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.
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