Marjorie Perloff

Stanford Humanities Review, 7.1 (1999): 48-78Trans into Portugese, in “Leituras do ciclo, ed. Ana Luiza Andrade, MariaLucia de Barros Camargo, Raul Antelo (Santa Catarina: Editora Grifos, 199),pp. 23-44.

At a Dada exhibition in Dusseldorf, I was impressed that though Schwitters and Picabia and the others had all become artists with the passing of time, Duchamp’s work remained unacceptable as art.
–John Cage, Interview, 1973 [1]
From a distance these things, these Movements take on a charm that they do not have close up–I assure you.”
–Marcel Duchamp, Letter to Ettie Stettheimer, 1921 [2]

A recently produced Dada Website gives us the following definition of Dada:

Dada (French: ‘hobby-horse’), nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished primarily in Zurich, New York City, Berlin, Cologne, Paris, and Hannover, Ger. in the early twentieth-century. . . . the name was adopted at Hugo Ball’s Cabaret (Café) Voltaire, in Zurich, during one of the meetings held in 1916 by a group of young artists and war resisters that included Jean Arp, Richard Hülsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Emmy Hennings; when a paper knife inserted into a French-German dictionary pointed to the word dada, this word was seized upon by the group as appropriate for their anti-aesthetic creations and protest activities, which were engendered by disgust for bourgeois values and despair over World War I. A precursor of what was to be called the Dada movement, and ultimately its leading member, was Marcel Duchamp, who in 1913 created his first ready-made (now lost) the “Bicycle Wheel,” consisting of a wheel mounted on the seat of a stool. [3]

The last sentence in this otherwise unexceptional entry is odd on two counts. First, the notion that a movement’s precursor goes on to become its “leading member” suggests that the man is somehow equivalent to the movement: Dada, c’est Duchamp. And second, the emphasis on individuality (“the leading member”) seems misplaced in the discussion of avant-gardes –the avant-garde being by accepted definition a congerie of group manifestations, of agonistic movements that set themselves against the status quo. From the Lenin of What is to be Done (1902), who referred to the Communist Party as the “politically conscious avant-garde of the entire working class,” [4] to the Peter Bürger of the still seminal Theory of the Avant-Garde (1980, trans. 1984), the emphasis of avant-garde studies has been on movements rather than individuals. Indeed, the central distinction between the art of “bourgeois autonomy” and the avant-garde, Bürger argues, is that whereas bourgeois production is “the act of an individual genius,” the avant-garde “responds with the radical negation of the category of individual creation.” And not only individual creation but reception as well. Remarking on the “collective reception” accorded to Dada and Surrealist works, Bürger observes that “Breton and Tzara . . .lose their meaning as producers and recipients; all that remains is art as an instrument for living one’s life.” [5]

Yet–and this is the paradox– as in the case of the Dada website, Bürger’s Exhibit A for the “radical negation of the category of individual creation” is Duchamp:
When Duchamp signs mass-produced objects . . . and sends them to art exhibits, he negates the category of individual production. The signature is inscribed on an arbitrarily chosen mass product because all claims to individual creativity are to be mocked. Duchamp’s provocation not only unmasks the art market . . . it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art. Duchamp’s Ready-Mades are not works of art but manifestations. (PB 51, my emphasis)

“Not works of art but manifestations”: here Bürger echoes Walter Benjamin’s famous observation that “what the Dadaists . . . intended and achieved was a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations.”[6]

And the emphasis on group provocation recalls Renato Poggioli’s now classic discussion of the anti-traditionalism, agitation, and agonism that characterize the avant-garde. “We must never forget,” writes the leading Duchamp scholar Michel Sanouillet, “that Dada was a group of people closely knit together, a bund, whose purposes were identical, and who had banded together their talents and energies to wage an excruciating war against society as a whole. That is why we find constant references, in the members’s own writings, to Dada as a collective being.” [7]

How do we reconcile such claims for Duchamp’s bund -identity with his own commentary on Dada and with the nature of the work itself? Asked by Pierre Cabanne to comment on his relationship with Dada, Duchamp remarks that he first came across the word “in Tzara’s book, The First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Fire Extinguisher –1917, or end of 1916. It interested us but I didn’t know what Dada was, or even that the word existed.”[9]

By 1917, Duchamp had produces many of his most famous readymades (Chocolate Grinder , Bicycle Wheel, Bottle Rack, Fountain, and With Hidden Noise [Figures 1-5] as well as a series of studies for the Large Glass like The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride [Figure 6] and 9 Malic Moulds [Figure 7]. “Dada,” Duchamp insists again and again did not influence his own work. ‘It was parallel, if you wish. . . . It [my own work] wasn’t Dada, but it was in the same spirit, without, however, being in the Zurich spirit” (PC 56). And after the war, when he did come in contact with Paris Dada, Duchamp refused to participate in Dada exhibitions. “Exposer, ” he wrote his Paris friends from New York, sounded too much like “épouser” (see CTD 236), and when Tzara kept begging him to send something for the Dada Salon of 1921, Duchamp sent a telegram from New York that contained the three words “PODE BAL– DUCHAMP” with its pun on “peau de balle” or “balls to you” (PC 65). Thus, when the exhibition was mounted, the spaces reserved for Duchamp’s works were occupied by empty frames.

One can argue, of course, that Duchamp’s claims for independence, here and elsewhere, are just a smokescreen, designed to enhance his own status and obscure the very real affinities between himself and Dada –affinities art historians and critics are able to identify even as the artist denies their existence. But in Duchamp’s case, it is, ironically, the very critics who have written eloquently of Dada and related movements, who are now singling out Duchamp as special case. Thus Rudolf Kuenzli and Francis Naumann subtitle their recent collection of essays on Duchamp Artist of the Century, and Arthur Danto has remarked that “The story of the avant-garde in the twentieth century, whether in America or in Europe, seems largely to be the story of Duchamp.” [10]

Strong words, these, written at the end of a century that has prided itself on repudiating the excesses of genius theory. How do we square Danto’s statement with Bürger’s negation-of-autonomy thesis? If Dada was, as Sanouillet says, a “collective being” whose members shared “identical purposes,” how and why has Duchamp come to tower over, say, Hugo Ball or even his close friend François Picabia? And how typical of movement ethos and evolution is the case of Dada / Duchamp? In what follows I want to consider these questions.

1. Dada Dossier

The classic account of Dada is probably Hans Richter’s Dada Art and Anti-Art, first published in German in Cologne in 1964 and widely reprinted and translated. Richter writes as an insider, himself a member of the original Zurich cénacle. “The life we led,” he tells us in his Foreword, “our follies and our deeds of heroism, our provocations, however ‘polemical’ and aggressive they may have been, were all part of a tireless quest for an anti-art, a new way of thinking, feeling and knowing.” [11]

Richter begins with the now familiar story of the Cabaret Voltaire, where Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Hans Arp came together. And although he claims that “Dada had no unified formal characteristics as have other styles” (HR 9), that it is characterized only by its “destruction of all artistic forms . . . a raging anti, anti, anti” (35), he is soon discussing the defining Dada modes and genres. For example:

(1) The simultaneous poem, as defined by Ball:
A contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices speak, sing, whistle, etc., simultaneously in such a way that the resulting combinations account for the total effect of the work, elegiac, funny or bizarre. The simultaneous poem is a powerful illustration of the fact that an organic work of art has a will of its own, and also illustrates the decisive role played by accompaniment. Noises (a drawn-out rrr sustained for minutes on end, sudden crashes, sirens wailing) are existentially more powerful than the human voice. (HR 29-30)
An example was the collaborative Die Hyperbel vom Krokodilcoiffeur und dem Spazierstock (The Hyperbole of the Crocodile’s Hairdresser and the Walking-Stick), written spontaneously by Arp, Tzara, and Walter Serner while lounging in the Café de la Terrasse. The simultaneous poem, Richter claims, looks ahead to automatic poetry, which “springs directly from the poet’s bowels or other organs which have stored up reserves of usable material” (HR 30). And further: the poème simultané “carries the message that mankind is swallowed up in a mechanistic process” (31), a reference to the horrors of the war. An offshoot of the simultaneous poem was the “phonetic” or “abstract” poem, which used only non-semantic sound, as in Ball’s famous “gadji beri bimba gandridi laula lonni cadori,” and, a few years later Kurt Schwitters’ famous Ursonate. Phonetic poetry looks ahead to lettrisme and the sound poetry of the 1960s.

(2) The agonistic manifesto, as initially produced by Tzara. Richter recognizes (and I have written of this elsewhere) [12] that the Dada “aggressive, polemical manifesto” owes a great deal to Futurism, especially so far as typography and layout are concerned, but he distinguishes between the programmatic Futurist manifestos and Dada’s anti-programmatic stance.

(3) The exhibition, conceived by Ball as Gesamtkunstwerk in its conjunction of lectures, readings and ballets with paintings. The Der Sturm exhibition held at the Munich Galerie Dada in 1917, for example, incorporated the work of Kandinsky and Klee (and of Richter himself) into the Zurich movement and provided linkage to the earlier Expressionists. The Dada exhibition leads to performance art and installation, as we now know these art forms.

(4) Abstract painting, as produced by Hans Arp, Sophie-Tauber Arp, Marcel Janco, and Richter himself, as an effort to purify the imagination. Abstraction was not, of course, the invention of Dada (Malevich had already painted the Black Square), but Richter claims it as Dada revolution: “everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape. . . . the total negation of everything that had existed before” (HR 48).

(5) Collage, made from ordinary materials like cardboard, wire, train tickets, and newspaper fragments, as exemplified by Kurt Schwitters’s Merz works [figure 8], and photomontage, as in Raoul Hausmann’s and John Heartfield’s “cut up photographs, stuck . . .together in provocative ways,” and collaged with bits of newspapers, old letters, or whatever happened to be lying around so as “to confront a crazy world with its own image” (114; figure 9). These German Dada works had a much more overt political content than did the more abstract collages of Arp and Richter himself.

(6) The Chance Work, as in Tzara’s “word salads,” made of newspaper scraps, arbitrarily drawn from a hat, or Arp’s discovery that discarded scraps of paper, falling on the floor, could make unconscious patterns more interesting than those the artist had consciously designed [figure 10]. The adoption of chance, writes Richter, “restore[d] to the work of art its primeval magic power . . . . “the incantatory power tht we seek, in this age of general unbelief, more than ever before” (HR 59).

It is interesting that Duchamp, whose work is discussed in the chapter called “New York Dada 1915-1920,” is, for Richter, the epitome of the new Dada “non-art,” the “emptying [of] life as well as art of all its spiritual content” (HR 91). Richter, like almost all later writers on the subject, [13] focuses on the proto-Dada spirit associated with Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, and its journal Camera Work (later 291) which introduced Picabia’s machine drawings, with Duchamp’s readymades and Large Glass, the latter as ultimate exemplar of “anti-art,” and with the periodicals The Blind Man, Rongwrong (both 1917), and New York Dada (1921), all three of which were edited by Duchamp and Man Ray. Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder was reproduced on the cover of the first issue of The Blind Man, his witty perfume flask “Belle Haleine,” bearing on its neck a photograph of Duchamp dressed up as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy, on the cover of the only issue of New York Dada. But these journals, like the Societé Anonyme, Inc., which Duchamp founded with Man Ray and Katherine Dreier in 1921, were ephemeral affairs, and such offshoots as Robert Coady’s The Soil and Robert McAlmon’s and William Carlos Williams’s Contact were soon promoting an aggressive and more politicized Americanism that was quite at odds with the fabled Duchampian indifference.

Indeed, the New York avant-garde of the World War I years, whose center was the Walter Arensberg circle, frequented by Duchamp, Picabia, Williams, Mardsden Hartley, Mina Loy, and a score of others, was only retrospectively designated as “New York Dada.” [14] And the fact is that, on closer inspection, Duchamp’s New York works do not belong to any of the generic Dada categories discussed by Richter and listed above. He composed neither simultaneous collaborative poems nor “abstract” phonetic ones. He wrote no manifestos, produced no group exhibitions, [15] did not make collages or photomontages from newspaper fragments and everyday objects, as did the German Dadaists, or create abstract “unconscious” compositions as did Arp. As for chance, Duchamp’s concept of chance operations was by no means the “chance” of random composition, but rather the careful use of rules that, however “chance-generated they may have been, once determined upon, had to be followed. And even the general category of Dada “negation,” the rebellion against all established art forms and their discourses, applies to Duchamp only superficially. His was not, after all, the “negation” of art as such that we find in Ball or Huelsenbeck or Tzara: As Thierry de Duve has noted:

[Duchamp] never wanted to burn down the museums as did Marinetti or to break completely with art as did the Cabaret Voltaire. His ‘Dadaism’ was never made up of social condemnations of art, but only of personal secessions. He never wanted to engage in a tabula rasa of tradition, nor did he believe that it was possible to do so. [16]

Indeed, Duchamp’s own “negation” was never of art as such but only of what he called retinal art, which he rejected in favor of what a post-World War II generation would call conceptualism. Duchamp, I shall want to suggest below, thus exceeds or bypasses Dada in any number of respects. At the same time–and this is the paradox–Dada will continue to need Duchamp and we will continue to believe in Dada as a major avant-garde group movement. Let us see why.

2. Eros Mathematicus

The case for Duchamp’s Dada negation of “art” as bourgeois construct invariably cites the famous “Apropos of ‘Readymades,” the talk Duchamp delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in October 1961 and frequently reprinted:


This is the account of the reaymade Duchamp put forward In the last decade of his life, which is to say half a century after the fact. “The choice of readymades,” Duchamp tells Pierre Cabanne at about the same time, “is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste” (PC 48). As for the first readymade, the Bicycle Wheel, assembled two years before Duchamp so much as coined the word, he declared: “When I put a bicycle wheel on a stool . . . there was no idea of a ‘readymade’ or anything else. It was just a distraction” (PC 47).

In keeping with these assertions, early critics of Dada regularly repeated the notion that, as Hans Richter put it, “The bottle-rack says ‘Art is junk’. The urinal says ‘Art is a trick’” (HR 90). Duchamp’s readymades (as in readymade clothes), we are told again and again, were ordinary mass-produced, machine-made objects, arbitrarily chosen by Duchamp with no consideration “for good or bad taste,” and designated as “art works” so as to debunk the very concept of individual art making. But recent Duchamp scholarship [18] has begun to rethink the readymades and to probe Duchamp’s declarations of “visual indifference” more carefully. For example, Duchamp tells Cabanne: “Before Courbet, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral . . . [but] our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn’t go very far!” (PC 43).

Outside what? Not, as is usually thought outside “art” as bourgeois construct but specifically outside the painting of the previous century from Courbet to Cézanne, and especially what Duchamp took to be the insistently (and exclusively) “retinal” painting of the Impressionists. “Can one make works,” he wrote in his 1913 notes for the Large Glass, “which are not works of ‘art’?” [19] And he speculated extensively on “Grammar”–i.e. “How to connect the elementary signs (like words), then the groups of signs one to the other” (EWMD 77) and on a “Dictionary” in which “films, taken close up, of parts of very large objects” would represent “a group of words in a sentence or separated so that this film would assume a new significance or rather that the concentration on this film of the sentences or words chosen would give a form of meaning to this film” (EWMD 78).

The search for a “form of meaning”: it hardly sounds like the fabled “negation” of art in favor of “manifestation.” “I wanted,” Duchamp once remarked, “to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina [20] And indeed Calvin Tompkins’s discussion of Duchamp’s study of non-Euclidean mathematics, especially the writings of Henri Poincaré and Pascal Esprit Jouffret, and his study, at the Bibliotheque Sainte-Geneviève, where he worked as an intern in 1913, of what Apollinaire had dismissed as “that miserable tricky perspective”–Renaissance vanishing-point perspective, which gave the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface (see CD 128)– makes clear that, far from negating art, Duchamp was trying to restore to verbal-visual construction some of the conceptual strength of Renaissance art-making. In his mysterious Munich year (1912), de Duve tells us, his interest was not in Kandinsky or the Blaue Reiter painters but in the Lucas Cranachs in the Alte Pinakothek (CD 95). And his notes for the White Box (1913) contain pages of mathematical applications, especially on the resemblance between a perspective view and a circle. He made, for example, a drawing of a “Pseudo sphere” with its “Projections from the center.” And he studied the construction of “A circle (when seen by a 3-dim’l eye moving above and below until the visual ray falls in the plane which contains [it, and] undergoes many changes in shape conventionally determined by the laws of linear perspective.” (EW 87-88).

The relation of line to circle was to become something of an obsession. Consider that “assisted readymade” the Bicycle Wheel [figure 1], which Duchamp had left, along with Bottle Rack [figure 2] in his Paris studio [figure 11], when he sailed for New York in 1915, and which his sister Suzanne inadvertently threw out with the trash so that we know both works only from later reconstructions. Bicycle Wheel was made by taking the wheel in question out of its normal context and attaching it to an ordinary kitchen stool by mounting its fork, upside down, in the hole at the stool’s center. Duchamp referred to it as “a pleasant gadget, pleasant for the movement it gave.” He found it restful and comforting, he told Calvin Tompkins, to turn the wheel and watch the spokes blur, become invisible, then slowly reappear as it slowed down–the image of a circle that turns endlessly on its own axis. “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.” [17]

Dada joke? Hardly, given the complex meanings of this “pleasant gadget.” First its eroticism: the fork of the large, vertical and “spinnable” wheel is inserted into the hole of the much smaller, stationery circle that sits horizontally on the wooden stool. But there are further implications. In 1913, when Duchamp was already working on drawings for the Large Glass, Bicycle Wheel testifies to the artist’s interest in what he was to call a “delay,” that is a type of movement, not linear as in Nude Descending a Staircase, but, as Jerrold Segal notes, “suspended in a space it never traverses.” “The Large Glass,” writes Segal, “contained . . . two objects whose action of turning on an axis while going nowhere is echoed by the mounted wheel–the chocolate grinder and the waterwheel [see figure 12]. The bicycle wheel, altered so that its circular movement no longer produced linear progression, precisely captured Duchamp’s shift of interest from the first form of motion to the second” (JSPW 122). In the same vein, the distinction of the obviously phallic bottle rack is the absence of the bottles for which the prongs call out–again a “delay” in which the male anatomy longs for –but fails to attain– physical contact with the female. In the Large Glass, this perpetual “delay” marks the space between the bachelors in the lower half and the bride machine above them. In his notes for the Green Box [figure 13], Duchamp writes:
Malique moulds. (Malic (?)

By Eros’ matrix, we understand the group
of uniforms or hollow liveries
receive the which takes
destined to give to the illuminated gas 8 malic
forms (gendarme, cuirassier etc.) [18]

Here and elsewhere, the conceptual elaborations of a given set of images is as complicated as in any of the journals of one of Duchamp’s favorite poets–Mallarmé. Indeed, the fin de siècle looms large in Duchamp’s work, a readymade like Bicycle Wheel conjuring up–in parody form, of course–the visual and verbal iconography of the period. Consider, for example, the relationship of Bicycle Wheel to those charming bicyclettes that populate Marcel Proust’s A L’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. “La petite bande” of lovely young girls (one of whom is Albertine, the narrator’s future mistress) are first viewed on the boardwalk at Balbec, wheeling their bicycles. Here, as in so many of the images of the period, the bicycle is a symbol of freedom from conventional constraints, the subtext being one of slightly illicit erotic activity, as engaged in by “advanced” young women. [19] Duchamp could not have known A L’Ombre (1918) when he made his readymade, but he was familiar with Proust’s sources. Take for example (figure 14), this painting of bicycling fashions of the 1890s, reproduced in Peter Quennell’s Marcel Proust.[20] In the left foreground, we have the three great demi-mondaines of the period, Liane de Pougy, la Belle Otéro, and Cléo de Mérode on bicycles–displaying their daring and risqué charm to an admiring and elegant crowd in the Bois de Boulogne, with the portico of the Chalet Du Cycle in the rear. In another image—this time a photograph, captioned “Bicycling and walking dress, at the beginning of the new century” (PQ II 3), two young women, standing beside their bikes, seem to be awaiting an assignation [figure 15]. And in a third, a painting by Jean Béraud (QU opp. 16, figure 16), a sweet young thing, wearing bloomers, almost locks wheels, so to speak, with the gentleman with whom she is evidently about to take a ride through the Bois.

The bicycle as erotic instrument: we meet it everywhere in the paintings, photographs, and posters of the period. Here [figure 17] is Will Bradley’s Victor Bicycles (Boston Forbes) , a poster first published in Les Maitres de l’Affiche (1899), in which a young man watches a young woman on a bicycle out of the corner of his eye, the whole scene draped in flowers. And here [Figure 18] is a Toulouse Lautrec poster from the 1890s called La Chaine Simpson, in which the racing cyclist shown in action behind his pace-makers is the then champion, Constant Huret. At the bottom left in block letters, we read L. B. SPOKE, DIRECTEUR POUR LA FRANCE. 25 BOULEVARD HAUSSMANN. The cyclist as signifier of virility: L. B. Spoke, I can’t help thinking, leads directly to R. Mutt. But, then, as William A. Camfield has demonstrated in a fascinating essay, Duchamp chose his urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works with the greatest of care; his Fountain, unlike some of the other available plumbing items [figure 19] allowed for intricate erotic play: the receptacle for the male “jet” turned upside-down and made female, a vagina potentially containing its own fluids. Moreover, Duchamp had Stieglitz photograph the urinal in front of Marsden Hartley’s Warriors [figure 20], whose niche-like form (used elsewhere by Hartley as a frame for a seated Buddha, [figure21]) nicely reenforces the form of his “fountain” (see RKFN 75-80). That form, moreover, is not all that different–as parody, of course–from the great Baroque fountains of Rome: Bernini’s Bieccierone (1660s) for example, with its giant conch shell containing a fluted column, and some related extravantly erotic jets [figures 22-24].

Surely Duchamp was familiar with engravings from the Villa d’Este, from which these images come, even as he grew up with the bicycle images in fin-de-siècle photographs and art posters. And surely, when he made Bicycle Wheel, he must have understood that a further “spin” could be achieved by detaching the big wheel, once and for all, from the larger apparatus to which it belonged. One of Duchamp’s first drawings, made in 1909 when he was twenty-three, was called Dimanches (Sundays) . (figure 25). It shows a soberly dressed suburban couple, the husband pushing a baby carriage, the wife heavily pregnant, the two, nowhere touching, looking straight ahead with a glassy-eyed look of boredom or disgust. The object, it seems, was to remove one of those front wheels of the pram and stick its rod into the hole of a not yet found stool. And in this sense, Bicycle Wheel takes its place not only in the tradition of late nineteenth century illustration, which it playfully debunks, but also in the chain of later conceptual and assemblage art works of which it is surely a founding member. [ figure 26: Duchamp and Man Ray, Dust Breeding]
Where Did All the Movements Go?

The readymades thus present us with a Duchamp more traditional–and paradoxically more postmodern–than one might suppose from the usual “avant-garde” label. And as time goes on, we may expect the filiation between, say, Duchamp and Man Ray, an artist who came of age as his declared disciple and made his own “objects”–objects that could not have existed without the example of the readymades– to be overshadowed with a more historical reading of Duchamp vis-à-vis earlier as well as later artists and poets. And perhaps this is finally what it means to be “avant-garde”: an artist who draws out material from the past to which a later generation will respond.

At the same time, the “movement” ethos of more recent avant-gardes remains powerful. From the British poetry movement of the 1950s called, quite simply “The Movement,” to the Fluxus movement of the sixties, to Language Poetry movement of the late seventies and eighties, a grouping of increasingly diverse poets still trying to present itself as a coherent body, the claim for avant-garde movement status continues to be made. Consider, in the realm of literary theory, the claims of Deconstructionism, a movement that can’t quite do without (or go beyond) its chef d’école Jacques Derrida. A New Historicism that would not have been what it was without Stephen Greenblatt. Or consider the status of the various minority groupings now staking a claim for avant-garde status.

The avant-garde movement, it seems, is the only sure-fire avenue whereby “cutting-edge” artists or, for that matter, intellectuals gainrecognition in the crowded and competitive arena of later twentieth-century culture–a culture deeply suspicious of originality and easily distracted by the endless precession of simulacra. The movement is also the necessary response to a climate wedded to the notion that the art work is a cultural construction. In this climate, what could be more tacky than genius theory? Than the image of an artist who– forgive the forbidden word–transcends the accomplishment of a given movement, a movement that, ironically enough, may well bear his own signature?

Academic protocol demands that “single-author” studies are out. Instead, the focus is on movements– “Futurist Politics,” for example, and “Dada Photography,” “Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance” and “Constructivist Theatre,” “Situationism” and “The New Cultural Studies”– as if a given historically and culturally designated congerie might somehow contain the seeds of its own transcendence. Meanwhile, biography–the most popular as well as the most intellectually suspect of the established genres– occupies a curious status in the movement wings, reminding the reader or viewer that there are specific “avant-garde” individuals whose unique contributions are, after all, worth examining– Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, or Samuel Beckett, or Marcel Duchamp, all of them the subjects of recent massive biographies.

And there’s the rub. Remove Duchamp from the Dada playing field and it rapidly shrinks to half its size. And even then: what about Gertrude Stein, arguably the most radical writer of the Dada period, an artist who belonged to no movement–whether proto-Futurist or Cubist, feminist or lesbian, Jewish-American or even Oakland, Californian of “no there there” fame? What would a history of the avant-gardes look like that ignores the presence of Stein? Or, for that matter, the presence of James Joyce? It may be that after a century of concentration on movements, the individual genius will once again attain respectability. Marcel Duchamp, at any rate, as the title of Thierry de Duve’s recent collection of theoretical essays (MIT Press, 1992) suggests, is, at the moment, “Definitely Unfinished.”



“John Cage on Marcel Duchamp,” interview with Moira and William Roth, Art in America (December 1973); rpt Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), p. 182.

See “Marcel Duchamp’s Letters to Walter and Louise Arensberg, 1917-1921, introduction, translation, and notes by Francis M. Naumann, in Rudolf Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), p. 220. Subsequently cited in the text as RKFN. Cf. Calvin Tompkins reproduces the same letter in his Duchamp: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 237. Subsequently cited as CTD.

See Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 112.

Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, p. 51. Cf. William S. Rubin, Dada and Surrealist Art (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1968). Rubin does not share Bürger’s Marxist perspective, but, like Bürger, he views Dada primarily as a reaction to the modernist dogma of artistic autonomy. Its deep structure, he suggests, is as a “‘life’ movement,” initially more a “social rather than esthetic activity” (p. 16), which activates all of the arts.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Illuminations, ed Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), pp. 237-38).

Renato Poggioli, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerland (1962: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), passim.

Michel Sanouillet, “Dada: A Definition,” in Stephen Foster and Rudolf Kuenzli (eds), Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979), p. 23.

Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking, 1971), p.55. Subsequently cited as PC.

Arthur C. Danto, ‘In Bed with R. Mutt,” Times Literary Supplement, 31 January 1992, p. 18.

Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), Chapter 2, “The Time of Manifestos.”

A notable example is Dickran Tashjian’s Skyscraper Primitives: Dada and the American Avant-Garde 1910-1925 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975), esp. Chapter 3.

Ironically, such after-the-fact designation recurs when, during World War II, the Surrealist emigres arrived in New York, and Duchamp’s association with Breton and Ernst soon earned him the title of Surrealist.

The exception is Duchamp’s installation for the “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition in at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in Mew York in 1942. Duchamp covered walls, ceiling, and floor of the gallery with white string, creating a labyrinthine setting that was to become famous. But this exhibition, which had little to do with the Dada movement as such, was a way of introducing André Breton and other Surrealist war refugees to the New York art world. See Dickran Tashjian, A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-Garde 1920-1950 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), pp. 215-21.

Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan with the Author (1984; Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 106.

See The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), pp. 141-42. This collection is subsequently cited as MDEW. “Apropos of Ready-Mades” is cited in its entirety in HR 89-90.

For example, Calvin Tompkins, Duchamp; Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism; Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995); Jerrold Segal, The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1995), subsequently cited as JSPW; William A. Camfield, “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917,” in RKFN 64-94.

Marcel Duchamp, “A l’Infinitif” (“The White Box”) published in 1966; rpt. in EWMD 74.

Tompkins, 10.

See arturo Schwartz, p.

Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. A typographic version by Richard Hamilton of MARCEL DUCHAMP’S Green Box, trans. George Heard Hamilton (Stuttgart, London and Reykjavik: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1976), unpaginated.

And there is the subtext that Albertine was really Proust’s adored chauffeur/pilot Agostinelli, who is depicted in photographs at the wheel of his huge car, with its “sexy” overscale wheels.

See Peter Quennell, Marcel Proust, 1871-1922 (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1971), p. VII, 4, subsequently cited as QU. The painting is by Yvonne de Bray.