In celebration of the 125th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s birth—he was born in Normandy on July 28, 1887—we look back at curator Joan Rothfuss’s essay on the Dadaist provocateur from our 2005 publication, Bits & Pieces Put Together To Present A Semblance Of A Whole: Walker Art Center Collections.
Among the most radical aspects of Marcel Duchamp‘s practice—which is a fountainhead in the history of twentieth-century art—was his insistence that the most interesting art springs from a nimble mind rather than a skilled hand. Operating out of a spirit of serious play he used chance techniques and quasi-mechanical processes to create his works, sidestepping the personal and the handmade.
He made so many variations, versions, and replicas of his objects that conventional distinctions between “original” and “reproduction” collapse like a house of cards. This activity was taken to its logical limits in his notorious “readymades”—functional objects without aesthetic pretension (such as a urinal), which he simply purchased and designated as his artwork (and which, today, exist only as copies, since all the “original” readymades have been lost). Duchamp’s work developed alongside and against the formal explorations of Cubism, clearing an alternate conceptual path that has been followed by artists from Jasper Johns to members of Fluxus to Robert Gober.
In 1935 Duchamp wrote to a patron that he was thinking of making “an album of approximately all the things I produced.” The next year he embarked on the project, which lasted more than thirty years, and produced nearly 300 albums containing dozens of two– and three–dimensional reproductions of his works—an artist’s version of a salesman’s sample kit. The albums, which he title de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy), are like miniature retrospectives of his career in personal, portable museums. When opened, the box becomes architectural, with three vertical “walls” and a “floor,” and its unbound contents can be examined in any order the viewer wishes. The reproductions were supervised by Duchamp but made by others, using techniques (such as collotype, a labor-intensive process used to reproduce photographs) that reside somewhere between the mechanical and the handmade.
Authorship is confused by the work’ ambiguous attribution (to either Duchamp or his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy), and we are even given two ways to think about its creation: the passive “from” and the active “by.” This work is often cited as the catalyst for artists’ burgeoning interesting in multiples during the 1960s, and it certainly inspired Fluxus artist George Maciunas to create unorthodox anthologies like the Fluxkit, which was packaged in a briefcase. Although made in multiple copies, such works were not seen as secondary documents. As Duchamp noted drily in 1952, “Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.”