have appreciated the idea.

This weekend Dzama will be attending the PMA’s first annual Anne d’Harnoncourt Symposium (in honor of the museum’s distinguished former director who was then only a curatorial assistant when she helped install the work) on Etant donnes, featuring an artist talk with Jeff Wall and various scholars on Duchamp. Dzama has work in a group show in Halifax, which opens on September 15th, and a solo exhibition, in Montreal in March of next year at the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montreal.