MARCEL DUCHAMPBY ROBERT LEBEL WITH MARCEL DUCHAMP, ANDRÉ BRETON AND HP ROCHÉ. New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2021. 252 pages.
TOWARDS THE END of his life, in 1966, Marcel Duchamp was asked why he never had a personal exhibition in his native France. “I don’t know. I never understood. I think it’s about the money,” he replied. “The dealers have nothing to gain from me. . . Museums are run, more or less, by merchants.
This candor was calculated, it was all part of Duchamp’s schtick. Since the mid-1920s, after a terribly productive decade in which he reinvented cubist painting, invented the ready-made and completed his seminal sculpture The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even (the tall glass), 1915-1923 – Duchamp deliberately took a position on the peripheries of the art world. While the self-proclaimed “anartist” was still secretly working on his final work, the installation since, 1946-1966, his public contributions were mostly limited to chess tournaments. But it would be a misrepresentation to say that he had completely left the artistic concert. He published edited works, did some business, and designed the odd exhibit or showcase, as well as book and magazine covers. He also spoke and wrote about his past work and when, in the late 1940s, the art historian Robert Lebel approached him about the idea of putting together a monograph and catalog raisonné, he embraced the project with enthusiasm. The resulting publication, titled On Marcel Duchamp and finally released in 1959, reflects the paradoxical posture that Duchamp liked to maintain: that of the artist who did not really make art.
I recently received a large package in the mail. Hauser & Wirth had sent me their new facsimile of the English trade edition of On Marcel Duchamp. The facsimile comes in a sienna orange cloth box along with a short publication on the genesis of the original book and the reissue. Duchamp’s estate is not represented by Hauser & Wirth, but it is obvious that the editorial branch of the gallery would like to be involved in this project. Today, Duchamp’s dominance in the canon of art history is undisputed, although during his lifetime – as the texts in the companion publication point out – the situation was somewhat different.
The book itself includes an important chapter in the history of Duchamp. For most of the 1950s, the artist underwent numerous interviews with Lebel, both in person and by written correspondence (the letters are compiled in Paul B. Franklin’s enjoyable 2016 book The artist and his critic laid bare). He designed the different versions of his monograph – grand luxe and de luxe editions in French and commercial editions in French and English – with his French publisher, Arnold Fawcus of Trianon Press, and produced three new works which were included in the more sophisticated editions. One, a hand-torn piece of origami paper showing the long-nosed figure of the artist, appears as an image on the cloth box containing the facsimile. (In a characteristic pun, Duchamp annotated his Self-portrait in profile with the phrase “marcel dechiravit”, which translates to both “Marcel tore that quickly” and “Marcel torn to pieces”: a commentary on the processes of the biography, perhaps.) The facsimile, beautifully produced by the fluid design studio, also features the hand-glued or “inserted” color plates that have appeared in commercial editions. These can be lifted to reveal black and white illustrations underneath – Duchamp loved to invite the public to interact with his works. Publishing, like so many of Duchamp’s extracurricular activities, can be understood as a work of art in its own right. Even the catalog raisonné section has a Duchampian inflection. In a classically self-referential moment, the title of the book actually appears in the list of works, below the entries for the pieces produced for the grand-deluxe and deluxe editions. An introductory note from Lebel warns that the dates and dimensions should not be taken too literally, as they were provided by an artist “who does not believe in the necessity of strictly accurate statistics, even with regard to his own biography”.
Besides Duchamp’s famous 1957 lecture “The Creative Act” and a few short essays by HP Roché and André Breton, Lebel wrote the main text, a series of chapters retracing the artist’s biography until the end of the 1950s. This too was signed by Duchamp, who compared reading the monograph to “watching[ing] to yourself in the mirror. That said, Lebel’s text transitions in a fun short-term way into the artist’s personal life. On his first wife, a single sentence: “We must mention here the brief interlude of his first marriage, with Lydie Sarrazin-Levassor [sic], which happened in June and ended in October. But in general the prose is ceremonial and stuffed with superlatives, instead undermining Duchamp’s view as a seasoned outsider less concerned with his artistic heritage than with refining his playing milieu. Per Lebel, Duchamp was driven by a mission “ desacralize works of art at the very time when our time tended to invest them with the highest value” (underlined by Lebel). Yet his first paintings and ready-mades are “magical” and “masterful”, even prophetic (“having predicted Freudianism, he also sensed relativity”, writes Lebel)*. The most ephemeral projects since the 1920s are “calling cards here and there to remind us of his watchful presence. Who’s playing God now?
For Lebel, these contradictions are an integral part of the irreducible genius of Duchamp. I’m inclined to agree: the intrigue and fun of Duchamp is that, like his beloved puns, you can never reduce it to just one thing. Lebel’s text ends with a discussion of The Big Glass, an “enigmatic monument” loaded with symbolism in which Duchamp “gave a raison d’être to the work of art he intended to abolish”. For all his renegade moments, here’s an artist making a serious, meaningful, and precious masterpiece: it passed through the hands of Duchamp’s most devoted patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg and Katherine Dreier, before found on permanent display in Philadelphia. Art Museum.
The monograph itself contributed to the eventual canonization of the artist. While On Marcel Duchamp was struggling to sell when it was released, and Lebel was annoyed because no gallery or museum in Paris would host an exhibition to promote it, critics were much more receptive. For Calvin Tomkins, who would later write a biography of Duchamp, Lebel’s efforts had succeeded in placing his subject “near the pinnacle of the modern movement”. Another reviewer, Matthew Josephson, observed that the book retained “the legends that make Duchamp a kind of modern-day magical figure”, bringing “this enigmatic and disturbing man. . . more clearly in sight. Over the next decade, the artist’s profile continued to grow, with major exhibitions at the Tate in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, finally, the Pompidou in Paris (the last two posthumous). . On the flood of praise that followed the death of his eighty-one-year-old friend in 1968, Lebel wrote: “While I am happy that Marcel’s death has not gone unnoticed, I suffered. . . belated enthusiasm that people we don’t like very much have shown loud and clear.
* According to Lebel, “Freud was still little known in France” in the 1910s. At that time, “news of his research had not yet been heard. . . penetrated into artistic circles. Einstein’s theory of general relativity was published in 1915.