Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The true story behind The Icon Thief

There is no solution because there is no problem.
—Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, spent the last four decades of his life claiming that he had retired from art, choosing, instead, to focus on chess. After his death, it was revealed that he had spent at least twenty years working, in secret, on a final installation.

So what, exactly, is Étant Donnés? Here’s how two of my characters describe it:

“I went to see the installation last year,” Tanya said. “It’s in its own room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When you go inside, you see an antique wooden door set into a brick archway. At first, it looks like there’s nothing else there. But if you go closer to the door, you see light coming through a pair of eyeholes. And if you look inside—”

“—you see a headless woman on a bed of dry grass,” Maddy said. “She’s nude, and her face is missing or obscured. In one hand, she’s holding a lamp. There’s a forest with a moving waterfall in the background. Duchamp built the figure himself and covered it in calfskin. The illusion is perfect.”

“And it felt like a betrayal. Duchamp’s entire career had been devoted to conceptual art. The readymades. The urinal. The shovel on the ceiling. But his final work was grindingly representational. It made people wonder if he’d been toying with them all along.”

Forty years later, the origin, purpose, and meaning of Étant Donnés are still a mystery, and the installation remains, as Jasper Johns described it, “the strangest work of art in any museum.”

The Icon Thief, published by New American Library, is available in bookstores everywhere. Order it now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

For more on Duchamp and his legacy, you can also read my recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times.

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

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