Last November, Sotheby's auctioned a replica of one of the most influential objects in 20th century art. For the tidy sum of $1,762,500 Dimitri Daskalopolos of Athens became the proud owner of a white ceramic urinal. The original had been purchased at a Manhattan plumbing supply store in 1917 by the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp. It is not known how much Duchamp paid for his urinal, but we do know that he signed it with the name "R. Mutt" and--hiding behind a proxy--submitted it to the first exhibition of the newly formed American Society of Independent Artists, whose hanging committee he headed. Despite the Society's declared intention to exhibit the work of any artist who paid the $6 entry fee, a hastily convened meeting of its directors voted to reject the urinal. Duchamp resigned in protest.
The urinal was the most controversial of Duchamp's self-styled "ready-mades": manufactured objects presented as art simply because they'd been chosen by an artist. Others included a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool and a rack for drying wine bottles. With the "ready-made," Duchamp had introduced provocation as an artistic strategy designed to expose the conservatism of the self-appointed avant-garde, while posing the question of what constitutes an art object--and, indeed, art itself--in an age dominated by mechanical production. The first point was quickly taken up by the Dada movement, which flashed across Europe and America like sheet lightning until its collapse in 1922. The second theme became the focus of British and American Pop Art in the late '50s and '60s. But Duchamp's iconoclasm has now been aped so many times that challenging established taste has itself become a convention.
Duchamp himself was well aware of how this dimension of his artistic project had been perverted: "I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty!" he once complained. So it's fitting that a new exhibition at Paris' Centre Pompidou should offer a fresh take on Duchamp by focusing on an aspect of his work which--though less immediately accessible than his "ready-mades"--today looks more complex and radical in its implications.
"Eau et Gaz à tous les etages "--which runs until June 5--does include replicas of Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack, as well as three of the limited edition boxes with which he anthologized his own production during his lifetime. But the exhibition is centered on the extraordinary mass of notes, plans and models which Duchamp produced in preparation for his magnum opus: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. The original--which can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art--consists of two glass panels set one above the other, the whole construction standing over three meters tall. In the style of a stained-glass window, the lower panel depicts a bizarre and complicated machine, while the upper one features an intricate insect-like form and a large cloud suspended in space.
The original is absent from the Paris exhibition. Instead, we are presented with the fragmented conceptual blueprint underpinning what is--at first sight--a baffling work. Duchamp always intended his notes to accompany The Large Glass "because," he explained, "it must not be 'looked at' in the aesthetic sense of the word." Instead, the work set out to embody what Duchamp called "an anti-retinal attitude" in opposition to the idea that art should evoke a purely visual response from the viewer. Where "retinal art" had obscured painting's previous religious, philosophical and moral functions, "anti-retinal art" would reunify intellectual content and pictorial fabric. At the Centre Pompidou this intellectual content overflows from notes scrawled across the backs of envelopes and hotel stationery, from scale drawings and from perspective grids which have all the detail and intricacy of architectural plans.
Compared to the hordes thronging Claes Oldenburg's giant ice-pack sculpture outside, it has to be said that the Duchamp exhibition is fairly sparsely attended. As if in the chapel of some forgotten religion, a few hushed pilgrims move between notes and objects--catalogue in hand--attempting to penetrate the mystery. It's a pity they look so po-faced. Despite being the inventor of conceptual art, Duchamp was also something of a comedian.