Monday, March 16, 2009

Blake wrote about Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday. One paragraph caught my attention:

The show's most notable absence may be Marcel Duchamp. The arbitrariness of Duchamp couldn't have happened without the dose of willfulness to be found in any Cézanne...To his many enemies, Cézanne seemed to put the whole world--not to mention the entire history of art--through a blender. Duchamp merely turned one toilet upside down.

I don't think Blake means to say what it sounds like he's saying here. Actually...Blake, what are you saying here? That Duchamp's entire oeuvre boils down to one readymade? Remember The Large Glass? Nude Descending a Staircase? The demented Origin of the World-inspired lifesize diorama that is L'Etant Donnés? Love him, hate him, or profess indifference, you at least have to admit that he tried on a lot of hats--and did a bit more over the course of his career than upend a urinal.

Enough has already been said about Blake and one-liners that just don't work. I think Regina got it right when she explained why he's so poorly served by Twitter, for example, and I should probably leave it at that.

But c'mon. You were at the Philadelphia Museum. I haven't been there in awhile, but unless the Duchamp Gallery was closed, it seems to me there should have been more than enough of the man's work on view--like, say, the entire Arensberg collection--to facilitate considering him more carefully.


Blogger Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Thanks for pointing out Blake Gopnik's errors concerning Duchamp & Cezanne in his WAPO piece. I cringed when I read: "The arbitrariness of Duchamp couldn't have happened without the dose of willfulness to be found in almost any Cézanne. When they were first shown, the paintings of Cézanne could feel as unprincipled and pointlessly provocative as any dada gesture by Duchamp..." So Duchamp's "arbitrariness" is an oppositional reaction to Cezanne's "willfulness?" What a simplistic, binary take on two masters! And Gopnik seems to contradict his characterization of Cezanne as willful by calling his paintings "unprincipled." Can one be both willful & unprincipled? Moreover, Gopnik downgrades Dada when he cobbles it into an adverb for his amusement. Duchamp always denied his association with Dada; will art critics ever recognize this? And, by the way, “Fountain” is right-side up – a readymade ready for use.

12:53 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Really? I would swear it was on its side...

Right, I didn't even touch the bit about "pointless provications." I mean, Dada is one of the main threads of modernism--of confrontation and disjunction. You can't talk about anything that's happened in the last 50 years or so without it. Whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing, it's foundational.

I see what you're saying about Duchamp distancing himself from Dada, but their strategies definitely overlapped. The big Dada show made that clear...

As for Duchamp being impossible without Cezanne, that's sort of true...except Cezanne is trying to arrive at some truth through perception...and Duchamp wanted art to be more like literature or philosophy. Hence L'Etant Donnes, which depicts all traditional artmaking as essentially a peep show.

Blake knows all of this stuff we're talking about. It's basic art history. In the past year, I've had conversations with him on a couple of occasions, and I can attest to the fact that he's a very thoughtful guy, and has a large art historical data bank to draw from.

I just have to assume that when his pieces are this compressed--the Post piece consisted of a bunch of large color graphics and a few snippets of text, surrounded by lots of white space--that meaning must get lost in the shuffle somehow, in favor of a few convenient (albeit weird) assertions.

I could be totally wrong here, but that's what it seems like to me.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Fountain is indeed a urinal on its side. You can see the wall-mounting flanges to the left and right in the photo, and the hole facing the camera is for the flusher and water pipe. You can still see urinals of this vintage in at least one of Rockefeller Center's public restrooms on the concourse level. I was there this past Xmas season.

Of course, as a sculpture, it's right way up. Did you know Fountain, as seen in a museum near you, isn't a real urinal? It's a handmade sculpture of a urinal, made from photos of the original, which was lost.

I find this amusing on so many levels.

2:42 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

This is one of my favorite Duchamp conspiracy theories: that the ready-mades weren't ready-mades at all, but one-of-a-kind sculptures meant to look like found objects, the majority of which were conveniently lost or misplaced after the fact, so that they would forever be experienced through reproductions.

Example: In Advance of the Broken Arm--the snow shovel. The shaft/handle is square, not round like you'd expect. Wouldn't that be painful to hold onto and use, with those sharp corners digging into your hands? Apparently commercially manufactured prototypes from that era for the other readymades are nearly impossible to find, too.

Of course, this could be a completely bogus idea...but if it is, I'd almost rather not know.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

If I learned that the originals -- if we can use that word here -- were in fact not found objects but hand-made sculptures Duchamp made himself, I'd respect him even more. That would be great. Because I think of Duchamp as a comedian, and that'd make the joke even funnier.

According to the de Pury catalog I found in the trash, though, not all the original readymades were lost. I can't check it -- I sold it as a work of art with my own signature on it (I'm not kidding) -- but I remember pretty clearly that at least a couple of the 14 on the block that year didn't read "original lost."

10:01 AM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

See above for the self-made (or altered) ready-mades. You're right, of course; they're not all lost, and it may not have been a comprehensive strategy. But I think there's always misdirection on top of misderiction with Duchamp.

10:10 AM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Misdirection, I mean. Argh, typos!

10:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Blake wrote: "Duchamp merely turned one toilet upside down."

I was mistaken in saying "Fountain" was "right-side up - a readymade ready for use." In point of fact, the urinal is up-ended with the back laid down on a pedestal in the famous Steiglitz photograph (although another photo of MD's studio shows it hanging mysteriously in mid-air). However, I still don't consider it "upside down" & think it was Blake's intention to belittle Duchamp's contribution to art.

As for Rhonda Shearer's contention that Duchamp hand-made some readymades, I find this an absurd thesis that's a direct contradiction of MD's concept of choice. I've been wanting to write about her dissertation for some time, so I'll save my words for a future post on Theory Now.

11:31 AM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Right, well, at the end of the NYT article, Arthur Danto talks about how if Duchamp did, indeed, make them, then he's not nearly as interested in him anymore.

I'm not suggesting that all of the ready-mades were hand-made, or that this is some sort of eureka moment that causes the ground to shift underneath all of the artists or art historians in the world. Even if Duchamp adjusted or altered the objects he declared to be ready-mades, that doesn't change the basic argument they make about artistic production, or how they've come to take their place in the canon, like Danto says. To me, the only take-away is that nothing is ever easy with Duchamp.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

It certainly would change my thinking on Duchamp, which goes back and forth anyhow.

3:54 PM  

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