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The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp

by Elena Filipovic
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
360 pp. illus. 80 b&w, 70 col. Trade, £29.95
ISBN: 9780262034821.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

As 2017 marks the centennial of Marcel Duchamp's provocative submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the New York Society of Independent Artists thereby originating "Readymades," art objects arbitrarily consecrated by "choice" and not by "making," Elena Filipovic offers an incisive study of Duchamp's broader artlife production of quantifiable items and administrative activity beyond the scope of object – and masterpiece – focused scholarship penned by such authors as Robert Lebel, Calvin Tomkins, Dawn Ades, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, and Francis M. Naumann. Her inventory includes boxes of scribbled notes, suitcases filled with miniature reproductions, records of ephemeral exhibitions and activities in New York related to art curation, art collection, archiving and presentation – each component meticulously documented by the author, illustrated, biographically contextualized and theoretically expounded. Though "undeclared as art" Filipovic defines such marginalia as integral to thought processes that not only informed Duchamp's material output but constitute the theorization of an anti-authorial, anti-institutional, anti-aesthetic totality. "Meaning derives," writes Filopovic, "just as much from what is outside and around the artwork as from the subject, technique and presumed content within the neat contours of the frame or atop the pedestal." [8]

Interweaving curatorial ventures from 1917 to 1961, particularly Surrealist installations conceived by Duchamp, with process-driven projects known to historians as The Box of 1914, The Green Box (1934), The Boîte en Valise (1938-1942) and the Étants données (1946-1966), Filipovic explores a matrix of ideas that contributed to subsequent movements such as Neo-Dada, Pop, Conceptual and Minimal art. These include questions of authorship, uniqueness and originality voiced by such critics as Rosalind Krauss ("The Originality of the Avant-Garde," 1986); the death of painting and the demise of handcraft, particularly the conflicted relationship between painting and photography articulated by Walter Benjamin in his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936); Duchamp's fabrication of facsimiles and boxes of replicated notes, plans, drawings, and art reproductions in repeatable and imitable forms (Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context," 1982); and his non-auratic involvement with mass production through combinations of labor-intense processes with photomechanical reproduction in the manufacture of optical contraptions and ambivalent, disengaged simulacra (Benjamin, op. cit.).

The protracted creation and posthumous installation of Duchamp's last major artwork, Étants donnés (1969), a tableau visible through the peep holes of a wooden door concealed in an angle of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, provides Filopovic's text with a centerfold for issues surrounding the profanation of art and institutional critique. Invoking the political topology of Jean-François Lyotard's Trans/formations (1977) together with Benjamin Buchloh's critique of historiography, artefactual museum praxis and hegemonic art criticism in his writings on conceptual art (1990), Filipovic points at the Étants donnés' challenge to the museum's imprimatur of cultural value and empirical truth against Duchamp's position that the history of art is what remains of an epoch ensconced in a museum. It is a narrative signified in the Étants donnés by the artwork's destabilized obscurity, its glimpse of the body of a defiled mannequin, and the anti-monumental commodities that surround it.

Implicit in Duchamp's ephemera is the presentiment of a post-modern condition characterized by the loss of a "fixed historical reference" (Jürgen Habermas) and aesthetic framework forged of an "inner logic" (Hal Foster) that would come to the fore in the aftermath of World War II. It is in such an atmosphere of absence and de-composition that we are forced to confront an accumulation of inutile boxes and suitcases filled with scraps of paper that once held out ideas, piecemeal scrawls, and commercial images that Duchamp "spent the rest of his life returning to and replicating with painstaking precision" (p. 7) in what now seems a sustained performance of frustrated desire, an antithetical summa of partiality, enclosure and fragmentation.


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