Wednesday 6 November 2013

Duchamp 1952

Depending on who you listen to, Duchamp today is the Oracle of Conceptualism, progenitor of a golden age of ideas-based contemporary art or the Great Iconoclast, responsible for the irreversible subversion of all that was great and good in the Western tradition of painting. His admirers claim that he broke down the barriers between art and life enabling the artist to designate anything or anyone as a work of art. All subject taboos were lifted leaving artists free to explore the world at will in any chosen medium. A vocal minority of detractors deplore the death of the hand-crafted object in favour of assembly line methods that Duchamp prefigured and attribute every affront to common decency and good taste in the art world to his malign influence. Duchamp’s parodies of the process of making art and his intellectual game-playing are anathema to the high-minded defenders of autonomous artistic integrity for whom the only art that counts is a product of endless struggle and toil with intractable materials. 

Duchamp would turn 65 in 1952 and had assisted the organisation of an exhibition (Duchamp Frères et Soeur) at the Rose Fried Gallery, New York in February and March. Chess remained his most ostensible preoccupation, while he continued to live in the top floor apartment at 210 West 14th. Street which he had occupied since 1943. All this publicity in the nation’s leading mass-circulation magazine must have tested Duchamp’s celebrated nonchalance about his own reputation. One of the earliest signs of his growing celebrity status may well have made him feel queasy. Whether Duchamp was a regular reader of Life magazine is not a matter of record. Was he more interested in the latest Erle Stanley Gardner story in Saturday Evening Post? Perhaps he leafed through the pages of the New Yorker and Esquire. A secret passion for Breezy Tales and Amazing Stories is not impossible. Chess magazines, View and Cahiers d’Art are more likely to have had his attention. Of course he may also have glanced at Teeny’s copies of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar

Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (shown across a double spread) had been a work in progress since 1935 and the first completed examples appeared in 1941. The business of assembly went on for years. A small team (including Joseph Cornell) laboured away as the component parts arrived from France where Duchamp had prepared them before the war. Later editions of the Boîte-en-valise would be more professionally produced and Duchamp would permutate the contents and vary the box to offer 300 versions in 7 editions in much the same way as the fashion industry extracts the maximum revenue from designer brands. In effect, Duchamp curated his own retrospective in compact form. For a collector the finished article was a precious object to be lingered over, cherished and carefully conserved, catering to the instinct for connoisseurship that Duchamp so actively despised. The Boîte-en-valise has a fetishistic fascination linking us to the world of toys, dolls’ houses and model trains via the idea of condensing a lifetime’s creative activity into a single small and confined space.

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