1968: Before and After
I never met Marcel Duchamp, though I saw him playing chess in one of the cafes fronting the beach at Cadaqués in the early sixties. A roving student at the time, I was more interested in the silver wind bands and the sardanas being danced outside the cafes, for which neither Duchamp, nor his friend Dalí who lived just across the headland, cared.
By 1968, I was a fan. My supervisor at the Courtauld, John Golding, who was then working on his study of The Large Glass (Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, published in the invaluable Viking Press Art in Context series in 1973), used to encourage debate about Duchamp in our classes, as well as insisting on close attention to the works. In Autumn 1968, I started my first temporary teaching post at the Camberwell College of Arts, with a whole term course dedicated to Duchamp. The course was based on the then familiar story that Duchamp had ceased to produce work as an artist following the abandonment of The Large Glass in 1923, subsequently devoting himself to chess. This was wholly in sympathy with the revolutionary spirit of Paris 1968, and Duchamp, who had rejected a career as an artist dependent on galleries and sales, was a true hero. I remember the impassioned debates about whether he had betrayed this position when he acted as agent for the sales of works by Picabia or Brancusi during the 1920s. It was an intransigent time. But it was another “betrayal” that dominated my course on Duchamp in 1968. Halfway through the term, the sad news came through that Duchamp had died suddenly in Paris on 2nd October. This closed down any lingering hopes of meeting him. But simultaneously, and swiftly revealed in the obituaries, was news of the existence of a major work on which he had been secretly occupied from 1946–66: Etant donnés. This was quite a stunner for a starry-eyed devotee, and I can’t be the only art historian and fan who was taken aback mid-stream and had to adjust their approach to his work and to his position as an artist from several points of view.
Etant donnés opened up a startling new dimension which undermined the premise of my course, but it was maddeningly invisible at the time, as there was a veto on photography. Clandestine images began to circulate (for those of us separated from Philadelphia by the Atlantic) but not in time for my course. However, parallels and oppositions to The Large Glass, already evident in Etant donnés via the Notes, at least theoretically, but also the tantalising realisation that the considerable activity after 1923—already firmly posited by Richard Hamilton in the Tate exhibition The almost complete works of Marcel Duchamp in 1966—was a great deal more than an afterthought, gave us quite enough ammunition to torpedo the starting point of the course.
I was about to write that the existence of Etant donnés radically changed Duchamp’s position critically and historically, but I am not sure that is true. It didn’t affect the centrality of the readymades to aesthetic discourse, nor the endlessly rewarding contemplation of The Large Glass. It did enrage some of Duchamp’s long-time artist supporters, such as the constructionist Anthony Hill, as well as his alter ego the Dada artist Redo. Hill’s book Duchamp: Passim (1994) remains nonetheless a key reference point. My own first publication on Duchamp was a tiny booklet accompanying the exhibition organised by the Pompidou and circulated in the UK by the Arts Council: Marcel Duchamp’s Travelling Box (1982). Working on this I was encouraged and helped by Duchamp’s widow Teeny and by her daughter Jaqueline (Jackie) Matisse-Monnier.
In 1969, the year after Duchamp died, I talked with Dalí in his studio at Portlligat, about Georges Bataille, Surrealism, and Duchamp, but it was many years before I was able fully to make the connections between the two artists that formed the basis of the exhibition Dalí/Duchamp (Royal Academy, London and The Dalí Museum St Petersburg Florida, 2018). The seeds for this exhibition were sown by Teeny and Jackie who, in conversations over many years, subtly countered the orthodox anti-Dalí positions of the modernists, who had frequented Duchamp at Cadaqués, with stories and instances of their long friendship and collaborations. Perhaps, tactfully silent, they also knew that Dalí was one of the handful of people aware of Étant donnés during its secret production processes; he was involved in the landscape prints for its background, as Michael Taylor’s exhibition Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés (2009) revealed.
Far from being identified with a singular artistic position as a conceptual artist, as Duchamp’s fame as instigator of Fountain might suggest, he had and continues to have quite extraordinary tentacles in every direction.