|Two major subjects for Duchampions [sic] are Marcel Duchamp’s final work, Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), posthumously revealed to the public in 1969, and Duchamp’s lifelong devotion to chess. Two acutely relevant exhibitions opened within a month of each other early this season in Philadelphia and New York. Both are de rigueur to see and they are augmented by three associated publications, which are impressive and present important new material to the field. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is architecturally Neoclassical, designed on the plan and with the attributes of a Greek temple built on a promontory overlooking the Schuylkill River. If you have not been there yet you absolutely must go!|
L. Brandon Krall
Two major subjects for Duchampions [sic] are Marcel Duchamp’s final work, Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), posthumously revealed to the public in 1969, and Duchamp’s lifelong devotion to chess. Two acutely relevant exhibitions opened within a month of each other early this season in Philadelphia and New York. Both are de rigueur to see and they are augmented by three associated publications, which are impressive and present important new material to the field.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is architecturally Neoclassical, designed on the plan and with the attributes of a Greek temple built on a promontory overlooking the Schuylkill River. If you have not been there yet you absolutely must go! The museum can now be reached by train, via 30th Street Station and by taking a very pleasant 20 minute walk along a newly opened river side park called Schuylkill Banks [http://www.schuylkillbanks.org].
The Modern and Contemporary galleries include many superlative works by among others Picasso, Gris, Morton Schamberg, Kelly, Twombly and Johns, and it includes a divine collection of Brancusis and Mondrians, with a small gallery devoted to Duchamp-Villon, and Gallery 182 where Duchamp’s major works are usually on display assembled around The Large Glass. It is a small darkened gallery just off this space where a brick façade frames an old weathered Spanish door, and that is where Étant donnés can be discovered. The art in the halls of this wing have been reconfigured for this exhibition in a thoughtful and noteworthy way. When you arrive at the south wing you see down rows of arches receding in perspective, that extraordinary object framed in green velvet and originally given to Maria Martins, Study for Étant donnés…. It was first shown publicly in 1963 at the Pasadena retrospective organized by Walter Hopps and it is the precursor to the 4-dimensional environment that Duchamp took 20 years to complete, with all kinds of delays. Both of the Chocolate Grinder paintings, No. 1 and No. 2 from 1913 and 14 respectively, were re-hung at the entrance to the wing, affording a curious opportunity to look at them right next to each other. It is likely that the chocolate grinder in a shop window in Rouen that inspired them was a large electrically powered machine. It is not known to what extent it was reproduced in Duchamp’s invention with Louis VI legs. Eventually the broyeuse du chocolat became a source of important male energy in The Large Glass. That “the bachelor grinds his chocolate himself,” does not reflect any French slang of the period or of the present, permitting one to ask who grinds chocolate for the bride, if not the groom?
Exceptional to discover in this show is the full-scale facsimile of Nude Descending a Staircase No.2, that Duchamp made on paper from an enlarged Armory Show postcard. Duchamp had made a trip to see the original oil painting in the Torrey collection, when he traveled to California and he checked the coloration with care, taking exact notes. Then, for the facsimile, he turned the original ochres and earth tones into a range of greys and blues! This can be seen as an example of his work that presages the age of digital image manipulation. The work is so fragile that it can be shown for only 3 months every 5 years, which in itself is a good reason to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia; to see this work installed in an arch, directly across from the original oil painting!
Among the works on view from the museum’s collection and archives, most of which were assembled by Duchamp for the collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg, are the original photographs by Duchamp taken in Switzerland of the waterfall landscape. Truly marvelous is the study made from painted photographs mounted on wood for the landscape background of Étant donnés, with delicately stippled painting that is delightful to see close-up. This work, the collaged photographs and drawings and silk-screens made with Dali that were preparatory to the final landscape, are all on view. But really interesting is how presciently they engaged in photographic manipulation prior to the digital age. The pencil drawing that shows an electric pole in a landscape with elements of The Large Glass, is titled Cols alités, which is translated literally as ‘bedridden hills’ but which could carry another entendre crossing to English, ‘alighted hills.’ Duchamp’s own luscious color transparencies are on view, some in hand cut cardboard mattes, and a pair of them set in a stereoscope, allowing us to view his optical study as a 3d image of the interior. This was prior to the 3 dimensional technology that exists today and which would undoubtedly have engaged Duchamp and Man Ray in new experiments.
The curator, Michael R. Taylor, has placed special focus on the moulds and the processes of working with them, and other late works from the collection that relate to motifs in Étant donnés. Vitrines are devoted to Wedge of Chastity, Objet dard and Boite Alerte among other fascinating items. Duchamp persistently derided the imbecility of war, having lived through World Wars I and II, and always protested against it in his way. I believe that Torture-morte, in this exhibition, which was a cast from his own foot and embedded with artificial flies, was a contemporary protest against the war in Indochina in 1959, when it was made.
Much credit is due the curator for putting a spotlight on the work of Denise Browne Hare. She was a good friend of Teeny and Marcel, and Teeny commissioned her to record his studio with Étant donnés in it, after his death in 1968. Browne Hare’s photographs are in themselves works of art, by an artist whose oeuvre still remains to be known entirely today. Some of Browne Hare’s photographs were used by Duchamp in assembling the, Manual of Instructions which has been reprinted with a translation from a facsimile of 1987, for this occasion.
There used to be an open terrace just off Gallery 182, where The Large Glass was installed intentionally adjacent to the present sealed window. One has a view to the courtyard with its immense marble fountain and tall jet of water. Immediately below the terrace for years a sculpture by Maria Martins had been installed. Yara, has been brought inside, restored and this strange black personage presides near the entrance to the Étant donnés show, with a handful of Martins’ works on paper. Martins and Duchamp had a serious love affair that lasted over a period of 6 years. In the catalog 35 intimate letters from Duchamp (none from Martins), dating from 1946 to 1952 are reproduced for the first time with translations. It is disquieting to read this exposed personal side of Duchamp, when he always made a careful point to guard himself from public scrutiny. One senses extremely tender emotions, and the pain of loving and losing love that he experienced many times in his life. Even so, what is interesting and central in these letters is the record of the development of Étant donnés and a suggestion that Duchamp and Martins might have revealed it in the 50s or 60s if they had been able to live together, which they could not.
A great deal remains to be explored in the Duchamp paradigm, among them his philosophical position, like a gadfly to modern society and his remarkable vision in advancing toward future technologies. Étant donnés is his last work and one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century that must be seen to be believed. A great deal has been written about this work, too often expressing the received idea that it is a multi-dimensional version of The Large Glass; it is not.
That business of my being influential is very much exaggerated… whatever there is in it is probably due to my Cartesian mind. I refused to accept anything, doubted everything. So, doubting everything, I had to find something that had not existed before — something I had not thought of before. What I did with any idea that came to me was to turn it around and try to see it with another set of senses. But I’m not so interested in art per se, it’s only one occupation, and it hasn’t been my whole life — far from it. M. Duchamp