Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Deep Thoughts: Duchamp, militarism, etc.

Duchamp's "Luggage Physics": Art on the Move – by Dalia Judovitz (Emory University

"Besides, you know, all my work, literally and figuratively, fits into a valise ..." --Marcel Duchamp, 16 Dec. 1954

"Well, it had to come. How long will it last?" wondered Marcel Duchamp in a letter to Katherine Dreier about the onset of World War II following the invasion of Poland. "How will we come out of it, if we come out of it?" At fifty-two, and thus too old for military service, Duchamp envisaged doing "some civilian work to help. What?? Everything is still a mess," he exclaimed. In Paris, half deserted and in darkness, he was "waiting for the first bomb, to leave for somewhere in the country."[ 1] The eruption of the war had Duchamp packing his bags again, just as he did during World War I when he first came to America. In this period he was producing materials for a box packed in a valise, a folding exhibition space that would assemble reproductions of his artistic corpus. Resembling a portable museum, The Box in a Valise (1935-41) collected 69 miniature reproductions and replicas that he intended to assemble in America.[ 2] Traveling between the unoccupied and occupied zones with a cheese dealer's pass in the spring of 1941, Duchamp anxiously transported across the German lines a large suitcase filled not with cheese, but with materials for his boxes.[ 3] The materials for assembly and reproductions for fifty boxes were shipped off to New York in 1941 in two cases, along with Peggy Guggenheim's recently acquired art collection, under the label "household goods." By 14 May 1942, when Duchamp got his papers and headed from Marseilles to New York, most artists and intellectuals had already left France; this escape route would soon be cut off.[ 4] Fleeing the ravages of war in the nick of time, Duchamp would once again assume the migrant condition inaugurated by his arrival to the U.S. during World War I.

Duchamp's repeated attempts to take refuge from war reflected his enduring aversion to militarism and patriotism. Speaking of the reasons for his first migration to the U.S. during WWI, he stated: "I had left France basically for lack of militarism. For lack of patriotism, if you wish" (Cabanne 59). He held this conviction throughout his life, although after WWII it was colored by ambivalence and regret.[ 5] Even as early as 1905, "being neither militaristic nor soldierly," he availed himself of the exemption of "art worker" by becoming a printer of engravings (the other option was to be a typographer) in order to reduce his military service (Cabanne 19-20). Duchamp's aversion to war largely overlapped his discontent with art and his sense that he was incompatible with its endeavors. In a letter to Walter Pach (27 Apr. 1915), he notes the combined impact of war and art on his decision to leave France:

For a long time and even before the war, I have disliked this "artistic life" in which I was involved.--It is the exact opposite of what I want. So I tried to somewhat escape from the artists through the library. Then during the war, I felt increasingly more incompatible with this milieu. I absolutely wanted to leave. (Duchamp, Amicalement 40)

His disenchantment with art is based on its exclusive cultivation of visual aspects (what he called the "retinal") to the detriment of intellectual expression. Trapped by professional and market pressures that left artists to merely repeat themselves by copying and multiplying a few ideas, he actively sought to escape. War appears to have exacerbated this rising disaffection with art and with the artistic milieu by bringing it to a crisis. However, the challenge of implementing his decision to leave both war and art behind and the questions this decision raises gained renewed urgency upon the eruption of WWII.

Does the production of The Box in a Valise during World War II attest to an attempt to take refuge in art by stepping out of history? Walter Arensberg, Duchamp's sometime patron and friend, commented in 1943 that the retrospective history that the Box constructs through the monograph-like compilation of Duchamp's works suggests that he became the "puppeteer" of his past by inventing a "new kind of autobiography."[ 6] Arensberg's contention that Duchamp would resort to the creation of personal myth by artistically manipulating his past, however, is hard to reconcile with Duchamp's denunciation of autobiography: "I flatly refuse to write an autobiography. It has always been a hobby of mine to object to the written, I, I, I's on the part of the artist" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 28 June 1965). Duchamp objected to autobiography's excessive reliance on the "I" as supreme referent because it consolidates and aggrandizes authorial identity, instead of putting it into question as he had done in his works. His refusal to write an autobiography suggests that his endeavor in the The Box in a Valise may not be simply an effort to manipulate and reclaim past history in artistic terms. Marked by traumatic dislocation, this work is symptomatic of Duchamp's attempt to respond to historical events whose magnitude can no longer find refuge in art. In this essay, I argue that The Box in a Valise affirms the vulnerability of art in the face of catastrophic change. Rather than representing a step out of history, The Box in a Valise reflects the realization that the production of art and the position of the artist would have to change in response to traumatic historical events. In the face of global war, neither art nor the artist can offer salvation, that is, the pretense to reclaim, in the guise of art, historical events that have shattered the frames of reference for human experience.

War Refugee and/or Art Refugee?

Drafted, but found to be "too sick to be a soldier" (he had a heart murmur), Duchamp was "condemned to remain a civilian for the entire duration of the war," a decision he was not too unhappy about (Duchamp, Amicalement 37). Unable to tolerate the rising patriotic fever of the war along with the rising pitch of the artistic dogmas of the day, notably Cubism, Duchamp arrived in New York on 15 June 1915. In the "Special Feature" section of The New York Tribune (12 September 1915), he reflects on the unique nature of the trauma and grief engendered by the First World War in order to comment on its irremediable impact on the production of art. Referring to Cubism as a "prophet of the war," he concludes: "for the war will produce a severe, direct art." He claims that there would be a major shift in sensibility due to the immensity of the scale of suffering brought on by war, and ascribes the emergence of this "severe, direct art" to the hardness of feeling in Europe, due to the experience of a new kind of grief whose magnitude no longer seemed to concern any one individual. He explains:

One readily understands this when one realizes the growing hardness of feeling in Europe, one might almost say the utter callousness with which people are learning to receive the news of the death of those nearest and dearest to them. Before the war the death of a son in a family was received with utter, abject woe, but today it is merely part of a huge universal grief, which hardly seems to concern any one individual. (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 12 Sept. 1915)

Duchamp's remarks elucidate the nature of the trauma of the First World War by pointing out the extent to which the personal sense of loss was supplanted by a universal grief beyond representation. The problem is not that people became more callous, but that they were no longer able to claim their personal grief and suffering in the face of events whose magnitude shattered the very framework of human experience. Thus his comments suggest that the nature and fate of art in the wake of the traumatic experience of World War I would have to change. But in what sense and how would these developments impact his work?

Duchamp's personal observations regarding his first migration to America provide some interesting clues. In an article, "French Artists Spur on American Art" (24 Oct. 1915), Duchamp notes the impact of the war: "Art has gone dusty . . . Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. One's friends are all away at the front. Or else they have been already killed." The foment of artistic activities and exchanges was exhausted, weighed down by talk about the war: "Nothing but war was talked about from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived that existence was heavy and dull." As far as painting is concerned, he writes, "it is a matter of indifference to me where I am." He concludes that he is so happy to be in New York, "for I have not painted a single picture since coming over" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 24 Oct. 1915). Duchamp's expressed indifference to his location reflects the indifference he appears to have developed to painting as a whole, since he stopped painting upon his arrival in the United States. Thus it would seem that for Duchamp art had gone dusty not just in the ateliers of Paris affected by the war, but more generally, as a pursuit that he would suspend and subsequently leave behind.

Does the refuge that Duchamp sought from the war coincide with the freedom that he had been seeking not just from painting but also from art as a whole? A closer look at his activities since 1913 onwards reveals his emergent interest in the readymades on the one hand, and the development of his ideas for The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass (1915-1923) on the other. These projects reflect his efforts to move away from a purely visual idea of painting toward an understanding of art as intellectual expression.[ 7] Playfully fudging the distinction between ordinary and art objects through mechanical reproduction, the readymades expose through this redundancy the conceptual and institutional premises that encase the designation of objects as art. The Large Glass reassembles and reproduces earlier pictorial studies on glass, stripping painting bare of its visual vestments by rendering it transparent. Using various techniques of reproduction to "dry" up its pictorial content, Duchamp postpones the intent of its pictorial and artistic becoming. By laying bare its conditions of possibility, he challenges the idea of painting and by extension art. Thus, while Duchamp's refuge from World War I resulted in the suspension of his activities as a painter, it also seems to have provided the freedom to rethink the nature and destiny of art. Consistent with his claim that there is "nothing static about his manner of working," his departure inaugurated a new beginning: "I have never deceived myself into thinking that I have at length hit upon the ultimate expression. In the midst of each epoch I fully realize that a new epoch will dawn" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 24 Oct. 1915).

Voyage Sculptures: The Physics of Baggage

Among Duchamp's readymades produced after his arrival in New York in 1915 was his first portable work entitled Traveler's Folding Item (1916, New York) (see Figure 1).

This Underwood typewriter cover was lost, with no photo left of the original, and was recreated in miniature in 1940 for inclusion in The Box in a Valise . What is notable about this little-discussed work is the centrality of its assigned position in the Box. Displayed between Paris Air and Fountain , it is aligned with the bar that separates the upper and lower portions of The Large Glass .[ 8] Does the portable and folding nature of this work imply a reflection on The Box in a Valise as folding exhibition case? Its portability, like that of the valise, implies freedom of display outside the confines of the museum, while its flexibility and hence capacity for folding opens up new ways of thinking about the nature of art objects. This work stands out among Duchamp's readymades because it interrogates the pretensions to solidity associated with sculpture by introducing the "idea of softness": "I thought it would be a good idea to introduce softness in the Ready-made--in other words not altogether hardness--porcelain, iron, or things like that--why not use something flexible as a new shape--changing shape, so that's why the typewriter cover came into existence."[ 9] But Duchamp does more than just introduce softness into the readymade, since the cover's flexibility undermines in effect its ability to stand up as an object in its own right. The changing nature of the cover's shape (whether folded or unfolded) is determined by its use and activation by an agent.

Traveler's Folding Item points to the typewriter it hides from view, a reference reinforced by the verbal cue of the brand name "Underwood" on the cover. When Walter Hopps asked him about this work, Duchamp responded: "Oh, it is removed from its machine" (Camfield 110). Hidden under the "skirts" of the cover is not just any ordinary object, but a writing machine ( machine à écrier ).[ 10 ] While not particularly worthy of being looked at, the absent typewriter alludes to the mental and verbal processes involved in the production of readymades. These include the choice and determination of the object's modes of display, along with the use of poetic or punning titles that add "intellectual color." But as Duchamp specifies, this "cerebral colour" "adds not in the way of intellectualism, but in the way you make another frame to a painting" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 19 Oct. 1949). Its function is to reframe the work, opening up a new way for seeing and understanding it. Portable by nature and not quite an object in its own right, this flexible case adapts itself to circumstance, thus relinquishing claims to stability both of form and of meaning. This work is doubly interactive, not only because it derives its meaning by association with another object, but also because it requires the intervention of the spectator/producer for its activation in its various conditions. If the readymades were a way of demonstrating the "cover-up" involved in the framing and thus packaging of objects as works of art, Traveler's Folding Item lifts that cover to revel in the absence of the object, the implied institutional gestures that underwrite its artistic existence and display. Unfolding and suspending the conventions that encase the traditional definition of art objects in the confines of the museum, this portable work anticipates Duchamp's folding exhibition project, The Box in a Valise .

Following America's entry into World War I in 1917 and his classification for military duty as a foreigner, Duchamp set off in 1918 for the neutrality of Argentina. Having left France in 1915 for his lack of militarism and patriotism, he had now "fallen into American patriotism, which certainly was worse" (Cabanne 59). He packed in his bags Sculpture for Traveling (New York; object disintegrated; dimensions variable) (see Figure 2), a portable piece made from colored rubber bathing caps cut into irregular strips and glued together into a flexible lattice.

Attached with variable lengths of string to the four corners of his studio, this "multi-colored spider's web" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 8 July 1918) lacks the solidity of statuary since the "form was ad libitum " (Cabanne 59). Its variable shape and dimensions can adapt to its conditions of display. Duchamp may have chosen to use strips of bathing caps not just because of their elasticity, but also because they allude playfully to the head. The inscription of a mental dimension in the work is particularly important to Duchamp, given his efforts to challenge a purely visual understanding of painting and art. The analogy of this work to a "spider's web" hides a reference to painting, since the French word for a spider's web ( toile d'arraignée ) also refers to the pictorial canvas ( toile ). Dispensing with the idea of painting, the suspension of this web of strings only retained the protocols of its display. Suspended like a spider's web, Sculpture for Traveling lay in wait ready to entrap unwitting spectators by impeding their ability to walk around the room (Cabanne 59). The unfolding of this work in space obstructs the "habitual movement of the individual around the contemplated object" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 26 June 1955), thus disrupting notions of exhibition display. Providing an "antidote" to painting and sculpture, the economy of means and portability of Sculpture for Traveling exposes and challenges the defining conventions for both the production and consumption of works of art. While alluding to his efforts to take refuge from war once again, this work marks his refusal to take refuge in art by rethinking and redefining its nature.

In 1942 Duchamp produced a modified version of this work in an installation format, using the idea of entangled strings minus the bathing caps. Sixteen Miles of String (see Figure 3) was presented in the First Papers of Surrealism Exhibition organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp (referred to as his "twine") for the Coordinating Council for French Relief Societies in New York, 14 Oct.-7 Nov. 1942.

For now, this analysis will focus on the installation before proceeding to discuss the exhibition's circumstances, catalog, and opening in more detail. The most notable consideration framing this work is that it was set up to benefit the war relief efforts. The setting for this exhibition was the ornate Whitelaw Reid mansion (ca. 1880s), with its gilded decorations and painted ceilings. This ostentatious and dated setting was out of line not only with the "modernity" of the works displayed but also with the events surrounding the display. Transposing his intervention in Sculpture for Traveling to the public sphere, Duchamp constructed an elaborate web of entangled strings that crisscrossed the exhibition space, obscuring individual works as well as impeding the spectator. By posing a physical impediment, the entangled strings hindered the spectators' efforts to see the paintings. Reflecting his earlier attempts to keep painting and its retinal seduction at bay, this work reframed the conditions for the display and consumption of art. Given the context of WWII, these attempts at obstructing art took on added resonance.

Not surprisingly, the artists exhibiting their works were less than sanguine about this disruption of the conditions for viewing their works.[ 11 ] As Duchamp recalled, his gesture attracted their concern and ire: "Some painters were actually disgusted with the idea of having their paintings back of lines like that, thought nobody would see their paintings."[ 12 ] Did Duchamp's "harassment of the spectators" disguise the harassment of his fellow artists' works, as Brian O'Doherty (a.k.a. Patrick Ireland) contends (72)? It is important to keep in mind that his intervention took on not other artists' works, but rather the conditions of their display. This disruption of aesthetic contemplation reframed the spectators' experience of the exhibition as an event which was no longer about the business of art as usual. Moreover, on the exhibition's opening night, children solicited and instructed by Duchamp played in the galleries, throwing balls and creating havoc. Countermanding the anachronism of the setting and challenging the conventions of art, this installation staged the possibility of its own annulment. By barring access and obscuring visibility, the crisscrossing strings marked a de facto cancellation of the show as a purely visual event. Resembling a giant cobweb, this installation commented on the obsoleteness of art gone dusty in the midst of war, along with its modes of display.[ 13 ]Sixteen Miles of String exposed the institutional premises (or "strings") attached to the display and consumption of art that secured the myth of its immutability. It is precisely this entanglement or trap that The Box in a Valise avoids since its tangibility, mutability, and portability challenge both the idea of art and the immobilizing foreclosure of the museum.

Canned Goods

Referring to The Box in a Valise , Duchamp inquired where he should send his "canned goods" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 23 Feb. 1941). It would seem that in addition to his earlier efforts to "can chance," he had now "canned" reproductions of his works in a box. This idea of gathering reproductions of his works in a box is new, although Duchamp had already began producing compilations of his notes as early as 1914. As he noted however, at the time "I didn't have the idea of a box as much as just notes" (Cabanne 42). The Box of 1914 (see Figure 4) is a Kodak photographic box containing sixteen photos of manuscript pages of notes and a drawing.[ 14 ]

These allusions to photography as a medium for mass reproduction parallel Duchamp's emergent interest in questions of reproducibility and the multiple, which became the explicit content of his readymades. Reproducing disparate fragments of Duchamp's mental musings, these notes "can" his thought processes as counterparts to the physical production of art.[ 15 ] His comments on The Green Box (1934) (see Figure 5) reiterate the notion of compilation (the equivalent of a Sears, Roebuck catalog) with the caveat that this catalogue was to be consulted when seeing the Glass "because . . . it must not be 'looked at' in the aesthetic sense of the word."

This conjunction removed the "retinal aspect" by disrupting the aesthetics of the "look," that is to say a purely visual consumption of art (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 16 Oct. 1934). In his discussion of The Box in a Valise , Duchamp explained that he found a "new form of expression": "Instead of painting something the idea was to reproduce the paintings that I loved so much in miniature. I didn't know how to do it. I thought of a book, but I didn't like the idea" (Duchamp, Writings 136).[ 16 ] His remarks indicate that the Valise represents not just an alternative to painting, but a new form of expression that relies on miniature reproduction but is not assimilable to a book. Unfettered by the logic of the book that freezes representation into a regulated succession of static images, Duchamp's box encased in a valise provides a dynamic and interactive space for the assemblage of his works. Does Duchamp merely repeat himself through a strategy of self-quotation? Or does he discover through The Box in a Valise a new way of thinking about art by redefining notions of artistic making?

The process of reproducing and assembling his portable boxes proved to be painstaking and time consuming. Duchamp had to travel in order to retrieve information regarding the color tones of the originals. Lost objects were reproduced with the aid of photographs, and he even had to repurchase a work in order to reproduce it. In the case of the typewriter cover, where both the original and the photo were lost, he had a miniature replica made that now became an original. The Valise also made available through reproduction works unavailable for viewing because they were in private collections. Shying away from readily available reproduction techniques, he resorted to older, more time-consuming methods using collotype printing and hand colored stencils. Since he delegated the actual handwork involved in the production of the replicas to various artisanal workshops, his intervention consisted of preparing the materials for reproduction by spelling out and then supervising the successive steps to be followed. According to Ecke Bonk, "he broke down his originals into separate graphic steps and had them reassembled as reproduction" (20).[ 17 ] His analytic breakdown of "original" works in order to generate directives for their re-assemblage as replicas redefined the issues raised by mechanical reproduction in the case of the readymades. In The Box in a Valise Duchamp takes to task the conventional understanding of mechanical reproduction through the laborious hand reproduction of works which undermine and blur the distinction between an original and its replica, the unique and the multiple. Alluding to his discovery of the readymades, he playfully reappropriates and restages his earlier gestures, thereby relying on a notion of making whose unartistic character postpones its possibility of becoming art.

Unpacking the Museum?

One of the most noteworthy aspects of The Box in a Valise (see Figure 6) is that it appears to function as a miniaturized collection and museum-like retrospective of Duchamp's works.

He first described the idea for this project to Katherine Dreier in March of 1935: "I want to make, sometime an album of approximately all the things I have produced" ( Affectionately 197). Initially he thought of assembling them in a book, but then "I thought of the idea of a box in which all my works would be mounted like in a small museum, a portable museum, so to speak, and here it is in this valise" (Duchamp, Writings 136). The monographic and retrospective character of the box playfully alludes to the institution of the museum in the guise of a portable collection presented as a collectible item. But does this collection of reproductions of his works merely reinforce, or rather, mimic the museum in order to expose its institutional logic? In response to Katherine Dreier's idea of turning her house into a museum, he remarked that keeping together the paintings and sculptures she has collected is to him "more important than thinking of a Monument or any grandiose form of doing it" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 24 Aug. 1937). Duchamp's comment indicates that his idea of collection as a context that frames the totality of a body of work is independent of notions of institutional aggrandizement. In a letter to Walter Pach (28 Sept. 1937), Duchamp explains that he would like to see his painting join its "brothers and sisters in California," rather than be subject to speculation by being scattered about. He added that he is certain that Arensberg, like himself, "intends making it a coherent whole" ( Affectionately 216). His idea of amassing his works in a collection involves an appeal to their contextual coherence suggests the iterative and interrelated character of these works. The collection of miniature reproductions in The Box in a Valise functions as an antidote to the institutional logic of the museum by creating an alternative exhibition context where visual consumption is undermined through interactivity and play.[ 18 ] Rather than merely presenting a retrospective record of his works, the Valise will subvert the idea of art through strategies of reproduction and mimicry that will challenge notions of authenticity and display associated with the museum.

Upon opening the leather case of the valise, the viewer discovers a box whose lid lifts up to reveal the assembled miniature reproductions. Across the celluloid transparency of The Large Glass one can see other works, which are only brought into view once the sliding partitions on both sides are pulled out. The exhibition space requires the intervention of the spectator for its activation; its unfolding delays the immediacy of visual consumption. This work's tangibility challenges the museum's interdiction of touch, mediating visual access through an interactive process analogous to play. Undermining the institutional premises of exhibition display based on distance and passive viewing, this work does not invite the spectator but indeed requires him or her to give a hand in its "making." Postulating appropriation as the only mode of access to this work, Duchamp redefines the position of the viewer by actively engaging him or her in the production of meaning. The prominent display of The Large Glass , flanked on the left by three readymades, Paris Air ,Traveler's Folding Item , and Fountain , underlines their shared significance in challenging retinal art through unartistic forms of expression.[ 19 ] The left sliding panel unfolds to reveal two reproductions of paintings that mark the passage or transition to the Glass , thereby hiding from view Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 which had been instrumental in establishing Duchamp's artistic reputation. By foregrounding these preparatory studies leading to the Glass along with the readymades, and by obstructing the view of his celebrated Nude , he redirects the viewer's gaze away from painting. This effort to downplay painting can also be seen in his choice of stacking the reproductions of his paintings on top of each other in the bottom part of the box, thereby impeding visual access.

The sliding panel on the right displays on the bottom 9 Malic Moulds , another preparatory study for the Glass , and on the top, Tu'm , an assemblage or compendium of shadows of readymades, in conjunction with the transparent Glider , and Comb , a readymade. By presenting an assemblage of his preparatory studies for the Glass , along with the compilation of readymades in Tu'm , this section draws our attention to the notion of compilation as a guiding principle not just for the Glass , but for the Valise as a whole. It suggests that the meaning of represented objects can only be addressed as a context of embedded gestures. The privilege accorded to the display of Comb may be explained by its French title " peigne ," which is the subjunctive form of the verb to paint, "I ought to or should paint." Thierry de Duve observes that Comb refers both to the impossibility and to the possibility of painting, since while doomed by industrialization it retains a conceptual potential whose affirmation entails the postponement of its pictorial "happening" (115). Comb thus alludes to Duchamp's dilemma as an artist who sought to move beyond a retinal understanding of art, the obligatory "I ought or should paint," toward its conceptual redefinition through unartistic modes of production capitalizing on notions of reproduction and mimicry. As Duchamp pointedly notes: "I am not a painter in perpetuity and since generals no longer die in the saddle, painters are no longer obliged to die at their easel" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 29 Oct. 1958).

On bottom left of the case there is a foldout photograph of Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14), which Duchamp designates as an instance of "canned chance." Recording the accidental shapes produced by three meter long strings (dropped from the height of one meter on three canvases painted in blue), he fixed them in glue, cut them into strips and affixed the resulting impressions on glass plates which served as molds for the preparation of three wooden templates. By resorting to these various strategies of reproduction he conceptually drew upon the plastic potential of chance as generator of variable shapes. Thus his efforts to "can" chance by recording and reproducing its contingencies ends up not just preserving the past, but strategically redeploying its manifestations. This work illuminates his particular claims for reproduction in the Valise , understood not just as mere replication of his past works, but as a new strategy for making that can no longer be assimilated to art. Commenting on the readymade, Duchamp noted that its significance lies precisely in its "lack of uniqueness," a message that is also delivered by the "replica of a readymade" (Duchamp, Writings 142). While his original readymades were products of mechanical reproduction, the replicas in the Valise were hand-made using traditional techniques: The Box in a Valise thus questions the notion of uniqueness attached to a work of art through reproduction, be it a mechanical or artisanal process. By exploring the logic of the multiple as a new horizon, Duchamp uncovers the conceptual potential of reproduction using replication and mimicry to undermine notions of artistic production. Challenging the idea of art and the institution of the museum, the Valise stands as an affirmation of freedom. While drawing on Duchamp's prior interventions, this nomadic work does not recover the past as an object of nostalgia or autobiographical self-reference. Rather than reclaiming past history, The Box in a Valise opens up a transition toward new forms of making no longer reducible to art.

Luggage Tags

The leather-bound copies of The Box in a Valise bear the intriguing hand-lettered signature "of or by Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy." Rrose Sélavy was Duchamp's female alter ego who began to sign or co-sign his ready-mades starting in 1920. She made her physical appearance in a photograph by Man Ray (1921) of Duchamp in female masquerade (see Figure 7).

This doubling of the artist as himself and/or his female other challenges the myth of the artist as unique creator and recasts the gesture of artistic making as an appropriative, rather than originary act. For Duchamp the aesthetic result is a phenomenon that involves two poles, since the picture is made as much by the onlooker as by the artist (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 13 Jan. 1961). By redefining artistic making as an active interchange, he opens up the appropriation of the Valise not just to Rrose Sélavy, but to the spectator as well.[ 20 ] This attempt to activate and reauthorize the position of spectatorship can be seen in his birthday gift to Ettie Stettheimer of a set of luggage tags complete with string. Bearing Rrose's alias and Duchamp's address, this tag bears in lieu of its destination the phrase: "Ettie who are: YOU FOR ME?" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 30 July 1922). The query regarding identity, and its redeployment through the interchange of "YOU" and "ME," extend a playful invitation that the Valise enacts insofar as it requires activation by the spectator. But in The Box in a Valise , Duchamp did not just question the institution of authorship, since in addition to assuming the role of producer of reproductions executed by others he also emerged as collector, curator, and archivist of his works. Undermining the position of the artist as originating agency, he subsumed under the guise of producer a plurality of forms of agency, which conventionally are associated with different professional entities and activities.[ 21 ] By blurring the institutional and professional distinctions that sustain the autonomy of these roles as underwritten by the institution of the museum, he successfully challenges in the Valise the cultural presuppositions that underlie the definition both of the artist and of the production of art.

Baggage Claims?

Trapped by the increased violence and widening scope of WWII, while attempting to supervise the production of and retrieve the materials for The Box in a Valise , Duchamp made his last-minute escape from war-ravaged France on 14 May 1942. Shortly after his arrival in New York in June, he was asked to help organize a Surrealist group show for the benefit of the war relief efforts sponsored by the Coordinating Council for French Relief Societies. The money raised was to be used for supplies for French prisoners and for the adoption of French children orphaned by the war. In addition to participating with André Breton in organizing the exhibition, he presented the installation Sixteen Miles of String discussed earlier. He also worked with Breton on the conception of the exhibition catalog First Papers of Surrealism (see Figure 8) and designed its covers.[ 22 ]

The front cover depicted a photographic close-up of the crumbling wall of his fellow artist Kurt Seligman's barn bearing the bullet traces of Duchamp's rifle shots reproduced as perforations (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 14 Oct. 1942). This "shooting" event took place in the context of an outdoor party attended by friends and other Surrealist artists.[ 23 ] While alluding to the violence of war, this photograph records the impact of a simulated event akin to an "art performance." In the midst of the war, when images of destruction were readily available, why did Duchamp resort to this strategy of simulation? Instead of appropriating ready-made images, he relied on a photographic "shot" of the damage inflicted by his shooting. Punning on the violence implied in "shooting" (since "shooting" refers both to bullet and to photographic "shots"), Duchamp introduces a cautionary note in regard to photography's and art's potential for violence in attempting to represent the impact of the war.

The back cover shows a close-up photo of a slab of Gruyère cheese pockmarked with holes and stamped over with the title and details of the exhibition. The absurdity of the juxtaposition of the bullet-ridden wall with a slab of cheese is at first shocking. Is it simply a bad joke on the absurdity of war? Keeping in mind the circumstances of Duchamp's recent escape from the war, this back cover may well allude to the cheese dealer's pass Duchamp used to transport the materials and reproductions for the The Box in a Valise across enemy lines. If so, this allusion would underline the absurdity of his efforts to retrieve his "valises," which marked his refuge and renunciation of making art. The juxtaposition of bullet shots and cheese may be a visual pun, suggesting that the holes in the cheese may have resulted from its being shot.[ 24 ] If so, this may be yet another way to figure the potential damage of photography in attempting to "shoot" the effects of war. The only mention of war in the catalogue, to Düsseldorf having been repeatedly bombed, is not accompanied by a photograph. Thus while alluding to the violence of war, the front and back covers also point to the dangers implied in the attempt to take refuge in its photographic and/or artistic representation.

The exhibition catalog includes Duchamp's "Compensation Portrait " (1942) (see Figure 9), a reproduction of Ben Shahn's photograph (ca. 1935-41) of a haggard and care-worn woman in rural America during the Great Depression with the caption "Marcel Duchamp" below.[ 25 ]

Suggested by Duchamp and Breton, the idea of "compensation portraits" mandated that participating artists choose the photograph of an unknown person to represent them. The rationale presented was as follows: "not being able to offer an entirely adequate photographic image of each of the principal exhibitors, we have thought it best here to resort to the general scheme of 'compensation portraits.'" Why did the exhibition's organizers resort to this unusual compensation scheme? Was their inability to represent the exhibitors adequately also a reflection on the inadequacy of photography's claims to representation? Referring to the ongoing war, the catalog dryly states: "Circumstances made it impossible for us to represent properly or by their most recent works a number of artists." The list of artists that follows (grouped by country, not always of origin but sometimes of refuge) documents the absence, inaccessibility, or displacement of artists and/or their works from the sphere of artistic activity. Deprived of their national identity and expropriated of their worldly goods including their art, many of these artists were on the run. Thus Duchamp's and Breton's failure to represent certain artists or recent works served to mark both art's vulnerability in the face of war and its inability to compensate for damages incurred. While set up as a "benefit" in order to generate funds for the "relief" of French prisoners and orphans, this exhibition could neither relieve the damages incurred nor compensate for the losses suffered.

A closer look at Duchamp's "Compensation Portrait " reveals Duchamp's playful reflection on the potential dangers implied in artistic attempts to lay claim to traumatic events. In letting Shahn's photograph stand in lieu of his own semblance, Duchamp does not so much appropriate the "portrait" of another person as Shahn's claim to "portray" the ravages of the Great Depression. In so doing, he demonstrates that Shahn's photographic "claim" to represent this painful epoch (in the guise of an anonymous woman's ravaged complexion) cannot be secured. His photograph is open to appropriation, and hence to the possibility of betrayal of its author and of its intended meaning. Drawing on the purpose of this art exhibition as a benefit to raise funds for the "adoption" of French children orphaned by war, Duchamp strategically redeploys this notion of adoption to rethink the nature of art in the face of war. Adoption means taking as one's own what is not "naturally" so; in the case of a child orphaned by war, adoption secures the legal recognition of the child's history through the assignment of a new surname and hence a new identity. The child's assumption of a different name marks the traumatic loss of the parents, designating a damage that cannot be claimed but only passed on as an event beyond compensation. Thus by "adopting" Shahn's photograph as if it were an "orphan," and reissuing it under his own name, Duchamp acknowledges its traumatic history without claiming to represent it. In so doing, he demonstrates that his strategies of appropriation do not lead to the consolidation but rather to the dissemination of the self and to the postponement of identity.

Overlapping with the dates that frame the idea and execution of The Box in a Valise (1935-41), Marcel Duchamp's "Compensation Portrait " substitutes an American, aged, impoverished, and worn-down feminine semblance for the seductively French, feminine, and gay co-signatory of The Box in a Valise , Rrose Sélavy. Sporting an American identity authorized by another artist, this new persona in the guise of a "compensation portrait" attests to a traumatic history that can no longer be claimed in the name of art and of the artist. As Duchamp later explained: "You see art never saved the world. It cannot" (Gough-Cooper and Caumont 8 Sept. 1966). Challenging aestheticism, particularly the idea of the cultivation of art for its own sake, he underlines the inability of art to save the world. However, while art cannot offer redemption by transcending the brutality of war, this fundamental limitation does not mean that all attempts at making must cease at once and forever. Recalling Duchamp's choice in 1905 to avail himself of the option of becoming an "art worker," instead of fulfilling his regular military service, and his subsequent concerted efforts to produce works that draw upon but are no longer reducible to art, we can begin to understand that he could go on working without falling into the trap of making art. Declaring his affinity to craft rather than to art, his strategic use and deployment of handcrafted reproductions aligns him with modes of production associated with craftsmen rather than with artists. Decrying the relatively recent "invention" and individuation of the "artist," he privileges a notion of "making" whose meaning cannot be exhausted by art: "We're all craftsmen, in civilian or military or artistic life" (Cabanne 16).

Attesting to the vulnerability of art in the face of catastrophic events, The Box in a Valise commemorates the idea of transition as a refuge from war that no longer retreats into art. Turning away from the monumentalization of art and the self-aggrandizement of the artist, this nomadic work will mark, through its appeal to transience, the impossibility of finding refuge in art. Liberated from the confines of the museum by its portability, this work relies on strategies of reproduction and miniaturization whose conceptual import privileges reiterated gestures rather than fetishized objects. Instead of falling prey to self-referentiality by upholding the personal myth of the artist, this work scrambles and redistributes authorial agency. Requiring the intervention of multiple agents, its production no longer relies on nor privileges a unique maker. Affirming its affinity with child's play rather than with the seriousness of making art, this work postpones the artistic becoming of art in response to the catastrophic events of modern history. Claiming the only "baggage" it can, that of art and the institution of the museum, The Box in a Valise opens up new possibilities for engagement and making in the wake of modernism. Foregrounding the assumptions implicit in modern art, this work postpones its becoming by setting its determinations into play. In so doing, it delineates a new postmodern horizon for activities that draw upon but are no longer classifiable as art.[ 26 ] Even as the forces of the art market and art institutions conspire to reclaim and enshrine this work as art within the walls of the museum, they cannot undermine the primacy of its appeal: an open invitation to the spectator and by extension to posterity to lend a hand in the creative act.


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