First Encounters with Marcel Duchamp
When one first encounters a readymade by Marcel Duchamp, one does not see it in the same way as when viewing other works of art. Surely it takes a few moments for your brain to register what you are looking at, but as soon as that happens, you have to ask yourself a few poignant questions. Why is this object that is already familiar to you from another context on view in an art museum or reproduced in an art book? Who is responsible for putting it there, and should their authority be accepted without question? Everyone who encounters a readymade for the first time reacts differently. To this day, there are those who reject the notion that any commonplace, everyday object can be elevated to the status of art, no matter who declares it as such. This includes not only the average museum visitor, but also those who have established positions within the world of art: artists, critics, curators, collectors, dealers, and art connoisseurs of all types.
My first comprehension of a readymade was so momentous and life-altering that it is etched into my memory with such permanence that it seems to have happened yesterday, when, in actual fact, it occurred when I was eighteen years old, now some fifty-six years ago. I have told the story many times and, like Duchamp, I have an aversion to repetition, so I am reluctant to tell it again. Nevertheless, for those who are unfamiliar with it, I shall repeat it again here in brief.
I was a student in high school when I saw a picture of a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool reproduced on the slipcase of Calvin Tomkins’s Time-Life book, The World of Marcel Duchamp (1966). At first, I was certain it was a mistake, something placed there by accident, or that the slipcase was from another publication (possibly one devoted to mechanics or bicycles) but used on this book by mistake. It took me a few moments to realize that it was a work of art, but when that realization came, it hit me like a ton of intellectual bricks. I almost immediately understood that few others would accept the radical notion that this ordinary object could be classified as a work of art, least of all my parents. It was important to me at the time that I find yet one more thing in life that they would not understand about me, like my love for rock & roll music or my hatred of the war in Vietnam. It took me a bit longer to realize that it was not only my parents who would not accept the implications of a readymade, but when I went to college to study art, neither did most of my professors. They knew about Duchamp, to be sure, but nearly all of them told me I was following the wrong path, one heading in the wrong direction down the course of modern art. When Duchamp died in 1968, Picasso reportedly said “He was wrong.” Instinctively, I knew they were all wrong.
Some six months before Duchamp’s death, I actually sat in the same room as he did, but without realizing it at the time. He attended the first performance of Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I was a student. Duchamp sat a few rows ahead of me, so I must have seen the back of his head, but I got up and left the performance early, not knowing that he would get up on stage at the end (details of his Large Glass were reproduced on large clear plastic inflatables designed by Jasper Johns that were used as the set). I only discovered that he was there a few years later when seeing photographs of the final curtain call taken by Oscar Bailey, my professor of photography at the time. I was so disheartened that I have punished myself ever since by not leaving a movie or performance of any kind until it ends, no matter how insufferable or boring I might find it to be, feeling that something unexpected could still happen at the end to make the whole experience worthwhile.
I have devoted nearly my entire professional career to the study of Duchamp and the artists his ideas influenced, not just his contemporaries, but the many who have followed in his wake. Indeed, the critic Jerry Saltz once said that I had fallen deeper down the Duchamp rabbit hole than anyone he knew, a criticism I accept with pride. Duchamp said that art was a habit-forming drug. If that’s true, then for me he is pure heroin (or, remembering his female alter ego, I should probably say heroine).
When I was invited to organize this section of the Brooklyn Rail, I thought it would be interesting to ask those who have devoted a large part of their professional careers to the work of Marcel Duchamp to tell us about their first encounters with the artist and his work. Many could not pinpoint the actual moment when it occurred, but nearly all of them became deeply engaged once they understood its importance, particularly as it pertained to the enormous impact it had on artists and the entire subsequent history of art. Once that message was fully absorbed, they were compelled to convey their discoveries to their audience: artists through their work, art historians and critics through their writings.
I never had the opportunity to meet Marcel Duchamp in person (close, as they say, but no cigar). I doubt that knowing him would have changed my deep regard for his work, for nearly everyone who knew him well has described him as a kind and gentle being, possessed with a profound intellect that was conveyed with grace and forbearance, never in a way that made the person he was speaking with feel any less than his equal. Of course for those who knew him personally—Carroll Janis and Calvin Tomkins—their accounts of having met and spoken with the artist take on an historical importance, so they are presented before all others in the present compilation. In the end, whether you knew Duchamp or not, as these essays demonstrate, his ideas continue to influence the thoughts of those who encounter his work, a pattern that I feel fairly confident will continue long into the future.