For 20 years at the end of his life, Marcel Duchamp did little more than play chess…
From The Smart Set:
Robert Rauschenberg made a series of all-white paintings after meeting Cage and Cunningham and seeing the work they were doing in the early 1950s. Cage called Rauschenberg’s white paintings “landing strips,” meaning that they were like little airports for light and shadow and dust to chance upon. They are to painting what Cage’s silence composition is to sound. The work of art becomes an opportunity for chance events to happen beyond the artist’s control. Versions of this idea became a major theme in 20th century art and it was Duchamp who opened up this territory.
You could say, then, that Duchamp was the bridge from the Romanticism of the late 19th century to that of the 20th. He made Modernism safe for Romantics. He was carrying the Romantic legacy forward through the death of painting (or other media) into a new world. Duchamp said, “if you wish, my art would be that of living: each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral.” Or, as Greenberg put it about the Romantics, “denial of the medium.”
For 20 years at the end of his life, Duchamp did little more than play chess as his primary artistic activity. This was not done out of some nihilistic desire to destroy art. Duchamp did it because he was trying to find a medium completely untainted by aesthetics. No medium at all, just the Absolute. Secretly, while he told everyone that he was done with art and only playing chess, Duchamp was working on his last great creation. He called it Étant donnés. Étant donnés is a peephole through a wooden door. Behind the door is a park where lays a corpse. The corpse is naked and splayed out so that one looks directly at the genitals of the naked, dead woman. Among other things, it is the work of an artist who, as Greenberg puts it, is ashamed that he is producing art. For the Romantic artist, being ashamed is a good thing. It means that you refuse to confuse the tool with the truth. Amusingly, the Romantic art of shame has proved far more resilient than any of the forms of art that Clement Greenberg championed, like Abstract Expressionism. 100 years on and we are still dancing around the bride.
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