I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Marcel Duchamp: The Artist

by Chris Sutton
April 28, 2014

"His work is the field where language, thought, and vision act on one another" -Jasper Johns

To call Marcel Duchamp an artist would unjustly simplify a lifetime of deconstructing, inventing, and defining everything we know about the term. A more apt descriptor for him would probably be THE Artist, because of not only his mastery of many of art history's celebrated mediums but his influence on how the world contextualizes and thinks about them.

In his formative years, he embarked on a fruitless quest for artistic meaning through several stylistic groups and schools. This led him to the realization that these labels were acting as a mental jail for the true artist, hindering freedom and analytical thought, which in his eyes was the antithesis of his definition of what art is.

He spent much of his lifetime trying to devalue art in public forums, and constantly searched for a way to escape from the trappings of what he called 'retinal' art, or static visuals that represent a single moment. He combined his experiments with motion lines and abstract shapes within classical compositional motifs to produce major works like "Nude Descending A Staircase", his modernist masterpiece from 1912 that introduced the visual concepts that gave birth to Futurism, perfected Cubism, and stoked the fires of Surrealism. A year later, his sculpture "Bicycle" introduced the concept of the "readymade" or "found" artwork. It was meant to be commentary on the idea that it is viewers' preconceptions that define what is considered "art" and not the artist, a fundamental idea still being deliberated today. This pioneering concept theoretically turned every man made object in the entire physical world into a possible conduit for creative expression, thus vaporizing the term "art" as a focused categorization. His only rule for his readymades was that he had to feel "indifferent" towards the object he was using. He wanted no emotion to cloud his ultimate aesthetic message. When the Society Of Independant Artists famously banned his pioneering piece "Fountain" in 1917, a stark white urinal that was signed R. Mutt, the polarizing discussion within the community caused a biblical-level analysis of its meaning. with seemingly infinite factions formed around individual interpretations. The simple act of naming this seemingly mundane everyday object "art" is perhaps his most major contribution to the history of modern art and the ripples of these concepts are seen in any creations or creators that want to be considered as avant-garde. At the time, this gesture was seen as an attack on the contemporary art world, similar to the uproar sparked by Rene Magritte's "Treachery of Images (This Is Not A Pipe)", but in hindsight one can see that this was merely an attempt to purify art, and make it totally free spiritually.

Not surprisingly, Duchamp hated and openly derided the labels and movements like Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus that considered him to be one of the heroes of their respective ideals. This ironic worship contributed to his ever widening distance from the public art community at large. Privately, however, he befriended, mentored and encouraged many of the art world's most famous luminaries like Man Ray, Picasso, and Dali, while also advising powerful art collectors like Peggy Guggenheim. He even helped curate and design the program for the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition. In this period of his life, Duchamp continued to mold what the western world considers to be art, but from inside the system instead in a gallery or a salon. When he "retired" from the trappings of the art world, he still maintained a healthy critical attitude toward his peers and he wrote many analytical texts and books, even composing experimental pieces of music that predate even John Cage's minimal experiments. Duchamp was a true renaissance intellectual, and a man that should and could be mentioned in the same breath with famous cultural pillars like William Blake or even Michelangelo for his historical importance, spectrum of mastery, and contribution to creative society.

The truly great artists of our age eschewed categorization and were constantly searching for conceptional perfection. Marcel Duchamp was no different, and unlike contemporaries and friends like Picasso, Dali, and Matisse, the process and ideas were way more important than the actual volume of work. He took 8 years to make what was at the time considered his final master work "The Large Glass", spending most of that time discussing, analyzing, and theorizing his own motives and technique before it's completion in 1935.

During his self imposed exile from life from the art world later in life, Duchamp devoted almost all of his time to becoming a Grand Master at chess, a game he was obsessed with since his youth. Marcel Duchamp says of chess: "While not all artists are chess players, all chess players are artists. It has all the beauty of art, but much more. It can't be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position".

He worked so slowly and secretively on "Entant Donnes", a painting that was discovered and presented posthumously in 1969, that all of his friends, including his wife, had no idea he was painting it and assumed that he had quit making art altogether. Considering his reputation as a theoretical rebel and social satirist, this unpredictable behavior shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that knew him.

In this relatively straight forward BBC Interview from 1968 right before his death in the same year, Marcel cooly recounts the major events in his very interesting life with special attention payed to what was at the time considered to explaining "The Large Glass". Although not terribly in depth, Duchamp's wit, humor, and fiery insights are apparent and enjoyable. Through all the heavy conceptualizing, There is still a light hearted tenderness to his explanations of his sometimes contradicting viewpoints.

Source Material:




Marcel Duchamp: Artist Of The Century by Rudolf E. Kuenzli

Chris Sutton is a musician, writer, and artist who currently lives in Portland OR, and grew up in Olympia, WA. He plays or has played with numerous musical acts including Gossip, The Dirtbombs, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Spider & The Webs, Chain & The Gang, & Hornet Leg. Chris has been so obsessed with records over his life that he writes a vinyl collecting memoir/blog called Record Lections on Instagram and he is often seen Djing his new discoveries in local bars or posting mixes on SoundCloud or Mixcloud. He is also a big fan of visual art with a special passion for African American folk art, Impressionism, European New Wave cinema, and most eras of television. Most of the books he reads, whether fact or fiction, usually have drawings in them. Chris's best friends are his faithful rat terriers Juju and Queenie.