Monday, August 20, 2007


What is art? That's my question, but I'm not going to really attempt to answer it.
Perhaps you can. I really would like to know who you think is the most
influential artist of the last century. The idea of what could be considered art
change radically in the first decades of the 20th Century.
The end of the 19th, brought the visual theorists, the impressionists, the pointillists, as well as the idea that a naive painter could produce profound work into the realm of what was considered academic "art" .
An artist like Seurat, the pointillist was able to to bring the idea of the humorous absurd pseudo science of Alfred Jarry into his work to explain the
visual/psychological effects that one experienced when looking at his paintings composed of dots of contrasting colors. There was the break through, Seurat painted images that demanded more than pure visual interpretation. You needed his "pataphysical" subtext to really appreciate the elaborate scheme he presented.
So with that as the back drop to stage of the turn of the century, I would like to
present my nomination for the most influential artist of the 20th Century,
Marcel Duchamp.
This is a painting he did around 1917 called T um', popularly translated in Art History books as You Bore Me, but more exactly, it is the utterance of one too bored to say "You are full of Shit" The painting has a false rip in it with a real pin. There are color swatches from a professional decorator, he hired a professional sign painter to paint the pointing hand, there are the traced graphite shadows of a bottle opener and a rack and a bicycle wheel. The wavy lines are arbitrary units of measurment that represent a a personal mockery of conventional science, math and reality.
While other artists are pursuing schools of style that publish manifestos such as cubism, futurism and minimalism, he has moved already way beyond any of those constraints into the world of pure synthesis and concepts! All filtered through is ironical humor, of course!
The painting, Nude Descending a Staircase caused riots in the art world and the popular press as well. It was painted in various versions from 1915 to 1917 and if you really look at it, you see an image that represents the ideas of cubism, futurism and much more sythesized into an image that must be considered on a conceptual level. This is a very large painting and to stand in front of it is over whelming to me. Marcel Duchamp soon realized that the academic media of oil painting was, um, boring. When he was commissioned to paint a picture for a space in a sitting room, T um' was perhaps the most perfect response he could come up with.
He had already turned his focus on the pure idea and the process becoming an intregral part of the art itself.
He began to do things and let things happen and record and explain the process that led to the object.
During this period, the Dada movement started. An anti-art, anti society, anti logic movement that still resonates strong today. Duchamp contributed much to the Dada movement, but he was never a true Dadaist. His piece, referred to as The Large Glass appeared at this time. The actual title is true Dada at first glance, a non sequiter,
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, even......This is a massive work. Never actually completed, it was left unfinished because Duchamp became bored with it.
It is a window. The image is trapped between two sheets of glass which broke at one time and the reparations became part of the work.
Duchamp published a small book to explain it.
I won't here, except to say that the explanation is pure pataphysical nonsense. A personal, poetic scientific mythology. A portion of the images were shaded by the process of allowing dust to settle on the glass and then varnished as it reached the desired shade. That process was recorded by time lapse film by Man Ray. Another portion, the floating circular images in the lower right hand corner, were achieved byhaving the glass silvered by a mirror maker and then scraping away the silvering and revealing the images.
Nothing like this had ever been done before. To finance his eccentric art life, Duchamp played chess, taught chess, traveled and gave French lessons. He also was very good at gambling and would print up his own scrip, sell subscriptions to his friends, take the money and go to Monte Carlo, win enough to pay everyone back and live for a year.
I have tried here to go beyond the common perceptions of Duchamp as a sensationalist and perhaps a charlatan because of the impression of his ready mades...found art.
Everyone knows that he entered a mens urinal titled Fountain into the Paris Biennial under the name R. Mutt, or the Bicycle Wheel mounted on a stool, or finding a bottle drying rack and calling it a sculpture. Sensationalist acts, but without his ironical humor at the time, the conceptual leap that would allow us to enjoy "found art" might not have taken place for quite a long time.
He moved to the United States and published a magazine called New York Dada. During the Second World War, he single handedly set up a scheme to outwit the Nazis. He was able to convince the Authorities that he was a legitimate cheese exporter and smuggled a lot of so called decadante art work out of Europe as well as helping artists who were in real trouble such as Max Ernst, who was imprisoned by the French at the beginning of the war for being a German National and then by the Germans for being a deviant artist.Max was able with false papers obtained by Duchamp to come to the USA where he married Peggy Guggenheim who was already an ex wife of Duchamps.

So the piece at the top of the page is pure Dada, as pure as Marcel ever got. He drew a mustache on a print of the Mona Lisa and penciled in the letters : LHOOQ.
Which seems to mean nothing, until you say them fast in French and it comes out,
Elle a chaud au cul........she has a hot ass!

Marcel Duchamp died in Paris in 1972. He had become an American citizen.
If you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can see his major works collected iin one place, including his last piece which he worked on for twenty years secretly.
He told the world he had given up art but when he died, there was a key to a hotel room and a book of instructions. The interior of the room was his last work, which was dismantled and installed behind a heavy wooden door in the museum. To see it, you have to look through a peephole in the door. In his will he designated that it could not be photographed for 20 years after his death.
Go there, step on the mat which activates the lighting system
and see the last work of the man I think was the most important artist
of the 20th Century.
(click on the pictures if you want to see them larger)


Man with the Muck-rake said...

My personal artistic skills stink, but i do appreciate all types of art, especially the kind wherein the artist hides a clue or suggests something other than what he/she paints. DaVinci, for example. Yet, I also appreciate a totally realistic piece just as well.

Some modern pieces strike me as well, but, as a visual, intuitive, I am often repelled by the very gauche.

microdot said...

Yes, I admit that Mr. Duchamp can be pretty strange to figure out, but he opened the doors for conceptual art, the art of idea, that could exist in more places at once than on the gallery wall.
Now, there was a lot of great art by a lot of great artists produced in the 20th Century, Abstract, Surreal, Figurative...Do you have a favorite?

Man with the Muck-rake said...

Claude Monet because his 'impressionistic' drawings are just removed from reality. His landscapes, trees, and flowers burst with color and energy.

Village Green said...

What a fine survey of Duchamp! You are so lucky to be living in a land full of the greatest art from all times.

My personal fave is the obvious one, Picasso. As a kid, I could not wait to get to the Picasso room at the Cleveland Art Museum and I would look at books full of his work. Have you ever seen the movie The Adventures of Picasso? It is a Swedish comedy done in gibberish and pantomime and full of jokes about 20th century artists.

microdot said...

Village Green, If you ever have a chance, visit the City of Albi in the Southwest, where you will see some of the most impressive red brick medieval architecture ever built and be able to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec Museuum. He was from Albi and the Museum is incredible!

Though, the last time I was in Toledo, Ohio, I was very impressed with the newly redesigned Museum of Art. They are so lucky to have such a grand museum.
For some reason it is the biggest collection of great Dutch Painting from their golden age aout side of Europe.

mark hoback said...

A real fine piece, Patrick

Anonymous said...

nice job using 'pataphysics'!
love duchamp...

Batocchio said...

I think it was the Tate Museum in London that published a list of the most influential art works of the 20th Century, with "Fountain" topping the list. Duchamp always cracks me up. I appreciate his irreverence.

microdot said...

cheezopizza, thanks mark for linking this in crooksandliars! I was on the barn roof in the rain all day...and I just looked at the blog counter and flipped...

Yessir, mr battochio, Duchamp has been cracking me up for the last 40 years!
And showing me how get to the other side!

Anonymous said...

Your information on the date of the death of Duchamp is not correct. Marcel Duchamp died on 2 October 1968 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

jay bundy johnson said...

Thanks Microdot!

I love how Marcel's work behaves like the genii let out of the bottle; it continues to confound and beguile.

May I recommend "Why Duchamp an essay on aesthetic impact" by Gianfranco Baruchello & Henry Martin. Baruchello knew Duchamp and this book addresses the joys and challenges of working in the shadow of his legacy.

I'm deeply indebted to this man's work and am glad to see others continue the dialogue.

Check out my stuff at

Jay Bundy Johnson