Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael R. Taylor

“She crossed the threshold…”

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"She crossed the threshold..."

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 57. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first started writing The Icon Thief, I knew from early on that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the secret chamber behind Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For those of you who might need a reminder, this work—which was discovered and installed in the museum only after Marcel Duchamp’s death—lies in its own room just off the main gallery. It consists of a pair of wooden doors, which Duchamp bought in Spain and had specially cut to size, set into a brick archway. Through two small eyeholes, the viewer can see into the chamber beyond, in which the body of a nude woman, really a realistic dummy covered in calfskin, lies on a bed of dry grass, an upraised lamp in one hand. It’s the work that sparked much of the plot of this novel in the first place, partially because it’s so striking in its own right, but also because it inspires countless interpretations. And for a story in which the way we interpret or misread the world around us is such a crucial theme, I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than to have Maddy break into the installation itself in search of one last clue.

Obviously, this presented a number of problems, both narratively and logistically. Much of the novel is devoted to stacking the deck so that the reader truly believes, when the moment comes, that Maddy would be capable of taking such drastic action. I also wanted my description of the installation and its violation to be as accurate as possible, which turned out to be something of a challenge, especially in the early stages of research. At the point when I finally had to figure out how the scene would work, my only good source of pictures and diagrams of the interior was Duchamp’s own Manual of Instructions, which was published in a limited edition by the museum after the installation was first opened up for photographs. A few of the illustrations had been reproduced in Juan Antonio Ramírez’s useful book Duchamp: Love and Death, Even, but I soon realized that I’d have to get my hands on the real thing. As luck would have it, I managed to find a copy at a bookstore a short walk away from where I was living in Brooklyn, and although it was fairly expensive, it was more than worth the price.

"Then her vision cleared..."

Once I had the source, I studied the diagrams and pictures carefully, trying to see how the installation looked from the inside, how best to break into it, and what Maddy would encounter when she laid her hands on it for the first time. I learned, for instance, that the dummy itself consisted of several pieces: the torso, the left thigh, and the forearm and hand, which would all come apart if someone picked it up. Other details, such as the appearance of the underside of the armature, were less clear, and I had to extrapolate them from my sources as best I could. Much later, as I was finishing up the novel, the excellent study of Étant Donnés by Michael R. Taylor was published, with detailed interior photographs and essays on its construction that would have been incredibly useful. I discovered it too late for it to have a meaningful impact on most of the action, but I was able to use it to correct a few mistakes, and I later sent a copy of the novel to Taylor as a token of my appreciation.

Eventually, though, I knew that I’d have to go to the museum itself. The result was a visit that went much like the one I describe in Chapter 57, as Maddy figures out her mode of attack. Like Maddy, I noticed that behind the room with the visible door, there was another room that contained the dummy and tableaux itself, and that it appeared as an enigmatic unnumbered square on the upper left-hand corner of the museum map, like the secret chamber in the library in The Name of the Rose. There was an unmarked door leading into this room from the gallery devoted to Brâncuși, but I didn’t think you could easily force the lock. (I tried it gently—and as I’ve often reflected while doing location research for these stories, I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested.) I also spent a lot of time studying the wooden doors themselves, which I knew could be slid open to allow photographs to be taken of the interior, and I confirmed, as I’d long feared, that it wasn’t just a matter of getting the doors open: there was a pane of glass behind the door, not specified in Duchamp’s original plan, to protect the interior and prevent anyone from attempting precisely what I wanted to do. And to give my novel the ending it needed, I knew I’d have to break through it…

Duchamp’s doorway

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The door stands alone in its own room in the eastern wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a little out of the way, tucked into a corner of the Marion Boulton Stroud Gallery, also known as the Galerie Rrose Sélavy. Nothing in the blandly worded placard at the entrance indicates that anything unusual lies beyond. When you peek inside, you see a small, dimly lit room, empty except for an old-fashioned wooden door, set into an archway of brick. If you’re particularly observant, you might notice that the room isn’t quite like any other at the museum—there’s a carpet on the floor, instead of concrete, and the walls around the door are covered in textured plaster. Most visitors simply glance around for a moment, take in the door, see nothing else, and head off to the next obligatory stop on the tour. Only a few notice the light coming through the pair of small holes drilled into the door at eye level. And even fewer—at least of those who aren’t aware of the secret—ever venture close enough to look inside.

Étant Donnés, to quote Jasper Johns yet again, is “the strangest work of art in any museum.” And it’s strange even if you don’t know the circumstances of its creation. Look through those eyeholes, leaning in close enough to catch the faint odor of fragrant wood, and you see, behind the door, the startlingly lifelike image of a naked woman lying on a bed of dry grass, her legs spread, a glowing lamp in one upraised hand. The woman’s head is concealed by the edge of a brick wall, making her seem faceless, but if you look carefully, you can make out a tantalizing lock of blond hair. In the background, there’s a forest, a blue sky with clouds, and even a moving waterfall. It’s an incredibly detailed tableau, quiet, mysterious, and meant to be seen by only one viewer at at time. When I first saw it in person, I had spent close to nine months preparing for that moment, but it’s far more startling to see it without any advance warning. As a museum guard remarked to another group of visitors as I was on my way out: “You can’t unsee that!”

Yet Étant Donnés remains strangely unknown, even among those who care about art, at least in comparison to its creator’s other works. This is despite the fact that the story behind its creation is as fascinating as any I know. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: for the last forty years of his life, Marcel Duchamp, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, claimed to have retired from art. Instead, he played chess at a very high level, gave occasional interviews, and oversaw the display and reproduction of his earlier works. After his death in 1968, however, it was revealed that he had spent at least twenty years working on a final installation, in complete secrecy, laboriously transporting it from one studio to another whenever he moved, confiding only in his wife. Whatever it meant, it had clearly been on his mind for decades: the first notes toward what later became Étant Donnés appear as early as 1934. And he had deliberately timed it so that the work would only be revealed when he was dead, perhaps so he could avoid being asked any questions.

These days, thanks to a ravishing study by Michael R. Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in honor of the installation’s fortieth anniversary, we know a great deal about how Duchamp made Étant Donnés, but still almost nothing about why. It was solitary, methodical work, involving much trial and error with body casting, materials for making the skin, and creating the trompe l’oeil effects. Many of his solutions are charmingly quaint, like a hobbyist making a diorama in his garage: the effect of the moving waterfall, for instance, is created by a revolving light bulb inside a biscuit tin. And that’s the strangest thing of all. Duchamp, more than any other artist of his generation, declared war on what he called “retinal” art, which appealed to the eye, not the mind, and was only interested in reproducing what it could see. His attempt to move past representation changed art forever. Yet the entire time, in secret, he was systematically experimenting to find ways to represent what is, for all its dreamlike trappings, the most classical subject of all: a woman’s body. And nobody knows why.

This is the enigma at the heart of Duchamp’s career—and at the center of The Icon Thief. Tomorrow, on the day my novel finally comes out, I’ll do my best to explain why this mystery has intrigued me for so long.

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

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