D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent.
Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968.
This epitaph, written by Marcel Duchamp for himself and inscribed on the Duchamp family tombstone in Rouen, means “Anyway, it’s always the others who die.” If influence is a measure of continued life and vitality, then Duchamp is still very much alive. Willem de Kooning described him as a one man movement.
As usual, it’s not altogether clear what Duchamp meant by this epitaph, since for any reader standing before his grave Duchamp would be one of the others, and the inscription could be just a simple statement of fact, at least at that point in time. This influential and enigmatic artist had many outrageous jokes, such as his Duchamp-in-drag alter ego Rrose Sélavy, but in each case a serious message can be found, whether Duchamp intended it to be there or not.
Duchamp dismissed the art world in which he came of age as a place of “retinal art,” meaning it was made to appeal to the eye only. His mission was, in his words, “to put art back in the service of the mind.” Growing up in a family of artists in Normandy, his first paintings were purely retinal, imitations of the impressionists popular at the time, but after 1910 he experimented with cubism, and produced the iconic image from the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Over time he became associated with Dada and surrealism, but in truth he really can’t be pinned down, and he remained an independent intellectual force, always averse to repeating himself, until his death in the late sixties.
His major contributions to the theory of art are the readymade and the introduction of chance into the art making process. An example of the former is his Bicycle Wheel (1913), literally just that inverted and attached to the seat of a stool, and an example of the latter is 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14), which is a wooden box containing three curves made by dropping three one-meter tailor’s threads from the height of one meter and fastening the result in place.
Duchamp’s work with books began early, and they occupy a central place in his œuvre. One of his most famous works, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23), painted on glass, was shattered in transit shortly after its first appearance at an exhibition. It was preceded by The Box of 1914, an assemblage in a box, of which there are five known copies, of facsimiles of the notes Duchamp made relating to the planning for The Large Glass. After The Large Glass was shattered, Duchamp made another box, called The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box), containing facsimiles of ninety-four documents relating to the actual making of The Large Glass, this time in an edition of 320 copies. In 1966, Duchamp created À L’Infinitif (The White Box), featuring an additional seventy-nine facsimiles of notes which were left out of The Green Box.
Duchamp made or contributed to over thirty books either as an artist, an author, or a designer.
Books with Marcel Duchamp available from Boreas Fine Art:
Duchamp, Marcel. À L’Infinitif (The White Box). New York: Cordier & Ekstrom. 1966.
[ Duchamp, Marcel ] Lebel, Robert et al. Eau et Gaz à Tous les Étages. [ Paris ] : Éditions Trianon. 1959.
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