Notes on the Work of Marcel Duchamp

These are notes I made from 2020 to 2021 on the work and ideas of Marcel Duchamp, and how they could relate to my own work.
From 'The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp'

"Unprecedented as this work [the Large Glass] would be, it grew directly out of the ideas he had first explored in a more traditional painterly way in Munich; at the same time, it returned to themes and concerns that had preoccupied him earlier. The conceptual germ of the Large Glass was the relationship of virginity to bridehood he had begun to focus on in Germany and which allowed him to replace his interest in linear movement through space with attention to a kind of motion that was purely formal and intellectual...
... The Large Glass would revive the motif of "stripping" from Dulcinea [an early painting] , but the notion in it would be more like that in Paradise [another painting], a fluid or unstable state of consciousness, a purely mental or psychic movement occurring in a frozen moment of time."
P.87, Jerrold Seigel, The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp, University of California Press, 1995

This passage interests me greatly because if the author is correct in his assumptions about Duchamp's motives, and I'm not sure whether he really is, we can see that Duchamp thought long and hard about the direction his art was going. This critical reflection resulted in a sharper focus on what he wanted to do and why. Until then, I think Duchamp's work had become more hermetic and more layered with ironic meaning. Duchamp recognised this, and decided to make these qualities more explicit and intrinsic to his work.

I feel that I too am reaching a point in my work where I have to take stock and look hard at what my work is actually about, and decide whether the direction my work is going is the one in which I want it to go. Somehow I feel that exploring Duchamp and his ... what? His methods? His attitude? Something about his work is going to help me, even if it is in opposition to that work or his ideas. For example, I take issue with his stupid remarks about 'retinal' art versus an art that engages the mind. All art is in some way an art of the mind, and I disagree that if something is intended to be aesthetically attractive then it negates its own worth.

However, something about Duchamp, no matter how irritating he might be, brings me back to learn more about him. Clearly, he has been taken by the Rosalind Krausses and Buchlochs of this world to justify their art theories. Influential they may be, and of course interesting too, but theirs is not the only way to interpret him.

So, what I need to do is do that critical looking inward, see what it is exactly my work is doing, ask myself why, and see if I can more consciously shape the direction of my work.

The Circle/ Grid abstract paintings

These comprise of grids of multicoloured shapes, all interlocking in a 4x4 or 5x5 format. Each colour used has exactly the same amount of space on the canvas, although this is sometimes not clear because of the way some colours recede and others 'push' themselves to the front. This is a 'retinal' effect actually composed and constructed by the brain.
The other element is the title, which I choose in order to comment on the colours and shapes and what they remind me of, such as 'Harlequinade' and 'Ruby in Zoisite'. In this way they act partially as descriptive titles, inasmuch as they 'describe' what the painting suggests to me.
How I choose the colours and shapes has so far been a matter of aesthetic choice, not a program or structured design. I have some internal 'rules'. There are certain shapes suggested by the colours and lines which I avoid. They don't seem 'right' to me, or they are too obvious. I also avoid canvasses that are perfectly symmetrical. The pattern, if I can call it that, is meant to be balanced but not perfect.
Finally, I tend to select different paint textures to complement one another, such as glossy and matte, flat and varied, metallic and enamel. I intend the interest of the viewer to range across the canvas, to seek the varied paint surfaces and be stimulated by their contrast, which is sometimes overt, sometimes subtle.

Why make them?

I'm interested in the shapes and forms I can make with what is a combination of rules and instinct. The formula, as such, is still quite strong. I also like the way I can use the colours I choose to suggest moods: one work is lively, another is calm and collected. The shapes, as I do the preliminary drawings and works on paper, usually begin to form in a way that I find aesthetically pleasing or interesting. Sometimes it's a challenge to design something that doesn't have any loose ends, as errors and mistakes are not of interest to me in these works. Ultimately, the finished painting is a highly-designed work, executed in the prescribed manner. I supposed they are all about control in some way.

The Duchampian Connection

As I wrote the line above, I realised the works are in direct contradiction to Duchamp's interest in and use of pure chance. I don't know if I'd be able to include an element of chance in the process of making them. I think it would have to start by deciding which 'tiles' were coloured and with which colour, then randomly choosing their orientation.
What is clear then, to me, is that the paintings are designed to be the way they are by a combination of instinct and process

Where are they going?

That's a difficult question. I can see myself making larger versions with more colours. However, to retain a certain consistency, the colours may be in groups or sets of similar hues, but different types of paint. One of the important aspects for me is that variety of paint types I use in the finished piece.
I make them because I find them aesthetically pleasing and I like the challenge of their facture. They are a form of painting for pleasure for me.

The Diamond Stripe abstract paintings

These paintings are all one-metre square hard-edged works with a criss-cross or diamond pattern of interweaving shapes. They tend to have two layers, a lower, lighter-coloured layer and a darker upper layer, closer to the surface. They have an optical effect, but nothing like the work of Brigit Riley.

Why make them?

This series is experimental. I am not varying the type of paint that I use, but I am interested in trying to choose the colours which play off each other, sometimes in unattractive combinations. I think I need to make more of these to see in what direction they are going to go. They might become even more intricate.

The Duchampian connection

All the comments I made in connection to the Circle/ Grid paintings apply to the Diamond Stripe works too. The DS paintings are controlled and 'executed', rather than generated by chance. However, the focus on these paintings is on aesthetics and their associative power: what do these shapes and colours remind one of?
The other way in which they differ from Duchamp made is that they have nothing to do with sex. Increasingly, as I look into Duchamp's work, I can see that many of his works are intellectually playful takes on ironic comments on sex and women's genitals. From his early works such as The Bush, all the way to his last work Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, he seems mightily preoccupied with women and the act of procreation. I've made very little work on this subject, because generally speaking I'm not interested in exploring my sexual interests through my work. In this way, Duchamp is actually closer to Picasso that was previously thought, much closer than, say, to Matisse (who was the father of his wife's ex-husband, Pierre), whose explorations of the female form never feel exploitative or invasive but more interested in the plastic qualities of the female form. Furthermore, in the work of Matisse a certain respect or admiration of women comes across. I don't see anything but a mocking tone in Duchamp's work involving women. This tone, ugly as it is in the worst of Picasso's paintings, seems particularly unpleasant to me with Duchamp now, as it appears veiled, layered and so much more thought through.


In the interview Duchamp had with Joan Bakewell in 1968, he said he considered it madness to allow everyone to have their own, self-authored readymade. They have to be signed by the artist and be in a limited edition, i.e., they are 'authenticated' by the artist-authority figure and artificially limited in quantity, thus creating 'value' through authentication and scarcity. In this way, we see that Duchamp is extremely interested in the economics around art, or the functions of the art market. He was, contrary to his statements, deeply involved in definitions of art. Furthermore, he has no qualms in asserting the authority of the artist as the ultimate purveyor of authenticity, and therefore value.

Since property, value, commodification and the accumulation of status items are even more prevalent, perhaps endemic in society now compared to Duchamp's time, now is a good time to question the notion of the art object's monetary value.

Functions and definitions

If we consider Duchamp's Fountain as an object which has had its function removed through its selection and display as 'art', can we still call it an urinal? One function has been displaced by another, so surely the words we use to claim and name things, so connected as they are to their function, must change to reflect this shift. Is a chair which has been rendered unusable still a chair? Don't we categorise objects by their function (use value), as well as by their physical appearance which is meant to approximate a general set of accepted criteria for the essence of the object in question? A chair must, to be a chair, be a low-level platform for one's bottom, be in possession of something like legs to lift the platform from the ground at the correct height, and have a back rest, and finally be useable by at least once person at a time.

If we remove one function of an object, do we immediately and automatically supplant it with another? Is that other function the role of the object in the realm of art? What is ultimately, the role of art? Are there multiple roles? Of course there are, but which, if any, are universally agreed upon to be those of art?

From 'The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp'

In a complex passage towards the end of the book, Seigel uses Paul Eluard's analysis of the readability and thus universalist symbolic power of Picasso's work as a way of critiquing Duchamp's opposite stance. Duchamp, Seigel contends, wished to close off the shared experience of the symbolic forms he used by employing a private, wholly enclosed language of words and forms.
In this way, he could avoid what he called the 'mere habit' of a personal style, especially so with the readymade object. According to Francis M Nauman in 'The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', he avoided stylistic quirks because "such a mindless activity, he felt, thwarted the possibility of true artistic innovation".

But if personal style arises from this struggle to express oneself through an engagement with creating and created forms, isn't an absence of style an abnegation of the responsibility of the artist? It seems to me that Duchamp wanted to take a short cut to avoid what he saw as the pitfalls of a visible, signature style. He did this by using materials that he could change or alter in the smallest way possible, such as by retouching, or later, simply signing works, and by consciously limiting the number of pieces he made. In contrast, Picasso churned out work after work, going through several styles or period which are extremely useful in dating and authenticating his work. Lacking this style, Duchamp resorted to actual signatures and certificated to provide the necessary uniqueness for his Readymade objects, which were, of course, painstakingly hand-made to resemble their original models, all of which are suspiciously 'lost'. The 'Readymades' were anything but.
Interestingly, the boxes of miniature museums that Duchamp made, in several editions, of his larger pieces ,serve to delineate and enclose his oeuvre completely, so much that the mini museum's selection of his works takes on the qualities of a canon.

Still, his avoidance of work, apart from the huge installation 'Given', suggests to me a certain laziness and a desire to eke out the maximum impact from the smallest effort.

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