Review of The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp | Leonardo

Review of The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp

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: 
Edith Doove
March 2017

Elena Filipovic tellingly gives the introduction to her study the title "A History of Marcel Duchamp and Other Fictions" indicating that his is a narrative like any other. What Filipovic makes clear is that the history of an artist like Marcel Duchamp is not only written by a discipline like art history, but also the art market and the appreciation of peers and critics. The difference in this case, as is widely known amongst Duchamp scholars but convincingly exemplified by Filipovic, is that Duchamp was rather instrumental in writing his own narrative. Anyone who is slightly familiar with that story knows the basic ingredients. As Filipovic sums them up at the beginning of her introduction this basically comes down to "a story of things: artworks invented or handmade, original or in copy, influential and in some cases revolutionizing" (p. 2). [1]

While Duchamp made it sufficiently clear that he was at a certain point no longer interested in painting due to its 'retinal' qualities and therefore resorted to the selection of 'readymades' or as Filipovic succinctly puts it "nominating store-bought stuff as art," he seems to have also been quite happy with the limited view of what an artist constitutes in the eyes of many. This approach bought him, namely, the freedom he was after. If there is one reason why Duchamp still fascinates, then it is because of his elusiveness. What is clear and further demonstrated by Filipovic is that Duchamp was always eager to cross the boundaries of what an artist constitutes – not boxed in by style, discipline, or activity. By focusing on "apparently marginal activities," Filipovic addresses the issue by which an artist is too much identified with certain of his or her things or art works either through art history or the art market. In Duchamp's case, the emphasis has certainly been on his so-called readymades and more specifically his 'urinal' or Fountain (1917).

The "apparently marginal activities" that Filipovic, however, alludes to are the kind of activities that are usually not seen as being artistic or at least (still) not fully appreciated as such. In earlier publications and talks Filipovic has already done much to rectify this image, such as in her talk during the 2012 conference 'Artist as Curator' organised by the magazine Afterall and the subsequent series of appendixes under the same denominator for the magazine Mousse. For those familiar with Duchamp's work or with the realities of the activities of the average artist for that matter, the outcome of this book, therefore, not so much surprises as continues to put things in the right perspective for a wider audience.

That Duchamp from early on had an interest in a wider scope of activities than "just" producing art is amongst others demonstrated through his role in setting up the Society of Independent Artists in New York and being involved as head of the hanging committee for its inaugural exhibition in 1917. Even though the Society had promoted a jury-free set up and Duchamp subsequently a democratic hanging according to alphabet rather than subjective preference, the board of directors nevertheless famously refused to show his anonymously submitted readymade, Fountain. Duchamp nevertheless became a sought-after curator, administrator, and art dealer amongst fellow artists such as André Breton. Although Duchamp did not want to be reined in by the Surrealists as a member, this did not prevent him from collaborating with Breton and curate several exhibitions with him, making very clear that life does not come in the boxed entities of the art market or art history. Boxes, and especially the ways to escape them, nevertheless, played a significant role in his work, either literally or figuratively. Starting with his lifelong love for chess and its black and white squares that could be seen as equal and thus interchangeable, his female alter ego Rrose Selavy could also be regarded as a way of escaping too fixed boundaries.

Filipovic rightfully points in this context to the problem of canonisation of an artist who gets fixed in a certain view as to support the art market that is usually not open to artistic development and freedom. Especially in the case of an artist like Duchamp, it is has turned out to be easy to pigeonhole him and not fully appreciate him in all his various aspects. Filipovic underlines how Duchamp's interest in organising and exhibiting was thoroughly engrained in his work from the start, demonstrated amongst others by his portable museum of miniature copies of his work in Boite-en-valise (1943), his extensive use and research of copies throughout his work (including his notes and the readymades), the organisation of various exhibitions and the extensive negotiations surrounding his final work Etant donnés or Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. Filipovic describes how this installation in the Museum of Philadelphia was for a long time largely ignored by critics as it was regarded as redundant in comparison with the revolutionary introduction of the readymades. Duchamp worked on Given from 1946 to 1966 and managed to keep the production of it largely secret by pretending to no longer make art, demonstrated by a more public, 'empty' studio and by apparently concentrating on playing chess. When eventually installed and opened to the public, Given was largely met with disappointment. Filipovic however regards it rightfully as an excellent example of institutional critique and questions why it has not been treated on the same level as the work of that other Marcel, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers and his contemporaneous Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Brussels, 1968). Broodthaers had suggested that it should be seen as "a situation, a system defined by objects, by inscriptions, by various activities." With its "behind-the-scenes museum trustee meetings, elaboration of museum contracts, writing and construction of a Manual of Instructions, reorganization of a whole section of the museum's contents and display, and even insertion of the work into the museum itself" (p. 263), Given is doing in fact exactly the same, but as Filipovic demonstrates, remained nevertheless largely ignored.

Duchamp was in all respects a true escape artist, making in every respect use of the art of smoke and mirrors for which he gave good indications by his use of smoke or clouds both in his persona as in several art works. He also was very aware how art was subject to a delay in appreciation, not only by a general audience but clearly also by fellow artists and critics. If Filipovic's book demonstrates one thing, then it is exactly this. Duchamp was regarded as somewhat passé at the end of the '60s while the likes of Broodthaers seemingly announced something new. As Filipovic, however, rightfully concludes, "we might [want to] recognize how much Duchamp's final work was not the "retardaire" lapse of an old man who "arrived a bit too late" but instead the neo-avant-garde gesture of an artist who never stopped articulating the terms of a criticality that operates in, through, as well as against the institution of art, and who had found one last way to do so" (p. 266).


[1] Please note that this review was written based on an uncorrected proof copy. For exact quotations please refer to the final bound book.