Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Life

Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Life
Jacquelynn Baas

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
400 pp., illus. 59 col., 62 b&w. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 9780262042741.

Reviewed by: 
Edith Doove
December 2020

Jacquelynn Baas’ book has both a deceptively simple title and cover, showing an image of the doors of Duchamp’s last work Given. This deception might be equaled with Duchamp’s wish of going ‘underground’, something that he did literally when he got buried in his family grave in my hometown Rouen. As Baas points out in her conclusion, Duchamp’s ultimate goal was for both art and himself to disappear with the famous epitaph on his grave “Besides, it’s always the others that die” (D’allieurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent) pointing to the ongoing relationship to others (Baas, p. 308).

Baas is specifically known for her books on the influence of Eastern philosophy on Western art. In Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (edited with Mary Jane Jacob, 2004) she already incorporated a text by Tosi Lee, which was a distillation of his doctoral thesis from 1993, on possible connections between Buddhism and Duchamp’s work. In the current volume she builds further on the insights she got from editing Lee’s text (Baas, p. xi). [1] Its importance lies in the way Baas speculatively, but nevertheless convincingly, further develops the possible links between Duchamp’s work and life with Eastern thought and more specifically tantric practices. This might come as a shock for some, as did Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas’s unexpected “theatricality” when it was first revealed to the public in the Philadelphia Museum of Art after Duchamp’s death. But as Baas remarks “It is not as though there were no clues”. And although she never comes with any hard-edged evidence, she builds her case exactly on these clues of which there are decidedly more than you would think: for instance, the role of the Museum Guimet in Paris with amongst others its figurine of Dakini in the attitude of dance, or the presence of someone like Buddhist explorer and writer Alexandra David-Neel in Paris circles. Another is Duchamp’s relationship and collaboration with Bataille to whom Baas dedicates quite a substantial part of her book. Bataille was well-versed in tantric practices and collaborated with Duchamp, Robert Lebel, and Robert and Isabelle Waldberg on the so-called Le Da Costa Encyclopédique (1947) as well as Le Mémento Universel Da Costa (1948-49)––more or less tongue-in-cheek continuations of Bataille’s Acéphale. Isabelle Waldberg who together with her husband was very much involved in Acéphale. She’s here not only revealed as a very intriguing and overlooked artist, but also as an important sparring partner for Duchamp, amongst others for the scenography of his Rain Room for the Exposition International du Surréalisme (Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1947) in which he included both work by Waldberg and that other important female sparring partner Maria Martins.

There’s not enough room here to develop all of Baas’ fascinating clues, “numerous correlations between his art, his statements, and his writings with elements of Asian practices and philosophy” (Baas, p. 307). One of the images that emerges is that of a Duchamp as part of a wider circle of both male and female artist friends, such as Waldberg, Martins, Breton, Ray or Picabia, with whom in a close spiritual collaboration an interest in tantric or related practices was widely shared. The idea of being part of a family or clan of like-minded spirits as in the case of the Da Costa-’clan’ or even the choice to be buried in his family’s grave for that matter, clearly was important to Duchamp. This leads Baas eventually to develop an intriguing new reading of works like The Large Glass or Given, arguing that they used a certain eroticism in a tantric way, that is as a passage to insight.

Baas fittingly mentions a note by Duchamp’s godson Gordon Matta-Clark in which he referred to Duchamp’s motto that was clearly influenced by Buddhist teachings, “There is no solution because there is no problem”: “There are only problems because of human resistance. Passing through resistance-surprise is passing through … seeing what you always expected … Surprise is a state of consciousness … If you look long enough you will be surprised” (Baas, p. 293).

Notes

[1] With Jacob, Baas was involved with the five-year consortium project, “Awake: art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from which also emerged her book Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today (2005). Weirdly there’s little or no information to be found on Tosi Lee and whether he’s still active as a researcher.