Monday, July 28, 2008

Behind Closed Doors

The PMA will host next summer a special exhibit centering around Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) (above, from 1946-1966). Dedicated to the memory of Anne d'Harnoncourt, this exhibition hopes to shed light on Duchamp’s final masterpiece, built over the last twenty years of his life, when he claimed to have given up art to play chess. I remember the first time I visited the PMA without my parents and wandered through their amazing Duchamp collection, which is perhaps the finest in the world. I walked over to the two wooden doors, looked through the peep hole, and came away red-faced after seeing the nude female manikin spread-eagled inside. Born July 28, 1887, Duchamp still leaves critics embarrassed by his ability to shock and provoke with works now nearly a century old. Whether placing a urinal on a pedestal (1917’s Fountain) or creating a cross-dressing persona (Rrose Selavy), Duchamp always seemed one chess move ahead of the times, leaving other artists to imitate palely, if they dared.

Duchamp always seems to be playing a joke. I remember sitting with an art history book years ago and asking my very gullible, younger brother if he’d like to see Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (above, from 1912). “Where is she?” he asked, as so many others had before him. Duchamp made Cubism move in a way that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque never imagined. After revolutionizing that “ism,” Duchamp quickly moved on to Dada and Surrealism, redefining those “isms” as well before moving on again, always wary of being pinned down. Duchamp remains beyond categorization, which makes him the most frustrating of all modern artists, and perhaps the most influential. Peter Blake went so far as to paint an imaginary “world tour” series featuring Duchamp. I would estimate that more academics tangle with the meaning of Duchamp and his work than any other single artist. After reading so many of these usually dense, baroque examinations of the artist, I always find it refreshing to go back to the art itself. It makes me think, of course. More importantly, it makes me laugh.

I remember the professor teaching the one art history class I took in college going on and on about “reading” the characters involved in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (aka, The Large Glass; above, from 1915-1923). I strained with my fellow students to pick out the bride from the bachelors to no avail. My favorite part of The Large Glass, and the one that caught my eye right away, remains the fine network of cracks in the glass, a spider’s web of shards spun when handlers dropped the work years ago. Duchamp embraced the accident, saying it actually improved the work. Despite years of exile from his native France thanks to two world wars, Duchamp always maintained a zen-like optimism when viewing the world. Despite his dour visage and late “just let me play my chess” persona, Duchamp never failed in the role of merry prankster. The jester still stands next to the door, pointing to the peephole and daring you to take a look. You know you want to.

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