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DADA WITHOUT DUCHAMP / DUCHAMP WITHOUT DADA:
AVANT-GARDE TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
--At a Dada exhibition in Dusseldorf, I was impressed that though Schwitters and Picabia and the others had all become artists with the passing of time, Duchamp's work remained unacceptable as art.
--John Cage, Interview, 1973
--From a distance these things, these Movements take on a charm that they do not have close up--I assure you."
--Marcel Duchamp, Letter to Ettie Stettheimer, 1921
A recently produced Dada Website gives us the following definition of Dada:
Dada (French: 'hobby-horse'), nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished primarily in Zurich, New York City, Berlin, Cologne, Paris, and Hannover, Ger. in the early twentieth-century. . . . the name was adopted at Hugo Ball's Cabaret (Café) Voltaire, in Zurich, during one of the meetings held in 1916 by a group of young artists and war resisters that included Jean Arp, Richard Hülsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Emmy Hennings; when a paper knife inserted into a French-German dictionary pointed to the word dada, this word was seized upon by the group as appropriate for their anti-aesthetic creations and protest activities, which were engendered by disgust for bourgeois values and despair over World War I. A precursor of what was to be called the Dada movement, and ultimately its leading member, was Marcel Duchamp, who in 1913 created his first ready-made (now lost) the "Bicycle Wheel," consisting of a wheel mounted on the seat of a stool.
The last sentence in this otherwise unexceptional entry is odd on two counts. First, the notion that a movement's precursor goes on to become its "leading member" suggests that the man is somehow equivalent to the movement: Dada, c'est Duchamp. And secondly, the emphasis on individuality ("the leading member") seems misplaced in the discussion of avant-gardes, the avant-garde being by accepted definition a congerie of group manifestations, of agonistic movements that set themselves against the status quo. From the Lenin of What is to be Done (1902), who referred to the Communist Party as the "politically conscious avant-garde of the entire working class," to the Peter Bürger of the still seminal Theory of the Avant-Garde (1980, trans. 1984), the emphasis of avant-garde studies has been on movements rather than individuals. Indeed, the central distinction between the art of "bourgeois autonomy" and the avant-garde, Bürger argues, is that whereas bourgeois production is "the act of an individual genius," the avant-garde "responds with the radical negation of the category of individual creation." And not only individual creation but reception as well. Remarking on the "collective reception" accorded to Dada and Surrealist works, Bürger observes that "Breton and Tzara . . .lose their meaning as producers and recipients; all that remains is art as an instrument for living one's life."
Yet--and this is the paradox-- as in the case of the Dada website, Bürger's Exhibit A for the "radical negation of the category of individual creation" is Duchamp:
When Duchamp signs mass-produced objects . . . and sends them to art exhibits, he negates the category of individual production. The signature is inscribed on an arbitrarily chosen mass product because all claims to individual creativity are to be mocked. Duchamp's provocation not only unmasks the art market . . . it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art. Duchamp's Ready-Mades are not works of art but manifestations.(BUR 51, my emphasis)
"Not works of art but manifestations": here Bürger echoes Walter Benjamin's famous observation that "what the Dadaists . . . intended and achieved was a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations." And the emphasis on group provocation recalls Renato Poggioli's now classic discussion of the anti-traditionalism, agitation, and agonism that characterize the avant-garde. "We must never forget," writes the leading Duchamp scholar Michel Sanouillet, "that Dada was a group of people closely knit together, a bund, whose purposes were identical, and who had banded together their talents and energies to wage an excruciating war against society as a whole. That is why we find constant references, in the members's own writings, to Dada as a collective being."
How do we reconcile such claims for Duchamp's bund-identity with his own commentary on Dada and with the nature of his work itself? Asked by Pierre Cabanne to comment on his relationship with Dada, Duchamp remarks that he first came across the word "in Tzara's book, The First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Fire Extinguisher--1917, or end of 1916. It interested us but I didn't know what Dada was, or even that the word existed." By 1917, Duchamp had produces many of his most famous "readymades" (Chocolate Grinder, Bicycle Wheel, Bottle Rack, Fountain, and With Hidden Noise [Figures 1-5] as well as a series of studies for the Large Glass [The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even] like The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride [Figure 6] and 9 Malic Moulds [Figure 7]. "Dada," Duchamp insists again and again in his later years, did not influence his own work. 'It was parallel, if you wish. . . . It [my own work] wasn't Dada, but it was in the same spirit, without, however, being in the Zurich spirit" (CAB 56).
One can argue, of course, that Duchamp's disclaimers, here and elsewhere, are just a smokescreen, designed to enhance his own status and obscure the very real affinities between himself and Dada --affinities art historians and critics are able to identify even as the artist denies their existence. But in Duchamp's case, it is, ironically, the very critics who have written eloquently of Dada and related movements, who are now singling out Duchamp as special case. Thus Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Francis Naumann subtitle their recent collection of essays on Duchamp Artist of the Century, and Arthur Danto has remarked that "The story of the avant-garde in the twentieth century, whether in America or in Europe, seems largely to be the story of Duchamp."
Strong words, these, written at the end of a century that has prided itself on repudiating the excesses of genius theory. How do we square Danto's statement with Bürger's negation-of-autonomy thesis? If Dada was, as Sanouillet says, a "collective being" whose members shared "identical purposes," how and why has Duchamp come to tower over, say, Hugo Ball or even his close friend François Picabia? And how typical of movement ethos and evolution is the case of Dada / Duchamp? In what follows I want to consider these vexed questions.
1. Dada Dossier
The classic account of Dada is probably Hans Richter's Dada Art and Anti-Art, first published in German in Cologne in 1964 and widely reprinted and translated. Richter writes as an insider, himself a member of the original Zurich cénacle. "The life we led," he tells us in his Foreword, "our follies and our deeds of heroism, our provocations, however 'polemical' and aggressive they may have been, were all part of a tireless quest for an anti-art, a new way of thinking, feeling and knowing."
Richter begins with the now familiar story of the Cabaret Voltaire, where Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Hans Arp came together. And although he claims that "Dada had no unified formal characteristics as have other styles" (HR 9), that it is characterized only by its "destruction of all artistic forms . . . a raging anti, anti, anti" (HR 35), he is soon discussing the defining Dada modes and genres. For example:
(1) The simultaneous poem, as defined by Ball:
A contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices speak, sing, whistle, etc., simultaneously in such a way that the resulting combinations account for the total effect of the work, elegiac, funny or bizarre. The simultaneous poem is a powerful illustration of the fact that an organic work of art has a will of its own, and also illustrates the decisive role played by accompaniment. Noises (a drawn-out rrr sustained for minutes on end, sudden crashes, sirens wailing) are existentially more powerful than the human voice. (HR 29-30)
An example was the collaborative Die Hyperbel vom Krokodilcoiffeur und dem Spazierstock ( The Hyperbole of the Crocodile's Hairdresser and the Walking-Stick), written spontaneously by Arp, Tzara, and Walter Serner while lounging in the Café de la Terrasse. The simultaneous poem, Richter claims, looks ahead to automatic poetry, which "springs directly from the poet's bowels or other organs which have stored up reserves of usable material" (HR 30). And further: the poème simultané "carries the message that mankind is swallowed up in a mechanistic process" (HR 31), a reference to the horrors of the war. An offshoot of the simultaneous poem was the "phonetic" or "abstract" poem, which used only non-semantic sound, as in Ball's famous "gadji beri bimba gandridi laula lonni cadori," and, a few years later Kurt Schwitters' famous Ursonate (see HR 42, 142). Phonetic poetry looks ahead to lettrisme and the sound poetry of the 1960s.
(2) The agonistic manifesto, as initially produced by Tzara. Richter recognizes (and I have written of this elsewhere) that the Dada "aggressive, polemical manifesto" owes a great deal to Futurism, especially so far as typography and layout are concerned, but he distinguishes between the programmatic Futurist manifestos and Dada's anti-programmatic stance (HR 33-35).
(3) The exhibition, conceived by Ball as Gesamtkunstwerk in its conjunction of lectures, readings and ballets with paintings. The Der Sturm exhibition held at the Munich Galerie Dada in 1917, for example, incorporated the work of Kandinsky and Klee (and of Richter himself) into the Zurich movement and provided linkage to the earlier Expressionists (see HR 39). The Dada exhibition leads to performance art and installation, as we now know these art forms.
(4) Abstract painting, as produced by Hans Arp [Figure 8], Sophie-Tauber Arp, Marcel Janco, and Richter himself, as an effort to purify the imagination. Abstraction was not, of course, the invention of Dada (Malevich had already painted the Black Square), but Richter claims it as Dada revolution: "everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape. . . . the total negation of everything that had existed before" (HR 48).
(5) Collage, made from ordinary materials like cardboard, wire, train tickets, and newspaper fragments, as exemplified by Kurt Schwitters's Merz works [Figure 9], and photomontage, as in Raoul Hausmann's and John Heartfield's "cut up photographs, stuck . . .together in provocative ways," and collaged with bits of newspapers, old letters, or whatever happened to be lying around so as "to confront a crazy world with its own image" (114; Figure 10). These German Dada works had a much more overt political content than did the more abstract collages of Arp and Richter himself.
(6) The Chance Work, as in Tzara's "word salads," made of newspaper scraps, arbitrarily drawn from a hat, or Arp's discovery that discarded scraps of paper, falling on the floor, could make unconscious patterns more interesting than those the artist had consciously designed [see figure 9]. The adoption of chance, writes Richter, "restore[d] to the work of art its primeval magic power . . . . "the incantatory power tht we seek, in this age of general unbelief, more than ever before" (HR 59).
It is interesting that Duchamp, whose work is discussed in the chapter called "New York Dada 1915-1920," is, for Richter, the epitome of the new Dada "non-art," the "emptying [of] life as well as art of all its spiritual content" (HR 91). Richter, like almost all later writers on the subject, focuses on the proto-Dada spirit associated with Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work (later 291) and his 291 Gallery, with Picabia's machine drawings and Duchamp's readymades and Large Glass, the latter as ultimate exemplar of "anti-art," and with the periodicals The Blind Man, Rongwrong (both 1917), and New York Dada (1921), all three of which were edited by Duchamp and Man Ray. Duchamp's Chocolate Grinder was reproduced on the cover of the first issue of The Blind Man, his witty perfume flask Belle Haleine bearing on its neck a photograph of Duchamp dressed up as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy on the cover of the only issue of New York Dada [see Figure 11]..
In the early twenties, when Paris Dada became prominent, Duchamp adopted an ambiguous stance toward the movement. On the one hand, he was happy to engage in some Dada publicity: his Nude Descending a Staircase, for example, is featured next to a Louis Aragon poem and Picabia's "Portrait de Tristan Tzara," in an article for the New York Evening Journal (January 29, 1921), which bears the headline "Dada Will Get You if You Don't Watch Out: It Is on the Way Here," with the subhead "Paris Has Capitulated to New Literary Movement; London Laughs, but Will Probably Be Next Victim, and New York's Surrender Is Just Matter of Time" [Figure12]. In response to the question "What is Dada?", posed by the Journal's reporter of a number of artists gathered at Katherine Dreier's Societé Anonyme on East 47th Street, Duchamp echoes Tzara's own cited definition: "Dada is nothing. . . . For instance the Dadaists say that everything is nothing; nothing is good, nothing is interesting, nothing is important. It is a general movement in Paris, relating rather to literature than to painting" (NYD 140). And later in the interview, "Painting has already begun to tear down the past--why not literature? . . . . But then I am in favor of Dada very much myself" (NYD 142).
Even as he was making this declaration, however, Duchamp was distancing himself from the Paris Dada scene that prompted the Evening Journal article. When his sister Suzanne, now married to his friend, the artist Jean Crotti, suggested Duchamp send something for the Dada Salon Tzara was organizing at the Galerie Montaigne, Duchamp responded that "exposer," sounded too much like "épouser" (see CTD 236), and when Tzara himself repeated the request, Duchamp sent a telegram that contained the three words "PODE BAL-- DUCHAMP" with its pun on "peau de balle" or "balls to you." Thus, when the exhibition was mounted, the spaces reserved for Duchamp's works were occupied by empty frames.
So much for Duchamp's participation in Paris Dada. It is also the case that the New York avant-garde of the World War I years, whose center was the Walter Arensberg circle, frequented by Duchamp, Picabia, William Carlos Williams, Mardsden Hartley, Mina Loy, and a score of others, was only retrospectively designated as "New York Dada." And on closer inspection, Duchamp's New York works do not belong to any of the generic Dada categories discussed by Richter that are listed above. He composed neither simultaneous collaborative poems nor "abstract" phonetic ones. He wrote no manifestos, produced no group exhibitions, did not make collages or photomontages from newspaper fragments and everyday objects, as did the German Dadaists, or create abstract "unconscious" compositions as did Arp. As for chance, Duchamp's concept of chance operations was by no means the "chance" of random composition, but rather the careful use of rules that, however "chance-generated they may have been, once determined, had to be followed. And even the general category of Dada "negation," the rebellion against all established art forms and their discourses, applies to Duchamp only superficially. His was not, after all, the "negation" of art as such that we find in Ball or Huelsenbeck or Tzara: As Thierry de Duve has noted:
[Duchamp] never wanted to burn down the museums as did Marinetti or to break completely with art as did the Cabaret Voltaire. His 'Dadaism' was never made up of social condemnations of art, but only of personal secessions. He never wanted to engage in a tabula rasa of tradition, nor did he believe that it was possible to do so.
Indeed, Duchamp's own "negation" was never of art as such but only of what he called retinal art, which he rejected in favor of what a post-World War II generation would call conceptualism. Duchamp, I shall want to suggest below, thus exceeds or bypasses Dada in any number of respects. At the same time--and this is the paradox--Dada will continue to need Duchamp and perhaps vice-versa.
The case for Duchamp's Dada negation of "art" as bourgeois construct invariably cites the famous "Apropos of 'Readymades'," the talk Duchamp delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in October 1961 and frequently reprinted:
IN 1913 I HAD THE HAPPY IDEA TO FASTEN A BICYCLE WHEEL TO A KITCHEN STOOL AND WATCH IT TURN. . . .
IN NEW YORK IN 1915 I BOUGHT AT A HARDWARE STORE A SNOW SHOVEL ON WHICH I WROTE "IN ADVANCE OF THE BROKEN ARM."
IT WAS AROUND THAT TIME THAT THE WORD "READYMADE" CAME TO MIND TO DESIGNATE THIS FORM OF MANIFESTATION.
A POINT WHICH I WANT VERY MUCH TO ESTABLISH IS THAT THE CHOICE OF THESE "READYMADES" WAS NEVER DICTATED BY ESTHETIC DELECTATION.
THIS CHOICE WAS BASED ON A REACTION OF VISUAL INDIFFERENCE WITH AT THE SAME TIME A TOTAL ABSENCE OF GOOD OR BAD TASTE . . . IN FACT A COMPLETE ANESTHESIA.
ONE IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTIC WAS THE SHORT SENTENCE WHICH I OCCASIONALLY INSCRIBED ON THE "READYMADE."
THAT SENTENCE INSTEAD OF DESCRIBING THE OBJECT LIKE A TITLE WAS MEANT TO CARRY THE MIND OF THE SPECTATOR TOWARDS OTHER REGIONS MORE VERBAL.
SOMETIMES I WOULD ADD A GRAPHIC DETAIL OF PRESENTATION WHICH IN ORDER TO SATISFY MY CRAVING FOR ALLITERATIONS, WOULD BE CALLED "READYMADE AIDED". . . .
ANOTHER ASPECT OF THE "READYMADE" IS ITS LACK OF UNIQUENESS . . . THE REPLICA OF A "READYMADE" DELIVERING THE SAME MESSAGE; IN FACT NEARLY EVERY ONE OF THE "READYMADES" EXISTING TODAY IS NOT AN ORIGINAL IN THE CONVENTIONAL SENSE. . . .
SINCE THE TUBES OF PAINT USED BY AN ARTIST ARE MANUFACTURED AND READY-MADE PRODUCTS WE MUST CONCLUDE THAT ALL THE PAINTINGS IN THE WORLD ARE "READY-MADES AIDED" AND ALSO WORKS OF ASSEMBLAGE.
This is the account of the readymade Duchamp put forward In the last decade of his life, which is to say half a century after the fact. "The choice of readymades," Duchamp tells Pierre Cabanne at about the same time, "is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste" (CAB 48). As for the first readymade, the Bicycle Wheel, assembled two years before Duchamp so much as coined the term, he declared: "When I put a bicycle wheel on a stool . . . there was no idea of a 'readymade' or anything else. It was just a distraction" (CAB 47).
In keeping with these assertions, early critics of Dada regularly repeated the disclaimer that, in Hans Richter's words, "The bottle-rack says 'Art is junk'. The urinal says 'Art is a trick'" (HR 90). Duchamp's readymades (as in readymade clothes), we have been told again and again, were ordinary mass-produced, machine-made objects, arbitrarily chosen by Duchamp with no consideration "for good or bad taste," and designated as "art works" so as to debunk the very concept of individual art making. "Readymades," writes Molly Nesbit in her catalogue essay for the Whitney Dada Invades New York show, "were not made to ever become works of art. They existed differently":
Mounting the [bicycle] wheel on a stool, he left the matter there. The second readymade came along the next year. It was an ordinary metal rack, the kind used to dry wine bottles: duchamp simply bought one at the great basement hardway display in the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville and brought it back home to live quietly. . . . all the readymades were first of all things, his things, no more, no less. (DINY 254-55).
But how do "his things" become "our" things? Recent Duchamp scholarship has begun to rethink the readymades and to probe Duchamp's declarations of "visual indifference" more carefully, especially since his statements are often contradictory. Duchamp tells Cabanne, for example, "Before Courbet, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral . . . [but] our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn't go very far!" (CAB 43).
Outside what? Not, as is usually thought, outside "art" as bourgeois construct but specifically outside the painting of the previous century from Courbet to Cézanne, and especially what Duchamp took to be the insistently (and exclusively) "retinal" painting of the Impressionists. "Can one make works," he remarked equivocally in his 1913 notes for the Large Glass, "which are not works of 'art'?" And a year or so later, he speculated on the workings of language:
"Grammar--i.e. How to connect the elementary signs (like words), then the groups of signs one to the other; what will become of the ideas of action or of being (verbs), of modulation (adverbs)--etc.?
Buy a dictionary and cross out the words to be crossed out. Sign: revised and corrected.
Look through a dictionary and scratch out all the "undesirable" words. perhaps add a few--Sometimes replace the scratched out words with another. Use this dictionary for the written part of the glass.
with films, taken close up, of parts of very large , obtain photographic records which no longer look like photographs of something. With these semi-microscopics constitute a dictionary of which each film would be the representation of a group of words in a sentence or separated so that this film would assume a new significance or rather that the concentration on this film of the sentences or words chosen would give a form of meaning to this film. . . . (1914; see SS 77-78).
The search for a "form of meaning": it hardly sounds like the fabled "negation" of art in favor of "manifestation." "I wanted," Duchamp once remarked, "to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina." The theme of "grasping," as Linda Dalrymple Henderson notes in her important study of the fourth dimension in modernist aesthetic, is prevalent in Duchamp's notes for the Large Glass. For example:
Perspective4 will have a cube or 3 dim'l medium as a starting point which will(SS 89)
not cause deformation i.e. in which the object3 is seen circumhyperhypo-embraced (as if grasped with the hand and not seen with the eyes).
For a 4-dim'l individual, the 3-dim'l tactile grasp-image (like a penknife in one's fist)
will differ when the (point? where the grasp? starts?) moves 4-dimensionally. (SS 93)
The complex spatial possibilities suggested by a fourth dimension, Henderson demonstrates, intrigued a whole range of artists in the first decades of the century, among them the Cubists Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, the Russian avant-gardists Malevich and El Lissitsky, and Duchamp's fellow experimenters Picabia and Man Ray. But what distinguishes Duchamp's speculations on hypercubes and "pseudo spheres" (see SS 87) from those of his fellow artists is that he wanted to relate the new n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometry to Renaissance concepts of perspective, which, as Henderson notes, went directly counter to the basic premises of Cubism: Apollinaire, for example, had dismissed perspective in 1913 as "that infaillible device for making all things shrink," "that miserable tricky perspective."
Calvin Tomkins tells us that in his mysterious Munich year (1912), Duchamp interested himself, not, as might have been expected from a French proto-Cubist, in Kandinsky or the Blaue Reiter painters, but in the Lucas Cranachs in the Alte Pinakothek (CTD 95). On his return to Paris in November 1912, Duchamp took a job at the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, where he combined the study of perspective with avid reading in Henri Poincaré's work on higher dimensions as well Esprit Pascal Jouffret's Traité élémentaire de géométrie à quatre dimensions (1903). A L'Infinitif contains many notes like the following:
See Catalogue of Bibliothèque St. Geneviève
the whole section on Perspective:
Niceron. (Father Fr., S.J.)
Thaumaturgus opticus. (SS 86)
Analogies between Perspectives3 and4
The vanishing point of lines corresponds to the vanishing line of planes2 in a perspective4 . . . .
Reflection in a plane mirror and the 3-dim'l section of a 4-dim'l body by a 3-dim'l space-- . . . .
The plane of the mirror is a convenient way of giving the idea of 3-dim'l infinite space.
Referring to these and related notes in A L'infinitif, Henderson comments:
Duchamp's personal interest in shadows, mirrors, and glass were all to receive additional encouragement through his researches into traditional perspective. The treatment of shadows is customarily included in perspective treatises. . . . Niceron's Thaumaturgus Opticus does include an appendix on the conventional depiction of shadows . . . and La Perspective curieuse deals extensively with La catoptrique," the study of the optical effects of mirrors. . . . Finally, La Perspective curieuse suggests the advantages of the use of a glass panel in creating perspective, an idea dating back to Leonardo and reiterated in many of the nineteenth-century perspective treatises at Sainte-Geneviève.
Duchamp himself referred to these geometric experiments as "Playful Physics" (no doubt an allusion to Alfred Jarry's pataphysics), the quest for a "reality which would be possible by slightly distending the laws of physics and chemistry" (SS 49, 71). Such "playful physics" found its culmination in the use of glass and shadow effects in the Bride's Domain in the Large Glass [Figure 13], where, according to Duchamp, four-dimensionality could be simulated by painting a "Kind of milky way flesh color surrounding unevenly densely the 3 Pistons (i.e. there will be a transparent layer on the glass then the 3 Pistons then another layer of milky way)" (SS 36). This representation of the "desire motor, consequence of the lubricious gearing" (SS 39) accords with Duchamp's view that the sexual act was the pre-eminent fourth-dimensional situation.
But the immediate result of the researches carried on at Sainte-Geneviève was the piece called Three Standard Stoppages of 1913-1914 [Figure 14]. In "The 1914 Box," we read:
The Idea of the Fabrication
--If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane distorting itself as it pleases and creates a new shape of the measure of length.-- . . . .
--3 patterns obtained in more or less similar conditions: considered in their relation to one another they are an approximate reconstitution of the measure of length.
The 3 standard stoppages are the meter diminished. (SS 22)
Here, notes Henderson, Duchamp unequivocally rejects Euclid's assumption of the indeformability of figures in movement: "In Duchamp's Stoppages, it is simply the movement of a line (the thread) from one area of space to another, which illustrates that geometrical figures do not necessarily retain their shape when moved about, as Euclid and geometers for two thousand years after him had assumed they would: (HEN 132).
To examine the writings assembled in the Green Box (1934) and A l'Infinitif [The White Box] is to learn that far from producing an art of "visual indifference" and "total absence of good or bad taste," as Duchamp later claimed, an artof "Dada negation" and the destruction of "bourgeois autonomy" (Bürger's terms), Duchamp was, on the contrary, finding his own, very individual and idiosyncratic way. And even in the early readymades, which are not usually linked to Duchamp's mathematical speculations, he applied his observations on the relation of line to circle, vanishing point to center.
Consider that "assisted readymade" the Bicycle Wheel [figure 1], which Duchamp had left, along with Bottle Rack [figure 2] in his Paris studio [Figure 15], when he sailed for New York in 1915, and which his sister Suzanne inadvertently threw out with the trash so that we know both works only from later reconstructions. Bicycle Wheel was made by taking the wheel in question out of its normal context and attaching it to an ordinary kitchen stool by mounting its fork, upside down, in the hole at the stool's center. Duchamp referred to it as "a pleasant gadget, pleasant for the movement it gave." He found it restful and comforting, he told Calvin Tompkins, to turn the wheel and watch the spokes blur, become invisible, then slowly reappear as it slowed down--the image of a circle that turns endlessly on its own axis. "I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."
Dada joke? Hardly, given the complex meanings of this "pleasant gadget." First its eroticism: the fork of the large, vertical and "spinnable" wheel is inserted into the hole of the much smaller, stationery circle that sits horizontally on the wooden stool. But there are further implications. In 1913, when Duchamp was already working on drawings for the Large Glass, Bicycle Wheel testifies to the artist's interest in what he was to call a "delay," that is a type of movement, not linear as in Nude Descending a Staircase, but, as Jerrold Segal notes, "suspended in a space it never traverses." "The Large Glass," writes Segal, "contained . . . two objects whose action of turning on an axis while going nowhere is echoed by the mounted wheel--the chocolate grinder and the waterwheel [see Figure 16]. The bicycle wheel, altered so that its circular movement no longer produced linear progression, precisely captured Duchamp's shift of interest from the first form of motion to the second" (JSPW 122). The concept of "delay" is underscored by a drawing Duchamp made in 1914 [Figure 17] called Avoir l'apprenti dans le soleil (To Have the Apprentice in the Sun). Here the cyclist as high-wire performer, hunched over on his racing bike, rides a thread-like diagonal line between musical staffs--a line that begins in a loop and abruptly comes to an end near the upper right margin so that linear progression is again suspended. To "have" this particular "apprentice" in the sun, as the title suggests, is thus not to "have" him at all.
In the same vein, the distinction of the obviously phallic bottle rack is the absence of the bottles for which the prongs call out--again a "delay" in which the male anatomy longs for --but fails to attain-- physical contact with the female. In the Large Glass, this perpetual "delay" marks the space between the bachelors in the lower half and the bride machine above them. In his notes for the Green Box [Figure 18], Duchamp writes:
Malique moulds. (Malic (?)
By Eros' matrix, we nderstand the group
of uniforms or hollow liveries
receive the which takes
destined to give to the illuminated gas 8 malic
forms (gendarme, cuirassier etc.)
Here and elsewhere, the conceptual elaborations of a given set of images are as complicated as in any of the journals of one of Duchamp's favorite poets--Stephane Mallarmé. Indeed, the fin de siècle looms large in Duchamp's work, a readymade like Bicycle Wheel conjuring up--in parody form, of course--the visual and verbal iconography of the period. Consider, for example, the relationship of Bicycle Wheel to those charming bicyclettes that populate Marcel Proust's A L'Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. "La petite bande" of lovely young girls (one of whom is Albertine, the narrator's future mistress) are first viewed on the boardwalk at Balbec, wheeling their bicycles. Here, as in so many of the images of the period, the bicycle is a symbol of freedom from conventional constraints, the subtext being one of slightly illicit erotic activity, as engaged in by "advanced" young women. Duchamp could not have known A L'Ombre (1918) when he made his readymade, but he was familiar with Proust's sources. Take for example [Figure 19] this painting of bicycling fashions of the 1890s, reproduced in Peter Quennell's Marcel Proust. In the left foreground, we have the three great demi-mondaines of the period, Liane de Pougy, la Belle Otéro, and Cléo de Mérode on bicycles--displaying their daring and risqué charm to an admiring and elegant crowd in the Bois de Boulogne, with the portico of the Chalet Du Cycle in the rear. In another image---this time a photograph, captioned "Bicycling and walking dress, at the beginning of the new century" (PQ II 3), two young women, standing beside their bikes, seem to be awaiting an assignation [Figure 20]. And in a third, a painting by Jean Béraud (Figure 21], a sweet young thing, wearing bloomers, almost locks wheels, so to speak, with the gentleman with whom she is evidently about to take a ride through the Bois.
The bicycle as erotic instrument: we meet it everywhere in the paintings, photographs, and posters of the period. Here [Figure 22] is Will Bradley's Victor Bicycles (Boston Forbes), a poster first published in Les Maitres de l'Affiche (1899), in which a young man watches a young woman on a bicycle out of the corner of his eye, the whole scene draped in flowers. And here [Figure 23] is a Toulouse Lautrec poster from the 1890s called La Chaine Simpson, in which the racing cyclist shown in action behind his pace-makers is the then champion, Constant Huret. At the bottom left in block letters, we read L. B. SPOKE, DIRECTEUR POUR LA FRANCE. 25 BOULEVARD HAUSSMANN. The cyclist as signifier of virility: L. B. Spoke, I can't help thinking, leads directly to R. Mutt. But, then, as William A. Camfield has demonstrated in a fascinating essay, Duchamp chose his urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works with the greatest of care; his Fountain, unlike some of the other available plumbing items [Figure 24] allowed for intricate erotic play: the receptacle for the male "jet" turned upside-down and made female, a vagina potentially containing its own fluids. Moreover, Duchamp had Stieglitz photograph the urinal in front of Marsden Hartley's Warriors [Figure 25] whose niche-like form (used elsewhere by Hartley as a frame for a seated Buddha, [Figure 26]) nicely reenforces the form of his "fountain" (see RKFN 75-80). That form, moreover, is not all that different--as parody, of course--from the great Baroque fountains of Rome: Bernini's Bieccierone (1660s) for example, with its giant conch shell containing a fluted column, and some related extravantly erotic jets [Figures 27-28].
Surely Duchamp was familiar with engravings from the Villa d'Este, from which these images come, even as he grew up with the bicycle images in fin-de-siècle photographs and art posters. And surely, when he made Bicycle Wheel, he must have understood that a further "spin" could be achieved by detaching the big wheel, once and for all, from the larger apparatus to which it belonged. One of Duchamp's first drawings, made in 1909 when he was twenty-three, was called Dimanches (Sundays). [Figure 29]. It shows a soberly dressed suburban couple, the husband pushing a baby carriage, the wife heavily pregnant, the two, nowhere touching, looking straight ahead with a glassy-eyed look of boredom or disgust. The object, it seems, was to remove one of those front wheels of the pram and stick its rod into the hole of a not yet found stool. And in this sense, Bicycle Wheel takes its place not only in the tradition of late nineteenth century illustration, which it playfully debunks, but also in the chain of later conceptual and assemblage art works of which it is surely a founding member. Dust Breeding (1920), Man Ray's photograph of the Large Glass, as it looked when exposed to the dust of the New York air [figure 30] is a case in point--a kind of proto-earthwork.
Where Did All the Movements Go?
The readymades thus present us with a Duchamp at once more traditional--and paradoxically more postmodern--than one might suppose from the usual "avant-garde" label. The transformation of "ordinary" objects by means of the "playful physics" of four-dimensionality, the laws of Renaissance perspective, elaborate verbal punning, and allusions to nineteenth-century photography and poster art, gives Duchamp's readymades a signature uniquely their own. Like all "great" works of art they are inimitable. And as time goes on, we may expect the filiation between, say, Duchamp and Man Ray, an artist who came of age as his declared disciple and whose own "objects" could not have existed without the example of the readymades, to be overshadowed by a more stringent reading of Duchamp vis-à-vis earlier as well as later artists and poets. This, after all, is what it means to be "avant-garde": to reconfigure material from the past in so original a fashion that later generations come to assess the culture itself through the lens of a particular body of work.
In a late essay called "The Creative Act," written for a roundtable held at the 1957 meeting of American Federation of the Arts, where he shared the podium with Gregory Bateson, Rudolf Arnheim, and William C. Seitz, Duchamp made the following statement:
Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity.
To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.(SS 138)
If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.
T. S. Eliot, in his essay on "Tradition and the Individual Talent," writes: "The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."
Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.
Duchamp citing T. S. Eliot? Can he be serious? When, at the Nova Scotia colloquium "The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp" (1987), Eric Cameron gave a paper called "Given," in which he invoked the Duchamp-Eliot connection, Rosalind Krauss protested strenuously. "Eliot's conception of tradition," she insists, "his idea of high culture, his notion that art is redemptive, seems to me to be so far from my understanding of Duchamp. I just don't know where to look in Duchamp to find anything that would connect to this." And further: the connection of Duchamp to Eliot's concept of the artist as medium and to "larger systems of knowledge, systems of an esoteric kind," is, Krauss argues, "a betrayal of Duchamp."
But perhaps it is Duchamp who has "betrayed" his acolytes. Just at the stage of his career when he had become recognized as the ultimate "negator [of] the category of individual production," the mocker of "all claims to individual creativity," the debunker of "the very principle of art in bourgeois society" (Peter Bürger's phrases), Duchamp does an elegant turn-about and aligns himself with Eliot in making a case for art as inspired mediumship. "In the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act," says Duchamp, "a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to express fully his intention; this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work. In other words, the personal 'art coefficient' is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed" (SS 139).
The much touted Dada negation of art as identifiable category is here stood on its head by the very Dadaist whose name came to represent the movement. From the inception of the avant-garde movements at the beginning of our century, this is the way the movement ethos has played itself out. Ezra Pound, who began as an Imagist and Vorticist (movements he invented) soon came to be linked with T. S. Eliot and James Joyce rather than with F. S. Flint and Richard Aldington. Roland Barthes, once regarded as the Paris post-structuralist semiotician par excellence will now have a Pléiade edition devoted to his work--work now characterized by its editors as passionately literary in the line of Barthes's adored novelist, Marcel Proust. And what about Gertrude Stein, arguably the most radical writer of the Dada period, an artist who, in part because of gender, belonged to none of the Paris cenacles so prominent in her day? If the avant-gardes are always group formations, what sort of avant-gardist was Stein?
Here Duchamp's aethetic is relevant. In 1913, Stein wrote a letter to Mabel Dodge in which she reported running into Duchamp, who "talked very urgently about the fourth dimension." Stein always wrote approvingly of Duchamp and it was he who translated Stanza LXIX from her Stanzas in Meditation, when the stanza appeared as a preface to a catalog of Picabia drawings in 1932:
> Be made to ask my name.
If I think well of him be made to ask my name.
And to "ask her name" is, as I have suggested elsewhere, to learn how close a link there is between Duchamp's readymades and Stein's verbal still-lifes and portraits. Closer, most art and literary historians would now agree, than the link between Dada Duchamp and Dada Ball or Dada Tzara.
It will no longer do, then, to talk of Dada as what Michel Sanouillet calls a "bund, whose purposes were identical, and who had banded together their talents and energies to wage an excruciating war against society as a whole." At the same time, we must not expect the current movement ethos to disappear. For in the mass industrialized societies of the twentieth century, the artist almost invariably depends on a movement to gain initial recognition. The Language movement in poetry, for example, gained a great deal of mileage from its group activities--journals, manifestos, anthologies, group readings --even though within a decade of its first appearance, many of the minor figures had disappeared and others like Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, and Charles Bernstein had emerged as what we might call "language plus' poets--plus referring to their --forgive the unfashionable word--transcendence of their specific group identity.
Dada, we may conclude, will continue to need Duchamp, but the time is coming when Duchamp will no longer need Dada. "The existing order," to cite once again that elitist essay Rosalind Krauss professes to despise, "is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered." Or as Duchamp put it, "In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius; he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Art History" (SS 138).
Such reference to wholes, existing orders, completion, posterity, and the primers of Art History makes us all nervous., Given our current faith in cultural construction and in the "death" or at least irrelevance of the author, we are likely to find the movement ethos much more congenial than this genius talk. After some thirty years of Foucaultian author-functions, however, we may now be witnessing the artist's revenge. At the Houston roundtable where Duchamp delivered his lecture on "The Creative Act," he presented himself apologetically as a "mere artist"--no match, it would seem, for the likes of Bateson and Arnheim. Yet it is the words of the Marchand du sel (Marcel Duchamp) that have become famous. As for the "author-function," Duchamp would no doubt have enjoyed being so designated, the author-function chiming so nicely with what he had designated as the "art coefficient." A "playful physics," in any case, makes it all quite reasonable.
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"John Cage on Marcel Duchamp," interview with Moira and William Roth, Art in America (December 1973); rpt Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), p. 182.
See "Marcel Duchamp's Letters to Walter and Louise Arensberg, 1917-1921, introduction, translation, and notes by Francis M. Naumann, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), p. 220. Subsequently cited in the text as RKFN. Cf. Calvin Tompkins, who reproduces the same letter in his Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 237. Subsequently cited as CTD.
Nicholas Pioch, "Dada," Webmuseum, Paris, 18 Sep 1995.
The journal Dada / Surrealism, published annually from 1971-92, included a series of Dada Bibliographies, compiled by Rudolf E. Kuenzli, in his capacity as Curator of the Dada Archive and Research Center at the University of Iowa. In these Dada Bibliographies, Duchamp always has more entries than any other artist or poet; in the 1973-78 Bibliography, for example, Duchamp has 144 entries as compared to Max Ernst (68), Hans Arp (33), and Hugo Ball (28).
See Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 112.
Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 51; subsequently cited in the text as BUR. Cf. William S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1968). Rubin does not share Bürger's Marxist perspective, but, like Bürger, he views Dada primarily as a reaction to the modernist dogma of artistic autonomy. Its deep structure, he suggests, is as a "'life' movement," initially more a "social rather than esthetic activity" (p. 16), which activates all of the arts.
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), in Illuminations, ed Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), pp. 237-38..
Renato Poggioli, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerland (1962: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), passim.
Michel Sanouillet, "Dada: A Definition," in Stephen Foster and Rudolf E. Kuenzli (eds), Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979), p. 23.
Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking, 1971), p. 55. Subsequently cited as CAB.
Arthur C. Danto, 'In Bed with R. Mutt," Times Literary Supplement, 31 January 1992, p. 18.
Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, trans. David Britt (New York: Oxford University Press, World of Art Series, 1965), p. 7. Subsequently cited in the text as HR.
Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), Chapter 2, "The Time of Manifestos."
For two notable examples, see Dickran Tashjian's Skyscraper Primitives: Dada and the American Avant-Garde 1910-1925 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975), esp. Chapter 3, and the special New York Dada issue, ed. Rudolf E. Kuenzli, of Dada/Surrealism, 14 (1985). Subsequently cited as NYD. The most recent example of what we might call the "New York Dada" discourse is the Whitney Museum's exhibition Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York, curated by Francis M. Naumann (21 November 1996--23 February 1997). Naumann's show once again centers on Duchamp and, this time, his humor: Naumann's lead essay is called "New York Dada: Style with a Smile" (pp. 10-26). For a useful review of this show, see Marcia E. Vetrocq, "The New York Pre-School," Art in America, 85, no. 6 (June 1997): 82-87. The catalogue (New ork: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996) is subsequently cited as DINY.
The entire article is reproduced in the "Documents" section of NYD 138-42.
See PC 65; the story is also told by Tomkins: see CTD 236.
Ironically, such after-the-fact designation recurred when, during World War II, the Surrealist emigres arrived in New York, and Duchamp's association with Breton and Ernst soon earned him the title of Surrealist.
The exception is Duchamp's installation for the "First Papers of Surrealism" exhibition in at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in Mew York in 1942. Duchamp covered walls, ceiling, and floor of the gallery with white string, creating a labyrinthine setting that was to become famous. But this exhibition, which had little to do with the Dada movement as such, was a way of introducing André Breton and other Surrealist war refugees to the New York art world. See Dickran Tashjian, A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde 1920-1950 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), pp. 215-21.
Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan with the Author (1984; Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 106. Subsequently cited as TDD.
See Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), pp. 141-42. This collection is subsequently cited as SS. "Apropos of Ready-Mades" is also cited in its entirety in HR 89-90.
"The word 'readymade," Duchamp tells Cabanne, "did not appear until 1915, when I went to the United States" (CAB 47). Cf. Craig Adcock, "Marcel Duchamp's Approach to New York: 'Find an Inscription for the Woolworth Building as a Ready-Made," NYDK, 52-53. Adcock takes the derivation to be from "ready-made" clothing."
For example, Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp; Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism; Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995); Jerrold Segal, The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1995), subsequently cited as JSPW; William A. Camfield, "Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917," in RKFN 64-94.
Marcel Duchamp, A l'infinitif (The White Box), trans. Marcel Duchamp and Cleve Gray (New York: Cordier & Ekstrom, 1966); rpt. in SS 7-101; see p. 74. The Cordier & Ekstrom White Box, which consists of 150 boxed sets of notes in facsimile, was rediscovered by Duchamp only in 1964. It contains the most important of Duchamp's mathematical speculations, primarily referring to the early work on the Large Glass.
See Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., The Position of Duchamp's Glass in the Development of his Art (New York: Garland, 1979), p. 212; cited in CTD 85.
Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), Chapter 3, "Marcel Duchamp and the New Geometries," pp. 117-63.. On "grasping," see pp. 141-43. This important book is subsequently cited as HEN. On Duchamp and the Fourth Dimension, see also Craig Adcock, "Marcel Duchamp's Notes for La Marié mise a nu par ses célibataires, même: An n-Dimensional Prospectus for a Life's Work," Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1981; Jean Clair, Marcel Duchamp ou le grand fictif (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1975); CTD 116-38.
HEN 132-33. See Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations, ed. Robert Motherwell, trans. Lionel Abel (New York: George Wittenborn, 1949), p. 45. For the original, see Les peintres cubistes, ed. L. C. Breunig et J.-cl. Chevalier (Paris: Collection Savoir Hermann, 1980), p. 68.
See Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, trans. George Heard Hamilton (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 28; cf. PC 88, HEN 134.
See Arturo Schwartz, p.
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. A typographic version by Richard Hamilton of MARCEL DUCHAMP'S Green Box, trans. George Heard Hamilton (Stuttgart, London and Reykjavik: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1976), unpaginated. The passage is reproduced in SS 51 but the layout has been normalized.
And there is the subtext that Albertine was really Proust's adored chauffeur/pilot Agostinelli, who is depicted in photographs at the wheel of his huge car, with its "sexy" overscale wheels.
See Peter Quennell, Marcel Proust, 1871-1922 (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1971), p. VII, 4, subsequently cited as PQ. The painting is by Yvonne de Bray.
Discussion following Eric Cameron's "Given," in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, ed. Thierry de Duve (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 31, 35. For Cameron's essay, see pp. 1-29.
See HEN 130 and, for the establishment of the letter's date, 207, n. 241. The letter is in the Mabel Dodge Luhan Archive, Yale University. For Stein's own sense of the fourth dimension, see HEN, Chapter 4, passim.
Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation (1956; Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994), p. 208. The item is listed in the Duchamp Bibliography in RKFN 234.
Molly Nesbit, relying on notes Walter Arensberg evidently took from a conversation he had been having with Duchamp on the bad taste exhibited by Leo and Gertrude Stein in their choice of bibelots for their Paris house, observes that "[Duchamp] made fun of those, like Gertrude Stein, who loved their objects; he did not love his" (DINY 253). But Stein's "objects" are not the objets d'art on her mantelpiece but the ones she created in Tender Buttons and other writings. And these, as I suggest in "Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp," Forum of Modern Language Studies, 32, no. 2 (1996): 137-54, are very close to the readymades.
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