The Marcel Duchamp retrospective is at the Tate Gallery from June 18 to July 31.
by DORE ASHTON
(First published in Studio International, Vol 171, No 878, June 1966, pp. 244-46.)
I have never had much faith in the interview as a means of acquiring significant information about an artist. The journalist, as Proust pointed out in his well-wrought attack on Sainte-Beuve, is always working with the unwitting collaboration of other people. Therefore, both the questions he poses and the answers he solicits are slightly vulgar. The ‘mob’ is looking on.
This interview with Marcel Duchamp is no exception, as I think he would be the first to acknowledge. The questions are necessarily limited and so are the replies.
The interview took place in Duchamp’s 10th Street apartment in one of the spacious old brownstones still graced with floor-to-ceiling windows. (Duchamp lives on a block which has a house bearing a bronze plaque advertising the former residence of Mark Twain.) His own apartment is comfortably furnished with old but not ostentatious furniture, and an impressive collection of works of art. I noticed Miro, Matisse, Tanguy, Brancusi, Giacometti, Rauschenberg, and works of African and pre-Columbian art. There is also a chess set, of course. Duchamp, wearing grey whalebone corduruoys and a checked shirt, settled himself, cigar in hand, in a deep comfortable chair, smiling amiably as always. I posed my first question:
‘You have called yourself a Cartesian, yet you say the role of the artist is mediumistic. Is this a contradiction?’ ‘Oh, no,’ he answered without hesitation. ‘I’ve never read Descartes to speak of. I was thinking of the logical meaning, the reasoning Cartesianism implies. Nothing is left to the vapours of the imagination. It implies an acceptance of all doubts, it’s an opposition to unclear thinking.’
But what about the artist’s mediumistic role in that case?
‘You must understand that I am not a Cartesian by pleasure. I happen to have been born a Cartesian. The French education is based on a sequence of strict logic.
You carry it with you. I had to reject Cartesianism in a way. I don’t say that you can’t be both. Perhaps I am.’
At this point, Duchamp asked where this interview would appear. When I told him, he said he used to buy Studio in 1900 or 1903, a ‘very good magazine at the time’.
I then asked him what he meant when he said that painting had become too ‘retinal’.
‘Well, ever since the nineteenth century, painting has been retinal. Of course, the pre-Raphaelites were not, they went further than the retina. Maybe they weren’t better, but at least they weren’t retinal. The whole of modern art—the Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists—the whole, except maybe the Surrealists, were retinal. Abstract expressionism was very retinal, and of course, Op art is very retinal. A little too retinal for one’s taste.’
I interrupted to point out that the Op artists sometimes claim him as a father. He laughed.
‘It was only an episode in my life. Who has not made a spiral in his life? Everybody has. But you can’t keep on doing it. The Pops maybe were not retinal. Lichtenstein is not retinal. They have some extra content. Mondrian was not retinal, Seurat was not, but Cezanne and Monet were. The whole century since 1880 works in retinal terms. Only sensuous feeling. It’s like a bath. I got out of the bath. The roto-reliefs were only a moment’s visit for me. There never was a programme with me, though. I never decided not to be retinal so clearly. I don’t say my way is the only way of doing things. Art is a condition, a Heraclitan condition of always changing, isn’t it?’
What about his interest in mathematics?
‘Oh, I’m not much of a mathematician. In those days, 1910, 1911, 1912, there was a lot of talk about the fourth dimension and I was tempted. Non-Euclidian geometry had been invented in the 1840’s but we were just hearing about Riemann in 1910. It was very interesting because there were no straight lines left. Everything was curved. I’d say I liked the fourth dimension as one more dimension in our lives. We knew an amateur mathematician, Princet, and we used to talk with him. Now, you know, I live only in three dimensions. It was mostly talk with us, but it did add an extra-pictorial attraction.’
I next asked Duchamp how he felt about all the elaborate, often arcane interpretations of his work.
‘I learned a lot from them,’ he laughed. Then, more seriously: ‘You see, I do believe in the mediumistic role of the artist. What’s written about him gives him a way of learning about himself. The artist’s accomplishment is never the same as the viewer’s interpretation. When they explain all those documents in the Green Box, they are right to decide what they want to do with it. A work of art is dependent on the explosion made by the onlooker. It goes to the Louvre because of the onlookers.’
You have often remarked on your delight in a succès de scandale. Why?
‘Because a succès de scandale has a chance to survive. In 1870 a painter called Regnault painted a Salomé which was a great succès de scandale. Regnault died in the war. But people kept talking about that picture and still do. Guernica may not have been exactly a succès de scandale, but it was at least shocking. Unfortunately, you cannot have a succès de scandale every year.’
Is it still possible to shock the public as Regnault did?
‘Today there is no shocking. The only thing shocking is "no shocking". Shocking has been one of the main themes of modern art, its baggage. Something that would shock me? Well, Russian painting. Those young girls at the window like in 1880, or Hitler in his bunker. It’s a diminished shock, but still a shock. Pop artists are not shocking because the public is always expecting another movement. They see it and they say: ‘What’s next?’ A movement should really last at least twenty years. The only movement that seems to last for any time is Surrealism, but that’s because it is not essentially a painters’ movement.
‘Movement; modern—they’re new words. Rather silly. Think of Art Nouveau, how old it seems. The word "artist", for instance. Until the French Revolution it hardly existed from a social point of view. There were artisans. Now the artists are integrated. They are commercialized. Too commercialized. It wasn’t that way in the days of the kings. (Don’t make me into a monarchist!) Such a levelling as we have now may not engender many geniuses.’
But, I interrupted, I’ve always thought you more or less believed in genius, in which case all this brouhaha would not inhibit the engendering of genius.
‘No, no. Top minds can’t come up in such circumstances. A genius is not made by the mind itself. It is made by the onlooker. The public needs a top mind and makes it. Anything can be on top. Genius is an invention of man, just like God.’
You’ve said that success is demoralizing. Do you feel demoralized?
‘Oh, I’ve never had success. Not normal success. My first one-man show was two years ago in Pasadena when I was 75 years old. Even then, it wasn’t very important. But then, what’s important to the onlooker now is always changed by the second onlooker twenty-five or seventy-five years from now. Look at Gautier for instance. Everybody read him, and he was very important, but who reads him now? Every few years there’s a revision. We make El Greco what we want him to be. An æuvre by itself doesn’t exist, it’s an optical illusion. It’s only made to be seen by the people who look at it. The poor medium is only gratuitous. You could invent a false artist. Whatever happens could have been completely different. Look at those poor things from Africa (pointing to the African and pre-Columbian sculptures), so important in our lives. We’ve made modern art of them.’
What, I asked, does he mean when he sometimes refers to ‘bad art’ and ‘good art’?
‘There is bad art, only people forget it if they can. It’s art anyway. The St Sulpice images, for instance. Or Tanagras : the Tanagras were bad Greek art that are now worth a lot. Generally it’s bad art that becomes good. The simplest thing is to take a thing disliked and rehabilitate it. A group of four or five men can do this very easily. Part of the shock of a new movement is just that.’
You’ve suggested, I continued, that artists today are corruptible and too much involved in commercialization to amount to much. In that case, why do you continue to say you are interested in artists, not art?
‘Because artists are the only people who have a chance to become citizens of the world, to make a good world to live in. They are disengaged and ready for freedom.’
Who is an artist? Anyone who says he is? Duchamp laughed good naturedly: ‘Nowadays I suppose the answer would have to be, Yes. It is hard to define, but we know what we mean. In a way the artist is no longer an artist. He is some sort of missionary. Art has replaced religion and people have the same sort of respectful attitude to art that they once had for religion. Art is the only thing left for people who don’t give science the last word. Let’s say I have a professional sympathy for the artist.’
To change the subject, I continued: You have authorized the manufacture of replicas of your original ready-mades. Is that a contradiction of your original premise?
‘I like the idea. I’ve never had a special respect for enshrined art. The minute people say ‘It’s an outrage’, I’m ready to do it. It tempts me. Here, I’m an anti-Cartesian. It’s an amusing form of giving light meaning instead of heavy serious meaning. I have to defend myself. Seriousness and importance are my main enemies.’
What, I asked, does he think of Richard Hamilton’s professorial analysis of the Bottle Dryer; his discussion of the ‘symmetry’, etc.?
‘Symmetry was only a point in my life. Since asymmetry dominated from 1870, I re-introduced symmetry in order to use something not accepted at the time. If you think of the kind of distorting for distorting’s sake indulged in by Matisse.... He did it for pleasure, for the fun of it. He was right to do it, but I have to laugh at the great theories around it. Yes, he was retinal all right. But the retina is only a door that you open to go further.’
I asked Duchamp whether he had anything to say about the extensive linking of art with technology, and the attempts to make him a progenitor of the tendency.
‘They have to get somebody as a progenitor so as not to look as though they invent it all by themselves. Makes a better package. But technology: art will be sunk or drowned by technology. Look, I’ll show you an example.’
Duchamp then plugged in a framed box in which electric heat acts on the liquid and crystals within, making them surge up in a sea-green orgy of movement.
‘This is a work by Paul Matisse, Matisse’s grandson, who does not regard himself as an artist. In fact, he intends to manufacture this, and you’ll probably see it in every motel in the country. It could be seen as an artistic conception I suppose.’
‘Technology will surely drown us. The individual is disappearing rapidly. We’ll eventually be nothing but numbered ants. The group thing grows. You can already feel the tendency in the arts today. Speed, money, interest. A hundred years ago there were few artists, few dealers and few collectors. Art was a world by itself. Now it is completely exoteric—not my cup of tea. There is something wonderful about the secret society that is lost.
‘To get back to what you asked me about the ready-mades. You can’t choose with your taste. Taste is the great enemy. The difficulty I had was to choose. Now my Bottle Dryer is in the books and some regard it as a beautiful sculpture, but not all ready-mades were the same. Once, many years ago, I was dining with some artists at the old Hotel des Artistes here in New York and there was a huge old-fashioned painting behind us—a battle scene, I think. So I jumped up and signed it. You see, that was a ready-made which had everything except taste. And no system. I didn’t want to be called an artist, you know. I wanted to use my possibility to be an individual, and I suppose I have, no?’
We then spoke a little while about Duchamp’s renown, and he pointed out that he had never been particularly cherished by the French.
‘You can’t be a prophet in your own country. I certainly am not.’
Are you better appreciated here, and why did you settle here?
‘The melting pot idea, you know. And the lack of difference between classes. It interested me then. The French Revolution was more evident here in those days. It was good for an artist. Of course, it’s a little messy now. Such business affairs, papers, taxes! Do you know there was hardly any tax to pay here until after the crash?’
Duchamp spoke then about how lazy he is, how much he enjoys a placid life, and how, although he is no beatnik, he is ‘very like’. Then he abruptly shifted back to the problem of art in America.
‘We don’t speak about science because we don’t know the language, but everyone speaks about art. Art is going down to the people who talk about it. You know, about that question of success: you have to decide whether you’ll be Pepsi-Cola, Chocolat Meunier, Gertrude Stein or James Joyce... James Joyce is maybe Pepsi-Cola. You can’t name him without everybody knowing what you’re talking about. What happened to me is worse, though. That painting [meaning Nude descending a staircase, which he referred to only as "that painting" throughout the interview] was known but I was not. I was obliterated by the painting and only lately have I stepped on it. I spent my life hidden behind it.... You know, an artist only does one or two or three things in his whole life. The rest is merely filling up the hole. It is not desirable to be Pepsi-Cola. It is dangerous.’
Portrait of the artist’s father, seated 1910. Oil on canvas, 36 3/8 x 28 7/8 in.
Right: The passage from the virgin to the bride, 1912. Oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 21 1/4 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Portrait of chess players, 1911. Oil on canvas, 39 3/4 x 39 3/4 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, (Arensberg Collection) .
The king and queen traversed by swift nudes, 1912. Pencil, 10+x 15+ in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, (Arensberg Collection).
Right: Ready-made, Girl with bedstead (Apolinère enameled), 1916-17. Painted tin advertisement for Sapolin Enamel, altered and added to by the artist, 9 1/4 x 13 1/4 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, (Arensberg Collection).
Above left: Ready-made, Ball of twine 1916 Ball of twine in brass frame ‘assisted’ by the artist, height 5 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Arensberg Collection).
Above right: Pocket chessboard c. 1943. Assisted Ready-made; leather and celluloid, 6 1/2 x 4 1/4 in. The Mary Sisler Collection.
Left: Nude descending a staircase, no. 1, 1911. Oil on cardboard, 37 3/4 x 23 1/2 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Arensberg Collection).
Right: Bride, 1912. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 21 3/4 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Arensberg Collection).
Female fig leaf, 1951. Sculpture (galvanized plaster) 4 3/4 x 3 1/4 in. The Mary Sisler Collection.
Object-dart, 1951. Sculpture (galvanized plaster), 3+ x 8 x 1 in. The Mary Sisler Collection.