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The Enduring Influence of Marcel Duchamp

  • 8 min read

Great Pop Duchamp-ions

The Barbican’s current blockbuster show, ‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns’, focuses on Marcel Duchamp’s cultural legacy by tracing his relationship to four great modern masters; composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The show has inspired us to take at look at other great Duchamp-ions…

The art and ideas of French painter, sculptor and writer Marcel Duchamp, perhaps more than those of any other 20th century artist, have radically altered our understanding of what constitutes an object of art. From his early experiments with Cubism and his association with Dada and Surrealism, to his conception of the ready-made, Duchamp refused to accept the standards and practices of an established art system. Refusing to repeat himself or develop a recognizable style, Duchamp paved the way for later movements such as Pop Art.

Prolific artist Duchamp employed chance and humour, questioned the tastemakers, playfully ridiculed existing norms to transcend the status quo, and perhaps most radically, created works of art from everyday objects. Here we examine how this artist-provocateur influenced three of Pop Art’s greats; Any Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Sir Peter Blake:

ANDY WARHOL

Among the qualities that Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp share are a desire to shock, a taste for celebrity, a belief in the everyday object, an interest in language and puns, and a penchant for cross dressing. In 2010 the Andy Warhol Museum held an exhibition examining the artistic links between these two art giants, ‘Twisted Pair: Marcel Duchamp/Andy Warhol’. The show revealed that Warhol himself owned over thirty works by Duchamp, including a copy of the ‘Fountain’ urinal, which he acquired by trading away three of his portraits.

Warhol made several short films of Duchamp and, during the mid-sixties, he planned to make a 24 hour film on the French artist. Although the project never materialised, he did make a ‘screen test’ film by crashing a 1966 party in Duchamp’s honour. Duchamp later said, “I like Warhol’s spirit. He’s not just some painter or movie maker.”

Readymades

Marcel Duchamp’s most striking, iconoclastic gesture, the readymade, is arguably the century’s most influential development on artists’ creative process. These were ordinary objects of everyday use, sometimes slightly altered, and designated works of art by the artist. One of Duchamps best-known readymade pieces is a urinal, titled ‘Fountain’ and signed ‘R.Mutt’, which he submitted to an exhibition in New York in 1917. Andy Warhol’s obsession with everyday objects undoubtedly originated in Duchamp’s mind-opening experimentation with object-as-subject.

Warhol understood that advertisements, consumer objects, newspaper photos, and people themselves were all up for grabs as objects d’art. He understood the challenge of the ready-made, along with the irony of the reproduction. In 1964, Warhol began a series of sculptures that mimicked shipping cartons for products such as Heinz tomato ketchup and Brillo soap pads. In a 1968 show, he skipped the replication process and simply exhibited 500 actual cardboard Brillo boxes, aligning the work even more closely with Duchamp’s readymade concept.

Duchamp rejected the work of many of his fellow artists as ‘retinal’ art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, he wanted, “to put art back in the service of the mind.” In 1964, Duchamp stated:

“Pop Art is a return to ‘conceptual’ painting… If you take a Campbell soup can and repeat it 50 times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is that concept that wants to put 50 Campbell soup cans on a canvas.”

Mona Lisa

In 1963, Andy Warhol followed Marcel Duchamp’s footsteps and reinterpreted Leonardo Da Vinci’s art historic masterpiece ‘Mona Lisa’. The painting had just visited the United States and was given all the fame and media attention of a visiting celebrity. For Warhol, the overexposed icon became an infatuation which would last throughout his career.

Aside from Warhol's works such as 'Two Golden Mona Lisas', the most famous recreation of the Mona Lisa was Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q’. Duchamp’s piece, with its infamous facial hair, was not simply an act of vandalism on the mass produced tourist icon the Mona Lisa had become, but represented Duchamp’s attempt to subvert ‘higher culture’ and challenge preconceived notions of what art is.

Fifty years later Warhol mirrored both Duchamp’s use of readymade images and his profound effect on how art can and should be interpreted. Other examples of Warhol revisiting Duchampion subjects include his ‘Most Wanted Men Series’ which took direct inspiration from Duchamp’s 1923 work ‘Wanted: $2,000 Reward’.

The Alter-Ego

In Duchamp’s ‘Wanted: $2,000 Reward’, he pasted two head shots of himself on the poster and had a printer add another alias to those listed; that of his recently created alter-ego Rrose Sélavy. Rrose Sélavy emerged in 1921 in a series of photographs by Man Ray of Duchamp dressed as a woman. Through the 1920s, Man Ray and Duchamp collaborated on more photos of this cross-dressing creation and Duchamp later used the name to sign several artworks.

The ‘dressing up’ of Duchamp and Man Ray, the concept of the Alter Ego, and photographic collaboration all appealed to Andy Warhol. Warhol collected Man Ray photographs and began to collaborate with American photographer Christopher Makos, who had apprenticed with Man Ray in Paris. Together they created a collection of photographs of Warhol as Alter Ego, in drag. Rrose Sélavy gave the project art historical gravitas; it was as Makos explained, “something that we discussed, we wanted some artistic provenance, we did not want to do a copy, if there are some of the same poses it’s a conincidence.”

RICHARD HAMILTON

British painter and collage artist Richard Hamilton has been described as the father of Pop Art and “the Duchamp-ion of intellectual art”. The internationally renowned artist who helped invent Pop art also interpreted and popularised the work of Marcel Duchamp. It was Hamilton especially who rediscovered the French artist in the 1960s by meticulously studying and reconstructing his works. It was the beginning of an intense and erudite dialogue between the two artists which would last over a decade.

The Bride.../The Large Glass

From 1915 to 1923 Marcel Duchamp worked on ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors’, also known as ‘The Large Glass’, which he considered his most important single work. The piece summarized Duchamp’s view that painting and sculpture were fundamentally incompatible and inadequate as art forms with which to render contemporary life. The nature of ‘The Large Glass’ is that of a machine organism. The piece is a registry of different mechanical devices which, with Duchamp’s trademark wit, parallel sexual frustration. The viewer’s frustration with the impossibility of contact between the Bride and her Bachelors serves as a metaphor for the thwarted dynamic between the males and female he created.

Duchamp’s extensive preparatory drawings, writings, and studies for ‘The Large Glass’ are mostly contained in his 1934 work ‘The Green Box’, and indicate his development towards a more abstract, mathematical approach to connoting the real world. From 1957 to ’60, Hamilton “worked on the notes of the Green Box as a translator, in a sense.” He published 'The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even : A Typographic Version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamps Green Box’ in 1960.

Six years later, Hamilton finished reconstructing Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors.’ When he had finished Duchamp signed his reconstruction as if it were his own creation and it was included in the retrospective ‘The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp’ which Hamilton organized at the Tate Gallery in London.

Hamilton described ‘The Large Glass’ as “an epic poem, a technical treatise and a pictorial masterpiece.” In his highly analytical 2003 print ‘Typo/Typography of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass’, Hamilton combined a diagram of Duchamp’s artwork with the English translations of his notes from the Green Box, bringing together the visual and literary elements of Duchamp’s project.

The Great Decipherer

The correspondence Richard Hamilton initiated in 1956 ended with Duchamp’s death in 1968. It reveals on the one hand Hamilton’s ongoing creative penetration of Duchamp’s idea, and on the other the existence of a friendship between the two great artists. The frankness with which Duchamp replied to Hamilton’s questions about his concept of the readymades and his vision of the artist, reveal the respect he had for the young artist he called his “great decipherer”.

In a BBC Radio 3 interview, Hamilton said: “What was marvellous about Duchamp I found, and what I admired him almost most for, was his detachment. It was as though he’s looking at the thing from quite a distance and I was quite happy to adopt that as one of the useful things that he could teach me; stand back a bit.”

PETER BLAKE

If Richard Hamilton is the father of Pop Art, then Sir Peter Blake is the Godfather. Blake began incorporating the ephemera of popular culture into his paintings while still at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s (in advance of Andy Warhol and his soup cans). By the time he had created his celebrated cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album in 1967, the art of the surreal juxtaposition was his forte.

Marcel Duchamp's World TourYou can see the influence of Marcel Duchamp and Blake’s surreal Pop at its best in ‘Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour’. The series is based on Blake’s belief that wherever Marcel Duchamp stops (even posthumously) he has a profound effect upon the artworld. Each painting follows a fantasy journey in which Duchamp travels through unidentified places meeting other artists, such as Damien Hirst, Pablo Picasso, Edward Hopper and Tracey Emin, and popular idols, including Tarzan, Elvis, and The Spice Girls. Wherever he stops Duchamp makes an impact, regardless of whether his newfound context is culturally high, low or a fusion of the two.

As Duchamp tours in the world in his rock ’n’ roll bus, Blake constructs fantasy situations around him. Blake told the Tate how, “I decided to send him on a posthumous world tour, rather like the Flying Dutchman, where he would travel the world forever in a big rock ‘n’ roll tour bus, being very comfortable. He meets people along the way and people come and go on the bus and he goes to various happenings.”

It is reminiscent of the Beatles’ 1967 Magical Mystery Tour film, in which the famous Pop band goes on a surreal, psychedelic bus tour. “The idea is to give a kind of posthumous thank you,” explained Blake, “He opened the door that so many of us went through, the door of possibility, by saying anything an artist makes is art.”

Chess

In the 1920s, Duchamp famously renounced art making in favour of playing chess for the rest of his life. In ‘Playing Chess with Tracey’ (2003-5), Blake depicts Duchamp playing chess with Tracey Emin in the desert surroundings of her video self-portrait, ‘Sometimes…’ (2000), while three enigmatic cowboys wait by the bus. In 1927, Duchamp married a young heiress. The honeymoon did not go well. “Duchamp spent most of the week studying chess problems,” recalled his close friend Man Ray, “and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board.”

Duchamp once famously remarked, “While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” At his Pasadena Art Museum retrospective exhibition in 1963, Duchamp staged a game of chess between himself and a young nude woman, Eve Babitz. A brilliant black and white photograph of the famous chess game shows his intent concentration. In 2007, Sir Peter Blake recreated the famous chess match with model Carol Holt, using the original chessboard, made by Duchamp.

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