Marcel Duchamp on Art, Artists, Readymades and Twitter, Even
by Bobbi Lurie
New York was buried in snow.
I got a taxi on Sixth. There was a three-car collision. I gasped when I saw the ambulance.
I paid the driver, ran out of the cab, dodging people and puddles of slush, slipping on ice. By the time I got to MacDougal Street, my suede boots were soaked, my feet freezing.
Marcel Duchamp was waiting in the cafe, sitting by the window, smoking a cigar, looking out into the distance…
I stared at him in amazement. I had never met a dead man before.
He waved at me. Perhaps because I was staring. Or did he know who I was? As soon as I got to his table, he pointed to a poster of Super Mario Bros. It must have been there for years. Half of the poster was torn off the wall. “I like this, you know,” he said. “What do you think?”
I didn’t know what to say.
He turned back towards the poster, then motioned me to the chair across from him. I sat.
I introduced myself, stuttering out my name, thanking him for meeting me. He was very polite, very patient. There was no judgment in his face.
“Th-th-this place has changed,” The smell of urine was overwhelming. “I haven’t been h-here f-for years. I’m sorry. It’s n-not as nice as it once was. W-w-would you like to go somewhere else?”
I thought he spoke English. I forgot all my French.
“I’m so against interior decorators,” he said.
Relieved that he spoke English, I sat down. “I’m s-s-so s-surp-prised we’re meeting… “Why m-me?” I felt weak. My words were coming out wrong.
“… one should wait 50 years or 100 years for one’s true receiver. That is the only receiver who interests me,” he said.
I forced myself to look straight into his face, his gray complexion.
I knew I was blushing. I looked down into my bag, hoping to hide my inability to understand the grand articulators of art and its invented meanings. I was an etcher, a physical laborer of sorts. But Marcel Duchamp’s grandfather was an etcher as well. I never felt easy speaking to artists who never made things which required the physical stamina and conviction to process which led, inevitably, to relinquishment of control. Duchamp had been an etcher. As had my friends from our-once Seventeenth Street studio. All of them were dead. Cancer… Working with toxic chemicals in an unventilated space. Yes. We die for art.
I opened my bag, pulled out the sheet of paper with my list of possible questions.
My heart was pounding; I was sweating.
“I hope y-y-you don’t mind my asking you some questions …” He looked at me. He nodded.
I looked down at my questions.
“Since you’ve stopped m-m-,” oh, I didn’t want to stutter … “m-making art … and now that you can’t p-play chess, how do you spend your time?” I felt foolish, not only because I was stuttering but I was afraid he might think I was referring to death. He smiled at me, not in a condescending way, but in the way someone smiles when they are, or were, at ease in their own skin. He told me he hated speaking so I shouldn’t be self-conscious about the way I spoke.
“Oh, I’m a breather,” he said, “I’m a respirateur, isn’t that enough?”
I couldn’t think of a response.
“That’s our lot on earth, we have to breathe,” he said.
A waiter came to our table and handed me a menu. “No smoking here,” the waiter said, and then walked away.
I explained New York smoking laws to Marcel Duchamp. He mumbled something under his breath, in French.
Marcel Duchamp put the cigar in his pocket.
“So,” I said, watching smoke coming out of his pocket, “why do you say you are a “b-b-breather” and how is th-that enough?” Of course this was a stupid thing to ask a dead man but…
He went into length about how important it was “to breathe, to live life at a different tempo and different scale from the way most of us live.”
The waiter came back. I asked him for an espresso. “I need nothing,” Marcel said softly, seemingly to himself.
I felt at ease being with Marcel Duchamp. I told him I wanted to ask him about art, the art world in which he lived versus the one now, in 2014. He told me he hated talking about art. But when he used the word “hate,” there wasn’t a trace of “hate’ in his voice. In fact, he laughed when he used the word “hate,” as if that word could not possibly be part of his vocabulary.
Anyway it sounded like he said “ate.”
He spoke of “retinal” art, art that appealed only to the eye.
I was trying to focus on his words but my thoughts kept spinning around the fact that Marcel Duchamp had actually come to meet me. He stopped speaking and turned to look out the window. I stared at his shirt; it was pink with green stripes.
“Is that r-retinal art?” I asked, pointing to the poster of Super Mario Bros., hoping to engage him in conversation.
He laughed. “Everything and anything is art….” He looked back at the poster … “… I would call that a readymade,” he said, pointing to the torn poster, then pointing to the wall of graffiti. “The curious thing about the readymade is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me. The idea has maintained its magic; that is probably for the better – better than trying to be clear … I’m not at all sure that the concept of the readymade isn’t the most important single idea to come out of my work.”
The waiter brought my espresso to the table.
“Yes. Your readymades changed everything,” I said.
Duchamp went on to say he was only interested in the mind.
He pulled the cigar out of his pocket and put it in his mouth. It was still lit.
He blew smoke into the air, pointing to the design it made.
“It looks like Ab-abstract Expressionism, or Impressionism,” I said, feeling foolish as soon as the words left my mouth.
“Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism are completely retinal,” he said. “I simply have no interest in them.”
I turned around to see if the waiter saw him smoking. Duchamp puffed away and laughed.
“Artists are so self-serious,” he said.
“I f-feel foolish for comparing cigar smoke to an art movement,” I said.
“Language and thinking in words are man’s great enemies,” he said.
We sat in silence for a while.
He put the cigar back in his pocket. I was grateful.
“I think the great artist of tomorrow … cannot be seen,” he said. “He may be recognized after his death … but he may not be recognized at all. Going underground means not having to deal in money terms with society.”
“Please say more,” I said.
“Tradition has been created by serious people who considered life a serious business and that it was necessary to produce serious things so that serious posterity would understand everything that these people, serious for their epoch, had done. I wanted to get rid of that .… anything I come up with should be given a fourth-dimensional look, so that we can come to see some other side of it that might even be contrary to whatever importance it has or design it makes. I would try to see it with another set of sense, hmmm? It’s been like that all my life. That’s why I say I’m not that interested in art, it’s one occupation, it’s not all my life, far from it.”
“But you are the hero of so many artists,” I said. “You changed the course of art history. John Cage said you made everything possible.”
“The artist doesn’t count … he does not count,” Duchamp repeated, for emphasis. “Society takes what he wants. … the interaction of the onlooker … makes the painting. Without that, the painting would disappear in an attic… It’s always based on the two poles, the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from that bipolar action gives birth to something – like electricity. Don’t say that the artist is a great thinker because he produces it. The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, “You have produced something marvelous.” The onlooker has the last word on it.”
I asked if he ever presented these ideas to artists in his day. “I tried,” he said, “but … you don’t argue with artists, you just say words, and they say words, and there is absolutely no connection. Absolutely none. Beautiful on both sides, full of new words and flourishing language and so forth, but no actual exchange and no understanding of the other one’s ideas.”
“No understanding?” I never heard an artist say this before.
“In the case of the Impressionists it could be a very useful thing – one artist would say a word that caught the imagination of the others, that’s true. But it’s a very artificial thing.”
“But what about all of the relationships you had with artists?”
“They’re such supreme egos,” he said. “It’s disgusting. I’ve never seen anything worse than an artist as a mind. It is very low, uninteresting as far as the relationship of men is concerned.”
He stopped speaking.
He turned toward the couple beside us. They were both staring into their phones. “Everyone is holding a machine here,” he said.
“They are probably tweeting.”
He didn’t seem to hear me.
I sipped on my espresso, watching him watch them. He laughed and turned back to me. I put my cup down.
He pointed to my cup, saying, “everything is tautology, except black coffee because the senses are in control: the eyes see the black coffee, the senses are in control, it’s the truth; but the rest is always tautology.”
He turned again, fascinated that people were more interested in their machines than the three-dimensional people beside them.
The silence between us felt natural; I didn’t want to interrupt it with words but how else could I do an interview? “Was it that way with S-surrealism?” I didn’t know what else to ask.
He looked confused. “I mean, d-do you feel the same way about The Surrealists as you do about The Impressionists?”
“Today the young generation takes it so damn seriously so that Surrealism is … a bore. It is too dogmatic … they are not inventive or imaginative; they use all the ideas they have seen or heard about, use them for dogmatic form, and probably write books about it.” He laughed.
“What about Dada?” I no longer felt self-conscious. I felt free to ask him anything.
“I didn’t take part in their manifestations,” he said. ”I never had the attitude of the ham actor, which you had to have to be a Dada, because you were onstage performing all the time … “He laughed again. I was grateful for his words. He was the first artist who seemed to understand why I avoid readings. “I…I…” I realized he was talking about chess. I didn’t understand everything he said but he was far more passionate about chess than about art.
“H-how is it that you accept the seriousness of the chess world but not the seriousness of the art world?”
“…you see, chess … took the shape of a real competition, man to man. It’s a competition between your mind and his mind. It’s complete – there are no bizarre conclusions like in art… The beautiful combinations that people invent in chess are Cartesian. It’s pure logic, conclusion, and it cannot be refuted…” I drifted off as he spoke, thinking how unbelievable it was that I was here with Marcel Duchamp on MacDougal Street in 2014. I forced myself back into the present. “You don’t know why you breathe, after all,” he said. I feared I missed something important.
The waiter came and put our check face down on our table, not asking if we wanted anything else.
“Artists are competitive,” I said, seeing the printmaker who stole a huge assignment from me, years ago, after pretending to be my friend. I managed to avoid him all these years … I watched him survey the café.
“I find that so stupid,” he said. “There should not be any competition. I mean there is nothing to compete for except the money. It’s just a form of disguised envy, don’t you think?”
Yes, of course I thought so …
Marcel Duchamp said even his brothers preferred not to ruffle the feathers of prevalent public opinion because they could not resist the seductive power of temporary attention.
I was trying to remember the printmaker’s name. I remembered his viscosity prints and I remembered going out with him once or twice, but I forgot his name. “Are you close friends with other artists?” I asked, wondering if the printmaker would recognize me. Or Marcel Duchamp. He walked past our table, no sign of recognition on his face.
“Never very close friendships,” he said. A shock went through me. Marcel Duchamp posed in many photos with artists. ”I was very friendly with them, and they with me … I’ve never been a bond-ish man, because I don’t believe in talking. Here we have been talking … But don’t believe what I say!”
I thought of how I forced myself to quit Twitter after realizing I deleted almost everything I tweeted. I was fascinated with the form of turning statements into 140 characters but I rarely felt at ease with words, especially with words instantaneously recorded on the nets of the internet. My need to delete was always greater than my need to tweet. Words were a burden.
“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted,” he said, as if reading my mind, “language is just no damn good — I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”
Then he complained about the speed with which artists completed their work when he was alive. Again, I thought of Twitter. “ … when you do a thing, you don’t do it in five minutes … I think there’s an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression.”
He turned again to the couple beside us. He looked back at me … “I produced so little, and everything I produced took me quite a long time.”
I started to question him about ”Etant donnés” the piece he worked on, secretly, for twenty years, after announcing he was giving up art. He was obviously uncomfortable with my question, so I stopped. I didn’t care about the interview anymore. I wanted to understand.
Marcel Duchamp sat silent. He seemed far away, lost in reverie. Then, he spoke of the death of art, which he described as “posterity, meaning art history.” He said “history” means death and so anything which is recorded permanently as a part of history is dead.”
I thought of the internet. I made a note on my sheet of possible questions: the internet kills art by turning everything into a permanent record.
“…you must not give it the reward of being sort of religion-like,” he said. “It’s not even as good as God.” He laughed.
He asked me about my own work.
“Art is a drug,” he said in response.
“Yes,” I said, “that is very true. I enjoyed making art but the actual things I made…”
I didn’t know how to finish the sentence and I didn’t want to waste his time. “Paintings fill my house and I have too many unpublished manuscripts littering my bookshelves.” He pulled the cigar out of his pocket as he listened. The waiter rushed over to stop him … “The waiter’s going to tell you to put out the cigar,” I said.
He mumbled something in French, put the cigar back in his pocket. He looked back at me and told me I should have someone look at my work before I get rid of it. “If there’s no onlooker there’s no art …it’s a little game between the onlooker and the artist…like roulette, or like a drug … So the magic part of it – I don’t believe it anymore. I’m afraid I’m an agnostic in art, so to speak. I don’t believe in it with all the trimmings, the mystic trimming and the reverence trimming and so forth. As a drug it’s very useful to many people. It’s a sedative drug.”
He was the first artist I ever met who mirrored my sentiments exactly.
“There’s the psychological aspect, of the artist,” he said, “setting himself on a pedestal. The artist does anything to think that he’s going to be part of the Louvre or the Metropolitan….That’s another chapter of life, the chapter of ambition. But you have that in business, too. You have that everywhere.”
“The internet …” I stopped myself from continuing. I waited for him to speak.
“Anything systematized becomes sterile very soon,” he said. “There is nothing that has eternal value. It’s according to the way society takes it.”
I told him I wish I never participated in social media.
“I never try to judge or criticize anything,” he said. “When you see something that you haven’t seen before … what can you prove with your words? The words you use … making judgments have absolutely no value. …Just turn your back to it if you want but don’t bother writing about it or thinking about it.”
He interrupted me, “Even if you make a mistake by liking something that you shouldn’t, for whatever reasons, there’s much more to love than in hatred.” He laughed again. “I mean, what’s the use of hating? You’re just using up your energy, and die sooner.”
We both fell silent.
I looked at my sheet of paper of possible questions. I crossed out the one about “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.” I had wanted to ask him what made him decide to sign it as “definitely unfinished” after working on it for eight years. But his negative response to my bringing up “Etant donnés,” forced me to drop it. Instead I asked the question I feared asking most, the one about his two studios, one public and one secretive.
“The life of an artist is like the life of a monk … it is an ordination … you must go underground.”
Marcel Duchamp stood up, pulled the cigar out of his pocket, and put it in his mouth.
I asked if I could take his photograph. He gave me a smirk.
I managed to take a photo but I had obviously upset him.
He walked out the door without another word.
I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my wallet and put it on the table.
I followed him.
Quotes from Marcel Duchamp are taken from De Ou Par Marcel Duchamp Par Ulf Linde, edited by Daniel Birnbaum and Jan Aman, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews by Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp, toutfait.com, The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, and six months of Google alerts
About the Author:
Bobbi Lurie’s fourth poetry collection, the morphine poems, was recently published by Otoliths. Her other books are Grief Suite, Letter from the Lawn and The Book I Never Read (CW Books). Her television reviews for Berfrois can be found here.