Three Encounters with Marcel Duchamp
In the spring of 1950, my father Sidney Janis had one of his best curatorial ideas: to include Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fountain (1917) (urinal) in a group show he was organizing called Challenge and Defy. Since the 1917 original was long lost, he asked the artist if he could include another example of the urinal. Duchamp agreed. But as no suitable replacement could be found in New York, Duchamp suggested that Janis look in Paris on his summer visit there at the Marché aux Puces (flea market). Janis found one and shipped it back to New York.
And so it was in the early fall of 1950, when I was eighteen and working alone one morning at the Janis Gallery, that Duchamp appeared at the front door. I greeted him warmly; he was a family friend while I was growing up. Marcel had a natural grace, refinement, and modesty. He smiled and said, “I’ve come to sign it.” The “it,” of course, was the new urinal, just arrived and unpacked from Paris. Marcel usually wore casual clothes—open collared shirts with slacks or jeans and comfortable shoes—but on this day he wore an ensemble of subtle pattern on pattern: a remarkable jacket with threads of many colors, a multi-hued pastel shirt and a thin tie with a small knot, French-style. He also wore new, two-toned shoes. Clearly, he had dressed for the occasion. But, as he carried nothing with him, I asked if he needed a pen. “No, I’ve taken care of that,” he replied, as he pulled out of his inside jacket pocket a new, flat head number four paint brush. “Do you need some paint?” I continued. “No, I’ve taken care of that, too,” producing from a side pocket a new bottle of India ink. I led him to a workroom where the urinal sat on a table. He set it back side facing out and after positioning himself carefully, dipped his brush in the bottle of black ink and wrote in block letters REPLICA 1950. Below that he signed in script Marcel Duchamp, and, below that, Rrose Sélavy, his female alter ego. Then turning the urinal over he signed on the front, R. MUTT 1917. The acts of selection and signing were the crucial points in the passage of the readymade from the commonplace, everyday world to the world of art and history.
In 1952, when my mother, Harriet Janis, and I were interviewing Marcel for a planned book, the three of us were walking down a midtown street after dinner when we passed a shop sign that read “HYBRID Flowers.” It captivated Duchamp and he cried out, “What a wonderful sign!” It must have been the hybrid idea that moved him so. Hybrid can apply to much in his personality and work—his male/female personae; the readymade as both art and non-art object; the Mona Lisa with a mustache and beard. Hybrid, too, are the bicycle wheel on a stool and the door at his studio on 11 rue Larrey in Paris, which was at once both open and closed.
During our interview with Marcel, we discussed his brilliant 1942 string installation for a Surrealist exhibition in New York. An excerpt follows:
HJ: And how did the public take the idea of having the string?
MD: I mean it was nothing, you can always see through a window, through a curtain, thick or not thick, you always see through if you want to, same thing there. Then on the evening of the opening there was—were you there?
HJ: No, I was in Chicago at the time.
MD: [to Carroll] Were you one of the babies?
CJ: Yes, yes I was.
MD: Well, why don’t you tell me because I wasn’t there. See I didn’t go to the…
CJ: You weren’t at the opening. Well, I had six friends, and we had come with baseball and basketball and football uniforms and spikes.
MD: Ah, marvelous, yes.
CJ: And we came early in the evening when we had all the huge rooms to ourselves and we started throwing balls, just kept on through the whole evening and it got so crowded and we kept playing and our instructions [from you] were to ignore everybody and just play to our heart’s content. We just loved it.
MD: [shrieks with laughter] Did you like it, was it amusing?
CJ: Well it really was for me because my brother and I have always been playing, especially where there are pictures and being told not to all the time so it was the perfect…
MD: [laughs] I would like to have a real temoin [witness] of that because I wasn’t there, you see, I refused to go—I hate to go to vernissages anyhow even that kind, especially.