Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 18th, 2012

Thoughts on a Descending Nude, Part 2

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In my opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times, I describe the uproar that greeted Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where it resulted in a sort of mass hysteria. After the first hostile reviews began to appear, the galleries were mobbed, with attendees standing in line for forty minutes to catch a glimpse of the painting before being whisked away, “shrieking for help,” in the words of one contemporary observer. It’s tempting to compare this response to the mayhem Duchamp witnessed firsthand three months later in Paris, at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, but there was something almost affectionate in the furor over the painting, which inspired dozens of parodies and become a favorite of viewers disposed to be skeptical of modern art, as if they suspected that Duchamp himself was in on the joke.

All the same, it’s instructive to compare the American response with that of the Paris Cubists, who forced Duchamp to withdraw the painting from the Salon des Indépendants one hundred years ago today: both saw the joke there, but only the Americans were happy to play along. And the punchline is that if hadn’t been for its ludicrous title and the ensuing scandal, Nude Descending a Staircase would probably only be of interest to specialists. It’s innovative, but in a limited way: it uses parallel outlines to map the motion of the body through space, an effect familiar from comic strips, but the result isn’t really successful—the figure lurches along with little resemblance to an actual human being. (One critic called it “a descending machine,” and to modern eyes, it resembles nothing so much as a kind of zombie.)

If he had been so inclined, Duchamp might have gone on to refine his technique, but he seems never to have been tempted to follow up on the initial impulse. Instead, he went beyond painting altogether. During his trip to Munich the year before, he was already chafing at the limitations of what he called “retinal art,” becoming increasingly obsessed with process, notes, and titles. Indeed, the deliberately provocative title of Nude Descending a Staircase may be the most Duchampian thing about it: the reaction taught him that the tension between a work of art and its title could be more interesting than the work itself, leading to the frequently eye-glazing or sophomoric titles of his ensuing pieces, like The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, which seem to be trying to recapture the magic of that first, indignant response.

Duchamp, in short, would always be an outsider and provocateur, a role that he seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. For the rest of his life, he lived quietly and simply, playing chess and working on projects for his own amusement, to the point where it’s often hard to tell the difference between his art and his private jokes—although in Duchamp’s best work, the line between art and leg pull is fine indeed. (The posthumous installation Étant Donnés, which he worked on in secret for twenty years, is either his final masterpiece or the most elaborate prank of all time.) And it all began with the response to Nude Descending a Staircasewhich, almost by accident, set the stage for the most influential career in modern art. Neither Duchamp nor the rest of us would ever be the same.

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