BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 04 MAR 97
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Issue 33

Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York/ Duchamp: A Biography (Calvin Tomkins)

BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

Duchamp scholars are the trekkies of the art world. They move through the world armed with anecdotes, 'facts', and geeky jokes. Always convinced of the rightness of Duchamp's cause, and their own, they pledge to take art where no-one has gone before. Indeed Francis M. Naumann, curator of 'Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York', has been known to arrive at public Duchamp events in costume. Leaving his Klingon mask at home, he prefers to wear his Tu'M tie, and offers, although no-one has asked, to tell you where he bought it. Somewhere in the nebulous area between smug self-satisfaction and rabid fandom lies the terrain of Duchamp studies. All of this, despite the fact that years ago Kenny Scharf summed it up in a poster, which boldly placed Charles Barkley's slogan 'I am not a role model' underneath a picture of Marcel himself. Nonetheless, the wheels of the Duchamp industry keep turning. (They churn, alas, for me as well, as I near the end of a dissertation on Duchamp and the Readymade.)

The two most recent indications of the thriving Duchamp enterprise are Calvin Tomkins' new book Duchamp: A Biography, miraculously the only one of the artist, and the aforementioned 'Making Mischief' exhibition. Unwittingly, and to different degrees, both endeavours suffer from similar problems. The concept of history that structures both projects is completely linear in nature; the treatment of the personage of Duchamp is hagiographic; and neither project imparts any sense of texture, either of the historical periods concerned, or the impact of Duchamp's work on the second half of 20th-century artistic culture.

One is accustomed, by now, to the deflationary feelings brought on by seeing objects which were never designed for museum exhibitions housed in vitrines and hanging, well-lit, on institutional walls. To curators Naumann and Beth Venn's credit, they re-energised the space of the Whitney by recreating the living room of the famous New York collectors and patrons, Louise and Walter Arensberg. Life-size black and white photographs of this gracious New York salon interior stood on walls in the centre of the gallery, and several of the original paintings hung in their 'proper' place. This installation technique conveyed the sense of intimacy of this particular group of New York-based artists. But, more importantly, by suggesting that the primary context for New York Dada was the bourgeois interior, as opposed to the art world, or the even more atmospheric 'public', it served to undermine the exhibition's own claim that Dada was an 'invasion'.

As for the rest of the exhibition, it was filled with some dynamite works including Man Ray's Moving Sculpture (1920), a photograph of laundry hanging on the line, and Obstruction (1920), a sculpture made of interlocking clothes hangers. But the exhibition's contention that Dada was important as such in 1917, tended to drain energy from the works, indeed out of the Dada 'movement' itself. It is probably far more to the point that New York Dada became important, energised and formative much later. During the 50s, for instance, when folks like Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg started to elaborate upon its implications. The reception of Dada had much more to do with the energy we now expect from Dada works, than the works themselves. The adherence to a strictly linear, progressive model of history did much to weaken the sense of mischief that the exhibition struggled to convey as being Dada's ultimate artistic effect.

I confess to being far more disappointed by Tomkins' biography. Having read his early 60s work on Duchamp, I admired his ability to write intelligent journalism about art. Duchamp: A Biography, however, suffers from not only too much prurient interest in Duchamp's sexual escapades, but more intensely from a lack of historical nuance. Tomkins' early work on Duchamp always placed him within the context of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Here, however, the Master is sole subject, and hence prey to the same energy vortex as the Dada exhibition. A troubling aspect of the book is the extent to which Tomkins takes Duchamp at his word; this is especially odd as Duchamp frequently turned meaning inside out, all the while with his tongue in his cheek. Even more disturbing, however, is that when Duchamp is being taken at his word, no attention is paid to the specificity of those words. For instance, statements made in 1966, after Duchamp had watched himself become famous, are treated as absolute proof of something that happened in 1911; and statements made about artworks stand in for personality attributes. But, finally, if the task of the artist's biography is to help explicate the formation and meaning of the artist's work, then this one does not. The book begins with a short chapter on The Large Glass and ends with one on étant donnés; this is emblematic, for both works' enigmatic qualities persist, despite the pages in-between.