While his readymades are a triumph of pure indifference over taste, admirers of Marcel Duchamp continue to be far from indifferent to this cryptic artist. By offering more than homage, Elena Filipovic’s The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp, a fascinating and unique new archival-based book on Duchampian ephemera, surpasses the mere addition of hagiographic detail. Illuminating Duchamp’s often accomplished (if subtle) exploits, the book also offers a glimpse into the tension between art as theoretical inquiry and art as institution (what philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the culture industry) by unveiling an eclectic and brilliant range of Duchamp’s innocuous, fragile, and fleeting projects. This is achieved through a richly illustrated and meticulously researched consideration of the fugitive art actions performed by the audacious person named Marcel: his window displays, art dealing, designing of surrealist shows and catalogues, promotional activities, administrative functions, and ambivalent curatorial personae, for example. Yet happily, even after digesting this considerable amount of ostensibly transitory disclosure, Duchamp remains an unadulterated, irreverent enigma — only a much deeper one.
I expect this archival deep dive to reanimate interest in the multidimensionality of Duchamp by focusing our attention not so much on his admirable paintings (something well achieved at the momentous Centre Pompidou exhibition Marcel Duchamp. La peinture, même) or his readymades or installations, as on his “non-art” works: stressing the systematic ephemerality of Duchamp’s acts of reproduction, repetition, and the Rrose Sélavy transvestism he adopted. As such, the book takes us far from the clichéd, trite, conventional (ab)use that some successful postmodern appropriation artists have made of Duchamp by merely aping the enigmatic genius by which art objects were created entirely through the singular whim and arbitrariness of his psyche. No, I would go so far as to say that the considerations here of Duchamp as an impudent but fragile, complex human radically extends the conventional Dada consciousness that always hovers over him.
This is achieved through the author’s devotion to the man and the role his art plays within society. By drilling down into the minutia of Duchamp’s role(s) as administrator, archivist, art advisor, curator, publicist, reproduction maker, and marketing art salesman, Filipovic (the current director and chief curator of the Kunsthalle Basel) manages to both contradict and deepen Duchamp’s indispensable dandyism, transferring his general bohemian ideals from attitude into work. Indeed, we discover that Duchamp’s nonchalance did not exclude intense rigor.
Drawing on many rarely seen images, Filipovic traces the lines of a new Duchamp, someone somewhat removed from the objects he produced. She begins her book, the product of 15 years of research, writing, and exhibition-making, in 1913 — skipping over the artist’s major mechanomorphic works of technological awareness from 1912 — when Duchamp started producing his extraordinary cyborg paintings that depict mechanized sex, such as “Le Passage de la Vierge à la Mariée” (1912) and “La Mariée” (1912). Both these works clairvoyantly interface bodies with stuttering machine forms in the interest of suggesting the obfuscated artificial life of sex-machines and their lascivious caprices.
After a short approbation of the obscure and unorthodox “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 3)” (1916) — Duchamp’s painted photograph of his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” (1912) — Filipovic unspools a resounding consideration of the artist’s even more obscure activities of note, including writing, archiving, and photographing related to the readymades and “La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même” aka “The Large Glass” (1915–23), the work André Breton called Duchamp’s anti-chef d’œuvre (anti-masterpiece). This includes the box of notes known as “La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (Boîte verte)” (1934) and the melancholic museological project known as “Boîte-en-valise (de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy)” (1935–41). The boîte is a miniature museum archival work that managed exacting toy replications of Duchamp’s own works: a project aiming to create interplaying relationships between his artworks and the audience. For it, Duchamp had texts, images, and miniature objects manufactured with such crazy fidelity that there was often more work involved in making the tiny copy than the original.
Next, the book reproduces the odd and strikingly juicy piece unique “Paysage Fautif” (1946) from the Museum of Modern Art in Toyama, Japan, which consists of seminal fluid on black satin. It was included in a deluxe edition of “Box in a Valise” (1935–41) that Duchamp gave to the Brazilian artist Maria Martins, his lover and the body model for the nude figure in “Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage” (1946–66). Their love affair started in 1946 and lasted for several years, ending with her departure for Brazil and with Duchamp’s 1954 marriage to Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp. A genetic test in 1989 confirmed that the semen in this piece is indeed that of Marcel Duchamp. The other libidinal piece unique was made for the Chilean artist Roberto Matta out of human head, armpit, and pubic hair and one sensual and delicate contour line by Duchamp in 1946 called “Untitled.”
One of the lovelier examples provided is the much earlier “The Box of 1914” (1913–14), a commercial cardboard photographic supply box that (in an edition of five) contains photographic facsimiles of 16 pithy manuscript notes and two images: “Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil” (1914) and “Médiocrité” (1911). With great sass, Duchamp photographed his funky hand-jotted notes on torn scrap paper, making documents of documents and inventing the photocopy machine avant la lettre. This slew of photo facsimiles was tossed docilely into the box(es) with no linier order prescribed. Also included were images and notes for the crucial “3 stoppages étalon” (1913–14), a key work in the development of the artist. For Duchamp, the chance-based aspect of this work and “The Box of 1914” opened a conceptual (before Conceptualism) way to escape traditional methods of expression long associated with high art.
The second chapter explores Duchamp’s curatorial strategies, his art dealing, and his fascination with reproducing (his) art and the publicity that goes with art promotion — in other words, the distributive apparatus of art within society in his time. Key is the ensnarling installation “Sixteen Miles of String” (1942), in which Duchamp presented The First Papers of Surrealism exhibition at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in Midtown Manhattan. By creating an immersive web throughout the space with string, he deliberately frustrated easy perception of the paintings on view, using the obscuring mesh to create frustration and thereby enhance desire. (There is a dashing photo by Arnold Newman of Duchamp himself embedded in this netting.) Other visual highlights in this meaty section include four photographs of Duchamp’s dumpy New York studio casually strewn with readymades around 1917, a photograph of the installation he created in 1933 of Brâncuși’s sculptures at Brummer Gallery in New York (where he trimmed down “Endless Column,” 1918, a bit so as to fit it upright in the space), and two papier-mâché models of the urinal piece “Fountain” (1938) for the limited edition “Boîte-en-valise.”
Filipovic’s stylish consideration of “Boîte-en-valise” is particularly admirable, teasing out how its simulacrum of the social function of the art museum transforms the primary language of art into the secondary language of culture. With “Boîte-en-valise,” presumptions of preservation from decay and social valorization through extraction from social context and function are (with hubris and prescience) self-performed. What we have here is a self-curated retrospective of self-citation, created at a time when Duchamp was barely recognized and poorly appreciated. (Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had just been fervently hailed as the reigning modern art masters with their first Parisian retrospectives and with Christian Zervos’s lush catalogues raisonnés published by Les Cahiers d’Art.) Boldly, precipitously, and preposterously, Duchamp’s fastidious self-glorifying work brilliantly performed a double act of succinct self-presentation and disembodied negation through his choice of timorous miniaturization matched with the multiplicity inherent in its shipping-ready form: tiny reproductions boxed for wide distribution. This self-negating deluxe museum-as-archive acted as a new form of art (what we now call book art) by forgoing the scale and presence endemic to the grandiose museum context and its autocratic clout.
The third section, which ends the book in 1969, focuses in on Duchamp’s replicating procedure concerning administrative efforts and his clandestine maneuverings to complete and posthumously embed Étant donnés into the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Curious thematic and formal precedents are established between it and Duchamp’s conceptualization of the exhibition design as grotto for the Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme (EROS) held in 1959 at Gallery Cordier in Paris. But the best images in the book are of Duchamp’s black workbook Manual of Instructions, which contains detailed installation specifics for Étant donnés, including sketches, his own photography, and instructions (penned in his beautiful handwriting) set out on pale cream, dusty pink, and green pages. These plates, full of poetic elusiveness, illuminate the push/pull of Duchamp’s exquisite dilemma: his obsessive devotion to detail in placing his work in the museum and his longstanding retinal trepidation concerning the scopic regime inherent in all art museums. The spread-open double pages of Manual of Instructions are riveting and full of trepidation. Indeed, this body of work contains some of Duchamp’s creepiest, harshest, and most bizarre single images, such as the signed figure for Etant donnés, when still installed in Duchamp’s East 11th Street studio in 1968, and the loose 1959 photograph with red crayon markings of the cast-plaster female figure that came to dominate the finished Étant donnés installation.
All told, this well-written, well-produced, image-heavy book does a skillful job of conveying the way Duchamp’s sexual passions were tied to his marginal but reoccurring art-related activities. The interesting part for art practice is how these passions reflected on the ambiguous connection between reproduction and original. It’s a transgressive involvement that remains prevalent in the production of radical art to this day.