Marcel Duchamp, Selfies, Pre-Selfies & Chess, While Thinking of James Franco


Marcel Duchamp playing chess, Kay Bell Reynal, 1952

by Bobbi Lurie

Marcel Duchamp accompanied me out of his apartment.

As we descended the staircase, I said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Duchamp looked quizzically at me. I said, “Nothing terribly interesting has happened in The Art World since your death.” He didn’t seem surprised. He said, “…That’s what’s irritating … I’m sure that when people like Seurat started to do something, they really just wiped the past right out. Even the Fauves, even the Cubists did it. It seems that today, more than at any other time there are strong ties to the past. It lacks audacity, originality … ”

After Duchamp left, I waited on the steps, hoping he’d come back.

Every day after that, I stood outside The Italian Restaurant on Fourteenth Street until it closed. I didn’t even smoke. The guy from The Korean Market often came out to talk to me. I must have looked pathetic, staring into the cracked glass of an empty restaurant. I did this for a week. I also tried to sneak behind the restaurant and walk up the five flights of stairs to Marcel’s flat. I wasn’t able to do that. A barrier of wooden crates had been placed in front of the staircase, along with a placard: “STAY AWAY. WET PAINT”

During these days without Duchamp, I interviewed possible tenants so I could sublet The Studio again. That was my reason for being in New York. Artist after artist departed due to the formidable cost of living in the city.

I dreaded subletting The Studio again. I felt the presence of my friends, urging me to rent to someone who made art. I rented it to a man who said he was a sculptor. I needed to get back to New Mexico where I could stop mourning my dead friends.

When I got back to New Mexico I felt an urge to get rid of the books I’d never read again.


One obvious author to eliminate was Anaïs Nin. Had Anaïs Nin’s work been categorized under “fiction,” I never would have read it. But she called her work “diaries.” I have kept a diary since I was seven. I spent my childhood planning to live a life like Anaïs Nin’s, a life she never lived.

Whether it was fate or coincidence, while taking books to one of the still-open libraries willing to accept my offerings, I dropped one of the books in the mud. When I went to pick it up, I was shocked to see one of Anaïs Nin’s diaries, opened to a page from 1935, with a description of Marcel Duchamp. She wrote that he

… looks like a man who died long ago. He plays chess instead of painting because that is the nearest to complete immobility, the most natural pose to a man who died. His skin seems made of parchment and his eyes of glass.

Of course I would never believe anything written by Anaïs Nin. Still, she, too, saw Marcel Duchamp as a dead man. Her words made me realize how much I missed him. I missed the parchment of his skin; I missed his eyes, which looked like glass.


Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was called back to New York to sublet The Studio again. The so-called sculptor I rented it to was starting fires on the roof. The other tenants were furious.

Flying back to New York, Anaïs Nin’s words reverberated in my head:

… looks like a man who died long ago. He plays chess instead of painting because that is the nearest to complete immobility, the most natural pose to a man who died. His skin seems made of parchment and his eyes of glass.

Regardless, I was determined not to seek him out. Finding solace in a dead man can only lead to sorrow. I planned simply to interview possible tenants who could pay the rent.


Landing in LaGuardia, I bought some type of latte at one of the fast food joints still open late at night. There, on the table, face up, was the opinion section of The New York Times.

Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times, wrote a dismissive, sarcastic review blasting James Franco, the actor, for appropriating Cindy Sherman’s, “Untitled Film Stills” from the late 1970s. Her verdict was that Franco should only work at film. Every review I read after that was an appropriation of Roberta Smith’s opinion.

I remembered Duchamp saying that art dies like people do. After forty or fifty years a picture dies because its freshness disappears. I looked closer at photos of James Franco’s selfies and saw Cindy Sherman’s pre-selfies in a new light. I laughed. And when I laughed, I thought of Marcel Duchamp, even though I tried to think of James Franco.


I talked about the James Franco exhibition, and Roberta Smith’s opinion, to anyone who would listen. I had no desire to see the show myself. I knew what it was. And it was enough for me to see reproductions of James Franco’s photos. One made me choke on my Nescafe, while showing The Studio to a guy who said he was a welder. I later learned the welder stole the envelope of cutups I was making of James Franco. He also stole the half-empty pack of cigarettes I saved from my last time with Marcel Duchamp. I was actually going to the fridge to bring him a coke when the possible tenant left, with my stuff.


I had enough. I wondered what made me think of renting The Studio to that guy. He betrayed my trust. He laughed at my cutups. Then he stole them.

The loneliness of betrayal overwhelmed me. Who was there to trust? Not art critics and not possible tenants. Certainly not Roberta Smith. Definitely not Cindy Sherman. Maybe not even James Franco.


I needed to get out. I walked down to Canal Street to see if an old friend still worked there. But Pearl Paint was shut down.

This could only mean one thing: all the artists were gone.

Bereft with a sense of the growing cultural vacuum in Manhattan, I walked north. At least parts of The Village remained as I imagined they might have been. I was struck with a strong sense of nostalgia for something I had never seen. I was imbued with the certainty that it was impossible to express such a feeling through the handicap of language.

As I walked north, I thought of Marcel Duchamp.


Wasn’t it Socrates who said one is capable of being the closest of friends to a dead artist? Whether it was Socrates or not, my loyalty towards Marcel Duchamp increased as I walked up the gentrified streets.

Marcel Duchamp’s being dead made things all the more significant. A living artist will use or feel used; it’s a constant fluctuation of mutual abuse due to the fake nature of The Art World. But a dead artist is completely capable of being a friend. And a man who is dead when he lives, as Anaïs Nin seemed to be saying of Marcel Duchamp … to be dead and indifferent to this world … this, I believe, is something of philosophy.

I was gripped with the need to reach Marcel Duchamp in any way I could. I tried The Italian Restaurant but did not go to The Café on MacDougal Street because I realized our talk of The Art World might have sent Duchamp underground. I decided my only chance of finding him was through his love of chess.

I searched for an internet connection and spent the rest of the day in a cafe reading everything I could on Marcel Duchamp and chess …

I learned that Duchamp married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor in 1927. It was a marriage of convenience. It only lasted six months. His bride was so frustrated by his chess obsession that she glued all the chess pieces to the board while he was asleep. That was followed by their divorce.

In 1930, he played his greatest number of tournament chess games. He played in an international tournament in Nice in April. In May, he played in an international tournament in Paris.

He also became a chess journalist.

In 1932, along with Vitaly Halbertstadt (1903-1967), he wrote L’opposition et cases conjuguees sont reconciliees (Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled). It was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies by L’Echiquier, Edmond Lancel, in Brussels. It is a study of some endgames, including one that arose from Lasker vs Reicheim in 1901. It was written in French, English and German.

I needed to learn more.


The next day I walked up to Thompson where, according to Google, a place called “Chess Forum” still existed. A guy with arms and neck thick with tattoos of dragons and snakes, stood outside the shop, smoking. “Can I help you?” He had a kind face. I felt at ease speaking to him about Marcel Duchamp. I brought up James Franco. He stood silent, not comprehending a thing I said so I condensed my request, “I’m looking for writings and photographs of Marcel Duchamp.”

“Check in the back,” he said, looking down at his iPhone.

I walked to the back of the narrow shop, filled with fetid air from the past. I strained my eyes, searching among the photographs hung high above the remainder table of chess manuals.

“D’ya find anything?” asked the guy with the iPhone. He was standing behind me. I wanted to get out of that shop.

“No,” I said. “But h-have you heard of The Marshall Chess Club? I think that’s the name of the place he used to play.” I feared I would never find a trace of Marcel Duchamp’s world of chess.

“That’s on Tenth,” he said. He pulled a business card out of his wallet and jotted down the address of The Marshall Chess Club on the back.

We said goodbye. He wished me luck. An old man was staring at me while I spoke. I said “hello” to him before I left.


I felt my body float up Fifth Avenue, as if in a dream. Spring was a wound of beauty.

I reached The Marshall Chess Club in a few minutes. I rang the bell. I was instantly buzzed in. I entered a dark corridor leading to creaky wooden steps covered with dark rugs. One of the steps at the top of the stairs gave way beneath my feet. A man grabbed my arm to keep me from falling. After, he asked, “Coon I help ze?”


I asked him if he knew Marcel Duchamp

“Of course I do,” he said, “He vas vun of ze originators of Za Marshall Chess Club. Do you want to see him?”

See him? Did this man see him too?

I felt a shock go through me. But the man with the thick German accent returned with a framed photo of Marcel Duchamp, a photo which looked like a diploma, Duchamp’s framed face centered between photos of other men who played chess.


“Do ze know vat Marcel Duchamp hast zed?” The German man looked excited to tell me. “He zed “not all ze artists aahe …” A little boy of some indeterminate age before puberty, came up to the German man and asked for a Sprite. The German man walked to the corner of the room, over to a large pile of crates of soda and pulled a Sprite out, handing it to young boy. Once the boy was settled with his soda, the German man walked back to me, eager to finish what he started to say, “Vhere vus I?” he asked.

I looked around the narrow room, chess pieces all over the floor, as if a war had been lost; folding chairs stacked up in the corner, some kids were poking a skinny kid in the ribs. The skinny kid was trying to ignore them.

“Oh, yes,” said the man with the German accent, “he zed not effery artist ist une chess …”

There was a fight in the corner of the room. A group of boys were wrestling the one with the Sprite. The man with the German accent went back and forth to the crates of sodas until he managed to give every child a soda of their own. Then he returned to me. I was standing at the window, looking out at the apartments across the street. I could see the placard in front of Emma Lazarus’s house: “Give me your tired, your poor …” I felt sad thinking of those words.

“Marcel Duchamp. He used to live there.” The German man stretched his long arm out in front of me, pointing excitedly, to one of the many apartments across the street. I wanted to ask him which one it was but then he said, “Vhot vus I saying?”

“Y-you said “N-not all artists are …”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “Not all artists play ze chess but …”

An old man shuffled up to the German man, motioning him to bend down so he could whisper in his ear “Excuz ma, pleez,” said the German, leaning down to listen to the old man. He turned back to finish his sentence, “He zed effrry chess player ist une artist but not all ze artists play chess.” He laughed. I laughed as well, happy he had finally finished his sentence. A woman came up to us, carrying a basket of papayas. “No, zank ya,” said the German. She walked right past me.

He pointed out the window again. “Duchamp once he’z lived across za strait. Then he moved ta Fourteens Strait.” Again, I wanted to ask exactly which apartment it was but a man handed the German a check. “This is for last month,” he said.

“Yes,” I know,” I said. “I mean, I knew he moved to Fourteenth Street …” I couldn’t get the German’s attention. He was talking with the man who gave him the check.

I looked down at my hands; after a moment I looked back up.

The German had walked to the corner of the room, he leaned down to pick some pamphlets up. “Here,” he said, coming back to me, handing me a list of upcoming chess tournaments and a registration form to join The Marshall Chess Club. I looked down at the registration form. By the time I looked up, the German was gone. All I saw were children drinking sodas.

I walked down the rickety steps, holding onto the railing.

When I walked outside, I waved back at the German who was leaning out the window.

The musty smell of the Marshall Chess Club lingered in my hair, clung to my skin.

I walked down Fifth Avenue on my way back downtown, feeling dejected amidst the pink blossoms of spring.


At the entrance to Washington Square Park, I remembered the concrete chessboards where old men and The Homeless would sit and play chess. I decided not to enter.

I turned away from the park and walked east, passing people who seemed unaware that it was spring; they were all staring into their cell phones, texting or tweeting strangers, or maybe friends, believing that, just because they write, someone reads on the other end. I thought of Twitter and its mesmerizing effects along with the power of unfollowing those who do not satisfy the need to feel read. No wonder people looked happy on their cell phones: they could end a dialogue whenever their monologue was done. The idea of relationship has become arcane; all the best friends are dead. I realized I could just speak out loud to the air, to my imaginary Marcel Duchamp, and I would simply look like everyone else.

“I looked at your chess world,” I said to the air, “It looks dull. Duller than art. Is it true you loved chess more than art?”

“It’s not a serious matter, but it does exist.”

I turned around. These words came from a man dressed in the same pink shirt with green strips as Marcel Duchamp’s. The man was bent over laughing, picking up some rusted piece of junk someone left on the street. He put the object closer to his face, then threw it back into the street. I looked at his gray face.

“W-w-would you like to go have coffee with me at the cafe where we first met?” These words came out of my mouth, I knew not how.

Marcel Duchamp looked at me quizzically, stating the obvious, that he was dead and had no need of sustenance from the earth.

“But when I saw you at The Italian Restaurant on Fourteenth Street you were eating and drinking…you looked as if you were starving … ”

Marcel took a puff of his cigar. “I force myself to contradict myself …..” he started to say…

“I know,” I forced myself to respond. “I know you contradict yourself. In order to avoid conforming to your own tastes.” I said a few words about Roberta Smith’s fury over James Franco’s appropriation of Cindy Sherman’s work.

” … a man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready-made things like even his own mother and father,” said Duchamp.

“I’m sorry to even speak about this,” I said.

“Gout … dégoût …”

I forgot my French.

“The more I live among artists,” he said, looking down at his hands, “the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get to be successful in the smallest way.” He looked into my face; his eyes did look like glass. “This means also that all the dogs around the artist are crooks … Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “art game.” In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much.” It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums – so much for posterity … If you like some paintings, some painters, look at their work, but don’t try to change a crook into an honest man or a fake into a fakir.” He looked exhausted from having said so much.

“But what about your love of chess? How is that any better” I wanted to tell him about my visit to the chess club. I couldn’t finish. I don’t know why, but I started to cry. “New York itself is a work of art, a complete work of art,” he said, pointing at the buildings.

With absolute grace and poise, Marcel Duchamp offered me his arm. I brushed my tears away with the back of my hand. I started to put my arm through his but quickly pulled away, fearful of breaking any bones which may, or may not, exist beneath his shirt.

We walked for miles, through The East Village until we reached a tiny bookstore, planted between a non-dairy yogurt shop and a gluten-free bakery. Marcel Duchamp made a gesture for me to enter the bookstore. He followed me in and motioned me to a glass case. He pointed to the plaque inside the glass. It read:



Apologies if German accent written incorrectly – but my interaction with this man truly happened. And everything said by Marcel Duchamp was really said. References on request.

About the Author:


Bobbi Lurie is the author of four poetry collections, most recently “the morphine poems.” She writes for Berfrois. Other essays on Marcel Duchamp can be found here.