Marcel Duchamp… where to start? A very complex and complicated show that I saw yesterday at the Barbican Center, London about Duchamp and his influence over Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage and Cunningham left me brain fried. It seems like the curators tried to make connections and draw conclusions where there might not be any, and that was just exhausting to see. The show was scattered over two floors with pianos playing, ghost dancers dancing, and just too much going on. But it got me thinking about my friend, Marcel. He is considered the most influential artist of the 20th century (not Picasso) and for some reason, I think of him more like a whacky scientist than an artist. Maybe that’s just because he was in everyone’s business introducing people to one another, revolutionizing, criticizing and influencing his contemporaries unknowingly. He knew everyone and he played a key part in so many historical twisted events. I’ll explain a few; don’t get your panties in a bundle.
For starters, Peggy Guggenheim who would become one of “the most active benefactors of pioneer painters” moved to Paris in the 20s where she was introduced to the new wave of avant-garde artists such as Max Ernst and Joan Miro by the hand of none other than Duchamp. He was also very involved in the gallery that she opened in London during the late thirties but was forced to shut down less than a year later because she was her best client. She was buying everything for herself, for the collection that now stands along the Grand Canal in Venice. Similarly, Julien Levy, a crucial dealer that played a major role in the introduction of European and Latin American Surrealist artists in the early thirties in New York such as Frida Kahlo and Man Ray, lived in Paris for three years before opening his gallery in Manhattan’s Upper East side. Guess who was his personal tour guide? Duchamp, Duchamp, Duchamp!!!
On a different note, and a very interesting one if I may say so, I’m going to tell you a story. Brancusi’s fabulous Bird in Space, the golden bullet-like sculpture located at the MoMa in New York was part of an edition of nine bronze casts and seven marbles created in 1923. An American collector called Edward Steichem bought one of the bronzes in 1926 in France and he asked the artist to mail it to the United States.
“Sure”, said Brancusi, “coincidentally, a very good friend of mine, Marcel Duchamp, is traveling to the States so I’ll just send it with him”.
“Cool”, said Steichem.
So off goes Duchamp with Bird in Space tightly squeezed into his suitcase. He wasn’t hiding it. His luggage was inspected upon arrival by the customs officers; when they saw the sculpture they confiscated it because they said that he was importing metal illegally and there was something around a 25% tax that he had to pay on the price of bronze.
“No!” said Duchamp, “this is art, not metal” – a very different way of looking at the object.
Long story short, since Duchamp and Brancusi didn’t have the money to take the matter to court and prove that Bird in Space was in fact art, Dorothy Whitney (who would later found the Whitney Foundation) gave them the money for the trial and Brancusi won! End of story.
Duchamp was the first person that made us question the nature of art itself when he coined the term ‘readymade’ in 1915 – a mass-produced object that he selected and presented as a work of art. Are the names Warhol, Koons, Claes Oldenberg and Hirst amongst many others, coming to mind? They should be because their work is a major reflection of Duchamp’s influence. His rejection of modernist painting and traditional painting techniques moved art out of the canvas into every day objects. His justification was that “the creative act happens when the spectator sees it and has a reaction to it”.
Art is art, even if it’s bad.
Written by Andrea Wild Botero. All rights reserved.