Abstract Expressionism

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Notes on Marcel Duchamp

by Gary Comenas

Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887 at 2:00 p.m. in Blainville-Crevon, about ten miles outside Rouen in France, to Eugène Duchamp, a notaire (who was elected mayor of Blainville-Crevon in 1895) and his wife Lucille (née Nicolle). (MB15) Lucille's father (Duchamp's grandfather) was a shipping agent turned artist who was admitted as an etcher to the Beaux-Arts section of the Universal Exposition in 1878 and by the time of Duchamp's birth was considered one of the leading artists of Rouen. (MB18) Lucille (Duchamp's mother) also painted in her spare time.

Marcel was Eugene and Lucille's fourth child. He had two older brothers, Gaston and Raymond. An older sister, Jeanne, had died of croup about seven months before Duchamp's birth. Two younger sisters were born after Duchamp - Suzanne in 1889 and Magdeleine in 1898. (MB29) Gaston, Raymond and Suzanne would all become artists with Gaston painting as Jacques Villon and Raymond doing sculpture under the name Raymond Duchamp-Villon.

Duchamp immigrated to the United States in 1942, arriving on June 25th. It was his seventh trip to the U.S. The previous trips had taken place as follows:

1. June 15, 1915 - August 13/14, 1918.

Departed from Bordeaux on the S.S. Rochambeau on June 6, 1915. Arrived U.S. June 15, 1915.
Departed from New York on August 13 or 14, 1918 on the USS Crofton Hall bound for Barbados and Buenos Aires.

After living in Buenos Aires Duchamp left Argentina on June 22, 1919. After a three day stopover in London he arrived in France on July 26, 1919 and stayed mainly in Paris until December 27, 1919. (MB109/137/TD39/70/89)

2. January 6, 1920 - June 9, 1921. (TD98)

Departed from France December 27, 1919 on the "Touraine" from Le Havre to New York, arriving January 6, 1920. (TD90)

On June 9, 1921 he boarded the "France" for Le Havre, arriving at Le Havre on June 16, 1921. (TD98/MB147/162)

3. Early February 1922 - February 10, 1923.

Departed for the U.S. aboard the S.S. Aquitania on January 28, arriving about a week later. (TD105/MB165)

Departed from the U.S. on the "Noordam" to Rotterdam on February 10th, settling in Brussels until he returned to Paris in July 1923. (TD129/132/MB168)

4. Late October 1926 - February 26, 1927. (TD159/131)

Duchamp boarded the "Paris" in Le Havre on October 14, 1926. (TD157)

On February 26, 1927 he returned to France on the same boat - the "Paris" - that he had arrived on. (On board with him was Julien Levy.) (TD160)

5. Early November 1933 - January 20, 1934. (TD161/185)

Departed for the USA on the "Ile de France" on October 25, 1933.

Departed from the USA on the "Champlain" on January 20, 1934.

6. Late May 1936 - September 2, 1936. (TD185)

Departed for the USA on the "Normandie" on May 20, 1936.

Departed from the USA on the "Normandie" on September 2, 1936.

Four key works by Duchamp are Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915 - 1923), Fountain (1917) and L.H.O.O.Q (1919).

Nude Descending a Staircase

Three versions of Duchamp's Cubist work, Nude Descending a Staircase, are in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art . No. 1 was painted in 1911. No. 2 was painted in 1912. No. 3 was painted in 1916. No. 2 was the version featured in the famous Armory show of 1913 in New York, along with four other works by Duchamp.

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) can be seen here.

Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) caused considerable controversy at the Armory show. Most of the American public (and critics) who were used to the figurative or Realist works of American artists at the time found Duchamp's abstract Cubist work difficult to comprehend. An unnamed critic commented in The New York Times "...it looks like almost anything except a nude descending a staircase, and most - though not much - like an explosion in a shingle mill. One observer, who is still young enough to remember his Hans Christian Andersen [The Emperor's New Suit] rejected this similitude after toying with it for a while, and declared that there was no mystery for the excellent reason that there was no picture... M. Duchamp, if he not be a 'fool to tie,' knows perfectly well that there is no picture at all - no nude, no staircase, no anything... Only the innocence of youth could see the point of the jest ..." ("Topics of The Times; Innocence as an Art Critic," The New York Times, March 1, 1913, p. 14)

When American Art News ran a competition for the best explanation of Duchamp's Nude, the winner of the ten dollar prize offered by the magazine interpreted the work by composing a poem that hinted as to why the naked woman in the painting was so difficult to decipher:

You've tried to find her
And you've looked in vain
Up the picture and down again
You've tried to fashion her of broken bits
And you've worked yourself into 17 fits.
The reason you've failed, to tell you I can,
It isn't a lady but only a man." (MB67)

The winner of the competition may have been right. Duchamp never specifically asserted that the nude was a man and, in fact, when he named the work by painting the title on the lower left corner of the painting, he used the masculine form of nude - "nu" rather than "nue." The painting also resembles a nude study of a male on a train painted by Duchamp just prior to Nude Descending a Staircase - Nu [esquisse], jeune homme triste dans un train (1911-1912), sometimes referred to as Sad Young Man on a Train, but translated literally as Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train. (MB65)

Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train can be seen here.

When asked by Katherine Kuh, "Why do you think the Nude Descending a Staircase caused a greater furor than some of your other works," Duchamp responded "Probably because of the shock value due to its title..." (KK83)

Marcel Duchamp:

"You know at that time, in 1912, it was not considered proper to call a painting but Landscape, Still-Life, Portrait, or Number Such-and-Such. I think the idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me. The fact that I had seen chrono photographs of fencers in action and horse galloping (what we today call stroboscopic photography) gave me the idea for the Nude. It doesn't mean that I copied these photographs. The Futurists were also interested in somewhat the same idea, though I was never a Futurist. And of course the motion picture with its cinematic techniques was developing then too. The whole idea of movement, of speed, was in the air." (KK83)

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (aka the Large Glass] by Marcel Duchamp can be seen here.

Artists influenced or inspired by the The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915 - 1923), included the Surrealist Roberto Sebastian Antonio Matta Echaurren.

From Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School by Martica Sawin (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995):

"In 1943 Matta introduced negative lines, that is lines made not with the brush but with a razor that cut slender troughs through the dark painted grounds, as in Membranes of Space of Composition in Magenta. Several Duchampian links have been proposed for these lines or spatial membranes: for example the cracks running through the Large Glass and the web of string from the 'First Papers' installation [see October 14 - November 7, 1942]... Perhaps the culminating work in his dialogue with Duchamp is Vertige d'Eros of 1944, which alludes to erotic experience just as Duchamp does in the Large Glass... The most avowedly Duchampian of Matta's paintings is The Bachelors, Twenty Years After of 1943 which was done specifically as an homage... Among the various progeny spawned by the public appearance of the Large Glass or by Matta's interpretation of it, shown in the 1944 exhibition at Pierre Matisse, are two 1944 paintings by [Mark] Rothko, Gyrations on Four Planes and Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea... Although Matta has been credited with being the intermediary through which other artists were inspired by the Large Glass, the fact that it was newly on view at The Museum of Modern Art may have in itself been sufficient introduction. [Arshile] Gorky whose 1947 Betrothal I and Betrothal II have been connected with Duchamp had... a reproduction of Duchamp's Bride (the original belonged to Julien Levy) tacked on his studio wall when [Gerome] Kamrowski visited him [Gorky] in 1936." (SS320-22)

The Bride was, in fact, an unfinished work. While still working on it Duchamp promised it to his early patron Walter Arensberg in exchange for Arensberg paying the rent at Duchamp's studio in the Lincoln Arcade Building at 1947 Broadway. (Duchamp had stayed at the Arensbergs' home for three months after arriving in New York in June 1915 while Walter and his wife spent the summer in Connecticut. In October Duchamp left their apartment and house-sat for a friend of theirs. In November he began renting his own apartment in the Lincoln Arcade Building.) (MB112)

Duchamp continued to work on The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even until Arensberg sold it to Katherine Dreier when the Arenbergs moved to California at the end of 1921. (MB168) Dreier paid $2,000 for the work with $500 up front and the remainder in monthly payments of $100. (MB160/168) According to Alice Goldfarb Marquis in Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare, after Dreier purchasd the work, Duchamp "cooly turned his back on the Large Glass. Having picked at it for more than a decade, he would never add all the motifs he had originally sketched. In fact, the only subsequent addition was the traditional artist's gesture of completion: his signature. 'You know how it is to continue something after eight years,' he explained much later. 'It was monotonous... You have to be very strong... there were simply other things happening in my life then.' (MB168) Marquis worked out the mechanisms of the bachelors and the bride in Duchamp's work from the numerous notes and sketches made by Duchamp from 1912 to 1915:

Alice Goldfarb Marquis [From Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare]:

"His [Duchamp's] notes and sketches of 1912 to 1915 indicate that the Bride is 'basically a motor,' in fact, an internal combustion engine. She secretes 'love gasoline,' a sort of 'timid power' or 'automobiline.' The fuel sparks a flask-shaped object called the 'sex-cylinder,' barely attached to the Bride's main body, the pendu femelle (hanging female). The sex-cylinder is the heart of the Bride's desire. Floating across the top of the glass is the 'cinematic blossoming of the Bride,' containing three roughly squarely windows called 'draft pistons.' They transmit the commands issued by the pendu famelle. Just below the blossoming at the right are nine shots, placed by Duchamp by firing paint-tipped matches at the glass from a toy pistol nine times. Originating with the Bachelors, the shots are supposed to trigger a mechanism (called the 'boxing Match" and never executed) which, by means of electrical sparsks, witll bring about the Bride's 'electrical undressing.' Meanwhile, the sticklike shape at the lower left is the Bride's 'desire magneto,' which triggers the whole operation of the Bachelor Machine, at the bottom of the glass.

Thus it is the Bride who controls the far more complex, but far less autonomous, Bachelor Apparatus. 'The Bride has a life center,' Duchamp noted. 'The Bachelors have not.' At the Bride's command, the Bachelors' desire is activated by a burst of illuminating gas into the 'malic molds.' These nine figures at the lower left of the glass 'cast' the gas into their own forms: gendarme, priest, cuirassier, and so on. The 'gas castings' are reminded of their malic function by the melancholy dirge from the glider, which is driven endlessly back and forth by water falling on the wheel: 'Slow life, vicious circle. Onanism. Horizontal. Round trip for the buffer. Junk of life. Cheap construction. Tin, cords, iron, wire. Eccentric wooden pulleys. Monotonous flywheel. Beer professor.' To the tune of this lugubrious litany, the illuminating gas starts converging through the capillary tubes at the top of the malic mold.

As it flows through the tubes, the gas undergoes 'the phenomenon of stretching in the unit of length,' following a Law of Playful Physics invented by Duchamp. Invisibly, it solidifies into long needles that break up into 'spangles of frosty gas.' Being lighter than air, they tend to rise but get caught in the first cone, or Sieve. Now they begin to have human attributes. As they pass through all seven sieves, which are increasingly clogged with dust, they lose their 'individuality,' suffer 'dizziness,' and emerge as a 'liquid elemental scattering.'

The drops apparently fall into the chocolate grinder, but their fate remains unclear because Duchamp never executed the remaining machinery. Somehow, by means of a 'toboggan,' they were to move toward the base of the Oculist Witnesses all the while being transformed into an explosive liquid. With terrific speed, they are 'dazzled' upward through the center of the Oculist Witnesses and into the Bride's domain. Three horizontal lines separate the Bride from the Bachelors, and these comprise the Bride's 'clothing.' When the splashes touch her clothing, then, the Bride herself deflects them upward toward the nine shots. From here on, the pendu famelle commands the splashes by activating the draft pistons.

Within this schematic and utterly mechanical operation, Duchamp envisioned frustrating sexual drama, an endless, self-generating cycle of lust perpetually doomed to frustration. The Bride's 'blank desire (with a touch of malice)' activates the subservient Bachelors. The sparks from her desire-magneto set up the two-stroke internal combusion process that powers her magical blossoming. She accepts the Bachelors' splashes, then blossoms, entering the last state before fulfullment. But fulfillment never comes; she remains 'forever lovely and unravished, eternally between desire and possession.'" (MB169-171)


The third work, Fountain - a urinal on which Duchamp scrawled the name R. Mutt and the year 1917 - was one of Duchamp's readymades. The Dictionnnaire Abrégé du Surréalisme, published as the catalogue for the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme which opened at the Galerie Beaux-Arts (140, rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré) on January 17, 1938, noted "... the ready-mades and assisted ready-mades chosen or assembled since 1914 by Marcel Duchamp constitute the first Surrealist objects." (SS14)

Duchamp first described his readymades in writing in a letter he sent from New York to his sister in Paris dated January 15, 1916.

Marcel Duchamp [from the letter to his sister, Suzanne, dated January 15, 1916]:

"... you saw the bicycle wheel and a bottle rack in my studio. I bought that as an already finished sculpture. And I have an idea about the bottle rack: listen.

Here in New York I have bought some objects of a similar style and called them 'readymade.' You know enough English to understand the meaning of 'already finished' that I have assigned to these objects - I sign them and put an inscription on them in English. I'll give you a few examples: I bought a big snow shovel upon which I wrote 'In advance of the broken arm...' Don't try too hard to understand this in a romantic or impressionistic or cubistic way - it doesn't have anything to do with that; another 'readymade' is called 'Emergency in favor of twice'... This whole preamble is one for reason: Go get the bottle rack. I am making it into a readymade from afar. On the inside of the bottom ring you will write the inscription I will give you at the end here, using small letters and painting them on with a brush and silver-white paint, and in the same lettering you are to sign it as follows: Marcel Duchamp." (VJ57)

[The page of the letter with the inscription has been lost. Duchamp purchased the bottle rack in a Parisian department store in 1914 however it only became a readymade when Duchamp named it as such in his letter of 1916.]

Duchamp's 1917 readymade, Fountain, caused considerable controversy when he submitted it for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists' exhibition of 1917. The exhibition was nonjuried and open to all members yet Duchamp's Fountain was hidden behind a partition during the show. An angry Duchamp withdrew from the organization. (Some accounts indicate that the reason it was hidden was because the organizers of the show feared that somebody would use it or had used it.) Katherine Dreier, a friend of Duchamp and the President of the organization, was one of the people who objected to the work causing friction between her and Duchamp - although she would soon reestablish her friendship with the artist.

When, in 2004, five hundred art experts were asked to name the most influential modern art work of all time they chose Duchamp's Fountain. (CH)

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain can be seen here.

[Note: "The term "readymade is sometimes spelled "ready-made" with a hyphen or capitalized as "Readymade." The Museum of Modern Art in New York uses the unhyphenated capitalized version. I have used the unhyphenated uncapitalized version as the term refers to a type of art object or objects and not the actual name/title of an object.]


Fountain and Duchamp's other readymades are sometimes seen as precursors to Pop Art where "found" objects or images were used in paintings or collage. Duchamp's 1919 work, L.H.O.O.Q., incorporated a "found" image (the Mona Lisa) to which Duchamp added a goatee and mustache. It can be found at:

Duchamp created the work in October 1919. On a small (about 8 by 5 inches), cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa he added a crude moustache and goatee in pencil and wrote underneath the image the initials "L.H.O.O.Q." When spoken in French the letters sounded like "Elle a chaud au cul" ("She's got a hot ass."). The letters when interpreted as a date also happen to be the 400th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death. Alice Goldfarb Marquis noted in her biography of Duchamp that "Leonardo was particularly fascinating to Europeans at the turn of the century... Between 1881 and 1889, Charles Ravaisson-Molleu published four volumes of facsimile and translation [of Da Vinci's notebooks] into French, a labor considered so astounding at the the time that the Academie francaise awarded it the Prix Bordin as 'a first-rate monument of scientific and artistic restoration.'" (MB99)

From Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare by Alice Goldfarb Marquis:

"The sketches and scribblings gathered in Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, just like the Notebooks of Leonardo, are a collection of wide-ranging reflections on such matters as the relationship of art and science and the aesthetics of machines. The tone of Duchamp's notes, most of them written between 1911 and 1915, seems almost self-consciously da Vincian. Duchamp noted, for example: 'Comparison. Given a cube - its reflection in a mirror - one could say that a straight line (perpendicular to the plane of the mirror) will not intersect the cube's image - because the eye goes around the line without thickness.' Here is a typical note from da Vinci: 'Perspective is nothing else than seeing a place (or objects) behind a plane of glass, quite transparent, on the surface of which the objects behind that glass are to be drawn.'

... Viewed psychologically, as personality types and as products of a particular background, the parallels between Duchamp and da Vinci become even more suggestive. Like Duchamp, da Vinci was the son of a notary and restlessly traveled all his life. Vasari accused Leonardo of having wasted his life and abilities on a thousand chimeric projects. What significance could Duchamp's contemporaries possibly see in his sketch of a coffee mill? Da Vinci never married and is generally considered to have been homosexual. Duchamp's behavior prompts questions about his sexualiaty: he married once momentarily and once very late, chose a female pseudonym, and frequently had himself photographed as a woman. Da Vinci never held steady work, but was supported by a series of patrons. To this life style Duchamp also aspired, quite successfully." (MB101-102)

Later Duchamp would comment that "the curious thing about that moustache and goatee is that when you look at it, the Mona Lisa becomes a man. It is not a woman disguised as a man, it is a real man." (MB146) Others would also conjecture that Mona Lisa was either a man or even a portrait of Da Vinci in drag. In 2006 a professor at the University of Illinois, Professor Thomas Huang used face recognition software to try and determine whether the Mona Lisa was indeed a portrait of Da Vinci and concluded that there was a 60/40 probability that the painting was a female and concluded that it didn't match Leonardo's sketch of himself. (See here)

Duchamp's altered Mona Lisa was discovered by Picabia when Duchamp was packing for his second trip to New York in 1920. A version of the work without the goatee was published three months later by Picabia in his magazine 391 with the title Dada Picture by Marcel Duchamp. (MB145)

Irving Sandler [art writer]:

"I occasionally glimpsed Duchamp through a window at the Cookery on University Place and Eighth Street. Remarkably handsome at age 74 (in 1961), he looked like an artist prince, even when having lunch at a downscale eatery. After I had been introduced to him, we would occasionally chat at chance meetings near his apartment on East Tenth Street, a three-minute walk from where I lived. I also interviewed him twice in the early 1960s, on the Casper Citron radio show and at his home.

I asked Duchamp whether he had intended his penciled mustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, along with a printed obscenity beneath her image, to be an anti-art gesture. He denied that it was. I then asked whether he had the original work would he have defaced it. He said absolutely not; his graffiti was not intended to to be destruction. He then commented that in looking back he suspected that he had added the male appendages to the Mona Lisa because he thought hat she was a man, alluding to Leonardo's homosexuality. I found that remark even more subversive than his defacing the image.

In retropspect, it seems to me that I was shocked by Duchamp's remark because I was heterosexual. So was he, even though he had a female alter-ego named Rrose Selavy... And Duchamp was the guru to [John] Cage, Merce Cunningham, [Robert] Rauschenberg, and [Jasper] Johns, who were all alleged to be homosexuals. How to negotiate all this?" (IS260)

G. Comenas (London)

to July 27, 1887: Marcel Duchamp is born in Blainville-Crevon, France


Abstract Expressionism

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Ab Ex Essays