Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)

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  • Embodying the intellect of his literary contemporaries Marcel Proust and James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) has been aptly described by the painter Willem de Kooning as a one-man movement. Jasper Johns has written of his work as the "field where language, thought and vision act on one another." Duchamp has had a huge impact on twentieth-century art. By World War I, he had rejected the work of many of his fellow artists as "retinal" art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, Duchamp wanted, he said, "to put art back in the service of the mind."

    His most striking, iconoclastic gesture, the readymade, is arguably the century's most influential development on artists' creative process.


    Cited Works of Art or Images (4)

    • Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
    • Marcel Duchamp ; Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)
    • Marcel Duchamp; Bottlerack, 1961 (replica of 1914 original)
    • Marcel Duchamp


    Born in Normandy in northern France, Duchamp traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States for much of his life. His initial foray into modern art followed the trends of his contemporaries, with his first paintings in the mode of Cézanne and the Impressionists, while after 1910 his work reflects a shift toward Cubism. One of his most important works, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912) (a second version of a work on cardboard from 1911), however, reflects Duchamp's ambivalent relationship with Cubism. He adopts the limited palette of Cubist paintings, but his invigorated figure is in a state of perpetual motion—a very different effect from Picasso and Braque's Analytic Cubism that held figures tightly in place. Provoking negative reactions from even the Parisian avant-garde, the painting was rejected by the Salon des Indépendants for both its title and the artist's mechanistic, dehumanizing rendering of the female nude. The following year, it sparked controversy at the New York Armory Show, helping to establish Duchamp's reputation as a provocateur overseas and paving the way for his arrival in New York two years later.

    Subverting traditional or accepted modes of artistic production with irony and satire is a hallmark of Duchamp's legendary career. His most striking, iconoclastic gesture, the readymade, is arguably the century's most influential development on artists' creative process. Duchamp, however, did not perceive his work with readymade objects as such a radical experiment, in part because he viewed paint as an industrially made product, and hence painting as an "assisted-readymade." Moreover, he had already begun to incorporate chance operations into his practice—for example, with 3 Standard Stoppages (1913–14)—and thus had already begun to surrender artistic control and empower other factors to determine the character of a work of art. With Bicycle Wheel (1913), the first readymade, Duchamp moved toward a creative process that was antithetical to artistic skill. He wanted to distance himself from traditional modes of painting in an effort to emphasize the conceptual value of a work of art, seducing the viewer through irony and verbal witticisms rather than relying on technical or aesthetic appeal. The object became a work of art because the artist had decided it would be designated as such. Bicycle Wheel consisted of a fork and the wheel of a common bicycle that rested upon an ordinary stool. The mundane, mass-produced, everyday nature of these objects is precisely why Duchamp chose them (later works would include a snow shovel, a urinal, and a bottlerack, to name a few). As a result, he ensured that the fruits of modern industrial life would be a fertile resource in the production of works of art.

    Naturally, Duchamp's iconoclasm appealed to the vehemently untraditional and bitingly critical nature of the Dada movement. His work can easily be understood as a forerunner to this revolutionary sensibility, which actively sought to undermine the reigning values of conservatism that governed Europe and that perpetuated the devastating reality of World War I. Duchamp's own experience with Dada, however, occurred while he lived in New York, in the circle of Francis Picabia, a Franco-Cuban artist and writer, and the American painter and photographer Man Ray, as well as the American collectors Katherine Dreier and Louise and Walter Arensberg. The nature of New York Dada was less overtly political than its European strain. Instead, satirical works such as Duchamp's readymade Fountain (1917) tested the limits of public taste and the boundaries of artistic technique. By pushing and ultimately transgressing such boundaries within the art world, Duchamp's works reflected the artist's sensibility. His use of irony, puns, alliteration, and paradox layered the works with humor while still enabling him to comment on the dominant political and economic systems of his time.

    The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), also known as The Large Glass, can be seen as summarizing Duchamp's view that painting and sculpture were fundamentally incompatible and inadequate as art forms with which to render and reflect contemporary cultural life. His extensive preparatory drawings, writings, and studies for The Large Glass (many of which are contained in The Green Box of 1934) indicate his development away from realistic representations of forms to a more abstracted, mathematical mode of connoting the real world. His artistic evolution must therefore be understood as an assault on traditional artistic practices and a desire to accommodate a modern-day fascination with industrial processes and products.

    Although in the 1920s, Duchamp famously renounced artmaking in favor of playing chess for the remainder of his life, he never fully retreated from his quintessential role as artist-provocateur. Duchamp is associated with many artistic movements, from Cubism to Dada to Surrealism, and paved the way for later styles such as Pop (Andy Warhol), Minimalism (Robert Morris), and Conceptualism (Sol LeWitt). A prolific artist, his greatest contribution to the history of art lies in his ability to question, admonish, critique, and playfully ridicule existing norms in order to transcend the status quo—he effectively sanctioned the role of the artist to do just that.

    Nan Rosenthal
    Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23
    Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968)
    Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels; 109 1/4 x 69 1/4 in. (277.5 x 175.9 cm)
    Bequest of Katherine S. Dreier (1952-98-1)
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2001, ARS, NY

    Duchamp's break with traditional methods of artistic production is powerfully evident in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23), an object that can be characterized as both painting and sculpture. While historians have yet to agree on the precise meaning of the title, it is important to note that the original French—La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même—contains an amalgam of Duchamp's name (MARiée and CÉLibataires). Begun in 1915 upon his arrival in New York City, Duchamp continued to develop the work during his trip to South America and finally declared it finished after his return to Paris in 1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust are sandwiched between two panes of glass with five glass strips and aluminum foil layered on top. The Bride occupies the top panel, while her Bachelors are imprisoned on the lower glass pane. This lower region is a registry of different mechanical devices, such as a coffee grinder, that Duchamp imaginatively forged together. The new mechanism thus produced was to be a literal lovemaking machine, though one that would never function satisfactorily. With his trademark wit, Duchamp paralleled the sexual frustration aroused within the work to the frustration his audience would experience when first confronted with this truly original work of art. The nature of The Large Glass is that of a machine organism, suggesting anatomical diagrams of the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, or reproductive systems of higher mammals. Characteristic of Duchamp's "mechanomorphic" style, this work reflects his distinctive technique of grafting machine forms onto human activity. Thus, while he portrays traditional symbols of inviolable purity, such as the marriage indicated by the title, he destroys any sense of convention by presenting them as elaborate systems of anatomical plumbing. While the Bride is the stimulant that enables an illuminating gas to give form to the Bachelors, according to the artist's notes, the construction on the surface does not function as a mechanistic device. Duchamp is working with an imaginative contraption that relies on systematic relations between the different components, and yet they are fundamentally unable to actually produce anything. Ultimately, the viewer's frustration with the impossibility of contact between the Bride and her Bachelors becomes a metaphor for the thwarted dynamic between the males and female he has created.

    Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912
    Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968)
    Oil on canvas; 58 x 35 in.
    The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection (1950-134-59)
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2001, ARS, NY

    With this representation of the female nude in successive forms of movement, Duchamp drastically limited his palette to gold and beige tones. The fracturing of the body, the density of mechanistic forms, and the visualization of movement on the canvas reveal the extent to which he was influenced by the Futurists, as well as the photography of Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and the emerging art of the cinema. Negatively received by the Parisian avant-garde, Duchamp was forced to withdraw Nude from the Salon des Indépendants. The Salon jury objected not only to the work's subject but also its title, which Duchamp refused to change. Challenging a sacred motif of traditional painting, the Nude's mechanistic approach to the female body was perceived as a crude transgression, perversely transporting an icon of art history into the modern-day reality of a culture dependent on mechanized systems of production. The Nude marks a transition point in Duchamp's career, as he moved to Munich in the wake of its rejection and never again produced another painting in this conventional format. His departure can be seen as the launch of a nomadic lifestyle that would characterize his entire life.

    Bottlerack, 1961 (replica of 1914 original)
    Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968)
    Galvanized iron
    Gift of Jacqueline, Paul, and Peter Matisse, in memory of their mother, Alexina Duchamp (1998-4-23)
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2001, ARS, NY

    When Duchamp purchased a mass-produced bottlerack from a store and then declared it a work of art entitled Bottlerack (1913–14), he profoundly altered the role of the artist in the creation of an art object. With such an iconoclastic gesture, Duchamp announced that the artist's decision as to what constituted art did not have to adhere to conventional definitions of materials or craft. Duchamp transgressed the history of art by asserting that art need not appeal to the eye alone, opening up and welcoming the possibility of artworks that provoked the mind and continuously disturbed the viewer's expectation when experiencing such mundane objects in a gallery space. While the origins of the readymade can be seen in the avant-garde practices of his contemporaries, such as Picasso's Cubist collages made with newsprint, fabric, and other mass-produced materials, Duchamp took hold of the actual materials themselves, declaring them to exist already as works of art. While he produced many "assisted readymades," he consistently privileged the everyday object, rather than the subjective, creative process that he applied to it. The object, not the artistic gesture, became paramount. Duchamp actively worked against the traditional notions of composition and arrangement that are the hallmarks of the painting medium. Instead, he presented the whole object as an industrially produced arrangement in-and-of-itself. Nonetheless, although Bottlerack certainly did not represent a one-of-a-kind object, by deeming it a work of art, Duchamp separated it from the practice of reproduction that is associated with an industrial commodity. In typical fashion, his wit is manifest in the use of a bottlerack as a work of art, by contravening the logic or purpose of the object itself. That is to say, the practical function of the bottlerack defines the object when it is in use, but when put on display, it becomes nonfunctioning and is immediately emptied of its identity as everyday object.

    The Fountain by R. Mutt by Marcel Duchamp
    Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946)
    Published in Blind Man, no. 2 (May 1917)
    Gelatin silver print; 4 5/16 x 7 1/16 in. (11 x 17.9 cm)
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    © 1998 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; ADAGP, Paris; Estate of Marcel Duchamp

    The New York avant-garde of World War I, spearheaded by the Society of Independent Artists which included Duchamp, the Franco-Cuban artist Francis Picabia, the American artist Joseph Stella, and the collectors Walter Arensberg and Katherine Dreier, organized a landmark exhibition of contemporary art at New York City's Grand Central Palace in 1917. Any artist could submit to this open exhibition, the only requirement being a $6 entry fee. Entering under a false name, Duchamp submitted a urinal signed "R. Mutt (1917)" and labeled it Fountain. Not only was the pseudonym a pun on both "Mott Works," the company that manufactured this industrial product, and the popular cartoon strip "Mutt and Jeff," but also, the strategic placement of the signature necessitated that the urinal be presented on its back in order to allow the artist's name to be viewed. The shock of seeing Fountain on a platform cannot be overestimated. The intrusion of this industrial object into the sacred space of the gallery was certainly controversial, but the fact that the object itself presented such lewd and distasteful connotations proved too inappropriate for the exhibition and Fountain was rejected by the organizers. Although Duchamp himself was on the organizing committee, this rebuff had effectively demonstrated the limits of the American avant-garde, and forced a reconsideration of their purported boldness and radicalism. With his provocative gesture, Duchamp had decontextualized the urinal from its practical function, though his manipulation of its position seemed to draw even more attention to its traditional usage, and consequently provided a discomforting experience for the viewer. The legacy of Fountain extends well into the twentieth century, informing Robert Rauschenberg's combine paintings that incorporate real objects to reference the material world, rather than connoting them through paint, and Jasper Johns' use of targets, flags, and other instantly recognizable imagery filtered through an encaustic painting process that complicates the way in which the audience relates to these familiar signs. Indeed, contemporary art is grounded in the notion that artists may utilize the resources of everyday life to produce their works, and are no longer bound by the perimeters of the easel, the canvas, or other traditional modes of production.