PARIS — A nomadic but steady hand is clearly sensed in Marcel Duchamp’s work. He is often an excellent painter. But it is also true that with Duchamp’s legacy of conceptually anti-retinal art (and anti-art), there is something so pregnant with free-floating information that it electrifies and upsets some painters. And thus returns them, I hope, to experimental restlessness.
That is the merit of La peinture, même, a beguiling exhibition at the Pompidou of Duchamp’s own painterly work, his influences, and his subsequent breach with the tradition of painting. The exhibition sets out to establish many connections in the space of his break with the tradition.
Painting can present mutually exclusive visual propositions at the same time, and may fairly be compared to random-access memory. That all the information is available all the time is something that painting has going for it. The question that La peinture, même raises is: what is the relevant information?
I suppose that I need not point out that Duchamp is generally perceived to be the artist who killed painting. OK, ça va, très bien — but this false fatality, as we well know, never actually happened. So what did happen? How did he influence painting after painting? What ideas and information do his paintings transmit? Those are the kinds of the interests that La peinture, même throw in the air.
The initial gallery opens with a massive computer-robotic painting. It is a blowup of Man Ray’s photograph “Adam and Eve” (1924), itself based on Lucas Cranach’s painting “Adam and Eve” (1528), an original photo print of which is placed nearby under glass. They both show a hipster-looking Marcel Duchamp (as Adam) and the appealing model Bronia Perlmutter (as Eve). But much earlier, Duchamp had already played with this biblical theme of creation in his symbolist painting “Le Printemps ou Jeune homme et jeune fille dans le printemps” (1911). It suggests the birth of something.
As we can see from the below interview quotation, Duchamp himself did not buy into the “death of painting” libretto. But he did aspire to an artistic detachment from the decadence of conventional painting:
Jean Antoine: When you gave up painting, did you believe that painting was dead?
Marcel Duchamp: No. First, you know, I haven’t given up painting; if I get an idea for a painting tomorrow, I’ll do it. I didn’t make any hard and fast resolutions at all, of any kind. I simply stopped because I didn’t have anything more to say at the time. I had run out of ideas; ideas don’t come as easily as all that. As I have never been in the habit of working at my easel every morning from eight am, I only feel inclined to work when something stirs me in some way. Then I try to find a way of expressing the idea and there isn’t one. There hasn’t been one for a long time and that’s all I can say. But I didn’t make any hard and fast decisions about giving up painting at all.
“L.H.O.O.Q” (1919) is strategically placed second at the entrance, where it prepares us to theorize Duchamp’s relationship to painting in terms of transversality. With it, one endures a sense of dark humor, quickly alleviated by his “Boîte-en-valise” (1935–1941/1958) and a series of very empty, elegant, sexy contour drawing-lithos: the “Morceaux” (Parts) (1968). In them we can read the artist’s inclination for a style that prefers marks of empty dry air, as opposed to gooey flows of liquid.
We next pass through a room painted a very light shade of purple. It is full of fin-de-siècle erotic stimulation, like the “Noce de Nini pattes-en-l’air” game set placed opposite Duchamp’s own “Tapis/Piste de course pour le jeu (Petits chevaux)” (1910–1911). There are also peek-a-boo soft-core films, photos, and illustrations that set the stage for the sexy suggestions embedded in Duchamp’s compositions. Next, a slightly pink-painted room called The Nude introduces Duchamp’s early paintings, such as “Baptême” (1911), leading to his early interests in Odilon Redon, spirit photography, Symbolism, and Fauvism. This expands into his famous bout with Cubism that culminated in his Cubist-Futurist explorations of time and space, as influenced by Czech painter Frantisek Kupka, Etienne-Jules Marey, and Georges Méliès. Mixed into this selection are Man Ray’s fantastic Dada film “Le Retour A La Raison” (The Return to Reason) (1923), Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema” (1925) and Dada machine paintings by Morton Schamberg, Francis Picabia’s optical and mechanical scientific illustrations, and paintings by Jean Crotti, among others.
Further in, Duchamp displays a mordantly witty obsession with the language of painting — and with language itself — with an entire wall section that focuses our attention on Raymond Roussel, emphasizing his book Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa). In 1912, the same year he painted the astonishing “Le Roi et la reine entourés de nus vites,” (sadly heavily cracked and over-varnished) Duchamp attended a performance of Impressions of Africa: the play by Roussel based on his book. It was an experience Duchamp would describe as revelatory, crediting Roussel with the inspiration for his masterpiece “Le Grand Verre (La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même)” [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)] (1915-23), for which there are many original notes on display, with a reproduction (minus the wonderfully cracked glass) closing the show.
Historically, the mechanomorphic impulse behind Duchamp’s dry but radiant 1912 work is of great significance, as with the strictness of machinery he started producing paintings depicting mechanized sex acts, such as “Le Passage de la Vierge à la Mariée” (The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride) (1912), and the fantastic machine-body work “La Mariée” (The Bride) (1912). This painting is the outstanding highlight and an inescapable point of reference for the avant-garde, interfacing body and machine. With it Duchamp elevated painting out of the opinion that it is superficial decoration and into the arena of understanding living in technological awareness. As such, it is one of the first definitive conceptual artistic positions surpassing the interests of romantic human intuition.
“La Mariée” blends machinist aesthetics with representations of a female body, full of dispassionate intellectual pliability (as if a psychic glance), cool and airy, and poised against the excesses of liquids: a vehicle for dry transcendence. Consequently it offers a reading for the abstract potential of unconventional painting in terms of electronic spray distribution. Here trans-fluid notions of the self reflect the formational effect of webbed high technology.
My point is that “La Mariée” steps painting outside of its attachment to liquid-based tradition so as to achieve an integration of technological and visceral consciousness. This dynamic interdependence of painterly thought and technological vision represents a crucial re-configuration, linking observations of the outer electronic world with precise extractions of the human body, because Duchamp’s virtuosity as a painter worked in direct contact with the technical psychic flux he saw developing around him.
“La Mariée” is a post-painterly megasymbol for painting because it is a dream-machine that produces through combination-permutations a variety of juices. It is an admixture of romantic ideals and mechanical/materialistic sensationalism, full of labyrinthine extensions and duplications, that supplies aesthetic contemplation of the electrical infinite as tragic drama. And as such, Duchamp related painting in advance to the new global combinations of space and time without horizon.
Duchamp’s airy-electric painterly legacy is one of still increasing perpetual multiplication. Undeniably Duchamp opened painting up to dryer, electrical, malleable and combinatory sites that Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and others capitalized on. Even Jackson Pollock took an airier approach to pigment.
Duchamp said, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting [it] and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” I agree. Conceptually, Duchamp’s unconstrained airy-electric subject for painting (and for different types of painting) enlivens our expansive visual space with interest. What he already always expressed in this open attitude is an unequivocal notion of plethora.
Duchamp was known for his dandy ideals of impassivity, nonchalance, elegance, and inscrutability, but by emulating both nature’s and the technosphere’s cycles and rhythms, Duchamp’s suggestive paintings also propound something of the repetitious cadence within which we intertwine when engaged in the passionate activities of music, dance, and other libidinous demeanors. A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the heat of passion; pivotal today in our electronically juiced culture.
Duchamp’s late-paintings relate crucially to both electronic and body spaces simultaneously. I even think it is permissible to say that they are emblematic of consciousness caught in the contradictions inherent to the expanded electronic field. With La peinture, même we are both in an area of far-reaching heterogeneous critique of the cultural mechanisms of painting, and in the throes of a birth of new techniques that allow us to paint. This was obviously his desire: to theorize a connectionist painting at one with the sense of the infinite. Painting that virtually is everywhere all the time. Painting that is ubiquitous, like computers. So Duchamp did more than insist on putting ideas first in painting. He changed the idea of painting itself.
Marcel Duchamp: La peinture, même continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris) through January 5, 2015.