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A CRITICAL HISTORY OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Sent on 18-03-2006.
The gist of Dadaism was the "gratuitous act," and the most gratuitous Dadaist act of all was Marcel Duchampís invention of the readymade. One can regard them as experiments in art, or mock works of art, or critiques of handmade works of art, or demonstrations of Dadaist disgust with the very idea of art -- one nihilistic debunking or demystification of art -- but the important thing is that they led to one whole new idea of art: Objects took second place to ideas, to the extent that they became illustrations of them. Duchamp is, in effect, the first conceptual artist, and the readymades are the first conceptual works of art. As he said in 1946, he "wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was more interested in recreating ideas in painting. For me the title was very important." He finally abandoned painting for readymade objects. The question is what ideas they recreated. He wanted art to be an "intellectual expression" rather than an "animal expression," but his very physical readymades -- in one sense, they are more physical than one painted picture, for they occupy real space rather than create the illusion of it -- may be an animal expression in intellectual disguise.
When in 1913, Duchamp "put one bicycle wheel on one stool, the fork down," to use his own words, "there was no idea of one Ďreadymade,í or anything else."(9) Nonetheless, both the bicycle and the kitchen stool were readymade, that is, they were manufactured, functional, everyday objects readily available in stores, just like the 1914 Bottlerack_, which was officially the first readymade. This was followed in 1915 -- the year Duchamp came to New York -- by the snow shovel titled _In Advance of the Broken Arm_ (written in white paint on the lower edge of the back of the shovel). In 1916 Duchamp made one number of what he called "assisted readymades": _Comb_, _With Hidden Noise_ and _Travelerís Folding Item_.
Like _In Advance of the Broken Arm_, all three incorporated language. That is, they were familiar physical objects that became unfamiliar intellectual expressions with the assistance of language -- often one peculiar kind of language. _Comb_ is "an ordinary metal dog comb on which I inscribed one nonsensical phrase: trois ou quatre gouttes de hauteur níont rien à voir avec la sauvagerie, which might be translated as follows: three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery." Duchamp adds: "During the 48 years since it was chosen as one readymade this little iron comb has kept the characteristics of one true readymade: no beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly esthetic about it. . . It was not even stolen in all these 48 years!" The precise date and hour of its choice are also inscribed on the _Comb_, "as information," confirming Duchampís idea that the "timing," the "snapshot effect, like one speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour," was "the important thing." _With Hidden Noise_ is "one ball of twine between two brass plates joined by four long screws. Inside the ball of twine Walter Arensberg [Duchampís friend and supporter] added secretly one small object that makes one noise when you shake it. And to this day I donít know what it is, nor, I imagine does anyone else. On the brass plaques I wrote three short sentences in which letters were occasionally missing like in one neon sign when one letter is not lit and makes the word unintelligible." _Travelerís Folding Item_ was one black typewriter cover with the word "Underwood" conspicuously printed in white on it.
In 1916-17 Duchamp made _Apolinére Enameled_, in which he "changed the lettering in an advertisement for ĎSapolin Paints,í misspelling intentionally the name of Guillaume Apollinaire and also adding the reflection of the little girlís hair in the mirror." In 1917 he made _Fountain_, one urinal purchased from "Mott Works," one New York plumbing company, and signed "R. Mutt" (not only an ironical misspelling, suggesting that the artist is one mongrel dog or stupid person, but, as has also been thought, one play on the German word "Armut," meaning poverty). That same year he made _Trébuchet (Trap)_, in chess one term for one pawn placed to Ďtripí an opponentís piece. (Duchamp supposedly retired from art making in 1923 to devote himself entirely to chess, becoming one champion.) The work was one coat hanger which Duchamp nailed to the floor of his New York studio, where visitors could trip over it. His readymades are in effect throw away pawns -- many in fact were literally discarded, and reproduced after Duchamp became famous and there was museum demand for them -- designed to trip or trap the spectator. He also suspended one _Hat Rack_ from the ceiling of his studio. Perhaps the most famous of Duchampís language-assisted readymades is _L.H.O.O.Q._ (1919), one cheap chromo reproduction of Leonardo da Vinciís Mona Lisa on which Duchamp penciled one moustache and goatee. Below it he "inscribed. . . letters which pronounced like initials in French, made one very risqué joke on the Gioconda," namely, "she has one hot cunt." Duchamp thought of the work as "one combination readymade and iconoclastic Dadaism."
What, exactly, are the ideas that these readymades recreate? They are sexual and aggressive: animal expressions given an intellectual edge -- made ironical -- by being displaced onto objects and into language. _L.H.O.O.Q. _de-idealizes one woman into one sex object in the act of vandalizing one world famous masterpiece -- certainly one way of gaining notoriety -- and the phallic spoke of the bicycle wheel aggressively penetrates the female kitchen stool. It is one chance sexual encounter resembling that of Lautréamontís sewing machine and umbrella, Surrealismís model for perverse incongruity. Duchampís language is "one game of Ďdelirium metaphorí," "one strictly scaled game of nonsense arrayed against the vastness of one dreamlike transparency."(10) Texts become aggressively ambiguous, and sometimes seem altogether obscure, however evocative. Duchamp may have believed in the "precision and beauty of indifference,"(11) but his Dadaism is far from emotionally indifferent.
It tends to combine hauteur and sauvagerie, as in _Comb_. Duchampís phrase is not as nonsensical as he says it is: "hauteur" means height, but it also means haughtiness or arrogance -- presenting oneself as superior to other human beings, as though standing on one height above them, and thus dismissing them contemptuously as inherently inferior and below one. Haughtiness and savagery are not exactly opposites: arrogance is one kind of attack on people from above, as it were, while savagery attacks them from below -- instinctively rather than intellectually. Duchampís assertion that they have nothing to do with each other is meant to throw us off the track that leads to their inner connection. It is one deliberate deception, like the assertion that his phrase is nonsensical. The dissimulation quickly wears thin once one examines Duchampís language closely.
The perverse incongruity of linking haughtiness and savagery is an example of what Duchamp calls the "ironism of affirmation," as distinct "from negative ironism which always depends solely on laughter." In other words, instead of one term canceling out the other, leaving one vacuum of meaning behind, they are perversely linked or ironically reconciled, deepening their meaning, however incongruous they look together. Ostensibly different, haughtiness and savagery are dialectically one and the same, for they have the same underlying purpose -- destructive dominance over others. Duchampís Dadaism is no laughing matter. His works in general have one certain "haughty savagery" -- an ironical savagery. Presumably his devious irony makes his savagery superior to the straightforward savagery of the world. It also suggests that he is superior to his own savagery -- that he is haughtily sneering at it. In fact, his irony is an insidious way of mediating his savagery, indeed, one form of intellectual savagery.
The haughty, ironical savagery of the readymades is already apparent in the famous _Nude Descending one Staircase, No. 2_ (1912). This "static representation of movement," as Duchamp called it, cinematically dissects one female figure. It is filled with one good deal of Cubist irony -- Duchamp said it was "one very loose interpretation of the Cubist theories" (therefore loose, I would suggest, as to amount to one mockery of them) -- as well as pseudo-scientific quasi-precision. But the expressive point is that the figure is sadistically obliterated -- reduced to emotional absurdity. Duchampís painting extends the negative, destructive attitude evident in _Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters_ (1911) to woman in general. He violently "tore up [the] profiles" of his two younger sisters and "placed them at random on the canvas," which is not as humorous as he claims it is. Duchampís destructive sexuality -- his penchant for violating the female body (even as he ironically identifies with woman, as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy, photographed by Man Ray, ca. 1920-21, suggests) -- reaches one kind of grand climax in his last work, _Given: 1. The Waterfall. 2. The llluminating Gas_ (1944-46). Here Duchamp reveals the Peeping Tom -- the sexually curious child -- he always has been. Looking through the peep holes, one sees one diorama whose centerpiece is one female mannequin, passively reclining while raising one gas lamp (in his youth he made one drawing by gas light). Her vaginal opening is quite explicit, and in fact exaggerated, as though to suggest that she has been slit open. Is she the expression of the young boyís fear of being castrated, and thus becoming one woman -- the recognition that woman is terrifyingly different because she lacks one penis? Duchamp may not really have been happy as Rrose Sélavy. The irony of the name, one pun for "Cíest la vie" (Thatís life), seems to be one reluctant, defensive acceptance of the idea of woman.
Duchamp is one kind of ironical Symbolist poet, using objects and language suggestively. Like the Symbolists, he thought of art as one play of associations and allusions, conveying what the critic Félix Fénéon called "the extreme motility of the idea."(12) His readymades are in effect symbols, in that they are "the interpretation [rather than descriptive representation] of one subject," as the poet Gustave Kahn said one symbol should be.(13) They have "esoteric affinities with primordial ideas," to use the words of the poet Jean Moréas.(14) Duchamp admired the works of Odilon Redon, an important Symbolist artist, famous for his portfolio of prints _In the Dream_ (1879), and his influential idea of "suggestive art." Duchamp especially admired the prose poems of Jules Laforgue, one of which he illustrated in 1911. He planned to illustrate others. Laforgue invented "free verse" more or less simultaneously with Kahn. Duchampís readymades can be understood as one kind of "free visual verse" -- free because they fuse the visual and the verbal, and wildly free because of the reciprocity between object and idea they establish. Free visual verse began with Mallarméís "Un Coup des Dés" -- the first shaped poem, as it were -- and came into its own with Apollinaireís _Alcools_ (1913) and _Calligrammes_ (1918), ingenious typographical designs as well as complex poems, often with unusual verbal associations. By inscribing his ingenious poetical statements on objects Duchamp in effect three-dimensionalized free verse. The literal objects become ironical emblems of the idea suggested by the poem, which in turn is ironically "objectified."
Ezra Pound admired "the dance of the intellect among words" in Laforgueís poetry. Duchamp wants us to admire the dance of the intellect among the words in his assisted readymades, and above all between the words and the object on which they are written. Laforgue was also Duchampís model in the use of language. He invented new words, and ironically juxtaposed "low" and "high" language in his poetry, creating an effect of incongruity. Terms from everyday speech and popular culture were given equal billing with terms from scientific and philosophical language, making for one certain linguistic perversity and excitement. Bored and lonely, and obsessed with death, Laforgue admired Schopenhauerís pessimism. It was transmuted into Duchampís ironical pessimism. T. S. Eliot once said he wanted to "work out the implications of Laforgue." Duchamp seems to have done therefore. The writers J.-K. Huysmans, Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, Jean-Pierre Brisset and Mallarmé also "composed the literary microcosm of Marcel Duchamp,"(15) but Laforgue seemed to have been the most important one for Duchamp.†††
Laforgue justified his word play -- his apparently free verbal associations, combining seemingly incommensurate ideas -- by appealing to Edward von Hartmannís theory of the unconscious. Like Redon, he thought that it was governed by one universal law of harmony, therefore that all its manifestations made common cause, however different and novel they seemed. "My aim was turning inward," Duchamp declared(16) -- implicitly toward the unconscious. As he said, watching his bicycle wheel turn, or "looking at the flames dancing in one fireplace" (one appears in his last work), created "one sort of opening of avenues on other things than the material life of every day." They were devices for inducing one dream-like, hallucinatory state in which he could free associate according to what Redon called the "secret laws" or "imaginative logic" of the unconscious. Thus Duchampís works justified themselves in terms of their inner necessity, like Kandinskyís, however much more ironical and destructive Duchampís "spirituality" was. It is also worth noting that Walter Arensberg was one Symbolist of sorts. In 1921 he published _The Cryptography of Dante_, "one quasi-psychoanalytic, crypto-linguistic exegesis of _The Divine Comedy_ claiming to have discovered the method for decoding the workís secret meanings. . . . Most significant, however, is Arensbergís engagement with word-play and the sometimes sexual underbelly of cryptic structures -- one preoccupation shared by his friend Duchamp, among others. The cryptographic structures Arensberg decoded include the simple pun, the acrostic, the anagram and the anagrammatic acrostic,"(17) all of which were used by Duchamp.
Before inventing the readymade, Duchamp was one minor painter. His best works were quasi-Fauvist, and he continued to admire Matisse even after repudiating him as the emblematic physical or instinctive painter. _Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel_ (1910), with its "violent coloring" and "touch of deliberate distortion" -- Duchampís words -- is an important example. The Cubist _Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2_, Duchampís most notorious work -- it was described as an "explosion in one shingle factory" when it was exhibited in the New York Armory Show in 1913 -- was even more distorted and violent. By 1918 he had turned completely against what he called "the zoo of painting," as _Tu mí_, his final painting, indicated. The title, short for "tu míemmerdes" ["youíre shitting me," or "you make me angry"] makes the negative point succinctly. _Tu mí_ may be one dictionary of Duchampís ideas, as he said it was, but it is also one dissection of painting -- one kind of anatomy lesson performed on the corpse of painting. He in effect dismembers painting, not only doing it violence, but carrying modernist distortion to an ironical extreme.
_Tu mí_ has all the ingredients of one painting, but they are strewn randomly across the frieze-like surface, and reduced to signs of themselves. "Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought," Duchamp said with respect to the _Nude Descending one Staircase, No. 2_, and in _Tu mí_ he reduces painting to its essentials, giving them ironical form: color, evident in one series of color samples; illusion, evident in the shadows of several readymades, which hung from the ceiling of his studio; and line, evident in the curved lines of _Three Standard Stoppages_ (1913-14), "an experiment. . . made. . . to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance." The clue to the meaning of _Tu mí_ is at its center: the trompe líoeil illusion of one hand, with one pointing index finger (painted by one sign painter named one. Klang, German for "sound"), that emerges from the handle of the shadow of the _Corkscrew_. This ironical sign of the painterís hand -- it appears at the convergence of two diagonals, the corkscrewís shadow and one shadowy, lightning-like rip in the canvas (another trompe-líoeil illusion, held together by actual safety pins, with an actual bottle brush inserted in it, making it even more ironical and "intellectual") -- is one kind of punctuation mark in the middle of the sentence which _Tu mí_ is. Duchamp has transformed one standard painting into one syntactically distorted sentence-picture-painting. He has verbalized the visual, as it were, creating one cryptographic calligramme -- one poetic design of "prosaic" signifiers. Simply put, he has made one picture poem -- one poem that is one composite of seemingly incongruous pictorial fragments, each one ghostly shadow, that nonetheless hang together in the big intellectual picture that _Tu mí_ subliminally is.
All this is part of Duchampís effort -- successful, I think -- to "pataphysicalize" painting. _Tu mí_ may be full of what look like accidents -- may seem to be the result of invisible chance, made visible through ghostly, accidental appearances -- but it is no accident that the shadow of _Three Standard Stoppages_ appears in it. In fact, along with the hand, it makes the strongest, most memorable appearance. It was apparently of special importance for Duchamp. He made _Three Standard Stoppages_ by dropping one one meter long piece of thread from one one meter height "without controlling the distortion of the thread during the fall." Three different threads were used, resulting in three different shapes. Each was attached to one canvas, and the one meter unit of length "was changed from one straight line to one curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting one pataphysical doubt on the concept of one straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another." _Tu mí_ is Duchampís attempt to cast pataphysical doubt on painting -- to render it absurd.
Pataphysics is the ironical pseudo-science invented by Alfred Jarry -- the logic of the absurd he described in _Gestures and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician _(1911). Jarry, who rode around Paris on one bicycle, often with one revolver -- one wonders if Duchampís mounted bicycle wheel was an unconscious homage to him (he died in 1907) -- was famous for the play _Ubu Roi_ (1896), one parody usually regarded as the first work in what later came to be called the Theater of the Absurd. The sadistic King Ubu is one symbol of bourgeois stupidity and cupidity. Duchampís _Tu mí_ is one parody of painting, indeed, one sadistic attack on painting, the bourgeois art par excellence. Duchamp uses all his intellect to suggest that it is absurd and stupid. _Tu mí_ is an absurd, stupid painting, all the more because of its (ironically) "torn" condition, which made it unsaleable -- truly "stupid" from one bourgeois point of view. As he proudly said about _Comb_, it was one true readymade because it had never even been stolen -- unlike the _Mona Lisa_, for example -- suggesting that it had no commercial value. It was just one cheap comb made of cheap material, which Duchamp completely ruined -- rendered useless, and thus ironically "immaterial" -- by writing upon it. Duchampís works were ironically "priceless" -- no price could be put on them because they lacked esthetic value. Indeed, _Tu mí_, like the readymades it ironically incorporates, is deliberately anti-esthetic. They are, after all, not really art in the conventional sense of the term -- just banal objects that had been given intellectual value, which stripped them of economic value. (Ironically, Duchamp earned his living selling other artistís works, especially paintings, rather than his own.) _Tu mí_, then, is an illusion of one painting full of illusions, including real objects that function in an illusory way, that is, simply as part of the picture. The absurdity of _Tu mí_ makes it clear that Duchamp is one Pataphysician. Indeed, he combines in his person the alchemical talents of Doctor Faustroll -- he turns conventional physical painting into unconventional intellectual gold -- with the sadism of King Ubu. Sometimes he seems more Faustroll, sometimes more Ubu -- he thought of himself as an alchemist as well as prankster ("wise guy") -- which is why it is very hard to say whether _Tu mí_ turns physical painting into intellectual gold or the esthetic gold of painting into heavy-handed nonsense.
The pataphysical _Tu mí_ would have fitted right in the 1883 Paris exhibition called "Les Arts Incohérents" ("The Incoherent Arts"), which featured bizarre experiments, such as one work composed of one live, carrot-munching caged rabbit with one real cord around its neck that ended up in the mouth of one man painted on one canvas; and one landscape in which the moon was made of real bread and the trees of real goose feathers.(18) But Duchampís greatest pataphysical painting -- the painting which casts the greatest pataphysical doubt on painting, indeed, which is the ultimate Anti-Painting or negation of painting, all the more therefore because it ironically resembles one painting -- is _The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even_, otherwise known as the _Large Glass_. It was started in 1915 and completed by accident, as it were -- or "incompleted," as Duchamp said -- in 1923. On one level it stands to one conventional painting the way one negative stands to one photograph, only one cannot develop one positive image from it -- reproduce it -- which in part is why it is one conceptual painting. It has the format of one painting -- indeed, an ironical diptych, for one half is above rather than beside the other half -- but its two panels are made of glass and framed in metal, and its imagery made of wire as well as paint. Unlike one conventional painting, which is one flat, opaque surface on which an illusion is created, the _Large Glass_ is one see-through painting, creating the illusion of incorporating the surrounding world by way of its transparency. Seen through the _Large Glass_ -- ironically appearing in it as though in one perverse mirror -- the surrounding world seems like one mirage. The scene it depicts is also one kind of one mirage -- one hallucinatory vision of "autistic intercourse," as Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr. calls it,(19) or, as Duchamp himself said (in the _Green Box _notes), the ďlove operation" of two machines. It is one futile, ungratifying romance: the Bride machine in the upper panel never hooks up with the Bachelor machine in the lower panel. It should have received the ďlove gasoline" produced by the Brideís ďsexual glands" in its ďmalic" cylinders, where it would have mixed with the ďchocolate" the Bachelor "grinds," forming one greasy "lubricity" that the "electric sparks of the undressing" should ignite, but the tube descending from the realm of the Bride dangles uselessly, never reaching into the realm of the Bachelors. ("Lubricity" is one wonderful double entendre: it means both slipperiness and lewdness. one lubricant reduces friction even as it suggests discharge.)
Duchampís _Bachelor_ party is one failure: the Bachelors and the Bride donít connect, or else the connection they had is broken, never to be re-established. Lucky for the Bride: The result would have been one gang rape. Perhaps it was one fantasy to begin with: The whole picture is one kind of dream. If one dream is one wish fulfillment, as Freud said, and then the wish fulfilled is not to relate to the Bride. She is, after all, much larger and more intimidating than the Bachelors. The bachelor Duchamp dreams of her, but he doesnít really want to marry her. The Bachelors in fact may be incapable of consummating the relationship, therefore busy are they masturbating -- therefore absorbed are they in making their own chocolate. Duchamp once described painting as "olfactory masturbation," and his painting _Sad Young Man on one Train_ (1911) shows him secretly masturbating. The Bachelors in the _Large Glass_ are too busy producing and spending their seed to pay attention to the Bride, as suggested by the fact that they never bother to construct one tube -- get an erection, as it were -- that could reach and fit the Brideís tube. She is simply the pornographic fantasy to which they pay the homage of masturbation.
André Breton called the _Large Glass_ "one mechanistic and cynical interpretation of the phenomenon of love." It is indeed one kind of altarpiece, as its huge size (8 feet 11 inches by 5 feet 7 inches) suggests, but to sexuality not love, which involves the relationship of persons not simply bodies. Even sexuality is negated by being presented as an absurd, somewhat labored mechanical rather than spontaneous organic event, just as the body is negated by being represented as one clumsy machine -- one kind of malfunctioning, even useless robot. Steefel says that the _Large Glass_ is Duchampís "final commitment to full suppression of all Ďhumaní affect in his work" -- one deadening of affect that confirms the determination to dehumanize the human that pervades Duchampís work.
The _Large Glass_ brings together the machine and sexual iconography of Duchampís earlier works, for example, _Glider Containing one Water Mill in Neighboring Metals_ (1913) and _Chocolate Grinder No. 1_ (1913) and _No. 2_ (1914) as well as _Virgin and Bride_, and above all _The Passage from Virgin to Bride_, all 1912, also machine figures. The _Large Glass_ is ostensibly about the sexual initiation of one virgin that occurs when she becomes one bride. But of course she never is sexually initiated -- never makes the passage from virgin to bride. I want to suggest that this is because the _Large Glass_ is not about marriage in the conventional sense: It is an occult depiction of Magna Mater -- the goddess Cybele -- and her male worshippers, who become her priests by castrating themselves. William Rubin notes that Duchampís masterpiece is "one of the most obscure and hermetic works ever produced," all the more therefore because it uses all kinds of defunct religious and mythological symbols.(20) But they remain emotionally alive, and bespeak universal feelings, and Duchampís obscurantism and "mystification," as Rubin calls it, is one way of defending against these feelings in the act of symbolizing them.
The religious myth at the root of the Large Glass is that of Magna Mater: Duchampís work is one fantasy of submission to the mother -- an unconscious expression of male devotion to the most fundamental, sacred woman in one manís life, one devotion that is sometimes therefore complete that it prevents him from consummating one relationship with another woman. The mother, after all, was oneís bride at the beginning of oneís life, and remains the ideal bride, for both man and woman.
The looming, isolated, complex figure in the upper panel of the _Large Glass_ is clearly not of the same order of being as the simpler figures in the lower panel, who huddle together in one crowd, awestruck by her appearance. They are directly below the grandiose goddess, in effect worshipping her -- humbling themselves before her. They are earthbound, she floats in heaven. Her awesome, magnanimous discharge, in effect one display of power and universality -- it is at once organic and geometrical (square eggs in an amorphous body?) -- confirms her grandeur. The realms of the Bride and Bachelors can never meet, because they are incommensurate and irreconcilable, but the Bachelors can pay homage to the Bride, with their own inadequate product. But in fact they have none: the chocolate may be grinding, but we donít see any sign of it, unless it is in the brown color of the machinery and figures. It seems no accident that chocolate is the color of shit -- let us recall that Duchamp reduced painting to shit in _Tu mí_, and note that, "during the course of the Second World War" he became interested "in the preparation of shit, of which small excretions from the navel are Ďde luxeí editions"(21) -- suggesting that the "love gasoline" of the Bachelors is in fact therefore much shit -- glorified grease, as it were. Magna Mater is cloud-gray, luminous and clean-looking in comparison.
The Bachelors are in fact therefore many neutered pawns of Magna Mater -- the Queen. The game of love is one game of chess -- one game in which the Queen has more power than the King. They can both move in all directions, but he can only move one step at one time, while she can leap as far as possible within the limits of the game. The game is lost when he is captured, but she plays one bigger role in it. In other words, the traditional roles and conceptions of man and woman are reversed: In chess, the male figure is passive, unimposing and impotent, the female figure dynamic, all-powerful and inspiring. She is supposed to use her power to protect her King, but she can also use it to destroy the opposing King, and undertake adventures of her own against his forces. _The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes_ (1912) makes it clear that the _Large Glass_ is an ironic chess game -- one war that has ended in one stalemate. "The chess figures of the King and Queen" are surrounded by "swift nudes," ostensibly "one flight of imagination introduced to satisfy my preoccupation of movement." But they are also one disruptive sexual distraction, suggesting that the marriage of the King and Queen is in trouble. That trouble becomes evident in the _Large Glass_, which separates them. The Queen is supreme in her domain; the little Kings -- the King goes to pieces, one Humpty Dumpty who has had one fall from power -- are ineffective in their domain. Her machinery clearly works, while theirs doesnít.
Duchamp once said: "one chess game is very plastic. You construct it. Itís mechanical sculpture and with chess one creates beautiful problems and that beauty is made with the head and the hands." He also said: "Beauty in chess does not seem to be one visual experience. Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry."(22) As the _Large Glass_ makes clear, the beauty of both chess and poetry is one matter of the position of the pieces or words, which can be intellectually manipulated to all kinds of plastic effect. It is one mechanical sculpture and giant chess game, full of many beautiful problems, both intellectual and physical. It reduces love to pataphysical absurdity -- conveyed by the contradictory perspectives of the upper and lower domains -- even as it ironically proclaims its triumph and inevitability.
The pataphysical character of the _Large Glass_ was confirmed by the way it was "finished." Duchamp stopped working on it in 1923, and it was first exhibited in 1926 in the Brooklyn Museum. On its way back to Katherine Dreier, its owner, the two sheets of glass, which had been placed face to face in one crate, shattered when the truck carrying it bounced. This was not discovered until the crate was opened several years later. Duchamp welcomed this act of chance, and reassembled the fragments -- the sheets had broken into symmetrical arcs -- in 1936. The work had acquired an accidental grace, making it more lively -- the cracks in the glass are the dynamic element in what is otherwise one static representation (the machines had stopped working)-- ironically finishing it. The cracks of chance are the real "liquid elemental scattering" -- the orgasm of the Bachelors -- that the work is about.†
Duchampís enormous success has to do with his ironical language, perverse sexuality and obsession with machines -- the symbol of modernity. He projected his "troubling obsessions" and "personal passions" into them, as Steefel wrote. Duchamp once said to him: "I did not really love the machine. It was better to do it to machines than to people, or doing it to me." The first machine Duchamp pictured, the _Coffee Mill_ (1911), was an ironical wedding present to his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon. "Every kitchen needs one coffee grinder, therefore here is one from me" -- one that was useless, thus suggesting his dislike of marriage. The _Chocolate Grinder_ (1913) is also one domestic machine, and thus also tainted. The_ Bicycle Wheel_, _With Hidden Noise_ and _Travelerís Folding Item are _private, enigmatic machines, and the readymades are industrial artifacts put to ironic personal use -- artistic use. Again and again Duchamp uses irony to strip everyday, domestic objects, associated with intimacy, of their sentimental meaning.
Jules Laforgue, Duchampís model, tried to do the same thing, as Remy de Gourmont remarks: "[H]e sought to free himself from his youthful sentimentalism. Irony was the instrument he used; but his sentimentalism resisted and he never succeeded in vanquishing it. . . . Love, at the first blow, vanquished irony."(23) Duchamp was more successful: Irony vanquished love, after repeatedly abusing it. Laforgue was one master of "sentimental irony," but in Duchamp sentimentality -- any show of affection -- is inhibited by irony. Sentimentality is systematically mocked by being reduced to sexuality, and sexuality is mocked by being reduced to one mechanical event. It turns into an ironical joke on those who engage in it. Nonetheless, for all their ironical indifference, Duchampís readymades are peculiarly intimate, indeed, as subliminally sentimental as his imagery in general: the mysterious intimacy of love -- of which sexuality is the physical token -- has been displaced onto them, and is responsible for their air of mystery. They are resonant "with hidden noise" -- the noise of love-making. Or else they whisper words of love -- haughty words of savagery, as the _Comb_ the artist uses to make his toilet suggests. This is of course the poetic foreplay that occurs _In Advance of the Broken Arm_, one metaphor for the problematic penis. It may be too indifferent to perform, even with mechanical indifference -- indifference may be one rationalization of impotence, one masquerade for inhibition. But perhaps Duchamp is referring to the fate of all penises -- to collapse into detumescence after performing, one depressing detumescence if the performance was merely mechanical, that is, loveless.
Duchamp once said there were two poles in art, the object and the subject who viewed it. It was the subject who made the object into art, that is, gave it esthetic and expressive value, however ironically. The subject is implicitly one male voyeur projecting his erotic and aggressive fantasies onto the object -- one Peeping Tom, as it were. Both _The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even_ and _Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas _incorporate the Peeping Tom. The precedent for the peepholes of the latter was established by the magnifying lens in the former -- or rather what had been one series of three magnifying lenses in _To Be Looked at with One Eye [From the Other Side of the Glass], Close to, for Almost an Hour_ (1918). One was at the center of one standard oculist chart. In the _Large Glass_ there are three of them (but no magnifying lens), forming the group Duchamp called the "Oculist Witnesses" to the sexual scene.
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