Dada’s Holy Grail

Marcel Duchamp’s zines leapt from their lair to entertain artists and educate the public.

The curious thing about the readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me. There’s still magic in the idea . . . .

— Marcel Duchamp

Signaling through the flames, Florine Stettheimer lit it up with her posthumous retrospective last year at New York’s Jewish Museum. We Will Wait (2014-2017), Serkan Ozkaya’s reverse camera obscura, at Postmasters, eerily veiled Duchamp’s regaled Etants Donnés in a 21st-century iteration, though its peephole FX proved a smidge too ghostly. Now, in Hi-Def, the 100-year anniversary, full-scale facsimile boxed set of Duchamp & Co.’s three towering “little” magazines premieres. The Blind Man, plus RONGWRONG, with Man Ray’s The Ridgefield Gazook. 

I would rather wait for a public that will come fifty years – a hundred years – after my death.

— Marcel Duchamp

Opulently inked on top-shelf stock, as an objet it is the veritable Grail of art-cult fetishists. Gazette, galoot, gadzooks! It’s a thing of beauty. (Un)covering art from nude to Bride, behold the hand of glory.

Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia called Walter and Louise Arensberg’s notorious New York salon (1915-21) “an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz and alcohol.” From their lair, these zines leapt, to entertain artists and educate the public.

For the invitation to Mina Loy’s New York exhibition, Duchamp hand-wrote, “Mina’s poems have two dimensions: high relief and low life.” Her beau, Arthur Cravan, lit the fuse on Dada’s bottle. Totally smashed, he fueled the will to make life into art so furiously that he became a boxer.

Anything to devalue my signature.

— Marcel Duchamp

Grab it and growl. Edited and effusively introduced by Sophie Seita, with translations by Elizabeth Zuba, thankfully available at last from Ugly Duckling’s Lost Literature Series.

Entropy measures the lack of energy in a system. Do you want facts or action? Epic feats of reclamation must at times be undertaken to rescue Duchamp’s oeuvre from artspeak’s insentient sediment of sloppy seconds, placebos or platitudes perfunctorily passed around, predigested, reheated, then regurged — said by Duchamp never.

We know MD and Arensberg devoured the all-but-buried books of Jean Pierre Brisset (1837-1919). Mocked once as “The Prince of Thinkers,” Brisset believed he’d found the key to the world in words, then locked himself up in lalangue’s prelapsarian oblivion. His work and play can be likened to the non-homonyms/sonographs & grams of Duchamp’s Anémic Cinema (1926):

Rrose Sélavy et moi esquivons les ecchymoses des esquimaux aux mots exquis
[Rrose Sélavy and I elude the Eskimos’ bruising by using exquisite argot]

See, too, Totor’s (Duchamp’s) starred rebus, The (1915):

However, even it should be smilable to shut * hair whose * water writes in * plural

Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault both spelunked Brisset, while we exhume this exploit of Brisset’s from André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor (translated by Mark Polizzotti):

Then came the question, ce exe, c’est que ce? = do you know what that point is?, which then became: Sait que c’est, ce exe est, sexe est, ce excés [Do you know what it is, that ex is, sex is, that excess], and that is sex. We can see that sex was the first excess. One can fear no excess from those who do not possess a sex [. . .]

Duchamp directly attributes his use of glass for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923) to Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910, later a play), which he saw staged in Paris in 1912. In that novel, Chapter III, the magus chemist Bex launches ten monstrous pencils tipped with “magnetine” like rocket-propelled grenades at giant gold and jeweled buttons. Was it in emulation that Duchamp then shot nine matchsticks dipped in paint from a toy cannon, striking the Milky Way, an erotically charged region in the register of the Bride?

Peggy Guggenheim swore that every woman in Paris wanted to sleep with him.

Foucault devotes a mesmerizing full-length study, his only book on literature, to Roussel, in Death and the Labyrinth (1963). He stumbled over one of Roussel’s byzantine novels while browsing through a used bookstore. Stunned, he had never heard of him.

In her Next: Life and Letters of Marcel Duchamp (1917-20), Gertrude Stein wrote on Duchamp:

I was looking to see if I could make Marcel out of it but I can’t.

View two pages from the complete manuscript in Yale’s Beinecke Library —

Though their coteries cozily Venned, indifference — that an-aesthetic lodestone compelling Rrose Sélavy — led “her” to chide Stein for having taste. “Taste is the enemy of art, A-R-T.”

The great problem was the selection of the readymade. I needed to choose an object without it impressing me: that is to say, without it providing any sort of aesthetic delectation. Moreover, I needed to reduce my own taste to absolute zero.

—Marcel Duchamp

Drawing room or drawing board? Disaccord vs décor. MD cringed at Gertrude’s bibelots. Kept the coatrack on the floor, hung his hat on a shovel.

Check the Gazook for Man Ray’s swat at her Tender Buttons.

The Blind Man: New York Dada, 1917 (2018), published by Ugly Duckling Presse, is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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