Marcel Duchamp’s first French retrospective at the newly opened Centre Pompidou

Arts Review, 8 July, 1977

By Kevin Power

Marcel Duchamp, 1977 (installation view, Centre Pompidou MNAM, Paris). © Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Bibliothèque Kandinsky. Photo : Jacques Faujour

Editor’s note: This article was first published in Arts Review, 8 July 1977, under the title 'Duchamp at Pompiport’. With the opening of the MoCo, a new, ambitious contemporary art centre in Montpellier with a new model, ArtReview looks back on the launch of the Centre Pompidou, which was, back in 1977, France's first contemporary art museum...

The Beaubourg Centre encourages animosity. It looks like a Nuclear Centre, or an Oil Refinery, or some Early Learning toy. It’s a product of a slick Eurotechnocracy that squeezes culture, or a quartier, into a package and ties it up with a terminology of targets, strat-plans, and mini-budgets. Beaubourg is the next stop down the line after Godard’s Alphaville, and it rises up in the midst of the Marais as a monument to the style Pompidou: brash grandeur.

Things don’t really improve inside – a panorama of temporarily erected partitions like offices in the Labour Exchange, a cultural flea-market. In theory this creates a fluidity of space so that, if need be, even the floor-levels could be altered. In practice it’s a painful experience to come across Braque or Matisse choking in a booth. The guiding principle seems to have been little else than the englobing accommodation of a supermarket. This is particularly annoying in that much of the work in the permanent collection has the power to create its own silence, only to have it broken into by conversations that float over from the other side of the partition.

Basking in the Penthouse suite, reeking of cheap deodorant (in an exhibition held in April and May) sits La Belle Haleine, alias Marcel Duchamp in drag (or is it Woody Allen’s sister-in-law?). Punning, tongue-in-check, he’s clearly as completely at home as when he exhibited his Rotorreliefs at the Paris Inventors Salon along with a vegetable peeler and a garbage compressor. Duchamp would have revelled in the contradictions, the ironies of coin and kind, of mass and money. This exhibition, more or less a replica of the 1973 show at the Museum of Modern Art, is the first retrospective to be devoted to Duchamp’s work in the country of his birth. It spans his various personalities and leaves us in no doubt as to how just how influential his work has been over the past 50 years. He's used the constants of his work, sex, mind and machine, to challenge and disturb a reality made up of conditioned responses and routine thinking. By 1914 Duchamp had already given up painting in the traditional manner, after experimenting with both Fauvist- and Cubist-influenced works. He argued that once you’ve done something, there’s no point in repealing it since that simply brings both art and artist to a dead-halt. He wanted, then, ‘to put painting once again at the service of the mind’. ‘Every picture,’ he observes, ‘has to exist in the mind before it is put on canvas, and it always loses something when it is turned into paint. I prefer to see my pictures without that muddying.’ He opens up a new philosophic area where art is both play and puzzle, both ordered pattern and chaotic pun. Art is simply what your mind comes across. Duchamp takes this to its logical conclusion when he decided to give up ‘art’ al- together for chess and the calculated risks of roulette. He finds in the game of chess ‘a block alphabet which shapes thoughts’ and expresses their beauty ‘abstractly like a poem’. It’s a miniature universe structured in wonder, an antithesis to chance.

Few people would argue with the view that it’s The Large Glass and the Readymades that have exerted most influence on contemporary artists, and both are products of a mind pleasurably engaged in its own activities. The Large Glass constructs a universe that depends on abstract thought, chance, and humour. Nowadays it's the processes rather than the work itself which seem relevant. It’s full of examples of the use of physical operations to determine its visual appearance – effects produced, for example, by the chance fall of metre-lengths of string or feeble shots of paint-dipped matchsticks from a toy cannon.

File mass-produced object that has symbolised both industrial and technological societies has given Duchamp his essential aesthetic language, providing him with a counterweight to the excesses of the imagination. The Readymades throw up a series of aesthetic propositions concerning the nature of the creative act and these same issues of choice, meaning and context were taken up again by Conceptual artists in the late 60s. Joseph Kosuth comments that ‘with the unassisted readymade, art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said. Which means that it changed from a question of morphology to a question of function’. Duchamp insists that, between 1914–21, he adopted a principle of complete indifference in the choice of his readymades, although the Bottle-Rack (1914) and the Snow-Shovel (1915) make this a difficult contention to sustain. Yet Duchamp argues in an unpublished interview with Sidney Janis that the act of choosing a readymade allowed him ‘to reduce the idea of aesthetic consideration to the choice of the mind, not to the ability of cleverness of the hand which I objected to in many of the paintings of my generation’. He’s not concerned, he says, with the functional aspects of the Readymade, ‘that functionalism was already obliterated by the fact that I took it out of the earth and onto the planet of aesthetics’. The act of choosing, signing and exhibiting these objects were all challenges to our thinking about art; Duchamp wanted these objects to be restricted to four or five a year in order to lend them weight and § individuality (in contrast to Man Ray who used them freely enough to make any point he wished).

Wit is another quality of Duchamp’s work that most of his followers have not been able to match. His contribution to The International Surrealist Erotic Exhibition in 1959 was two pot-holders that lie found in a New York novelty shop; the first when unzipped reveals a peeping penis, and the second when unflapped a wild fuzz. His puns pick on the sexual undercurrents that are so much a part of the tensions and energies of conversation. The hot-arsed Mona Lisa of LH00Q (elle a chaud au cul) makes short shrift of the mysterious enigma behind that smile! No wonder Duchamp’s pseudonym is Rrose Selavy (Eros, c'est la vie)!

Duchamp has shown a capacity to appear and reappear at the centre of things since the early 1910s. Between 1911–15 he was involved with the Cubist theories of simultaneity that were being discussed by his brothers and other artists around Puteaux, and at the same time he was in contact with the Proto-Dada group around Picabia and Apollinaire. In 1915 he was working with the Dadaists in New York, contributing to their little magazines or taking part in the discussions and parties at Arensberg’s home. Between 1919–22 he was a significant figure for Breton and other Surrealists in Paris. In the 1940s he was similarly an important influence on the expatriate Surrealists in New York. And in recent years he’s exerted a substantial influence on Pop Artists, Conceptualists, and those artists involved with Happenings. Duchamp with his leanings for mystery and the obscurity of remote rooms (he kept the existence of his major work Étant Donnés a secret for nearly 20 years!) may have cultivated his own myth, but it’s consistent with his principle that his essential concern has always been with artists and not with art. And they, no doubt, will still find within his work new territories that call for exploration, and some of them may come as sharp surprises. I'm thinking, for example, of the way he took off from the drawings of Ingres and Courbet with indications of new possibilities for a nervous and erotic line, or his intellectual preference for ‘popular’ culture because of its loaded emotional code, or simply key attitudes to life: ‘Living is more a question of what one spends than what one makes.’ What is certain is that if we want a qualitative vision then Duchamp’s example of independence, integrity, and radical thinking remains one of the most promising ways out of our present impasse.

From the 8 July, 1977 issue of ArtReview (then titled Arts Review)