April 1969—first encounter with the art and life of Duchamp. I participated in a senior seminar at the Institute of Art History at the Ruhr University of Bochum that was titled “Ismen” [isms] taught by Max Imdahl, the then leading German art historian who specialized in Twentieth Century Art. Students could opt for one of the art isms and pick the artist who should stand for it. Being attracted by Dadaism, which I understood as something congenial to the students protest movement that was at then at its climax, I chose Marcel Duchamp as representative of Dada and worked out a presentation on the Readymades. Stunned by finding that these works had come into being years before Dadaism entered the historical scene, I reasoned that there was something wrong with the classification of Duchamp as a Dadaist, something that should be clarified. So the seminar presentation became the nucleus of my dissertation on Duchamp's approach to art, which was finished in 1973.
In the early 1970s dialectical materialism (Marxism) was still the theoretical attraction of the hour. But its axiom of “an objective reality, existing independently from us,” which should act as arbiter of all human thought, was diametrically opposed to any interest in artistic subjectivity, individuality and imagination. In contrast to this form of vulgar materialism, Duchamp's philosophical musings opened a window to the German philosophers of the ego, in particular to Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche. From a little note in Arturo Schwarz’s just published catalog raisonné I learned that the philosophical ideas that Duchamp found closest to his interest were those of the fourth century BC Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. That made me read all the literature of and about the Greek Skeptics that I could find. At a stroke, a completely different world of thinking, beyond the concept of objective truth and beyond dogmatism that prevailed in the New Left, became visible to me.
The fact that in 1969 Duchamp's writings existed only in French and that his works were very much tied to Paris drew me inevitably to the city, which is a treasury of unrivaled historical richness. Exploring the new artistic and intellectual spaces created by Duchamp was right from the beginning intimately related to the unending pleasure of strolling through the quartiers of Paris. Streets, squares, and façades, shops and flea-markets acted as open-air libraries filled with historical references, hints, and sources that would continuously nourish the imagination. In the early 1970s, one could still acquire in the department store BHV the same kind of bottle-dryer that Duchamp bought there in 1914 and 1936. And Bernard Loliée, the legendary antiquarian of Dadaist and Surrealist books in Paris, sold the Green Box of 1934 not as a work of multiple art, but simply as a book. Window displays of old pharmacies like the one opposite to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, (Duchamp's workplace from 1913 to 1914), were illuminated with huge red-and-green or yellow-and-blue shining bottles. You could tell why Duchamp had added, in 1914, two spots of red and green pigment to the horizon of a trivial reproduction depicting a winter landscape and why he had titled the result of this tiny artistic operation Pharmacie. Stores displaying “uniforms and liveries” lined up with shops offering the service of stoppage, the repair of precious shirts and blouses. All over Paris, blue enamel plates with white inscriptions of Eau & Gaz à tous les étages were fixed to the façades of buildings dating from the Belle Époque, informing interested passers-by that the apartments in these houses were technologically up to date. If you were interested in the history of the modern poster, you had only to enter one of the many shops on antique posters in the vicinity of the École des Beaux-Arts to come across a 1900's affiche depicting a modern goddess Diana who held a Bec Auer, le dernier cri of a gas lamp, as sexually and explicitly as it is presented to the viewer by her counterpart in the Peep Show installation in Philadelphia. And finally, if you were lucky enough, you could even find on a bookshelf of one of Duchamp's friends, in private photo archives or even in public auctions, previously unknown original works by Duchamp as, for example, The Green Ray, Réflection à main, and the fabulous incunabulum of conceptual photography Duchamp at the Age of 85.