Depicting Duchamp: Portraits of Marcel Duchamp and/or Rrose Sélavy
Francis Naumann Fine Art
January 10 - February 28, 2020
By MARK BLOCH, February 2020,
What could be better than art that is mixed with humor, intelligence, and eroticism? Marcel Duchamp combined them and turned the art world on its head forever. He did so with a body of revolutionary work beginning over a hundred years ago that asked interesting questions such as "Can one make a work which is not a work of art?"
Two tendencies developed in the ensuing years as a result of Duchamp’s infra-thin questions and gestures. One faction, comprised mostly of latecomers to Marcel’s subtle soirée, is enormous, practically all-encompassing now, and it has destroyed what was once barely admirable about the old art world, reducing it to an incomprehensible vomitorium of bad jokes and Botox eroticism, choking itself with freshly minted dollar bills while it congratulates itself for its good taste and restraint for managing to keep itself one garish gold nugget shy of Donald Trump’s interior decoration skills. But there is another more nuanced camp that has always taken its cues directly from Duchamp, riffing on the wry richness of his output and the important implications of his suggestions. That faction “got” the deadly messages lurking behind Marcel’s jokes from the beginning and has collectively made it their mission to insure that his unanswered queries continue to breathe.
Sadly, one of the voices that have kept Duchamp’s questions alive, Francis M. Naumann, is voluntarily closing the doors of his own gallery at 24 West 57th Street in New York after an extraordinary run.
Before opening shop, Francis M. Naumann was an art historian and curator who specialized in the subject of Duchamp and New York Dada in particular. Indeed, I first saw Naumann at a centennial celebration of Duchamp’s birth in 1987 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was interviewing Beatrice Wood who collaborated with Duchamp on the publication The Blind Man on stage in front of a large audience that included Jasper Johns and Marcel’s widow Teeny Duchamp and many other Duchamp enthusiasts. Since then Naumann has delighted me again and again with Duchampian surprises including (full disclosure) when he invited me to show several of my small works in an exhibition called The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Reflections of Marcel Duchamp in Modern and Contemporary Art in the Fall of 2004. Later he wrote a book with a similar title: The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp was published by the Readymade Press in 2012.
Since the gallery opened to the public on October 27, 2001 in an upper east side location, Francis Naumann has specialized in American Art of the 20th Century, as well as European Art from the Dada and Surrealist periods alongside contemporary painters and sculptors whose work displays related aesthetic “or,” as he described it, “anarchic sensibilities.”
I have seen many an interesting show there since then, meeting wonderful people who became colleagues and friends. I even met several members of Duchamp’s extended family there over the years, bringing a personal touch to my own appreciation of Marcel. All of this is due to the style, wit and wisdom of Mr. Naumann. It will be difficult to see his gallery go. But he himself does not see it that way. He looks forward instead to simply not having to pay the rent, a void he is looking forward to climbing into. After occupying his current cushy midtown space for several years, it is understandable that he’d rather pursue the unknown for a while.
Naumann is the author of numerous books. articles and exhibition catalogues, including New York Dada 1915-25 (Harry N. Abrams, 1994) and Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Abrams, 1999). In 1996, he organized "Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York" for the Whitney for which there is a beautiful catalog.
But my favorite books by him are 1989’s Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, which he edited with Rudolf E. Kuenzli for MIT Press and Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp which Ludion Press, in Ghent, Belgium published in 2000. It brought forth many interesting tidbits about Duchamp via his letters that had previously been difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Finally, in conjunction with one of his best shows of the past twenty years, Naumann published Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, a perfect example of his work for its exploration of the correlation between Duchamp's chess activities and his art, via an exhibition he created. For the last two decades attending openings at Francis Naumann Fine Art, I could always count on Francis for detailed explanations of what various exhibited pieces were about, whether they were executed 100 years ago or by a contemporary artist—or something in between—by Marcel himself. Francis always has a way of making the arcane seem matter of fact with his explanations whether in person or in print. Perhaps this is an appreciation of why the closing of Naumann’s gallery will come as such a loss.
His last show, a collection of portraits of Duchamp, is a tour de force because it shows works that each carry one of these interesting stories, either of the intelligent, humorous or erotic variety or in the best cases, all three.
Marcel Duchamp descending into the present through a wormhole in the space time-space continuum is a 2019 work by Carl Bates, a master whose title expresses how I feel about the works in this show, all portraits of Duchamp in one way or another. Every work deserves a mention but I will select a few favorites from what I encountered along the wormhole:
The first piece that caught my eye was the famous 1967 photo Occulist Witness (Marcel Duchamp) enhanced by Richard Hamilton with its layer of silver that highlight a circle and three circular geometric emanations essential to Duchamp’s La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même 1915–23 (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), also known as The Large Glass, which Hamilton’s reconstructed in 1965–6, for the Duchamp retrospective, The Almost Complete Work of Marcel Duchamp, at the Tate Gallery in London.
In 1993 Naumann attempted to distinguish the terms “replica,” “reconstruction” and “copy” in (vol. 81, no. 9) the September issue of Art in America, in ‘The Bachelor’s Quest’ mostly in relation to Duchamp’s readymades. Thus has it been established that Hamilton’s version of The Large Glass can best be described as a both a replica and, a subcategory of that term, a reconstruction.
Hamilton, who produced the cover design and poster collage for the Beatles’ White Album and who influenced his student Bryan Ferry before he went on to found the band Roxy Music, is probably best known for creating one of the quintessential and most iconic images of Pop Art himself in 1956 for the catalogue of This Is Tomorrow, called Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? To me, Hamilton has always been at the very pinnacle of Pop culture with Duchamp (and Surrealism) providing his firm foundation.
Next, speaking not of Pop but of replicas, an artist trained as a restorer, Kathleen Gilje of Brooklyn, created Selected Details of Ingres, a portrait from 2008 that is one of the most erotic, provocative and exciting works in this show in which a female model seems to be navigating ecstacy, subject to a Duchampian moment of steadfast eye-hand coordination.
Here Gilje followed in the footsteps of Duchamp’s Selected Details after Ingres II, a 1968 etching of a woman based on one of the bathers in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Turkish Bath of 1863 and a man from Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx of 1864 combined in an erotic etching by Duchamp. By recreating his juxtaposition and depicting a young and handsome nude image of Duchamp as the potential Oedipal figure, Gilje creates a sexy and clever retelling simultaneously of various myths, including her own. Gilje previously created a series of pencil portraits copied from the drawings of Ingres, the great French neoclassicist, using materials, content and signatures similar to what that master used but not to create exact copies. Her rendering here expands similarly on Duchamp—erotically “covered” in oil.
Next I want to mention Carlo Maria Mariani’s mustachioed Portrait of Duchamp from 1990 only because it looks a bit like Dali, that unlikely friend of Duchamp and resident of Cadaques, Spain which happened to be the region where Duchamp died in 1968. Dali had helped Duchamp as he created the landscape that provided the backdrop for the nude in his final work, Étant donnés. Mariani’s portrait is one of many in the gallery that could be called a straightforward take on portraiture except that, because of the moustache (and the attire), it is not.
Mark Tansey’s 1992 Ennunciation is notable because it invokes both Duchamp‘s title for his 1911 Cubist masterpiece Sad Young Man On A Train and the bleak scene that comprises the masterful first three minutes of Woody Allen’s black and white film Stardust Memories in which a man desperately longs for a glamorous anima figure passing by in the inaccessible car of a neighboring train. For the umpteenth time, access denied.
Forgetting to execute a work of art as requested in 1961, Robert Rauschenberg sent a telegram instead, a submission to a show of portraits of the Parisian gallerist Iris Clert which she organized at her gallery. He sent it not as an apology but as the portrait itself. Here, Mike Bidlo’s telegram This Is A Portrait Of Marcel Duchamp And/Or Rose Sélavy If I Say So, 2019 repeats not Rauschenberg’s execution as Bidlo usually does but mimics his idea with a 21st century telegram. Yes, it is still possible to send one, though it was rumored that this one arrived in a Fed Ex envelope that was not displayed or even saved by the gallery. The artist was noticeably disappointed upon receiving that news but he was happy admiring his framed telegram, as was I, a fan of long distance communications.
Nearby in Sarah G. Austin’s Marcel Duchamp from 1970, a contraption with light switches to turn it on along the right side, one sees through a 5 x 5 grid a large image of Duchamp staring at a board of chess pieces, contemplating the game from multiple angles, and creating a fragmented Cubo-Futurist montage of Duchamp thinking about a game already in progress. The combination of the multiple lenses and the real chess pieces under the glass create a suggestion of motion that is then superimposed over the thoughtful Duchamp creating a kind of still life of strategic contemplation.
Some of the works in this show are beautiful because of their cleverness and others because of their execution. La Belle Heleine 2019 by Pamela Joseph on Plexiglas is striking for its lush, sumptuous craftsmanship. Duchamp played with brands a few times, including when he wrote “Apollinaire Enameled” which is evoked in a complex work by Michael Vannoy Adams across the back of the gallery. But in this era oversaturated by branding, his Belle Heleine comes through as an alter ego objectified, Duchamp’s perfume bottle writ large, very large.
I also find the nearby Donald Shambroom work from 2019 striking for its execution. Shambroom likes to capture smiles as they emerge. This portrait with vibrant color and brushstrokes brings Duchamp to life. How ironic then that in a little book circulating over the last year, the same Donald Shambroom examined Duchamp’s last day on earth, October 1, 1968, during which Duchamp made a trip to a bookshop to buy materials, posted a letter, then hosted a pheasant dinner for Man Ray and the critic Robert Lebel. After bidding them adieu, Duchamp presumably smiled his last smile at his wife Teeny and dropped dead.
Shambroom published this book with David Zwirner on the fiftieth anniversary of Marcel’s death as Duchamp’s Last Day and it offers surprises that might have ended up in this show, had circumstances been different. But the Introduction to a Smile more than suffices.
Meanwhile. Andre´ Raffray’s Rrose Sélavy, a simple portrait in red pencil on paper, is powerful, as are the 12 panels of the artist’s 1977 La vie illustre´e de Marcel Duchamp and Chez Arensburg that are also part of this exhibit. Raffray, who died at age 85 in 2010, depicted some key scenes of Duchamp’s life in gouache and tempera on paper, each 15 x 12 inches, in 1977. Among others we see Duchamp enjoying Impressions d’Afrique by Raymond Rouselle at the Théâtre Antoine, Paris in 1912 and Duchamp buying one of the objects (a bottle rack) for which he would later coin the term “Readymade,” in Paris, 1914.
The imagined lllustrations of real life events were created for a small printed volume resembling a children’s book, that tells the story of Marcel Duchamp's life and career. Collaboratively written by Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont and published by the Centre Pompidou, that tells its stories thanks to Raffray’s incredible handiwork. It is subtitled “Avec 12 dessins d'Andre Raffray.”
Francis Naumann also commissioned the later work Chez Arensberg from Raffray, in 1984, a group portrait which features (from left to right above: Joseph Stella [guitar in hand], Beatrice Wood [seated in armchair], Edgard Varèse [at the piano], Arthur Cravan, Mina Loy, Elmer Ernest Southard, Albert Gleizes, Juliette Roche, Louise Arensberg, Walter Arensberg, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Henri-Pierre Roché [playing chess], Gabrielle-Buffet Picabia, John Covert [before the fireplace], Man Ray, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, all figures Naumann wrote about previously in his explorations of New York Dada.
Ai Wei Wei’s carefully bent coat hanger portrait Hanging Man Silver embedded in porcelain from 2009 puts an interesting “twist” on the silhouette of Duchamp. It creates a two-dimensional line rather than a 3 dimensional form but it does so utilizing the thick cylindrical readymade hanger that seems to float in sensuous, milky porcelain.
Finally, please indulge me while I talk about Rafael Leonardo Black’s work called Polle Schisma, which means, “End the schism.” It is a combination of dozens of tiny images, Mr. Black’s specialty, all of which make a collective portrait of Casa Lleó Morera in Barcelona, an enchanting piece of Catalan Art Nouveau architecture designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The bottom of the building has four wide, arches supported by 9 light-pink columns. The building’s facade is rhythmically adorned with ornate stonework motifs surrounding its many windows. A majestic “tempietto” projecting into the sky towards the heavens drew my eye to it when I saw it by accident this past summer on a trip to Barcelona. (I was looking for an Antoni Gaudí building just down the street and I was mesmerized by the striking vision of this structure that also fascinated Black. In fact, my sighting turned out to be a fortuitous coincidence that was activated only when I was confronted by his small but remarkable drawing.) The left side of the image, where a poem goes, to be written in a young woman's handwriting, remains blank and unfinished.
I have since learned that descriptions and pictures of the building transfixed the artist Black despite his never having seen it in person. Instead he paid homage to it by stacking up images of other things, all seemingly unrelated. Tiny pencil drawings on gesso board represent the edifice, revealed in succession as my eyes descended from the top down. In all, I counted 57 miniature figures. Quite a Surrealistic work in its own right, I saw a sewing machine, naked figures that looked like Laurel and Hardy, a cello player next to a naked lady, a man on horseback, a guy in a scuba outfit and many other figures, some in artistic situations such as those huddled with canvases and an old fashioned manikin in a studio.
And where is MD, you asked? I spotted him later, twice even, after a conversation with the artist. It seems that Black had just depicted him leaning in between Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton near the bottom of the drawing and again above in a raccoon coat rendered just before Black left the house for dinner. Upon his return, he saw he had received that day in his mailbox an invitation by mail from Naumann to participate in the show. Black decided this work, because of the timing, should be his submission. But more about that in a moment.
Some of the other works in this show that deserve mention include:
M.D. from the Merce Cunningham Portfolio, 1964 by Jasper Johns is a dye cut stencil from 1964 that he made from shooting a photograph of Duchamp’s profile in perspective dangling from a string which make it a slightly skewed and obtuse rendering Marcel in several dimensions.
Walter Pach’s portrait is the earliest example in this show. Portrait of Marcel Duchamp from 1915 was done two years after he organized the Armory Show which Naumann points out “had done more to establish the artist’s reputation in the United States than any other individual.”
Yasumasa Morimura’s Doublonnage (Marcel) mimics Man Ray’s famous 1921 photo of Rrose which is also seen here. This 1988 chromogenic print is worth mentioning because it is a self portrait as Sélavy wearing two hats while two additional hands paw at the wrists and other hands of the subject as she sports Duchamp’s drag persona, this time in full color.
I was also intrigued by Douglas Vogel’s Mutt Ripped It which shows the three squares, rose, gold and baby blue from the bride section of the Large Glass adorned with cartoon images from Mutt and Jeff as an homage to Fountain, Duchamp’s R. Mutt signature piece, the readymade fountainhead of Modern (or is it the start of Post-modern?) art.
Tom Shannon, one of Duchamp’s aforementioned family members, created Mon Key, an elegant 2003 portrait made in a key carved out with Duchamp’s profile. Around the corner another Duchamp profile by Larry Kagan was masterfully constructed out of seemingly random shadows cast by a carefully lit sculpture that looked to me like a mangled bottle rack. Tetsuya Yamada demonstrated the Taoist ideal of “doing without doing” using a Japanese chess association book. Ray Beldner created With My Language In My Game, a 2007 work made out of “ground money dust” mounted on metal and 17 iffy drawings by 17 Parisian street artists were displayed, each inspired by the same photograph of Duchamp in Munich by the man who also happened to be Adolf Hitler’s favorite photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. Munich artist Rudolf Hertz curated this mini-show within a show. Munich is important to Duchampians because it was in a brief stay there that Marcel’s ideas for The Large Glass crystalized.
There are also many works by those in Duchamp’s innermost circle. There is a very contemporary looking 1971 Man Ray Heligravure and aquatint portrait with cigar smoke, and etchings by two siblings, one beauty by Suzanne Duchamp from 1953 and one densly cross-hatched by his brother Jacques Villion in 1956.
There is even a work by Marcel himself, his torn Self-Portrait in Profile, that he didn’t sign “Duchamp” but instead signed Marcel “Dechiravit,” which translates to a combo of “to tear” (déchirer) and “quickly” (vite). He had a metal silhouette made precisely for this purpose—so that he could affix a torn out profile to the frontispiece of copies of the first book published about him by Lebel in 1959 when he was 72 years old.
Finally, in order to learn more about the complicated image by Rafael Leonardo Black, I made a phone call to him one recent Sunday afternoon. I had a quick question to ask him about his complex work but he ended up talking about it for 49 minutes during which I made 7 pages of notes, scribbling as fast as I could, as he talked about the dozens of references in this small drawing he put in the show.
That was before I told him as politely as I could that I had to hang up due to a prior commitment. And it was true. I would have liked to listen to him for another hour. So I’ll leave you with that metaphor for a farewell tribute to Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, something one wishes could go forever or at least a little longer: As Rafael remembered the stop at his mailbox where he received the invitation from Francis and his assistant Dana to send a work, mere seconds after he had included a likeness of Duchamp in the Polle Schisma work upstairs, he said, “I chalked it up to a Surrealist moment. And given that it was Francis, this was not unexpected.” WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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