Marcel Duchamp, Living, Chess, Letters, Mallarme, Knausgård, Gluten-Free Bakeries, Mad Men, Eroticism, Glass, Arnesberg & The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even
by Bobbi Lurie
I took a photo of Marcel Duchamp’s words inside the glass.
Turning to me, 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.”
I did not know what to say. “If each second is a work of art, why the preference for chess?”
“It has all the beauty of art — and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position”.
I did not feel any of this at The Marshal Chess Club… “But you continued to make art secretly, while you were playing chess …”
“In my life chess and art stand at opposite poles, but do not be deceived. Chess is not merely a mechanical function. It is plastic, so to speak. Each time I make a movement of the pawns on the board, I create a new form, a new pattern, and in this way I am satisfied by the always changing contour.”
He puffed on his cigar, blowing smoke in my face, “It’s very important for me not to be engaged with any group. I want to be free, I want to be free from myself, almost.”
I stood silent, wanting to let his words sink in.
“And,” he added, “I have never felt a pressing need to express myself… morning, noon and night.”
I could feel myself blush. I looked down at my hands.
“Instead of spending my life creating works of art in the form of paintings or sculptures,” he said, “I now believe that you can quite readily treat your life, the way you breathe, act, interact with other people, as a picture, a tableau vivant or a film scene, so to speak. These are my conclusions now: I never set out to do this when I was 20 or 15, but I realize, after many years, that this was fundamentally what I was aiming to do.”
The bookstore was beautiful and Duchamp looked happy staring through the glass. I left Duchamp to his solitude.
I walked to The Remainder Table. There was a used book of Duchamp’s letters. I opened it and read:
Even a few words I don’t feel like writing.
You know exactly what I think about photography
I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else
Will make photography unbearable __
There we are.
I believe I understood what he was saying, though I forget what I thought he meant.
I opened another page:
210 West 14th St. New York
Dec. 3rd 1953
I could not write you any sooner I felt that you don’t want to see anyone or hear any of the polite expressions of sorrow which irritate more than help.
… he is able to recognize this…
Beatrice has let me know step by step Louis’ fatal journey and I don’t want to mention the torments you had to go through in the last year.
Oh, he still knows Beatrice Wood, after all these years.
But you Walter have to face a new reality and do you want to face it?
One human asking another human a vital question. Such a rare occurrence!
I knew I could never leave him.
“Art is the gap.”
I turned around and faced Marcel Duchamp. He looked tired.
What could I possibly ask him? “You still talk about art. I thought it was chess you loved.”
“People get the wrong idea about my not painting,” Duchamp led me to another room in the bookstore. “It’s true and it’s not true at the same time. But I did not take a vow. That’s all nonsense…Yes a myth. I’m ready to paint if I have an idea. But it’s the idea that counts.”
I remembered quitting art school.
“The hardest was when I told myself ‘Marcel no more painting, go get a job.’ I looked for a job in order to get enough time to paint “for myself.” I got a job as a librarian in Paris in the Bibliotheque St Genevieve. It was a wonderful job because I had so many hours to myself. There are two kinds of artist: the artist that deals with society, is integrated into society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has no obligations…I didn’t want to depend upon my painting for a living.”
Duchamp pointed to a book on a top shelf. It was a book on Mallarmé. “A great figure,” said Duchamp. “Modern art must return to the direction traced by Mallarmé. It must be an intellectual and not merely an animal expression.” Duchamp motioned me to take it down Mallarmé’s book. I saw a ladder and pulled it to the shelf. I got on the ladder, almost falling, but I managed to bring the book down safely. I opened it. Marcel Duchamp pointed to Mallarme’s words:
I have descended deep enough into the void to be able to speak with certainty. Beauty alone exists and it has only one perfect expression, Poetry. Everything else is a lie – except in the case of those who live the life of the body – love and, for that love of the mind, friendship.
I felt I would faint. I excused myself.
I don’t know what made me run outside but it was a relief to breathe fresh air. I sat on a bench outside the bookstore, looking at The Gluten-Free Bakery next door. I felt jittery at the sight of health food freaks, piling into the bakery to buy some cold-pressed organic juice or some artificial semblance of a bagel, made of something like seaweed. I thought of the pile of “cancer diet” books I doused with lighter fluid before I left.
A poster taped outside the bookstore announced an upcoming reading by Karl Ove Knausgård. I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face.
“I stay in the shade. It’s marvelous. Everyone else, however heads for the sun to get tan; I hate it.”
Marcel Duchamp was leaning against a wall of posters and graffiti. I wanted to take a photo. But I feared he would vanish. I force myself to speak.
“I still don’t understand what you saw in chess.”
I wasn’t sure he heard me. After some moments, I gave up wanting to hear him speak. And then he spoke.
“ … the milieu of chess players is far more sympathetic that that of artists. These people are completely cloudy … the way the artist is supposed to be, and isn’t, in general. Madmen …” as Duchamp kept speaking I saw he was standing in front of an old Mad Men Season 7 poster.
Duchamp pointed at the bakery, asking me what a gluten-free bakery was. “It’s fake food which makes people feel they’ll live forever.”
“Amusing,” he said.
Duchamp pointed to the poster of Knausgård.
“I did as few things as possible, which isn’t like the current attitude of making as many as you can… “
“That’s a wonderful quality,” I said. “To do less.”
I took a deep breath and looked at Duchamp. I was growing fond of his pink shirt with green stripes.
Duchamp puffed on his cigar. “I look at myself from above – I see every action like a chess move – an endgame,” he said.
I thought of “Endgame” – Samuel Beckett’s play and Duchamp’s book on chess.
“Did you ever play chess with Samuel Beckett?” I had to ask him this pressing question. “Your widow, Teeny, said you didn’t. … But … I always think of you as Hamm … ”
Duchamp pointed to the poster of “Mad Man, starring Jon Hamm” – Marcel Duchamp looked delighted with himself, puffing on his cigar, pointing to the word “Hamm.” He asked me to tell him who Jon Hamm was.
“Jon Hamm is an actor who plays Don Draper, the lead role in the television series called Mad Man,” I said. “Don Draper works in advertising. His job is to get people to buy things they don’t need.”
“Amusing,” said Duchamp. He told me of his escapades selling Picabias and Brancusis. He loved sales. He said Alfred Steiglitz rejected him for going into sales. “One has to eat,” he said.
“The shop window is proof of the existence of the outside world.” Duchamp pointed to the Gluten-Free Bakery, saying people believe they’ll get a cake which will give them eternal youth but it will only make them fat. Duchamp said all desire leads to futility. He spoke about his “Large Glass,” “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.”
“The penalty consists in cutting the pane and in feeling regret as soon as the possession is consummated,” he said.
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
The Large Glass, is an artwork by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp worked on the piece from 1915 to 1923
“Well, Don Draper never seemed happy as a married man,” I said, thinking of the bride … and her bachelors.
Duchamp said he realized early “that it wasn’t necessary to encumber one’s life with too much weight, with too many things to do, with what is called a wife, children, a country house, an automobile.”
He said he was just as free of the compulsion to work as an artist as he was of bourgeois encumbrances. His job as a librarian was a way of cutting ties with artists who took movements and programs more seriously than he. He saw it as “a sort of excuse for not being obliged to show up socially.”
He said he only cared about eroticism, desire and the impossibility of its fulfillment in the three-dimensional world.
“Eroticism is a subject very dear to me,” he said, “and I certainly applied this liking, this love, to my Glass. In fact I thought the only excuse for doing anything is to introduce eroticism into life. Eroticism is close to life, closer than philosophy or anything like it, it’s an animal thing that has many facets as is pleasing to use, as you would use a tube of paint, to inject into your production so to speak. It’s there stripped bare. It’s a form of fantasy. It has a little to do also… the stripped bare probably had even a naughty connotation with Christ. You know that Christ was stripped bare and it was a naughty form of introducing eroticism and religion…”
Duchamp spoke again of the impossibility of fulfillment.
“Sentimental love,” he said, “does not exist. I’ll tell you what’s good: friendship and affection. As for the physiological function that you have to be two for, well, it isn’t important at all, no more than dinner for two.”
“I consider you my friend,” I said.
“I can call very few my friends.”
“It doesn’t matter between us,” I said. “You are dead. I search for the words you spoke in your life. It helps me understand my own life.”
Duchamp said I reminded him of Arnesberg, his principal American patron who, after quitting poetry, founded a society to prove it was Francis Bacon who had written all of Shakespeare.. . “His system was to find, in the text…allusions to all sorts of things; it was a game for him, like chess, which he enjoyed immensely. … Arnesberg twisted words to make them say what he wanted, like everyone who does that kind of work.”
He pointed his cigar at me, took a puff, and blew smoke in my face.
Before I could ask Duchamp what he meant, he pointed at a flyer, asking me what global warming was. I answered and he laughed. Duchamp said there were no greenhouse gases. He said the only gases were those of desire, and the impossibility of its fulfillment.
“Is this why you never finished “The Large Glass?”
“In the end you lose interest, so I didn’t feel the necessity to finish it,” he said.
“I feel the same way about finishing Mad Men,” I said.
Duchamp turned to the Mad Men poster, asking me if I saw Season 7.
“No,” I said. “I interviewed Don Draper before the writers of the show destroyed his imaginary existence. The last show I saw took place in November, 1968,” I said.
Duchamp’s face took on a green tinge. He looked at me with an intensity I had never seen before, not even when he spoke of Breton.
Marcel Duchamp told me he died on October 2, 1968.
He looked down at his hands, then looked back at me and said, “ … art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by time and space.” He turned away from me, mumbling something about wanting to see the end of The Sixties, wanting to see what happened right after he died.
“I’ll find a way to watch Season 7 with you,” I said.
“The artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing,” he said.
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.