The lifestyle of the Duchamp family, throughout Marcel's childhood days, encouraged artistic and musical expressions; and they played a lot of chess, too. As a young art student, he sold some small pieces, and had paintings--craftsmanlike, Cézannesque, quasi-Cubistic works--included in exhibitions here or there. The early response of the French public to Duchamp's art was modest disinterest. By 1910, the Salon d'Automne admitted him as a Socitaire, which qualified him to exhibit paintings in the annual show without having to submit them to a jury; but Duchamp--then on the verge of making radical aesthetic statements about the machine and art--never put this traditionally oriented institution to further, challenging tests.

In two separate dramatic incidents--both of them involving exhibitions that ostensibly were to be unjuried--Duchamp's provocative submissions were rejected. The first of these was in Paris at the Salon des Indpendents in 1913 when the Cubist colleagues of his two brothers requested that changes be made in Marcel's painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, begging him at least to remove the lettering at the bottom of the painting, which they found offensive. The second circumstance involved a group calling itself (also!) "The Independents" in New York, in 1917, and the outrage of some members at Duchamp's provoca-tive Readymade sculpture titled Fountain. Those were the two most theatrical consequences of the few formal occasions on which Duchamp sought to present his art to the public as an official member of some artists' group. Despite such disagreements, Duchamp was occasionally open to collaboration with other artists in genuinely cooperative projects, thereby programmatically avoiding the romantic trap of becoming an isolated, neurotic, creative soul.

In 1913 the contretemps involved several fellow painters in the group of Puteaux Cubists. The young Marcel--then still in his twenties--elicited criticism for his cheekiness as he refused to make ANY changes in his art to court approval, quietly insisting upon playing by the exhibition stated rules, and thus keeping art on the level of a friendly game. It made no difference whether these were couched as concessions to professional opinion or as compromises to public taste, confirming his consistently fierce sense of independence. If Duchamp had a theoretical concept about playing the role of an artist, it could be expressed in terms of fidelity to his vision, his refusal to make changes for any social, much less for a commercial expedient.

With a mien of dignity that became legendary, and with an almost magisterial sense of decorum (mistaken by some, on occasion, for arrogance), Duchamp removed the painting in question (his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2) from the 1913 (supposedly unjuried) show, resolving then and there to avoid all future compromises with the petty infighting and hypocrisies of artists' groups.

The 1913 Armory Show in New York has been studied well--if almost to death--by art historians. For our purpose, it is only necessary to summarize a few of the high points. The Show was a momentous event for American art, which, ever since colonial days, had harbored some poor sister feelings of resentment toward European cultural achievements. The scale was vast (with some 1600 pieces), and the curatorial consciousness was inclusive, with fully a third of the artists from Europe. In one gargantuan, unsparing gesture, virtually every style or attainment of the day in the visual arts was placed on display.

In the midst of all this, the focus of the public's reaction, the outrage and the cause célèbre of the moment, was that extraordinary painting which had so piqued the Puteaux Cubists, that manifestation of Duchamp's insight and genius, that product of his astounding technique and audaciously Rabelaisian sense of humor, that same Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). The painting achieved a certain supremacy of scandal, becoming the most infamous--or outrageously triumphant--piece in the show, which was itself America's first eye-opening look at the modern art then being produced in Europe. The immediate and impassioned response by the public to the Armory Show was beyond anything the sponsors could have imagined: 4000 people attended on the first day, February 17, 1913; a month later, 100,000 had seen the exhibition. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had made a private visit, felt obliged to share his opinion with the newspapers: "This is not art!" And writing for Everybody's Magazine, an art critic named Julian Street--poor man, as he shall never be remembered for anything else--put his finger precisely on the public pulse, at some deep level intuitively perceiving the ominous threat posed by the iconic impetus of the machine to the inertial ideas in the mass mind about Victorian womanhood (and mankind), comparing Duchamp's Nude Descending to "an explosion in a shingle factory."

[ Richard Guy Wilson, Dianne H. Pilgrim and Dickran Tashjian, The Machine Age in America: 1918-1941, the Brooklyn Museum and Harry N. Abrams, New York (1986), p. 211. ]

This choice critical simile is frequently cited in many variant forms. An article printed in the New York World on the Armory Show's opening day (February 17, 1913) provides some contemporary perspective, following the headlines:


He'd Have Bellevue for Next Stop After Futurist Art Exhibition, Scoffers Assert.

...Particularly does painting No. 241 interest. It is labeled "Nu Descendent un Escalier." A reporter for a newspaper that cares nothing about art surveyed the picture. He saw nothing but what resembled a fearful explosion in a lumberyard.

Accompanying the news piece was a composite cartoon, in which the central image was a man, his top hat being blown off, standing contortedly in front of a painting filled with rhomboidal abstract shapes, labeled at the bottom: LA PROCESSION. The legend is titled TRAGEDY, and the figure says, "Ah! Mon Dieu! They have hang heem my masterpiece upside down." The last panel of the cartoon shows an ambulence carting the show attendee, now stiff with shock, "To Bellevue." [ The cartoon and portions of the article are reprinted--with bare legibility--in William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton University Press (1979), as Illustration 7. ]

That was back in the days when the public enthusiastically responded to art--when issues about art really did move people to passion. The Armory Show of 1913 was well timed for exciting or infuriating the multitudes. In both Europe and America it highlighted a remarkable decade for the visual arts, an outburst of creative energy all the more surprising when contrasted with the contemporary destruction and slaughter of World War I.

Two authors who have addressed the concept of a machine age, Siegfried Giedion and Reyner Banham, concur that after long maturation it finally arrived during the second decade of the twentieth century and was characterized by a stage of mechanization in which an abundance of machines that altered everyday life came to be owned and operated by the middle classes. Those machines included telephones, typewriters, electrical appliances and, especially, automobiles. A survey of newspapers and illustrated journals supports their views and further indicates that no class was untouched by exhilarating advances in aircraft, automotive design and the cinema, by the impact of industrial exhibits at world's fairs, or by startling developments in science, including the discovery of new atomic theories, X-rays and the emission of radiation from radium.

Reaction to such "progress," however, was sometimes ambivalent. Many people were confident that science, industry and technology had carried man to the threshold of a new age in which his needs would be fulfilled with unprecedented efficiency....But others, some just skeptics, some stirred by the fundamental mysteries of life, looked upon the triumvirate of science-technology-machine as a false and pompous trinity.

[ Camfield, Picabia, p. 78. ]

The earlier artistic erruptions of the Fauves, Die Brücke, the Cubists and Futurism proved to be seismic indicators of a full-scale chthonic, volcanic transformation of the Western world's psychic sense of artistic self-expression. In the 'teens, the fundamental values of art were brought into question by one movement after another, while their corresponding theoretical postulates were argued with vehemence and fervor, and the public responded with both derision and glee.

To get some sense of the decade's aesthetic significance for art history, in summary, we might reflect on the following sequence: Der Blaue Reiter and German Expressionism in 1910; Rayonnism in Russia and Kandinsky "invents" abstract art (1911); Orphism in Paris and the Puteaux Cubists (1912); Vorticism in London, Synchronism in Paris and Suprematism in Russia (1913); Synthetic Cubism of Braque, Gris and Picasso, and Neo-Plasticism of Mondrian (1914); Duchamp leaves France for New York, begins the Large Glass and Readymades (1915); Dada in Zurich (1916); de Stijl in the Netherlands (1917); Purism in Paris (1918); and in 1919 Max Ernst makes collages in Cologne, the Bauhaus was founded at Weimar, and the United Artists studio was established in Hollywood (with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks); in 1920 Duchamp, with Man Ray and Katherine Drier founded the Socité Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art, a major force on the American scene for twenty years, and Rrose Sélavy blossomed.

When Duchamp sailed aboard the Rochambeau from Paris to New York in 1915, he came into the United States as one of the lions of the art world. The notoriety inherited from the public response to the Armory Show, and the outrageous triumph of his Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2, had established his fame long before his physical arrival on the shores promising to shelter "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Walter Pach brought Duchamp to Louise and Walter Arensberg and the fun-loving, sophisticated circle that surrounded them, that even-tually came to include Marcel's sister Yvonne and her second husband Jean Crotti, Duchamp's old pals Francis Picabia and Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, Albert and Juliette Gleizes, and a kindred spirit with whom Duchamp would form a lifelong friendship involving frequent artistic collaboration, Man Ray. For several years, the group often met chez Arensberg for artistic and literary disputations, chess playing and hijinks. Among the notables were American painters Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, the Dada sculptor Morton Schamberg and sometime-boxer Arthur Cravan, the dancer Isadora Duncan, poets William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, Mina Loy, and Wallace Stevens, composer Edgar Varse, Louise (later Mrs. Varse) and Rogue editor Alan Norton, actress Fania and music critic (and correspondent with Gertrude Stein) Carl Van Vechten, Beatrice Wood, Marius de Zayas (who early showed Brancusi at the Modern Gallery) and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz with his companion Georgia O'Keeffe.


Duchamp's aura permeated many of the soirees, without doubt thereby exuding an expansive influence on the arts and letters of the land. Once more Duchamp was enticed to participate in a group art project (his second), which led to another public sensation. Some members of Arensberg circle formed a group calling itself the Society of Independent Artists. With Duchamp joining, two years after arriving in New York, he appears to have made a provisional exception to his resolution about avoiding formal artists associations, following the debacle of Cubist political-correctness at the 1913 Salon des Indpendents. Declaring itself motivated by a democratic spirit, the newly-formed (American) Society's initial public statement, of early 1917, promised (as had the Parisian Independents) an annual open exhibition,

where artists of all schools can exhibit together--certain that whatever they send will be hung....For the public, this exhibition will make it possible to form an idea of the state of contemporary art....There are no requirements for admission to the Society save the acceptance of its principles and the payment of the initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars.

[ Announcement titled, "The Society of Independent Artists, Inc.," (no date), in the Archives of the Socit Anonyme, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conecticut; quoted in Camfield, Fountain, p. 19. ]

Duchamp--a duly paid-up member of the Society--submitted the infamous Fountain, a porcelain urinal which Duchamp (choosing to remain anonymous) signed with the nom de guerre "R. Mutt" and the date "1917." It was hypocritically refused for display by a hastily assembled group including Rockwell Kent and George Bellows. Beatrice Wood, the only eyewitness, records the exchange between Bellows (a former member of The Eight) and Walter Arensberg (who had conspired with Duchamp and Joseph Stella in buying the masterpiece of plumbing):

"We cannot exhibit it," Bellows said hotly, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead.

"We cannot refuse it, the entrance fee has been paid," gently answered Walter.

"It is indecent!" roared Bellows.

"That depends upon the point of view," added Walter, suppressing a grin.

"Someone must have sent it as a joke. It is signed R. Mutt: sounds fishy to me," grumbled Bellows with disgust. Walter approached the object in question and touched its glossy surface. The with the dignity of a don addressing men at Harvard, he expounded: "A lovely form has been revealed, freed from its functional purpose, therefore a man has clearly made an aesthetic contribution."

The entry they were discussing was perched high on a wooden pedestal: a beautiful, white enamel oval form gleaming triumphantly on a black stand.

It was a man's urinal, turned on its back.

Bellows stepped away, then returned in a rage as if he were going to pull it down. "We can't show it; that's all there is to it."

Walter lightly touched his arm, "That's what the whole exhibition is about; an opportunity to allow an artist to send in anything he chooses, for the artist to decide what is art, not someone else."

Bellows shook his arm away, protesting. "You mean to say, if a man sent in horse manure glued to a canvas that we would have to accept it!"

"I'm afraid we would," said Walter, with a touch of undertaker's saddness. "If this is an artist's expression of beauty, we can do nothing but accept his choice." With diplomatic effort he pointed out, "If you can look at this entry objectively, you will see that it has striking, sweeping lines. This Mr. Mutt has taken an ordinary object, placed it so that its useful significance disappears, and thus has created a new approach to the subject."

"It is gross, offensive! There is such a thing as decency."

"Only in the eye of the beholder. You forget our bylaws."

[ Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself. Edited by Lindsay Smith, Dillingham Press, Ojai, California (1985), p. 29-30; also quoted in Camfield, Fountian, p.25. ]

This affair prompted Duchamp, together with a few friends, to issue an ephemeral publication called The Blind Man, containing a remarkably clear and forthright articulation of the essential critical and aesthetic issues. A knowledge of the context as reported by Beatrice Wood leads one all the more to appreciate the qualities of restraint in the principal editorial, eschewing both ire and wry or sarcastic comments directed to the hypocricies and pretensions of witless fellow artists--with the bright, blood-red, flashing, signal exception of the final line. The terse text provides a pithy rebuttal to critics of the Fountain, rendering it easy to quote in full:


They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.

Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited.

What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt's fountain:

1. Some contend it was immoral, vulgar.

2. Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.

Now Mr. Mutt's fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in a plumber's show windows.

Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.

As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.

One might ask just what all this might have meant for Duchamp's work of that early period in New York, and what "plumbing and bridges" could have meant for the aesthetics of the time. To be sure, the aesthetic roots of the Blind Man controversy may go back to 1900 with Henry Adams, who incidentally took the trip in the other direction, from America to Paris, suffering there his ecstatic vision of the Dynamo and the Virgin. This unlikely relationship with Adams's Virgin may provide a clue to other levels of interpretion for Duchamp's art.

In 1937, the Arts Club of Chicago gave Duchamp his first one-man exhibition, which included nine works. The artist was unable to attend, at that time remaining in France. In the following year he included five pieces in the Exposition Internationale du Surralisme at the Gallerie Beaux-Arts in Paris. After relocating once again from France to America, in 1942 he did associate with a group of Surrealist artists and authors in New York, including André Breton, Max Ernst, Wilfredo Lam, André Masson, Matta, and Yves Tanguy. In collaboration with Breton, R. A. Parker, and gallery director Sidney Janis, Duchamp helped produce the catalog and exhibition titled First Papers of Surrealism. It was for that opening he invented the uproarious theater piece in which he used a mile of twine, and clandestinely invited a group of children to play with a variety of balls at the opening. His fame was further spread when View, the New York magazine, devoted the March, 1945 issue entirely to Duchamp, for the first time offering extensive commentaries and illustrations of his work.

Unlike most contemporary fine artists, Duchamp did not seek traditional participation in the marketplace. Few of his works were offered for sale as commercial products, nor were they conventionally merchandised--whether as diamonds (which are cartel-marketed) or as speculative commodity futures like pork bellies. So, we should not be surprised that no "critical reception" or anything like it pertained to the 1916 piece of sculpture With Hidden Noise, until it was included as part of the 1950 Arensberg bequest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which opened to the public only in 1954.

The timing of this last event, in retrospect, could not have been more fortuitous. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1960s, Pop Art and Op Art, Minimalism and manifold styles, mini-movements, and multi-media environmental happenings, dramatically expanded the idea of what art COULD be. The aesthetic consciousnes of American art had matured to the point where it could once again learn from Duchamp as though he were an angelic messenger. Posterity--which, as we recall, was for Duchamp the ultimate judge of art--began to reevaluate him with new interest and understanding; the enigmatic Norman was coming to be seen as a profound visionary who had gushed forth a veritable fountain of inspiration for the art of this century.

In 1963, the first-ever major retrospective exhibition of Duchamp's work detonated with an extraordinary, unprecedented, explosive effect upon the contemporary world of art and cultural sensibilities. This monumentally impressive show, devoted to the lifetime work of the great twentieth century French/American artist, sparkled like fireworks; and the fuse for this spectacle was lit--not in Paris, nor in New York, London, Rome or Tokyo--but in Pasadena, California. Pursuing the metaphor, the energy and vision of Walter Hopps could be considered the punk stick and match. Widely recognized as a brilliantly intuitive organizer of shows and programs, Hopps brought together one hundred and fourteen works by Marcel Duchamp. And high time, too, for what many felt was an embarrassingly tardy token of the recognition Duchamp deserved. A mere hundred pieces or so, for most other artists, might serve only to document some stylistic period or one thematic phase of their studio production; for prolific painters such as Paul Klee or Pablo Picasso, one or two hundred pieces might be used to show what went on in their respective studios during a single season of expressive activity. But Duchamp's artistic merits were not to be counted by the canvas nor weighed by the pound.

Walter Hopps successfully managed to bring together most of the known works by Duchamp then available--including, from Philadelphia, the fragile magnum opus known as the Large Glass. Many of the original Readymades had been lost, left behind when Duchamp moved, or given away to friends and unrecoverable. For a typical grand retrospective, there was a surprisingly sparse number of works at Pasadena. But this was in keeping with Duchamp's own preferences for elegance, in the mathematical sense as economy of statement; and as Hopps pointed out in his introductory remarks for the catalog:

None of his peers has produced or exhibited as little as he to achieve such stature.

[ Walter Hopps, "Marcel Duchamp: a system of paradox in resonance," By or Of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy. Pasadena Art Museum, A Retrospective Exhibition, October 8 through November 3, 1963, np. ]

Calvin Tomkins, whose 1965 book The Bride and the Bachelors contains an important chapter on Duchamp, provided a rich review of Hopps' career in a Profile for The New Yorker magazine, commenting, of course, on the importance of the Pasadena retrospective.

Duchamp himself not only agreed to it but collaborated with Hopps in getting together examples of his early work and securing loans from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the paintings and objects from the Arensberg Collection were housed. He came out to Pasadena for the opening, gave his blessing to Hopps's imaginative installation, and posed for what became a famous publicity photograph: it showed Duchamp--who supposedly had given up art long before in favor of chess--playing chess with a nude woman in one of the museum galleries. The exhibition signalled the start of a meteoric rise in Duchamp's reputation....

[ Calvin Tomkins, "Profiles: A Touch for the Now (Walter Hopps)'" The New Yorker (July 29, 1991), p. 46. The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde, Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, expanded edition, Viking Compass Book, New York, (1968). ]

The young woman, Eve Babitz, in a chatty account of the Los Angeles scene, spotlighted that staged encounter between chess buffs (of one sort or another) in an article for Esquire magazine. The extended title just about says it all: "I Was a Naked Pawn for Art: Being a true account of the day that Marcel Duchamp put the West Coast underground on the culture map by playing chess in Pasadena with the author, who was at the moment an unclothed young woman with a lot to learn." Some of which on that agenda (along with the Ruy Lopez opening) may be historical method, as Ms. Babitz cannot resist perpetuating--and extending--one of those dubious Duchamp myths:

I sat down quickly at the chess set and wondered if we could just pose or did we actually have to play, but Marcel--whose obsession with chess made him give up not ony art but girls--was waiting for me to make the first move....I tried my best, moving a knight so at least he knew I had some idea what a knight was, he moved his pawn and the next thing I knew, I was checkmated. "Fool's mate" they call it when you're so stupid that the game hasn't even begun and you've lost.

[ Eve Babitz, "I Was a Naked Pawn for Art...," Esquire, Volume 116, No. 3 (September, 1991), pp. 164 ff. ]

Julian Wasser's lovely photograph showing the match in progress (the master has just captured Ms. Babitz's black queen) also gives us a good idea of Walter Hopps'sensitive hand in determining how the Pasadena show looked. In the background, as it happens, we can make out With Hidden Noise protected by what appears to have been a clear plastic cube; and the sculpture appears to be standing on its "legs."

Following the 1963 Pasadena retrospective, another of Duchamp's exhibitions included the important group of early works, and some of the classic pieces collected by Mary Sisler. These were presented as "NOT SEEN and/or LESS SEEN of/by MARCEL DUCHAMP/RROSE SELAVY 1904-64," in a show at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York (January 14--February 13, 1965), for which the Dada artist, and later psychiatrist, Richard Huelsenbeck wrote a blurb. Still, as Rudolf E. Kuenzli reminds us in his introduction to Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century:

The first acquisition of a work by a French public collection occurred only in 1954, when Duchamp was sixty-seven years old. [The Chess Players, in the Museum of Modern Art, Paris.] He was seventy-six at the time of his first retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, which was followed by the "almost complete" retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London in 1966. Other important exhibitions were organized only after his death: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973; Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, 1977; Tokyo, 1981; Barcelona, 1984.

[ Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century Edited by Rudolf E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, First MIT Press edition (1989), p. 3; origin-ally published as the journal Dada/Surrealism No. 16, Association for the Study of Dada and Surrealism, University of Iowa (1987). ]

Duchamp clearly ceded to posterity, as a long-term interactive task, all questions to be answered or issues to be debated about art and aesthetic judgments in terms of his public acceptance. This leaves the way open for each onlooker to bring to the work of art an equally valid approach replete with reverence and/or a personal perception of veracity...a time-factored awareness that may help to explain his defense of Giorgio de Chirico against a broadside from André Breton:

Posterity is a form of the spectator....It's the posthumous spectator, because the contemporary spectator is worthless, in my opinion. His is a minimum value compared to that of posterity, which, for example, allows some things to stay in the Louvre.

[ Cabanne, Dialogues, p. 76. ]

Of course, nothing during the artist's lifetime was made known, nor shown, of Duchamp's last major work, Etant Donnés, now installed at Philadelphia, upon which he had been working from 1946 to 1966. The whole project was a very well-kept secret until after the death of the artist in 1968. Strangely, however, Duchamp did have the opportunity to comment, in conversation with Pierre Cabanne, on a naughty artistic portent of his own death, which he did with a fitting sense of poetic irony and a typically impeccable, if not sublime, sense of logic:

Cabanne: Last year, at the Creuze Gallery, there was a show in which three young painters, Arroyo, Aillaud, and Recalcati, did a series of collaborative paintings called "The Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp." In a manifesto they published, they sentenced you to death, accusing you of being bereft of "the spirit of adventure, the freedom of invention, the sense of anticipation, and the power of transcending...." Did you see these canvases?

Duchamp: Of course. It was just before I left, in October. Creuze telephoned and asked me to come see them. He wanted to explain what was going on, and to ask me...if I wanted them removed. I told him, `Don't worry about it, either you want the publicity or you don't. I don't care. There's nothing to say about it; these people want some publicity, that's all. It was a flop.

[ Cabanne, Dialogues, p. 102. ]

Finally, much of Duchamp's attitude toward life and death, art and posterity, the aesthetic and the eternal, can be grasped from reading (or read into) his epitaph inscribed on the tombstone in his family plot in the Cimetire Monumental at Rouen.



[ See, Shigeko Kubota, "Marcel Duchamp's Grave," cover, Arts (Dec. 1974). ]

In the artist's own words it reads: