Reanimating Marcel Duchamp

By Yxta Maya MurrayMay 9, 2022

Reanimating Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp by Robert Lebel

ART PRESS JUGGERNAUT Hauser & Wirth has made a book that is also a fetish and a doppelgänger, which is in keeping with its confounding, shape-shifting subject. In 1959, France’s Trianon Press came out with Robert Lebel’s monograph Sur Marcel Duchamp, and the English-language version, Marcel Duchamp, was simultaneously issued by Grove Press (in a translation by George Heard Hamilton). While Sur Marcel Duchamp went on to see several reprints, the Grove edition quickly faded from view. That all changed last year when Antoine Monnier, of the Association Marcel Duchamp, joined forces with Jean-Jacques Lebel, the son of the author, and, with the help of Hauser & Wirth’s estimable imprint, made the Hamilton translation available once again to American readers. Lebel père, the French art historian, had produced an object both gorgeous and inchoate, a thickly written celebration of the uncategorizable artist who has been called the father of Conceptualism, a master of Dada, a Surrealist, a Futurist who thought he was a Cubist, a swindler, a fraud, and a plagiarist. Now we have an exact duplicate of the ’59 chef d’oeuvre, which is as seductive and perturbing as a character from Dostoyevsky’s The Double.

While Lebel’s tome succeeded in marketing the artist as a major force in the international art scene, the 2021 facsimile no longer has to do that, as Duchamp is today one of the best-known artists in the world. What is the point of this recreation, then? One of the friendliest readings might be that the new edition of Marcel Duchamp is an homage to “his” best-known works, the readymades that transformed many people’s understanding of what an art practice could look like. Though Duchamp helped revolutionize painting with pieces such as Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), a masterpiece that might roughly be described as an incident of analytical Cubism except for its innovative portrayal of a woman’s body in motion, he cracked open the art world when he offered the famous Fontaine (1917) as an entry to the Society of Independent Artist’s inaugural exhibition in New York. “Fountain” amounted to nothing more than a urinal that Duchamp had signed “R. Mutt” in scrawled black letters. The result was a scandal, and the exclusion of the work from the exhibition prompted Duchamp to resign from the Society. It also heralded a new moment in culture when anything and everything could be art.

Marcel Duchamp is not a classic readymade, if such a thing can be said to exist. Beyond Fontaine, Peigne (a comb), A Bruit secret (a ball of twine tucked between brass plates fitted with legs), and Porte-bouteille (a bottle rack) stand as exemplars of the form, being items snatched from a hardware store, lightly amended (if at all), and placed in a gallery. Duchamp admitted that his intention in making readymades was to create something blank. According to Octavio Paz, Duchamp once said that the readymaking process presented him with a problem of “selection” that he resolved by “pick[ing] an object without it impressing me and, as far as possible, without the least intervention of any idea or suggestion of aesthetic pleasure.”

With Hauser & Wirth’s Marcel Duchamp, these criteria will not be met, as aesthetics have been highly prioritized. In the book’s glossy, 56-page supplement, we get a view of the creation process from Michaela Unterdörfer, the head of H&W’s publishing arm.

There was no shortage of technical questions the project team had to consider in our question to make […] a precise reproduction. What kind of paper should be used? Should we select something that matches the current yellowed and naturally faded state of the 1959 paper or go with a paper that we believe looks like the paper would have looked sixty years prior?

Clearly, creating Marcel Duchamp required considerable “interventions” and “ideas,” and the resulting artifact is outfitted with many triggers of pleasure.

The book’s orange cloth clamshell, ivory pages, and tipped-in color images are all visual and tactile delights, and the efforts required to bring them to light recall the world-building efforts of a demiurge. Upon reading Unterdörfer’s description of the book’s production, one is made to think of the Borges story “On Exactitude in Science,” wherein the author imagined a cartography so exact that it would accept only a map that was identical to the region it described. Still, the ideas and the images in the book were, in a sense, “readymade,” as they had been created over 60 years ago by Lebel, Trianon, and Grove.

Still, this doesn’t quite answer the question: why recreate Marcel Duchamp now? A Wildean answer would find the above-mentioned delectations sufficient in themselves, but other issues have announced themselves, in the present day, as equally significant when considering the value of cultural products. In certain ways, a re-acquaintance with Duchamp circa 1959 might be, to some, relaxing, as he was not prone to the anguished interrogations that drive so many of the artists of our age. These questions include the meaning of race in our society, the trauma of gender-based violence, and art’s role in defining and creating justice. Instead, with Marcel Duchamp, we are presented with the opportunity, it might seem, to lay all those troubling matters aside and dwell in the misty apolitical beauties of Paris, the excitements of artistic heresy, and the myth of male genius.

Lurking between the pages, of course, is the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the avatar of performance art and creatix whom many suspect was the true inventor of Fontaine. As evidence of this authorship, scholars such as Irene Gammel and Amelia Jones point to the fact that, in 1917, Duchamp wrote to his sister that “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture” to the Society. We might also be alert to the fact that Baroness Elsa was an artist who lived in severe poverty, learning from that condition how to elevate the detritus around her into works of art. Not only did she conjure lyrics out of found sound (“HUEESSUEESSUEESSSOOO” reads “Astride,” an undated poem that some say mimics the music of orgasm), and race about the East Coast wearing live birds, dogs, flashing lights, and tin-can bras as a “living collage,” she also made God (1917), a sculpture manufactured out of a drainpipe affixed onto a miter box (and which had been attributed initially to Morton Schamberg.)

I do not see much (or any) mention made in Marcel Duchamp of the Baroness, either in the Lebel text or in the supplement’s essays, written by Unterdörfer, Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Michael Taylor. Maybe the book silently recreates the gender divide at the same time that it resurrects the readymades, but is it also similarly silent on issues of race? In 2020, scholar Thomas Folland, in an essay that makes intriguing connections between items such as Fontaine and the early-20th-century Paris-New York art world’s “near obsession with Africa,” theorized that Duchamp’s readymades were a response to primitivism in modern art. During this period, rich collectors hungered after objets trouvés collected in Africa, a plunder in keeping with the European ransacking of the continent that had been taking place since the 15th century. According to Folland, photographs of Duchamp’s found objects (such as the ones by Alfred Stieglitz, who took the iconic image of Fontaine) “would unconsciously, if not implicitly understand the primitivism of the readymades and strip the background of any context so that the readymade objects would present much like the tribal artefacts they allegorized.” Rosalind Krauss, in 1977, also suggested that the readymade’s invention may have been spurred on by Duchamp’s attendance at a 1911 stage production of Raymond Roussel’s 1909 text Impressions of Africa, a carnivalesque travelogue replete with white-supremacist fantasies, which presaged Zürich Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire.

It would have been fantastic if the supplementary materials in Marcel Duchamp had helped us better read the master in light of contemporary concerns. In short, we should not consume this sumptuous book in isolation but rather in tandem with the scholarship of Folland, Krauss, Gammel, and Jones, as well as the work of artists such as David Hammons. In 2002, Hammons made Holy Bible: Old Testament — a work of book art, released in a limited run of 165, that consists of a 1997 softcover edition of Arturo Schwarz’s The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp rebound to look like a Bible. Both the Bible and Schwarz’s monograph are mass-produced texts, designed to spread particular forms of faith and ideology far and wide. Hammons’s enterprise, not unlike Hauser & Wirth’s, involves mimicking that technique in a small handmade way. But Hammons’s art, with its irreverent approach to Duchamp (and the Bible), helps us see how harmful creeds such as white supremacy can inform the work of art, the status of certain artists, and the business of art in general. Updating the ’59 edition with such insights would have better announced how this reanimated prodigy fits into our current world.


Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and law professor who teaches at Loyola Law School. Her twitter can be found at @murrayyxta and she can be found on Instagram at @theyxtabunny.

LARB Contributor

Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and law professor who teaches at Loyola Law School.


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