The Artist Unboxed

Despite appearances, Marcel Duchamp's art could not be boxed -- he created 'a new way to be,' and gave modern art a new direction. And it amused him.


"The danger remains that he'll get out of the valise we put him in."

-- Composer John Cage on artist Marcel Duchamp

He did get out, of course, and all hell broke loose.

Those roaming through contemporary art exhibitions have, knowingly or not, probably seen what happened when Marcel Duchamp emerged and ran amok through other artists' imaginations. Celebrate these happenings or mourn them, but the fact is that once they occurred there was no barring the door. Under Duchamp's influence, anything might be considered "art," and was, and will be, and much of the credit or blame sits in that little valise.

To be precise, the Boite en Valise, or Box in a Valise. Twenty deluxe and about 300 regular copies were made by Duchamp and several helpers between the 1930s and 1971, one of which is owned by the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's on exhibit through April 7, when it will be pulled out of the current show and reinstalled in another exhibition this summer. A man of linguistic as well as visual inclinations, Duchamp constructed an ironic metaphor for the enigma of his own career: a tidy unpackable thing.

With the deluxe version -- not the one owned by the BMA -- you snap open a metal clasp on the leather valise, lift the leather lid, then open the wooden box inside. The box, about the size of a thick laptop computer, unfolds in sections. Picture a cross between hinged medieval altarpiece and elaborate briefcase. Panels swing and slide out, revealing more panels and compartments. There, wrote collector Sidney Janis, lies a "complete portrait of the artist's personality."

What you find are miniature versions of Duchamp's major works. There are little paintings and photographs of objects and actual teeny objects: 68 items in the version owned by the BMA, 69 in the deluxe model.

Note, for example, the miniature Underwood typewriter cover, which Duchamp in 1916 dubbed Traveler's Folding Item. There's a copy of his famous oil painting of frozen motion, Nude Descending a Staircase, about the size of a business letter. Naturally there's a little version of his magnum opus, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, an abstraction on glass showing Duchamp's gift for wordplay and pseudo-scientific systems, as well as his preoccupation with the mechanical and the erotic.

The BMA bought the Boite last June at the instigation of Helen A. Molesworth, curator of contemporary art. A Duchamp scholar, Molesworth says she started pursuing a Duchamp acquisition about as soon as she arrived at the BMA in January 2000, having taken note of the fact that the museum did not own any major work by Duchamp.

It's a bit like a baseball history museum never mentioning Ty Cobb. Along with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse -- both amply represented at the BMA -- Duchamp stands as one leg of the tripod on which much of 20th century art rests, and the most influential figure since World War II.

Funny thing about that, as Duchamp completed all but one of his major works by 1923, the year he turned 36. He lived to be 81, playing chess, lecturing, working on a few projects, dividing his time between Manhattan and France, apparently happy in his role as the walking embodiment of an artistic mythology.

This mythology has permeated the art world since the early 1960s, contributing to the emergence of Pop, conceptual, minimalist, performance, kinetic and process art -- "virtually every postmodern tendency," wrote Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins.

All taste aside

The reason is as simple and as complex as this: Duchamp challenged the fundamental definitions of art, artist, audience, connoisseurship and exhibition space. It would eventually become necessary to start using quotation marks around the word "art."

Duchamp was the fellow who in 1914 gave the world a thing that would come to be known as a "readymade." That is, he gave the world a thing that the world already had, only enhanced somehow by the alchemic touch of artistic choice. A store-bought bottle rack, say, or a urinal, or that typewriter cover. Such mean things might appear on exhibition where one would otherwise expect to see a nice landscape painting or an abstract picture.

"The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste," Duchamp told an interviewer in 1966. "You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion."

In the dictionary under "insouciant" there should be a picture of Duchamp. There he'd sit in a sparsely furnished apartment, a small glass of red wine on the table before him, smoking his pipe or Havana cigar, faintly smiling at some amusing notion taking shape in his head. As Webster's says: "calm and untroubled; carefree, indifferent."

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