The author must have been highly respected and trusted by Marcel Duchamp because this series of coversations between two learned and mild men in 1966, two years before Duchamp’s death, are unexpectedly warm, open and relaxed. Despite the many marvelous books reviewed throughout this sourcebook, I am going to maintain that every reader should do everything possible to acquire a copy of Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp as soon as possible. It is really that essential, a sentiment which Duchamp would no doubt deplore on principle.
Marcel Duchamp was selected in one of the few moments of consensus among the bickering and socially feeble Surrealist group as a general mediator. He presided over a group whose chief practice was making, squeezing, honing and pricking conceptual conceits, words and objects until they could pass for disconcertingly comfortable contrivances, things more or less akin to that very art that seemingly froze over its self early in this century, dying in a mire of deceit. Apparence, and appearance sit benignly in a worn, leather armchair blowing out a steady stream of Havana cigar smoke and musing with cynical irony over the possibilities and improbabilities of “deceptual art,” as Brion Gysin once dubbed it.
Upon reflection, this is all rather peculiar and not a little ridiculous. Was Duchamp primarily an armchair critic whose persuasive challenges pushed a pseudo-avant-garde unwittingly and quite fearfully towards a new radicalism disconcertingly beyond painterly concerns and art-historical contexts, and employing surgically logical analyses of method, motive, madness and the absurdity of making any “Thing” with either a small or capital “T”? The impression of Duchamp that emerges from this book is one of an existentialist dandy par excellence whose brilliant brain amused itself in order to alleviate the utter boredom and pointlessness of a shattered Western culture bereft of all style and function, and whose final commentary upon uselessness was to exploit and animate the limits of the intrinsically redundant and meaningless.
So, was Duchamp the seminal imposter of 20th-century art, as many conceptually retarded painters, critics and even dealers with more than a passing vested interest in the merely “retinal” decorations passed off as “art” that Duchamp so wished to terminate with extreme prejudice would have us believe? Duchamp states that he amused himself occasionally by “thing” making, as he would objectively describe it. Money was not his prime directive. In fact, examples are given of his financial disability. Many “things” were made just to give to a friend at a nominal price when they could have been sold through dealers for a far higher price. Surprisingly, throughout his incredibly influential and intellectually colossal life he had only a single “one-man” exhibition in his native France and about four others worldwide.
Duchamp really didn’t give a fuck about established art-world systems of lionization or the accrual of critical esteem. He eked out a frugal living first from librarianship, and later by buying and selling works by Brancusi. He claimed laziness and convenience led him to sell as many of his works as he possibly could to a single patron, collector Walter Arensberg. For Duchamp, minimizing distraction was a preeminent ascetic concern. Throughout his life he sought privacy and was punctilious regarding discretion. He maintained absolute control and discipline in all aspects of his perceptual life, with a level of linguistic and conceptual rigor that remains as extraordinary today as it was to André Breton and Duchamp’s other contemporaries throughout his marvelously inspiring life.
Was he a charlatan? An opportunist? A compelling and ruthlessly effective “art historical” strategist? My personal position would have to be “of course… yes… no… probably… it really does not matter… no… yes.”
Duchamp himself repeatedly claims that all his “things” and ideas are only the result of “an extraordinary curiosity” and a need to alleviate a sophisticated sense of boredom by “amusing” himself. So much the better! His elevation of skepticism to a previously unthinkable level is as contemporary and inspirational as it gets. At one point in this book he tellingly asserts while discussing Surrealism that “There isn’t any existential painting.” Cabanne replies, “It’s a question of behavior,” and dear Duchamp concurs, “That’s it.” The conclusion one could rightly draw after enjoying the twists and turns within this text is that Marcel Duchamp is deflecting us from the inevitable and probably accurate conclusion that he was, and is, the quintessential existentialist painter. Possibly the first and last of his kind, and all the more glorious and vainglorious for it. What is certain is that his clarity of disenchantment and detachment is so utterly compelling and rings so true that his exclusion from any perspective of what has laughingly been dubbed the “history of art” on the grounds of whimsy and sarcasm personified would be an inadmissable omission. He has set us all up forever, redesigned the “game,” reassigned the functions of the pieces and, with disarming charm has put us in a most rigorous and contorted situation of checkmate.
Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 136 pages