The new exhibition at London's Tate Modern features three heavy hitters, the Frenchmen Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, and the American Man Ray. They are associated with the Dada and Surrealism movements, but they were friends before these existed, and after they ended. Of the three, Duchamp is the towering genius. Out of his own interests, phobias and distractions, he created a new aesthetic that has survived to become the reigning spirit of today's art world. Its key idea is that anything can be a work of art. Everyone has encountered this notion. No one quite knows what it means, how it happened or why it dominates.
If "anything goes" then skill, craft, sensuous handling, emotions, the artist's personal expression and artistic originality are all optional "art" can be any object untransformed, just presented in a gallery and given a title. Andy Warhol ran with this idea in the 1960s, and so do Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst today. Art students are in awe of it. It was Duchamp who invented this concept, and his friends Ray and Picabia remained fascinated by it all their lives, even if they didn't wholly practice it; Ray used a lot of different materials, from photography to collage, and Picabia was always a painter, if a weird one.
Yet what is enjoyable about this exhibition, which runs until May 26, is not how familiar its tone is, but how oddly and refreshingly different. What you see is creativity that is endlessly inventive and outrageous, but at the same time charmingly tentative; irony that is fresh rather than institutionalized; and fascinating objects (if unbeautiful for the most part ) that have absolutely no gloss no air, really, of selling at all.
The Joy of Subversion
Of the three artists, Picabia was the oldest by eight years. He was 32 when he met Duchamp in 1911. (Duchamp later said he was impressed both by Picabia's high standing in the Paris art world and by his daily intake of opium.) Ray and Duchamp were friends by 1916, when they both started working for an avant-garde art gallery in New York City; Ray was 26, Duchamp 29. Picabia was born into a wealthy family, inherited a fortune and lived the life of a playboy. Duchamp, the son of a notary, was brought up in an arty but provincial middle-class family. He would be poor, thanks to his decision to remain in the shadows and not exploit his early celebrity as an artist. Ray (real name Emmanuel Radnitzky) was born in Philadelphia, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He made money as a fashion photographer.
Today's artists are fascinated by popular culture, and want their art to compete with the mass media in its impact and pizazz. So they produce objects that tend to be lurid. It is as if the whole endeavor of art cannot be taken seriously unless the artists lead celebrity lifestyles, and unless their output has the packaging and sheen of Hollywood movies or expensive cars. Duchamp's circle lived for outrageous gestures, yet there was no sense of an already streamlined system for them to operate within professionally, as there is today. Or, where there was, they instinctively undermined it.
Duchamp exhibited a urinal as art. He shocked New York when he was in his 20s with a painting supposedly of a nude woman descending a staircase, which had no woman visible, just strange, machine-like, abstract forms. All three artists did parody paintings, mocking taste. Ray painted in a bright, cheerfully kitsch style recalling décor in the background of middle-class apartments in old Hollywood movies. Picabia painted textured abstracts that had nothing but a few primitive dots on them resembling enlarged points of light. (In 1950, the art critic for TIME said they had "all the monotony and none of the scientific interest" of astronomical photos.) And he painted gaudy, figurative scenes of absurd blonde nudes in boudoirs.
All three men made machines into creepy, modern sex totems, creating metaphors for the sex act out of pistons, wheels and shafts. They plundered popular- science books for imagery. They were exhibitionists in the pathological sense, having themselves photographed in nutty get-ups: Duchamp with his hair shampoo-lathered into devil-horn shapes or shaved in the form of a star, or dressed up as a woman; Picabia with his bare chest puffed out, posing as a classical god; and Ray in a photographic self-portrait with half a beard.
While Ray did fashion shoots for a living, he also produced beautiful and inventive photos that advanced the medium. In various hijinks experiments, he photographed ordinary things around the house and gave them such a rich depth of tone that they seemed beautiful, like abstract art. He called a photo of an egg whisk Man after himself and the whole of humanity. And he created new techniques, including the Rayogram: the contours of everyday objects magically emerge on paper without anything actually being photographed. The Rayograms are ethereal, light-filled and lovely, though still obviously merely a saucepan, say, or a metal spring.
Ray also made comically disturbing objects. The most famous is an old-fashioned steam iron with a row of nails glued down the center, the points turned outwards, titled unreasonably but interestingly Gift.
The Art of Sloth
Ray, Picabia and Duchamp all earnestly educated their audience in seeing new ways for art to be art, while at the same time insulting that audience with attention-grabbing laziness and insouciance. They socialized and threw parties, and helped the rich collectors who were intrigued by them to choose the right works by the right established figures Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and so on to improve their collections. But they pretended they couldn't be bothered to compete with such masters.
They were geniuses of not caring. When Duchamp died in 1968 it was discovered that he'd been secretly working for two decades on a complicated installation with sparkling light, an invisible motor and a nude woman made of plaster casts of body parts covered in calfskin. (She was modeled on the wife of a Brazilian diplomat in New York, with whom he'd had a long, clandestine love affair.) But for years, Duchamp, who lived in a modest, $40-a-month apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, told his friends he'd given art up for chess and philosophical writing. He said he believed in "masterly inactivity." Indeed, he, Picabia and Ray shared a talent for cerebral sloth. They all thought up endless word games that boil down to jokes about sex. This too was art. The Tate Modern exhibition is dense with doodles and scraps full of dark joie de vivre.
They did it to annoy, of course, but for them subversion was something new. It was about their own personalities, what they felt was right about the burgeoning, professionalized art world that they encountered in the 1910s, and what was uncomfortable about it. Although outrageously ambitious intellectually, they were rather modest in their output. And if they were the forerunners of artistic cool, they didn't have the iron-hard celebrity gloss that we now associate with successful art. The fun of this exhibition is the evidence of a whole culture or philosophy gradually building up, more or less by chance, from scratch. What you come away with is a great insight into unconventional ways of making art. Duchamp, Ray and Picabia were not faux rebels or officially sanctioned pets like the art stars of the present moment. Being original for them was not an affectation, but a necessity.