Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2012 at 7:30 am

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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.

Thoughts on a Descending Nude, Part 1

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In 1912, Marcel Duchamp, who would one day be acclaimed as the most influential artist of the twentieth century, was twenty-four and living in the shadow of his two older brothers, one a highly regarded painter and printmaker, the other a celebrated sculptor. Marcel, by contrast, was a somewhat indifferent artist who was seriously hoping to pursue a career as a humorous illustrator. (A few years earlier, several of his drawings had been prominently displayed at a local skating rink.) As a painter, his work was characterized by cautious imitations of Cézanne and the Cubists, and although he had been allowed into Parisian art circles, this seems to have been at least partially out of respect for his brothers.

All the same, it was an exciting time to be an artist in Paris, where a politically engaged circle of Cubists met frequently in the shared garden of a row of artists’ studios in Puteaux, arguing over matters of theory and inveighing against their rival Futurists. Duchamp was often there, although he seems to have been less interested in theoretical debates than in playing boules on the lawn. Yet he had also begun to paint more seriously, and like any ambitious young artist, he would have welcomed the chance to display a piece at the upcoming Salon des Indépendants. The year before, a group exhibition of Cubists had caused a nice little scandal, and the Puteaux circle saw the upcoming show as their chance to make a case for a reasonable Cubism.

Unfortunately, as I’ll describe more fully in an opinion piece in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times, Duchamp’s entry, Nude Descending a Staircase, was anything but reasonable. In the end, it was rejected by the Cubist hanging committee, and on March 18, 1912, Duchamp was asked to withdraw it from the exhibition. This embarrassing incident, in which his brothers had played no small part, evidently contributed to one of the most mysterious episodes in his early career: his decision, a few months later, to visit Munich, a city where he had no close friends. Duchamp never explained the reasons for this trip, but it seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the fact that there were no Cubists in Germany.

During his two months in Munich, Duchamp worked alone, away from the influence of other artists. He produced several important canvases, but also began moving in a direction that would take him past painting entirely. In particular, he made a series of notes toward a more ambitious work, one that would appeal to the mind, not the eye, and that would ultimately culminate in his first true masterpiece, The Large Glass. And he was still working on this project in Paris the following year when he discovered, much to his surprise, that Nude Descending a Staircase, the painting that had been so ignominiously rejected the year before, had unexpectedly made him one of the most famous artists in America.

To be continued…

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

Me and Marcel Duchamp

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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.”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2011 at 7:51 am

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