When asked to characterize the work of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), many would lean heavily on a single term: the readymade, that sly-silly artistic gesture wherein everyday objects (or combinations thereof) are stripped of their usefulness, signed, exhibited and reborn, ostensibly, as art. They might reference Fountain, the urinal Duchamp signed (as “R. Mutt”) and displayed as an original work in 1917, or his ceiling-mounted shovel cheekily titled In Advance of the Broken Arm, from 1915, both fitting examples of work by an artist who railed against strict visual pleasure in art.
Yet a new exhibition suggests a different, somewhat unexpected pivot point around which Duchamp’s wily oeuvre spun: painting, a medium that, despite what some might argue, he did not seek to slay but to challenge, and perhaps even reignite.
“Marcel Duchamp: Painting, Even,” on view at Paris’s Centre Pompidou (Place Georges Pompidou, Paris; centrepompidou.fr) from September 24 to January 5, 2015, collects some 100 works by Duchamp and several of his forebears and contemporaries, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Francis Picabia, Odilon Redon and Old Masters Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer among them. It is the largest display of the artist’s work in his native France since the Pompidou’s inaugural exhibition in 1977 and the first full-blown show dedicated solely to this facet of Duchamp’s production (much of which sits in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is rarely gathered on this scale).
Duchamp’s early paintings chart a swift and playful course through many of the groundbreaking isms of European art—bathers and nudes tinted with Fauvist palettes; gaunt female figures fractured into Cubist forms; and reveries injected with the dreamy eroticism of a Symbolist composition. The artist’s own style started to emerge in 1911: a musing on the body as a kind of machine in perpetual motion.
The apex of such work is his Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), from 1912, an angular mass barreling downward, elusive in her movements and thus unconstrained by the picture frame. Duchamp’s Cubist colleagues famously refused to include the painting in their Salon des Indépendants that year, allegedly miffed by the artist’s disregard for the nude as trope (i.e., lying, languid, in repose). The painting was shown the following year at the Armory Show in New York, where it caused a stir for somewhat different reasons and was parodied at length for what American audiences considered its absurdity. It was, as Philadelphia Museum curator of modern art Matthew Affron puts it, “success by scandal.” The buzz amused Duchamp when he first moved to New York in 1915, but, in an effort to keep his practice pure, he stopped painting entirely a few years later.
“He was profoundly anti-market,” says Paul B. Franklin, an art historian who collaborates with the Duchamp estate. “He didn’t want to be pushed to produce.”
It is in this sense that the paintings provide a kind of blueprint for the experiments that followed—the signatures he scrawled on his readymades; the stark sexuality, ungrounded pictorial space and machinist figures he surrounded with dust and wire on the transparent confines of a dual industrial windowpane in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), from 1915–23; and the forced perspective, lush pastoral backdrop and splayed-open Courbet-like nude that comprise the sculptural installation Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas…, made in secret between 1946 and ’66.
“He was drawing, he was sculpting, he was taking photographs, he was engraving, he was doing all of these things but painting,” Franklin says. Though its influence was never far away.