The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp
As early as 1945, the art dealers Sidney and Harriet Janis offered an astute remark about Marcel Duchamp, who had supposedly resigned from art-making roughly twenty years earlier. Writing in the avant-garde publication View, they noted that although Duchamp had “stopped painting,” work continued “to come into being”—work that was “so unorthodox and so far removed from [...] painting and sculpture” that it was “scarcely recognizable as the products of creative activity.”
In her intensely satisfying study The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp, Elena Filipovic, director of the Kunsthalle Basel, takes up precisely this work of Duchamp’s that was, and is, “scarcely recognizable” as art. She probes Duchamp as administrator, archivist, art advisor, note-taker, publicist, reproducer, and salesman—or, as she broadly characterizes it, as “curator.” Given the “object- and masterpiece-focused scholarship” of art history, she writes, the story of Duchamp has typically centered on “things.” But it was by way of other gestures, often performed retroactively around those objects, that allowed Duchamp to test the institutional machinery of the gallery, museum, and art history. Filipovic’s lucid and richly illustrated text is a joy to read for how it reveals what was plainly there but never fully seen, for the deceptive simplicity, and far-reaching implications, of its claims. She easily avoids what the poet Marianne Moore once referred to as that “dismal / fallacy [...] that all / truth must be dark.”
At nearly every turn, she counter-swings at the existing scholarship—what she calls at one point “a veritable cottage industry of writing on Duchamp.” The book opens with the so-called Box of 1914 (originally unsigned and undated), consisting of photographic copies of Duchamp’s scribblings—“a dozen or so aphorisms and pseudo thoughts,” as he called them—such as one memorable comment on the affinities between art and shit. Historians typically approach Box of 1914 as a series of texts to cite and quote from, but Filipovic finds within it a radical deployment of photography as a conceptual tool (something seldom discussed), the artist’s duplicated notes “simultaneously elevating and disavowing the cult of author or aura.” Duchamp intended the box to modulate understandings of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915 – 23), often referred to as The Large Glass (1915 – 23): “I wanted that album to go with the ‘Glass,’ and to be consulted when seeing the ‘Glass’ because, as I see it, it must not be ‘looked at’ in the aesthetic sense of the word,” he wrote. Duchamp’s notes, then, were curatorial maneuvers. With them, he set the terms for a career-long confrontation with the modernist myth of originality, both enacting it and breaking it down, while also examining how discourse might determine a work’s future interpretations.
Duchamp also applied photography strategically in his curation of the readymades. Take, for example, Fountain (1917). When the Society of Independent Artists rejected the urinal (signed R. Mutt), the incident barely even registered at the time: “Not a scandal. Not even noticed. Not yet.” It was instead Duchamp’s retroactive operations that helped advance its notoriety, such as recruiting Alfred Stieglitz to photograph it, producing a miniature duplicate for his “portable museum” Box in a Valise (1935 – 41), and finally exhibiting a full-sized replica in 1950. As Filipovic writes, “[Scholars] treat Fountain as if it were, already in 1917, the art historical icon that it is today and as if one could properly speak of it without considering the fundamental role that its documentation, administration, and re-presentation in an exhibition (all of which could be called, simply, its ‘curation’) have had on its contemporary interpretation.” While this may seem perfectly obvious in retrospect, Filipovic’s emphasis is clarifying and absurdly overdue.
Duchamp as quasi-curator emerged most completely not in the readymades, however, but in the artist’s final work, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (1946 – 66), installed posthumously at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Filipovic provides an intricate detailing of Duchamp’s wildly weird installation or diorama, “a monstrous viewing machine” consisting of a door, eye-holes, exposed brick, a splayed female figure with a gas lamp, and a collaged landscape with a waterfall. She understands the work—planned for its set-up in that institution—as a kind of site-specific parasite on the museum, a criticism of “its subjective role in the production of value and taste, its unchecked ability to constitute the work of art as much as frame it [...] its implication in power and self-interest, and importantly also its investment in originality.” A key question frames her analysis: why is Given not “more widely inscribed in broader art histories of the epoch”? Why is it never contextualized with the art that emerged alongside it in the 1960s and that expressed a similar institutional critique? She makes a strong case for why it should be, and even draws some revealing comparisons to concurrent works by Paul Thek, John Baldessari, and Vito Acconci.
In Filipovic’s book, Duchamp seems to morph a little, to texture and freshen. Filipovic confirms that there are still new things to be said about him.