Me and Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp is the most influential artist of the twentieth century. It says so right on the cover of my book. And it’s true. More than any other modern figure, Duchamp—notably with his famous Fountain, which was recently named the century’s single most important work of art—forever shaped our understanding of what it means to be an artist, in which selection, process, and theory are just as important as the final result. (If nothing else, if you’ve ever wandered into a museum or gallery and wondered what the hell was going on there, that’s almost certainly due to Duchamp’s legacy, with its ongoing influence on all conceptual art.) Yet aside from Nude Descending a Staircase and a few other iconic pieces, Duchamp has never penetrated the popular consciousness to the extent of a Picasso or a Warhol, and even among those who care deeply about such things, many details of his work and his fascinating life remain essentially unknown.
Up until a few years ago, this was true of me as well. I’d like to say that my decision to write a novel about Duchamp was the result of a carefully considered intellectual process, but in fact, it was pure serendipity. While doing research on art history at the Brooklyn Public Library, I stumbled across the wonderful book Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, who explores the issue of why we’re collectively drawn to interpret and tell stories about pictorial works of art. In passing, Elkins mentions the strange theory of art critic Philippe Duboy, who postulates that Duchamp, while working as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, quietly erased and modified drawings by the artist Jean-Jacques Lequeu, as part of an obscure vendetta against the architect Le Corbusier. If this “theory” doesn’t make any sense, don’t worry: I ended up buying a copy of Duboy’s incredibly expensive book on the subject, only to find that I couldn’t make head or tail of it either. (For one thing, it gets its libraries mixed up: Duchamp actually worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, so he couldn’t have made the changes that the author implies.)
Yet I’d been bitten by the Duchamp bug. And I quickly discovered that the hard part wasn’t constructing a conspiracy novel around Duchamp, but deciding which conspiracy to use. Even if you think, as I do, that Duboy’s book is a waste of time, and a model of how not to construct a conspiracy theory, you’re still left with an embarrassment of riches. You have Rhonda Roland Shearer’s controversial contention, for instance, that many of Duchamp’s readymades were actually carefully constructed by the artist, who built them in secret and passed them off as found objects for reasons that remain unclear. You’ve got the frequent attempts to link Duchamp’s work to alchemy, the cabala, and, yes, Rosicrucianism. You have the allegation, made in at least two books, that Duchamp knew the identity of the Black Dahlia murderer, a particularly juicy story that plays an important role in The Icon Thief. And then there’s the question of what Duchamp was really doing in New York City during the First World War…but for that, you’ll need to read my novel.
It’s easy to see why conspiracy theorists love Duchamp: his work is simultaneously designed to elicit and frustrate obsessive interpretation. Yet the endless attempts to pin him down as an alchemist, a secret revolutionary, or even a Rosicrucian have little to do with the man himself. Duchamp, more than any of his contemporaries, was the ultimate skeptic and outsider, unwilling to be confined to any one artistic school, even as he influenced them profoundly from the margins. For most of his life, he lived as simply as possible, with close to a complete indifference to money, in order to devote himself more fully to his work. He was, uniquely, a movement of one. And even as I toyed with his legacy in The Icon Thief, I found myself seduced by his example. He was brilliant, uncompromising, and impossible to classify. And although my book regards him from many different angles, often all at the same time, I hope my readers remember him, above all else, as a model of what the artistic life can be.
At the center of the book lies Duchamp’s final masterpiece, which he worked on in secret for twenty years, claiming all the while to be retired. On Monday, I’ll finally consider the enigma at the heart of The Icon Thief: the installation, revealed only after Duchamp’s death, that Jasper Johns has called “the strangest work of art in any museum.”