Few artists are as widely and wildly celebrated for the attempt to overthrow the very ontological basis of art as Marcel Duchamp. In the early 20th century, Duchamp came to reject what he referred to as “retinal art”, art designed merely to bring pleasure to the eye, in favor of a more conceptual approach, an art (or anti-art) that engaged in ideas rather than giving rise to mere “visual products”, as he put it. In an era that explored the aesthetic effects of both the beautiful and the ugly, Duchamp advocated for a kind of aesthetic indifference, “a total absence of good or bad taste”. As he succinctly described it, he was wondering: “Can works can be made which are not ‘of art’?”
The most oft-discussed of such works “not of art” are certainly his “readymades”, objects that were mass-produced and available as commodities and that he declared to be works of art by signing them and giving them clever titles. Some of the readymades, such as Bicycle Wheel (originally 1913, although the original is no longer extant) involved Duchamp manipulating the objects in some fashion—in this case by mounting the bicycle wheel upside down on to a stool. In other cases, such as In Advance of a Broken Arm (1915), which is just a snow shovel that he bought and then signed and dated, he simply left the object more or less as it was (most often he displayed it by suspending it from the ceiling but it remained a mass-produced snow shovel).
The typical take on Duchamp’s philosophical move here, enshrined perhaps most famously in Arthur Danto’s examination of his and similar moves in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), is that these readymades, many of which are after all indistinguishable from the non-art objects of which they are constituted, are made into art objects by virtue of the fact that they are brought into the space of the artwork. That is, they are displayed as art and situated in the context of art objects and thus are deemed art.
Elena Filipovic’s new book, The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp, furthers this view of Duchamp by examining what we might now term Duchamp’s curatorial activities throughout his lifetime. According to Filipovic, the profession of the curator was only being formed during the first half of the 20th century (3) and so Duchamp was navigating unfamiliar waters but nonetheless, like a modern curator, he made several curatorial interventions into the presentation, understanding, and appreciation of the artworks both of his own making and by the group of artists surrounding him—the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Constantin Brancusi, and others.
He acted at various times as an archivist, an art dealer, advisor, administrator, publicist, furnisher of reproductions, and even a salesman—all while keeping his own relatively meager production of artworks out of the view of most people, including many of his most intimate friends. In pursuing Duchamp’s seemingly marginal activities (at least marginal from the point of view of the narratives we generally rely upon in reference to Duchamp), Filipovic divides her study into three large chapters. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with beautiful reproductions of the works being discussed and photographs of the exhibitions under examination.
The Large Glass (1915–23) Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection
Chapter One, “Notes for a Theory of the Work of Art”, deals with two note-taking projects both related (in different ways) to his large-scale work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass (created over an extended period from 1915 to 1923). The Large Glass was part of Duchamp’s effort to leave painting behind as he turned toward a more cerebral approach to aesthetic production. Indeed The Large Glass is so steeped in a cryptic and private iconography that it defies comprehension and perhaps even puts into question the very notion of conceptual understanding in the face of art.
Duchamp began scribbling notes on random pieces of paper in 1912. He wrote on anything that was to hand including the backs of bills and “the underside of a Camembert cheese label” (13). Some of the notes included little drawings but most were short texts, replete with misspellings, crossing out, and erasures. They documented his ideas for future works and endeavors, his philosophical musings, his thoughts about sex. Many of them refer to the large work he was planning but had not yet begun, The Large Glass, while it was still in its formative stages of planning.
Then in 1913-14, Duchamp decided to make something (a work… not of art) out of the notes themselves—and then again, not out of the notes themselves. He carefully photographed a selection of the notes (along with reproductions of two other works of art) in such a way as to reproduce (or nearly so) the original size of the notes. He mounted them so that the torn edges of the original notes were evident and then placed them within boxes by Eastman Kodak Co. or Lumière Jougla that were designed to hold photographic plates. He made five such boxes and gave four of the boxes away to friends, patrons, and family. This box, this work not of art, became known as the Box of 1914.
Filipovic argues that the Box of 1914 is too often overlooked in discussions of the history of early 20th century photography: “In using the medium as no art photographer in his time would, and claiming the result as an artwork in itself and simultaneously as a supplement to, or discursive accompaniment for, another artwork, Duchamp put is finger on photography’s troubled relation to contemporary notions of the work of art” (38). By photographing a series of notes, many of which refer obliquely to another work of art not yet in existence, the elements of the Box of 1914 find themselves perched between two categories of understanding the photograph: as artwork and as documentation. Indeed, Duchamp blurs the line between the two altogether: documentation of the aesthetic becomes an aesthetic rendering of the documentary. Duchamp explored similar ground with his Green Box of 1934.
In her second chapter, “I Myself Will Exhibit Nothing”, Filipovic turns to more recognizable curatorial acts on the part of Duchamp—specifically the numerous exhibitions, mostly of the works of other artists, that he organized or helped to organize. In many ways, this is the most rewarding of the three chapters and certainly includes what I find to be Filipovic’s greatest contribution to Duchamp studies.
Filipovic reads Duchamp’s more traditional curatorial efforts as a series of experiments regarding the ontology of art, and, more to the point, investigations into what makes something register as participating in the aesthetic. In essence, Duchamp seems to have worked from two different directions at once. On the one hand, he “programmatically refused to reduce the artwork to a discrete, auratic thing unto itself” (74). Recognizing that the manner of display deeply influences the viewer’s understanding of an artwork, indeed even constitutes the conditions under which a work can be seen as art, Duchamp created exhibition spaces that occluded to varying degrees the works on display—by having webs of string interfere with a clear view, cramming artworks together in tight spaces with no clear hierarchy of value, forcing patrons to view works through peepholes, and creating rather uninhabitable spaces (for instance, choked with coal dust) so that viewing was anything but a passive, reverential moment of quasi-theological subsumption of the self to the auratic otherness of art.
To break up the cultic vestiges of revelation that artworks after the 19th century had arrogated to themselves is to question the very function of art in the modern age. In essence, Duchamp engaged in a clever reversal. If the notion of the “aura” of an artwork involved the assumption that no matter how closely you approached the empirical object on display (let’s say the Mona Lisa as painting) the essence of the artwork remained forever distant from you (that is, the Mona Lisa as aesthetic presence is always unreachable and unfathomable no matter how close you physically get to the artifact), then Duchamp forced the viewer to stay physically at a distance and desacralized the artwork by obstructing its revelatory presence through the odd manner of its situation in the exhibition. In other words, if the aura of traditional art meant no matter how close you get, the artwork remains implacably out of reach, then Duchamp suggested that by removing the artwork from immediate proximity one brings it down to earth.
On the other hand, Filipovic shows that Duchamp used certain exhibitions to “test” his notion of the readymade. In an early exhibition, he placed the readymades inconspicuously in the vestibule of the gallery, without any placards, without any direct means of calling attention to them. Not surprisingly, they were ignored. A snow shovel sitting near the entrance of a gallery might seem odd in certain circumstances but it does not claim to be art. In later showings, however, Duchamp brought the apparatus of exhibition display to bear upon the readymades: the placards, inclusion in the catalogue. Then they were noticed. Then they became an object of discussion and of controversy.
There are two intriguing lessons to be learned here. First, the exhibition is a manner of framing art and thus determining its mode of being, its ontology. Second, the typical narrative that Duchamp simply “declared” that the readymades are art and that makes them so is not sufficient. These works had to be initiated into the art world through more overt methods than mere selection, and those methods were largely curatorial.
Étant donnés, Philadelphia Museum of Art
In the final chapter, “The Dead End of the Museum”, Filipovic details the protracted interactions between Duchamp and the Philadelphia Museum of Art that led to the installation of the largest public collection of his output and the permanent home of his installation and final piece, Étant donnés. Although it culminates in an investigation of one of Duchamp’s most troubling and important works, this chapter is the least focused and serves as a recapitulation of earlier assertions regarding Duchamp’s curatorial approach rather than opening up new territory.
Indeed, needless repetition and a tendency to exaggerate the peculiarity of Duchamp’s curatorial insights are characteristic flaws of the book as a whole. Occasionally Filipovic falls into what we might term the “thank God I got here in time” manner of academic writing. She mildly chides art critics such as Rosalind Kraus and Benjamin Buchloh for not recognizing the central importance of the Box of 1914 to contemporaneous concerns with the photographic image, its indexicality, and its relationship to avant-garde painting. Of course, had they placed the “proper” emphasis on the Box of 1914 there would be no need for Filipovic’s work (or at least not Chapter One).
More frustratingly, Filipovic uses this chastisement as an excuse to yet again restate her claims (in this case, that the Box of 1914 is a quasi-ontological investigation into the nature of the photographic image). One might get the impression that Filipovic’s rhetoric relies more on repetition (if I say it enough times it must be true) than on more considered argument and means of persuasion. And just in case you managed to somehow miss the interpretation being pounded into your head, Filipovic includes a “Conclusion” to each chapter that summarizes everything one last time.
Still, even with its flaws, The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp manages to do something that seems to be increasingly difficult as the scholarship on this artist mounts to the heavens: it says something new that is well worth considering.
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