Some say he was the most intelligent man of his century, others call him the artist of his century, Breton said he was the most unique man of his time: And it is true that, if a man can ever do that, Marcel Duchamp carried the infinite; even when he (relatively early) ceased to produce art to play chess instead (it was a profound and supremely honest artistic statement), or when his final piece of art after thirty years of eloquent silence, revealed posthumeously, (Etant donnés) became an infinitely entangled mix of seriousness and silliness, of recollection and abandonment of his own cosmos, of bringing together the most profound and elementary (the Eros, the Great Mother, desire etc.) and revealing its possible banality (or construction via the voyeuristic gaze or the human mind/imagination that obviously, at large, has nothing better to come up with), etc. Genius spiritualises everything, says Dali, and everything Duchamp did was art – what is more, it was an artistic statement, and the way Duchamp spiritualised everything (in such an unexpected way) was that, via apparent dislocation, Duchamp gave meaning to everything and established an infinite space of context: to be correct, he established a new coordinate system within which objects can be located within an open infinity. – And what a guy he was! Everybody loved Duchamp! Journalists where very fond of him early on as he never gave them the impression to ask stupid questions, but instead unassumingly and in an uncomplicated way explained them the most avant-gardist art and the most avant-gardist ideas, and, therein, never seemed to be keen to promote himself and his own art: Instead, he rather liked to talk about art in general and expressed interest in all kind of things. He had the most profound innate understanding of art and the many divergent trends of his time, and other artists and collectors relied heavily on his opinion even though he was an obscure figure for the most time of his life and achieved international fame only as a senior citizen. He did not search for fame, rather, his quest was an inquiry into the possibilities that art may provide (like in the case of van Gogh) – and when he ceased to find further meaningful possibilities for himself in that respect, he ceased to produce art (so as not to replicate himself). There is this bonmot that he considered himself to be just „a breather“, as the elderly Duchamp would respond to a journalist´s question about his occupation, and he would also say that the entire undertaking of his life was to „get away from himself“ i.e. to move on to new territory: A mismatcher par excellence (like his friend Picabia), he was on the other hand always extremely centered and grounded in himself and fiercely identical to himself (in seeming contrast to the more extravagant Picabia). Although he was kind of a pessimist he was jovial and constructive. His intelligence was very extraordinary (and easily relates to an IQ of 160) but not monstrous and instead able to relate to anything; his genius did not express itself in a spectactular, theatrical ego of a great synthesiser as e.g. in the case of Dali, but in analysing and sorting things out in an unassuming way and with a somehow ironic, but for the most part complacent and self-satisfied smile that is at peace with itself. Despite his vast mind and triumphant knowledge, Duchamp was not an avid reader though, although he liked to listen to other artists when they intellectualised and internalised what they said and told him. Art dealer Sidney Janis said that Duchamp was nearly the only artist he had ever met who had the „inner security“ so as not to constantly feel the need to defend his art against the art and the approaches of others, who was open to everything and who also enjoyed art vastly different from his own – the only other artist of this kind was, in Janis´ experience, Mondrian (there is, however, the rumination that Duchamp did not read a lot because he eagerly wanted to defend his own vision and territory and not let other thinkers conquer or colonise it too much). The magic of Duchamp was that you had complexity in him as well as simplicity, elistism as well as populism, and not much by calculation but as a natural phenomenon. – If there is the question for the artist of the 20th century, the trinity Picasso-Warhol-Duchamp may come to mind – with Picasso the Father, Warhol the Son, and Duchamp the Holy Ghost. Duchamp was a meta-artist.
I am afraid I do not have the knowledge to adequately understand and evaluate Duchamp´s paintings (or I do not feel that I do). Duchamp´s major paintings are considered major by everyone – but the question remains whether most of them are truly Ivy league art of the 20th century. Greenberg, for instance, said that it is apparent that Duchamp left painting and revolted against „retinal art“ as his genius was „too mechanical“ to adequately dive into the depths of Cubism or, more bluntly, that Duchamp made „readymades“ and became innovative in other domains of art was due to the circumstance that he wasn´t a truly genius painter (Greenberg, though at large respectful with Duchamp, however was likely also a bit frustrated seeing how Duchamp invalidated his theories). I am rather under the impression that Duchamp´s genius was above painting and therefore it might be true that his paintings are somehow eccentric or may appear as if they would not rest in themselves (I reiterate, I cannot adequately answer that at the moment, I would need more expertise about painting and need to see the originals, I am not a painter myself and probably others are better suited to judge that in any case) – yet remember Dali when he said that he, Dali, was not a good painter himself because: „In order to be a good painter you need to be a bit stupid“ („And I, Dali, am too intelligent to be a good painter!“), so that it is simply a natural and structural issue that Duchamp was the painter he was and fully realised as the painter he could have been: since he was, in his way, too intelligent to be a „good“ painter. Duchamp´s major paintings – from Jeune homme est triste dans un train, Nude Descending a Staircase, The Bride to Tu m´ and the Large Glass look like a (meta-) reflection upon painting and upon the different styles of his time. He later would say that, for instance Nude Descending is not so much a painting to him but „an organisation of space and time via an abstract expression of movement“ or he would say that in La Roi et la Reine entourés des Nus vites he would „allude topics like King, Dame, act, velocity without actually painting them“ and approach them in an „unpolitical, humorous way“ and also as a potshot against then contemporary trends – there is no true „metaphysical“ depth in it (which Duchamp´s fanatic exegetes came to suspect in everything he did and to overinterpret into his art), no reflection about (as it is alluded) the „original sin“, the painting is just to be understood in an aesthetic sense and as an aesthetic experiment. – And it is true, that Duchamp´s paintings had the character of permanent experimentation and carrying a DeleuzeGuattarian„line of flight“ within themselves (that is their metaphysical structure/gleam). Duchamp was never a member of schools and movements (and he would later say that the rejection of Nude Descending by the avant-garde artists of his time for the, in today´s world unimaginable, reason that a „(lofty) nude cannot descend a staircase“ (i.e. do such a trivial thing) made him very sceptical about art movements and the avant-garde in general). He was only interested in a true „creatio ex nihilo“ (and when he later found out that it wasn´t possible for him to do so anymore he would abandon art to play chess instead, so as „not to repeat himself“ as an artist). Probably expressing the usual feature that genius can see „in an additional dimension“, Duchamp, in the 1910s, was eager to paint the „fourth dimension“, respectively how a fourdimensional body would appear in our threedimensional world (therein also extenting the major problem of painting: how to project a threedimensional spatial reality onto canvas) – and he would say that The Bride was the painting where he was actually able to see the fourth dimension (to obviously lose interest in the fourth dimension as an explicit problem afterwards: His last painting, Tu m´ (obviously alluding to „tu m´emmerdes“ (you annoy me) or „tu m´ennuies“ (you bore me), looks like an impatient gaze into the fourth dimension, with the attached bottle brush as an object reaching into a additional dimension, somehow (not so) ironically alluding to King Arthur´s sword Excalibur or Wotan´s sword Notung rammed into the treedimensional world that will give him able to handle it the magical and mystical powers of the fourth dimension and make him the overman). Already in his paintings Duchamp expressed his innocent joy about puns and wordplays – which can be regarded as an expression of Duchamp´s ability to make (paradoxical) associations, also between remote concepts, and to permanently shift from background to motif: Associative horizon, as it is called by Paul Cooijmans, is an ingredient of genius and the ability to actually see in an additional dimension respectively to establish a n+1 (or n+x) dimensional perspective upon things regular people can´t. „There is no solution as there is no problem“, Duchamp would say concerning the fanatic exegesis concerning his major work, the Large Glass, that would come into being late in his life: And it is true that great artworks (or, at least, great meta-artworks) are free-floating associative structures or association-fields that establish and stabilise themselves via their quasi-endogenous equations (and therein, they imitate life, as life itself is a conquest for establishing relations and connections that establish endogenously meaningful structures and personal environments). Most of Duchamp´s major paintings carry explicit erotic content (though they are about (egoistic) desire, not love), that is to say, they are about the „big things“ in life – and the great artist is he who identifies the „big things/subjects/topics“ of life. The Large Glass was Duchamp´s most major work, he worked 8 years on it, including writing reflections about it, only to lose interest in advancing further and leaving it unfinished (and when it broke to pieces years afterwards, Duchamp wasn´t shocked but calmly restored it, diligent craftsman that he was). It truly carries the insignia of a great artwork/“masterpiece“, it is large and overdimensional, it is painted on an unconventional medium (glass), it is about an archetypical subject, it is enigmatic, it is both static and dynamic, it is highly original and unparalleled and incomparable, it is „infinite“. In the Large Class as well as Etant donnés (and many others of his artworks) Duchamp seemed to revolve around libido or desire as the prime mover of the world, but rather in a pessimistic and nihilistic way – and the Large Glass is a reflection that the desire of both the boys and the girl are nothing but egoistic – so that the question arises whether Duchamp understood so much about love at all (since, to some considerable degree, love, and the world in general, is not egoistic). At any rate, even when apparently fixing the „deep ground“ of the world, Duchamp obviously remained no metaphysicist, but a metapyhsical ironic, who would distance himself from what he just said in a minute (without, however, losing what he just said).
(Duchamp was a master womanizer and they were all very fond of his both sharply contoured as well as soft personality. However, if you consider the short-time marriage to Lydie Sarazin-Levassor and read Lydie´s sad memoirs (written decades after the marriage, but however very balanced, apparently free from hostility and obviously doing justice to Marcel) you will get the impression of a crack in Duchamp´s alleged lofty personality – and commentators to the memoirs would rather not see an art monk or saint in Duchamp but rather a somehow narcissistic and egoistic maverick devoid of true feelings for others. Remember that the reasons for the short-time marriage, orchestrated by Picabia, are somehow obscure: most consider money the sole motive, others suspect a dadaistic joke by Picabia – however it obviously was an experiment to truly settle the nomadic (and impovershed) Duchamp (who was, at the age of forty, already an ex-artist with no true plan in life) in ordinary life, by marrying him to the (intelligent, but young and naive) daughter of a wealthy man, but not least as the wealthy father did not support the young couple a lot, the marriage would not last long. Duchamp was, at first, very charming and natural to the young Lydie, but gradually became more emotionally withdrawn and increasingly emotionally cruel to her – maybe calculatedly, to drive her away from him, despite, however, also showing signs of friendliness to her. At least Lydie´s memoirs show that Duchamp was not completely an elevated monk but could become truly angry and frustrated by the upheavals of everyday life that was not dear to him or when it came to voice resentment against the art market – moreover they reveal that Duchamp´s gentleness as well as his (justified) fierce struggle for independence was kind of paradoxical as they seemingly involved some indifference towards other´s feelings and egoism: Max Stirner was one of the few authors Duchamp really had read and obviously embraced: the notion of the aristocratic individual that deserves to be fed by others and the (productive) egoism involved. Other exes, like Mary Reynolds, thought that, while being a nice guy, Duchamp was not able to truly love and surrender to a person. Consider however also that most women – including Lydie – Duchamp met in his life were not exactly of the kind that Duchamp could take them very serious (which does not excuse his behaviour of his potential for emotional coldness towards others), it seemed to be the extraordinary Maria Martins to which Duchamp somehow felt ready to surrender for the first time and his late marriage with the unconventional and natural Teeny was happy ever after (i.e. Duchamp was able to truly love when finding the right one). – When entering the marriage to Lydie, Duchamp wrote to his motherly friend Katherine Dreier that he is aware of what he is doing and it seems ok for him – if it would turn out sour, he, however, could change and rearrange things again (i.e. get divorced): Indeed, even it may have been natural to Duchamp as womanizer to leave many women with bleeding hearts respectively since Duchamp never felt heartbroken a lot and obviously had difficulties to truly imagine too much of respective emotions in others, there was no deep consideration of what his actions would do to Lydie and her family. The marriage with Lydie was no heroic episode of his life, but how much it truly invalidates the hero within Duchamp cannot be told.)
Duchamp lost interest in painting and „retinal art“ (i.e. art adressing the eye) and moved into art that adresses the intellect. He would later say that the „readymade“ was probably his most profound invention and his most important contribution to art – although he would feel to never have managed to give an exhaustive interpretation of what the readymade actually is and implies. And this is justified, because the readymade is the infinite as (the idea of) it establishes a new coordinate system within which objects in open space can be located. It was a new paradigm. It can be stated that in a world of manufactured urinals, manufactured urinals sooner or later will be reflected in art, just like in a world of Campbell´s soup cans, Campbell´s soup cans will become an object of art (i.e. there is some immediacy and simplicity in the readymade). Duchamp was avant-garde when he early on (in the 1910s) said that the bridges are the true objects of American art, the readymades he started as an intellectual game and experiment, the expostion of the urinal in 1917 was a metaphysical event that, in depth, was recognised decades later. Immediately the urinal is both a dadaistic debasement and calling-into-question of art, but also opens the possibility of extension of aesthetic perception and reflection as one is forced to recognise the inherent beauty of the urinal and of (manufactured) objects that now have become part of our world, and therefore also deserve to be recognised (and dignified) by artists. In a more general sense, with the readymade Duchamp did what an artist does: opening up new possibilities for the imaginary, but not only pronouncedly for the aesthetic imaginary but also the intellectual imaginary, adressing also the question of how the sensual and the intellectual can be truly seperated, respectively how profoundly they are ever interlinked. There is a reassessment of what the artistic/aesthetic/intellectual imaginary actually is or can be. As we have, referring to Agell de la Sierra, repeatedly stated, great art is metaphysical as it reveals the existential ontology of a thing (i.e. the possible aspects and connections of a thing) and replaces the desired vision of a thing-in-itself with the meta-noumenon of the exposition of the existential ontology of a thing – and the readymade is, so to say, the meta-noumenon of even that and, therein, the true and final statement a meta-artist could make in the 20th century. Other statements of the post-retinal Duchamp, besides playing chess, was introducing the „art coefficient“ as a (somehow democratic) measure and acknowledgement that creativity and judgement of art also lies in the audience and the eye of the beholder and that there is constant reevalutation of art – respectively the art coefficient is the relation between that that is openly expressed in an artwork, and that which is unexpressed, or maybe its subconscious, that is more subtly and permanently revealed. There also was the interlude with Rose Sélavy where Duchamp mimicked a woman – somehow expressing that the creative person is usually ambiguously gendered and has both „masculine“ and „feminine“ personality aspects. And then (by drawing a moustache on the image) he revealed that Mona Lisa probably was actually not a woman but a man – with the enigmatic smile being due to the secret the homosexual Leonardo would share with his model, therein shedding a new light (or maybe giving the answer) on the probably most emblemic (and enigmatic) work of art ever.
Duchamp and the afterlife and the legacy and the funny eyecatcher headline concerning his „disastrous consequences“: Duchamp was bitter about the art market and that he did not get his share during most time of his life (where he, as his initial paintings already began to sell at considerable prices, stopped doing art and feeding the art market, however), and later in his life he became sceptical about the commercialisation of art (including, however, recognising also the ever more limited obvious possibilities of creating truly original and „shocking“ art and be so staunchly innovative as it was possible for him and his contemporaries in his younger years at the turn of the 20th century) (including also the acknowledgment that the bulk of even the great artists is not out there primarily for introspection and meditation in the first place, but for making money and achieving fame). He said that the true artist of the future would „go into the underground“. Superficially (and maybe also deeply) it can be said that Duchamp destroyed beauty and destroyed standards and paved the way for an „anything goes“ in art. An artwork is some peculiarity in the world, but at art fairs of today you are surrounded by stuff that seems just empty and meaningless peculiarities (respectively you are more or less excluively surrounded by urinals). His intellectualism (paved the way e.g. for Concept Art but) destroyed standards concerning craftsmanship (although, ironically, Duchamp was a very skilled craftsman). His own standard, that art, in the first place, has to be intelligent, is undermined by art that is unintelligent. His inclusion of the living world and its objects into art is now a typical artist who is overly contemporarian and makes something trendy without the metaphysical effort to reveal not only the contemporarian structure of society but also the deep structure of all society. Granted, that this is somehow polemic (and that Duchamp cannot be actually blamed for such things is apparent – although it raises the question about how constructive the influence of the innovative genius ever can be? Maybe life would be better if geniuses would not bother the world!) – there will be a sober note about the most contemporarian art somewhere soon. As for now, we will grant Duchamp absolution. Duchamp was a man who had simple but astonishingly great ideas, who were both the most eccentric and the most obvious. Everything he did and his mere existence as a „breather“ was art, respectively it was even the center of art. This is very rare and, at such a level, probably happens once in a century. If you think that contemporary art is stupid, remember that de Kooning said (to David Sysvester) that artists usually have stupid ideas and that also, for instance, Cubism (today widely regarded as one of the apexes of painting) was based on a stupid idea („… I don´t think artists have particularly bright ideas. Matisse´s Woman in Blue – Woman in a Red Blouse, or something, you know – what an idea that is! Or the Cubists: when you think about it now, it is so silly to look at an object from many angles. It´s very silly.“). That may give you some sense for relativity (however also of de Kooning´s erratic statement) and you may meditate about that. – Concerning Duchamp himself, his influence is not as direct and obvious as it may seem: The paradox of the most intelligent and original creators is that they, often after a prolonged period of incubation, become hugely influential, but also then also are actually never copied and they do not have true successors. They remain singular (and, as Einstein said: „It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely“). Such is also the case with Duchamp. Duchamp isn´t actually copied, and there is actually no one who truly tries to imitate him. In the Continuum, the realm where the spirits of the great ideas dwell, there is immediate connection with Duchamp possible, but not in the real world.
There is the question: If Duchamp came today, what would he do today? The possibilities of expressing his specific creativity seem long superseded (as you cannot shock anyone with a urinal anymore, etc.). Even if you think a lot about it and try to concentrate on it, no answer seems possible – in terms of content (or concerning the question whether Duchamp would become an artist at all in times like ours – but, as I guess, of course he will!). What can be said however, is that Duchamp is an avatar of Yorick, the fool/the trickster. The Yorick has always been there since the dawn of time and across cultures (think of Socrates-Diogenes or the Heyoka-Shaman), and he will always recycle himself until the end of time. This is also an aspect of the „eternal recurrence of the same“.