Thursday, February 18, 2010

Duchamp and Friends

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow, 1920, Museum of Modern Art

Marcel Duchamp’s work is displayed in what is probably the worst room in MoMA’s permanent collection -- if you can even call it a room at all. It’s more of a large landing for the old stairway in the middle of the building. But maybe installing it there wasn’t such a bad idea. Duchamp’s work -- raw, informal, non-artful -- handles the casual space well.

This isn’t to say Duchamp’s work is casual or offhand -- it's just the opposite. It’s deliberate and mindful, even if it sometimes uses chance; and I always feel with his art that a human being has made choices and decisions, however absurd. And, as a corollary to this, Duchamp’s work, with the possible exception of some of his Readymades, is fabricated by hand. Of course almost all art is hand-made, but Duchamp’s is emphatically so, and we strongly experience it as such.

Back side of Fresh Widow

This hand-made quality was brought home to me when I took a good look at the back of Fresh Widow -- a miniature French window (a typically bad pun) whose glass is covered with black leather that Duchamp insisted “should be shined every day like shoes.” (Given the cracks on the leather, I doubt if MoMA honored this request.) It’s displayed near a wall, but not right up against it, so the back of the work can be easily seen. (I wonder if Duchamp included exhibition guidelines for this as he did with several other works.I also wonder if the glass case Fresh Widow is displayed in was Duchamp’s idea -- I doubt it.)

Btw, in the same room are paintings by Duchamp’s friends and colleagues Man Ray, John Covert and Katherine Dreier. They all worked with Duchamp to establish organizations (The Society of Independent Artists and the Société Anonyme) that exhibited and promoted modern art and educated people about it. Duchamp also made a modest income advising such great collectors as Walter Arensberg (whose collection is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), Peggy Guggenheim and Katherine Dreier (mentioned above, whose collection went to Yale and MoMA).

For someone so reluctant to promote or sell his own work (or even admit to making art at all), Duchamp seemed to have had no trouble doing so for others. I can relate to that!


the garden harlot said...

ah ! i was looking all over the internet for this piece of art and its name. i couldn't remember marcel duchamp's name. but i finally figured it out and found your blog post about the piece. when people talk about doors closing and windows opening (opportunity-wise), i think of this piece. although i thought it was black widow / black window. something witty and tricky, his way. but i'm glad to have finally figured it out. i go nuts waiting to figure out something that's on the tip of my tongue and love when i finally do snap the answer into existence.

Charles Kessler said...

Garden Harlot, you may also be interested in Marcel Duchamp's Door - 11 Rue Larrey, 1927. It's a door placed in a corner such that it opens one space while simultaneously closing another. I'm not able to provide a photo here, but Google it.