BY Kito Nedo in Interviews | 27 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 16

Public Personas

Art historian Sarah Archino explains her research on Duchamp and the press at the largest Duchamp collection in Europe, held in the Schwerin Museum

BY Kito Nedo in Interviews | 27 AUG 14

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, courtesy: Francis M. Naumann Fine Art

KITO NEDO You’re the third recipient of the Duchamp Research Scholarship, an annual endowment by the Staatliches Museum Schwerin. The museum holds the most signi­ficant Marcel Duchamp collection in Europe, with more than 90 works. How did you become interested in Duchamp?

SARAH ARCHINO If you study 20th century art, all roads lead to Duchamp. When I began writing my dissertation, I was focusing on New York Dada and trying to reeva­luate what Dada meant in America. Scholars looking back to that moment always saw New York Dada as weak or as insufficiently Dada compared to what happened in Europe. So I wanted to better understand how artists looked at their work in the 1910s and the early 1920s. Of course Duchamp was a key figure in New York’s art scene at the time. That really focused my attention to him.

KN The title of your research project at the Museum Schwerin is Don’t believe what you read: Marcel Duchamp and the American Press. How can Duchamp’s relationship to the press be characterized?

SA I think we can look at Duchamp’s manipulation of the press as another example of his art practice. When Duchamp moved to America in 1915, he was reacting to the press in his work and also in his behaviour. As a young artist in France, he had done illustrations for a number of Parisian humour magazines, so it wasn’t that he had no prior exposure to the world of print media. But when Duchamp came to America he was already a notorious, infamous artist. Two years before, at the Armory show in 1913 – the first truly inter­national, modern art exhibition in America – Duchamp’s canvas Nu descendant un escalier n° 2 (Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912) attracted an incredible amount of media attention.

KN In what way?

SA Newspapers ran all sorts of articles about how this work was impossible to understand or even a joke. People were suspicious – they thought they were being tricked. Papers reproduced the painting, offering ten dollars to the reader who could find the nude woman in the painting. There had been 1,400 artworks on display in the Armory show, but Nude Descending a Staircase was singled out by the press.

KN Do we know Duchamp’s reaction to this media outcry?

SA That is something that I am hoping to discover. I have not yet found a documented response. However, I am confident that he would have been aware of it and a little amused by the commotion caused by his painting. We know that he followed the sales from the Armory show. In fact, that painting was sold largely due to the publicity. My personal opinion is that this would have intrigued Duchamp who at that moment was starting to break away from traditional expec­tations of art and to think about alternatives.

KN Duchamp arrived in New York as a well-known artist. How did he deal with his reputation?

SA We know that he was very conscious of his public image, because he refused to speak to the media until he had a better understanding of English. His first interviews were really carefully crafted to create a sort of image of the artist. Then, as he lived longer in America, he started to publish himself, the magazines The Blind Man and Rongwrong (both 1917), for example.

KN So these publications were connected to Duchamp’s artistic output?

SA Yes. In 1917, when Duchamp sent the infamous Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York, he wanted The Blind Man to be circulated at the exhibition as well, as a sort of un­official catalogue. His involvement with that show was a multifaceted approach, far from a traditional submission. When the fountain was rejected from the show, the next issue of The Blind Man was devoted to a defense of the fountain, a defense of Richard Mutt, which was just Duchamp’s pseudonym at this point. The Blind Man becomes Duchamp’s medium to present the fountain to the public. The ori­ginal urinal was lost and never exhibited. The only way it was preserved was through a photograph and through that publication. I think it’s possible that this was Duchamp’s intention all along. It’s possible he was thinking of that publication as a way of not just circulating art, but actually as a way of becoming the art object itself.

KN Duchamp is often described as a manipulator. Why?

SA Throughout his life, he was very resistant to explaining his work. Many artists used the press to promote their ideas, to explain their artistic process or intentions. Duchamp was always more evasive. But I think he was very aware of crafting a public persona through the media. In this way he maybe foreshadowed someone like Andy Warhol. Duchamp understood that the media wanted an interesting quotation or angle that would capture readers’ attention. He gave these great soundbites, for example: ‘America is the country of the art of the future.’ He was creating a sort of media character – which was very different from who he was as a person: he was much more retiring and private.

KN So he used the press as a tool to foster his own myth?

SA We do see him being playful at times. In 1917, before the Society of Independent Artists exhibition, he gave an interview to Henry McBride, a critic for the New York Sun news­paper, and he lied! He talked about a painting that he was going to submit. So everyone was anticipating this painting which didn’t exist. Duchamp knew that everyone was waiting for him to do something outrageous, something challenging and icono­clastic. He gave them a red herring, then submitted the fountain – as Richard Mutt. He played with everyone’s expectations.

KN There are books of collected interviews that Duchamp gave, mostly from the 1960s. Why did he start giving lengthy interviews in his later years?

SA In the early 1960s there was a resurgence in interest in Duchamp and his work, coinciding with the rise of Pop art and Neo-Dada. The first attention actually came from California when artists there were examining the relationship between art and object. Duchamp began to give interviews at that stage of his career because people were interested in him again. He was then a senior figure in the art world and had this great history. Through him it was possible to understand not only Cubism and Dada, but to understand Surrealism and to consider exhibitions, because he had also curated shows. At that point he was also willing to start talking about his history, because he was looking back on his career: the tone of a lot of those interviews is very retrospective, full of reminiscences.

KN In 1969, the year after Duchamp died, Andy Warhol started Interview magazine. Would Duchamp have liked it?

SA I love Warhol’s Interview. But I think it is very different from any of the publishing projects Duchamp created. At that point, and this is part of the legacy, it’s a shift. Duchamp’s little magazines were more about the boundaries of art. My impression of Warhol’s Interview is that it was more about persona and about a kind of artist as celebrity. Duchamp was always reluctant or maybe suspicious about celebrity in a certain way. He was a very quiet celebrity.

Sarah Archino is an American art historian. She received her PhD from the Graduate Center, City University of New York in 2012 with her disser­tation, Reframing the Narrative of Dada in New York, 1910–1926. She is currently based in Paris.

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.