Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Marcel Duchamp was a revolutionary artist whose Readymade sculptures – common objects left as-is, or slightly altered – challenged the very autonomy and exceptionality of an artwork; namely, why an artwork was considered special over other things, and why an artist had the authority to decree an object as such. In the process, the legitimacy of art institutions and their structures was also called into question. In many ways, Duchamp could be considered a primary instigator not only of the Dada movement but of postmodernism in general, with its trend towards conceptual practices and institutional critique.
Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, near Blainville, France. In 1904, he joined his artist brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, in Paris, where he studied painting at the Académie Julian. Duchamp’s early works were Post-Impressionist in style, and were exhibited for the first time in 1909 at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Directly influenced by Cubism, his early works tended to foreground an image of a single body in motion. A definitive example would be Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), in which a blocky, human figure is captured in motion, like a stop-motion video.
By 1913 Duchamp had abandoned drawing and painting, favoring instead experiments in various media, with drawings, notations, and scores culminating in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors), which is neither a painting nor a sculpture, but rather, some other mix of narrative – which the artist detailed in pages of memos – abstract composition, and chance operations. The Large Glass, Even (1915–23) (also known as
Duchamp’s first Readymade, Bicycle Wheel, was unveiled in 1913. It consisted of a bicycle wheel turned upside down and mounted on a stool. Others included Fountain (1917) – a urinal that caused controversy at the Armory Fair in New York – and Bottle Rack (1914). Preferring an art of ideas as opposed to art of the “retina,” as he termed it, Duchamp’s Readymades had a revolutionary impact on the field.
After months spent playing chess in Buenos Aires, Duchamp traveled to France and New York, becoming associated with the Dadaists who were highly influenced by his work. It was also around this time that Duchamp made his first motor-driven constructions and invented Rrose Sélavy, his feminist alter ego.
From the mid-1930s on, Duchamp began collaborating with the surrealists, participating in their exhibitions. Moving back to New York permanently in 1942, he became a United States citizen in 1955. While many in the art world thought the artist had abandoned art for chess, in fact he had been working on a major new work, his last, Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) (1946-1966), which is now permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He died shortly after the work’s completion, on October 2, 1968.