The Duchamp Dictionary by Thomas Girst

Thames & Hudson

By Martin Herbert

Did you know that the young man who stole Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) from MoMA in 1995 returned it, the following day, by tossing it over the wall of the museum’s sculpture garden? That there are several nodes of connection, via Philadelphia, between Duchamp and Sylvester Stallone? That The Large Glass (1915–23) makes a cameo appearance in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), that Duchamp liked American women best, once took LSD by accident, was a ‘visionary of car-sharing initiatives’ and, as Thomas Girst reminds us twice, said, ‘I want to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina’? If not, but you wished you did, then The Duchamp Dictionary is for you. There are a few accessible inroads to Duchamp, mostly written by Calvin Tomkins (the essential 1996 biography, the Duchamp chapter in 1967’s The Bride and the Bachelors and most recently the slim, jewellike interlocutions in The Afternoon Interviews, published last year).

There is also a lot of turgid scholarship and wildcat theorisation. Girst, founding editor of the Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, author of The Indefinite Duchamp (2013) and a curator of the artist’s work, could easily have geeked out and written something equally gnomic and petty – he has after all, so he tells us, corresponded with Duchamp scholars for nearly two decades. Instead, he swipes magisterially at slack scholarship – ‘the idea that Duchamp’s work is a riddle, rebus or secret in need of monocausal decoding is a dead end’, he writes in the entry on ‘Alchemy’, saying later that contradiction is key to Duchamp’s art – and has written the book that he thinks was missing: a ‘concise and entertaining’ entrée that makes ‘[Duchamp] and his work as accessible as they deserve to be’.

Once you get into the broken rhythm of the book, then – assuming you can ignore the one big flaw, an interlaced sequence of terrible, crass, collaged illustrations – it’s surprisingly absorbing

If The Duchamp Dictionary, which packs plenty into a couple of hundred pages, flatters the short attention span of many modern readers, with Marcel’s own quotes highlighted as if the whole thing were a word-processing document (better than it sounds), then the thing takes the dictionary format partly, so Girst tells us a little tenuously, because Duchamp and the surrealists liked dictionaries and talked about them a few times. But as you read, the format comes to fit the artist’s rulebook-ripping mien. We get Duchamp’s life as a teasing jigsaw puzzle: the selection kicks off with ‘Abstract Expressionism’ and Duchamp’s quitting of painting in 1918, and one of the last entries is for Young Man and Girl in Spring, a painting he made in 1911. In between, the entries vary playfully. One, entitled ‘Influence’ (his on others), is mostly just a juggernaut list of famous names. The entry for ‘Laziness’ reads, merely, ‘See “Work”’. Elsewhere, as in the entry on the Étant Donnés, for example, detail rightly blooms.

Once you get into the broken rhythm of the book, then – assuming you can ignore the one big flaw, an interlaced sequence of terrible, crass, collaged illustrations – it’s surprisingly absorbing; technically a dictionary, but limited enough in subjects that it doesn’t feel like the sort of thing you’re going to look up a particular word in. Rather, you dive in at random or read chronologically (which feels the same), and Girst refreshes and augments the known facts. I did flip to the ‘Chess’ entry to settle, perhaps, conflicting reports I’d read about how good Duchamp’s game was, and soon lost interest in that question thanks to a fascinating little melange of anecdote and quotation, and the summary that Duchamp’s admiration for chess master Aron Nimzowitsch is ‘probably as good as it gets when it comes to adoration by an agnostic’. It’s that kind of book; you go in for a minute and come out an hour later. ‘Anything systemized becomes sterile very soon,’ Duchamp once said. Not always, apparently.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.