New study sheds light on Duchamp's difficult art
Posted: November 17, 2010
Everyone knows Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art museum. So what?
Those more familiar with the French artist (1887-1968) understand the urinal was one of the Duchamp's "readymades": everyday objects presented as sculptures, an action that called into question the public's preconceived notions about what makes "art" and the arbitrary hierarchy of artists and critics.
But there was more to Duchamp than a flare for publicity and a devilish need to stir up the status quo. Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance, by Herbert Molderings, an art historian at the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, proves this by examining Duchamp's early career as a painter and the pivotal work that changed the course of his art and, by proxy, the entire course of art in the 20th century.
The object of focus in this study is Duchamp's amorphous sculpture-cum-painting 3 Standard Stoppages, which the artist originally created in 1913 and guided through various permutations over the course of his life. To create this work, Duchamp ostensibly cut three pieces of string to exactly one meter and dropped them from a height of one meter, recording the curvature of the strings by attaching them with epoxy to canvas.
By Hebert Molderings
Columbia University Press 2010
One of the leading lights of Czech poetry, Viola Fischerová has died after a battle with a terminal illness.
Born in Brno, Fischerová left Czechoslovakia for Switzerland in 1968, later moving to Germany, where she worked for Radio Free Europe.
Between 1993 and 2009, Fischerová published 11 collections of poetry and children's literature, winning two Magnesia Litera awards, in 2006 and earlier this year.
According to translator Alexandra Büchler, Fischerová's poetry "speaks from an intensely personal, woman's point of view...It is distinguished by a quality of raw directness, while its poetics sometimes point to the oral tradition of dark folk legends."
Fischerová's poetry is available in English in Six Czech Poets, published by Arc in 2007.
There is more to the story, however, and the origin of this piece of art has been the subject of dispute for several decades. In fact, Duchamp sewed the strings into the canvas, meaning they were actually longer than one meter - calling into question, some critics believe, the veracity of his theories of what the piece achieved.
According to Duchamp, 3 Standard Stoppages debunks the entire concept of measurement and Euclidean geometry as represented by the meter - a unit invented in France in 1790. "This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length: One meter was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another," Duchamp claimed at a lecture in 1946.
Molderings does an admirable job of explaining the twofold significance of 3 Standard Stoppages for Duchamp's later work as an artist, as well as for the course of 20th-century art. Citing texts from mathematicians and philosophers such as Henri Poincare as well as 16th-century texts on perspective, Molderings acts as a knowledgeable, yet straight-talking guide to this notoriously elusive artist.
Perhaps the most important theory advanced in this study is the insistence that irony and humor played a central role in Duchamp's work as an artist, and that any attempt at criticism or explication of his work that ignores Duchamp's primarily ironic stance both toward art and physics is missing the point. Duchamp felt it important that critics stress "the spiritual and poetic ? and ironic aspects" of his work.
Molderings also includes details about Duchamp's life as a librarian and recreates the artist's daily walk to work, along which he would have seen several decorously designed window displays. Bearing in mind the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire's prophetic pronouncement that a new style of art would issue "from the metal constructions of engineers; the style of the department stores, garages, railroads, air planes," Duchamp would have found inspiration in these surroundings and transferred aesthetic and geometric aspects of everyday objects into his art. These details provide a fully human rather than strictly intellectual account of Duchamp.
The book's final chapter, "Radical Individualism," presents a picture of Duchamp as an individual who believed the artist's approach to art must go beyond painting or sculpture and encompass his or her entire lifestyle. Citing the philosophy of Nietzsche and Max Stirner, both of whom Duchamp read with relish, Molderings presents a picture of Duchamp not only as an innovative artist, but as an innovative human being.
More than simply an artist, Marcel Duchamp was an art historian, a radical visionary and a philosopher. More than a critical study, Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance is a revealing insight into what was arguably the most important work of Duchamp's career, and a seminal work for 20th-century art. Part critical assessment, part biography and part fan report, the book is an invaluable study for art critics and all appreciators of radical aesthetics.
Stephan Delbos can be reached at
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