One bleary morning in a darkened art history classroom—think Modernism 101—a slide of the interior of Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage (1946-1966) flashed by. Its glimmering afterimage remained in my mind’s eye long after. One might say it never really left. I still remember how rattled I was as I tried to make sense of it. The odd installation didn’t fit into what was being taught as modern art at the time, yet conversely—perversely—it nominally coincided with enough of what art history syllabi then encompassed: female nudity mediated by a male gaze, corporeality framed by idyllic landscapes. What perhaps shook me most, however, was that it didn’t tally at all with what I was just learning about the art of its maker. Duchamp, the painter turned cool conceptualist. Duchamp, father of the readymade and chess-playing lover of puns. Duchamp, the sometime art dealer, occasional crossdresser, and elegant prankster who had definitively “retired” by the 1930s. Even if these myriad “Duchamps”already indicated a great flexibility regarding the concept of art and artist, it was Etant donnés, I thought, that didn’t fit. And I was not alone in thinking so. Yes, sure, The Large Glass may have evoked frustrated erotic impulses and unconsummated sexual desire (something you might surmise only if you read the artist’s notes on the work) and, indeed, his language games were sometimes bawdy, but nothing in his oeuvre prepared me for the crude and explicit realism, eerie diorama-like construction, or sheer in-your-face-ness of Etant donnés.
When I asked about the piece (repeatedly and insistently, apparently), a professor told me that it was a mere train ride away, and I should go see it for myself. I hadn’t even realized it was possible to just visit it. The suggestion prompted an immediate trip to Philadelphia, where I was sure understanding would be found. Yet, with the experience, the tremors only deepened. They also created a fissure in my intellectual armor, like the hole in the piece’s brick wall, blasted open to allow a glimpse into the installation.
I read everything I could find about this posthumous enigma that Duchamp had so carefully hidden from the world while slyly ensuring its permanent museal custody—an act brought to culmination, essentially, from the grave. For someone who so many celebrated as the most important and influential artist of the twentieth century, the scholarly pickings on his final work were surprisingly slim, although it had been more than a quarter century since he had died. There were a number of scandalized feminist critiques, some embarrassed rejections, lots of inadequate passing mentions, a scant few serious assessments. Compared to the voluminous writing on the rest of his oeuvre, this discursive hush was, in a word, puzzling. But by that point, my inquiries into the piece were a mere distraction, a side hobby pursued, since in the meantime I had begun writing a doctoral thesis about Duchamp’s curatorial activities (before “curator” was a word in much use, he called himself a “generator-arbitrator”). Etant donnés didn’t fit into my study for an abundance of reasons—or so I thought. It took me some time to realize that the readymades’ questioning of the ontology of art and its institutions is indelibly connected to the impulses that drove Duchamp’s audacious exhibition-making; and these, in turn, are inseparably linked with Etant donnés’s unraveling of desire and close looking, surveillance and power, institutional norms and critical machinations.
The piece haunted me for years before I would draw those connections, and indeed before I would realize that Duchamp’s fastidious thinking about exhibitions and institutions would act as my own curatorial training course. I wouldn’t have gotten there at all had I not met Jacqueline Matisse Monnier early on. The daughter of Duchamp’s last wife Teeny (one of the few people to whom Duchamp confided his obscure project while it was being made), “Jackie,” as she was affectionately known, had inherited her mother’s devotion to Duchamp’s legacy, throwing herself into the task with a tenderness and an openness that was exceptional. She encouraged my nascent interest in Etant donnés, and smiled conspiratorially when I told her that the reticence of the late Philadelphia Museum of Art director Anne d’Harnoncourt regarding my questions had acted like a match to kindling, because it revealed the discomfort this endlessly troubling work still roused. (This was the same Anne d’Harnoncourt who, as a young woman, had installed the piece in the museum.) Meeting Jackie at regular intervals during the more than a decade and a half of my research was more than formative. It was essential. Generosity is such a crumb of a word relative to the capaciousness of what she gave me and, I imagine, every person approaching her for access to archives, stories, information. She propelled us all upward in a way that was gentle and light. Like a kite.