APRIL 10, 2017
THIS YEAR MARKS the centenary of one of the most controversial and influential artworks of all time. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted, to the Society of Independent Artists in New York City, a urinal as an artwork titled Fountain and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” The Society voted to reject the submission and exclude it from the exhibition, declaring not only that it was not art, but that it was indecent.
A technically masterful painter and devoted student of perspective, Duchamp had grown tired of the ocular tricks of painting and its illusory depiction of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional picture plane. By focusing our attention on a readymade object, he challenged the very definition of art and staged a rebellion against painting, insisting on real rather than illusory space.
Although Fountain is undoubtedly his most famous readymade, it was not his first. Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Hat Rack (1917) are two early works that Duchamp kept with him in his studio. Both also make cameo appearances in Tu m’ (1918), the artist’s last work on canvas. The artist, collector, and art educator Katherine Dreier commissioned the painting to be hung above her bookshelves, which accounts for its unusual width.
Tu m’ (now housed in the permanent collection of the Yale Art Gallery) depicts the shadows of Bicycle Wheel and Hat Rack as well as a shadow of a corkscrew, which he insisted was a readymade, although he never exhibited it. The painting also features a long series of color swatches extending through space as though skewered on an invisible rod that runs through the canvas. Just off-center, near the bottom, there is a painted hand pointing to the right. Above the hand is an actual, physical tear in the canvas that is sutured together with real safety pins. The zigzagging tear links the base of the corkscrew’s shadow to the base of the hat rack’s. From within the tear, a two-foot-long black bottlebrush extends out at a 90-degree angle from the canvas.
The title, Tu m’, is a French grammatical construction of the informal “you” followed by the direct or indirect object “me.” The verb is missing, but the presence of the apostrophe indicates that it begins with a vowel. Critics have read the title as an admonition of the medium of painting, supposing it to imply tu m’ennuies (you bore me) or tu m’emmerdes (you annoy me). The painted hand is commonly interpreted as pointing to the artist’s future, i.e., off the canvas to a new medium. Duchamp, who could have easily painted the hand himself, chose instead to have it painted by a professional sign painter. In doing so, he hired out the illusory work he so despised and reminded us that painting is also a trade profession — not solely, as so many of his contemporaries maintained, a lofty art.
In fact, Duchamp’s readymades can be construed as a direct retort to the abstract painters of his generation. His contemporary Kazimir Malevich, for example, began painting monochromes and simple abstract forms like Black Square (1916) in an effort to express the supreme purity of color and shape. Duchamp, however, remained suspicious of such appeals to purity and transcendence. As Thierry De Duve argues in Kant after Duchamp, Duchamp insisted that oil paints and pigments were not irreducible essences; they were products ground by paint-grinders, mixed by chemists, and packed by assembly lines into aluminum tubes. To cover a canvas with a layer of a single color was not to create a transcendent expression of its essence; it was merely to engage in another kind of illusionism, one that made the materials of painting and the bodies of paint-grinders disappear.
When I first encountered Tu m’ in a photograph many years ago, I recognized a witty portrayal of the many problems Duchamp had with the medium of painting. By placing shadows of three readymades on his canvas, he comments on illusionism without directly engaging in it. Shadow, like painting, is a two-dimensional rendition of a three-dimensional object. And the sutured tear, like the paintings of Lucio Fontana that consist of a canvas slashed by a knife, reifies in real space the painter’s objective in virtual space, which is to effect a line of sight “through” the picture plane. The protrusion of the bottlebrush accomplishes the same effect — only in the opposite direction, toward the viewer. I found all of this interesting but not exciting. But everything changed when I saw the work in person.
Approaching the canvas in the gallery, the first thing I noticed was the shadow — not one of the painted ones, but the real shadow cast by the protruding bottlebrush, which fell down off the canvas and outside its frame. Walking closer, I also noticed that the hand, the “sign” of the painting, pointed directly at the shadow of the bottlebrush, which fell over a white parallelogram, a rectangle angled back into virtual space: a “canvas” within the canvas. In other words, a painted hand poised on the painted shadow of one of Duchamp’s readymades points to the actual shadow of one of his actual readymades, the bottlebrush, which falls onto a depiction of a canvas before falling off the actual canvas and onto the wall below. Duchamp’s painting depicts, in two dimensions, the shadow casting that it simultaneously performs in three.
“We find certain things about seeing puzzling,” wrote Wittgenstein, “because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.” Tu m’ draws us into the puzzling business of seeing by revealing the materiality of actual space in the context of what appears to be a two-dimensional picture plane. I had a similar experience when I first saw Anish Kapoor’s Yellow (1999) at his 2009 retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts. I remember approaching from afar what appeared to be a monochrome yellow square that deepened in shade toward its center (to my mind it resembled the interior of a daffodil). Soon, however, I apprehended that whenever I shifted left or right to avoid the passersby, the painting’s shades of yellow also shifted. What I had thought was gradations of hue turned out to be gradations of depth: the “painting” was in fact a concave sculpture in the wall, one coated by a uniform shade of yellow. This sudden perception of there being not less (painterly illusionism) but more (sculptural revelation) was nothing short of uncanny.
That afternoon in the Yale Art Gallery, I watched what I had once known as an uninspired photograph perform an act of genius. A question occurred: Did the original site have overhead lighting? The gallery curators thought not, but this 1941 photograph from their archives indicates there is indeed a lighting fixture on the ceiling; the fixture is turned off, leaving the painting shadowless for this professional photograph.
Perhaps it is the ill fate of such revolutionary pieces to have their most subtle and inventive operations occluded in reproductions. Staring at Tu m’ from various vantage points, I couldn’t help but notice how the hanging shadow formed a flaccid counterpart to the erect bottlebrush (a Duchamp is not a Duchamp without an erotic joke), and an alternate interpretation of the title dawned on me — one far less innocent (or more tumescent) than what critics previously imagined. Tu m’ may be Duchamp’s flirty come-on to the viewer standing out in real space: Tu m’excite. You turn me on.
Did the young artist who presented a urinal as a work of art in 1917 suspect that, one whole century later, scholars would still be marveling over conceptual nuances in his work? Judging from the original site for Tu m’, he certainly insinuated as much, for the shadow of his readymade fell onto an art educator’s library, thereby securing his place in the canon of art history. It’s a shadow we’ll be grappling with for centuries to come.
Susan Barbour is a poet, scholar, sommelier, and olfactory artist. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Five Dials, Catapult, and Oxford Poetry, and her scholarship has appeared in Textual Practice, The Review of English Studies, and Transatlantica.