Marcel Duchamp, Wanted, 1961

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Arguably, no other artist has designed his own celebrity as thoroughly as Marcel Duchamp. The French-born artist, who drifted to New York around 1915 and took U.S. citizenship in 1955, made cultivating his outsized image his biggest artistic project. Toward that end, Duchamp turned a coterie of collectors, artistic fellow travelers, and female counterparts into his collaborators. Throughout Inventing Marcel Duchamp, the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, curators Anne Collins Goodyear and James W. McManus make clear how Duchamp relied on others, converting them into enablers or co-conspirators in the creation of his own personal myth.

Duchamp began as a controversial painter, responsible for an abstract piece with an odd title: Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. Thanks to that work’s inclusion in the 1913 Armory Show in New York—and to one critic’s description of it as “an explosion in a shingle factory”—Duchamp became, for many Americans, synonymous with the leading edge of the European avant-garde. By the time the artist arrived on these shores two years later, he was already famous and sought after for interviews by magazines like Vanity Fair.

While in New York, Duchamp happily played the part of the bored modern dandy. When asked what he did, he famously replied: “je suis un respirateur” (“I am a breather”). But in the background, Duchamp appears always to have been thinking about his artistic endgame: who needed to own his works, how they (and he) would be understood, and where all of his products would ultimately reside. Certainly most professional artists consider these issues, but few have managed the process as thoroughly and successfully as Duchampwho, by 1954, was able to oversee the installation of many of his own major works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in what amounted to a permanent retrospective.

A show of portraits of Duchamp, then, makes good sense, at least in theory. Inventing Marcel Duchamp features 100 examples illustrating how and why the art world has consistently fallen under the spell of the breather. The works also show that, since Duchamp’s death in 1968, artists have continued summoning his mojo by either imitating his best-known pieces or simply appropriating his likeness. The former works are fascinating, if familiar; the latter, unfortunately, are a mixed bag, not necessarily helpful in sorting out this major artist’s legacy.

In a clever touch of exhibition design, Duchamp’s ghost appears to be watching over the show: In the center of the main gallery, a washed-out, silent, black-and-white film appears on a large monitor, offering a close-up of Duchamp’s face. Over the course of a four-minute loop, Duchamp grins, puffs on his cigar, and looks intently to his left and right—appearing to ogle gallery-goers as they pass, or to scrutinize the prints hanging on the corridor walls.

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This loop is one of Andy Warhol’s famous “Screen Tests,” carried out through the mid-’60s. In them, sitters typically stare into the camera and remain silent and more or less still. Duchamp seems unable to contain himself, though, gleefully eyeing or speaking to various distractions off camera, and, at one point, holding a finger to his own lips to show that he realizes he’s misbehaving.

In a similar fashion, Duchamp seemed to exert some sort of influence or control over every portrait of him made with his direct knowledge, with few exceptions. One such special case is artist and arts writer Brian O’Doherty, whose Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads (1966) is a kinetic light sculpture, made to look like an oscilloscope registering the artist’s heartbeat in real time. A moving light inside a shallow wooden box steadily traces the peaks of Duchamp’s heartbeat, which O’Doherty recorded in an electrocardiogram. In the show’s catalog, the artist recalls at one point having to resist Duchamp’s input: “I wasn’t going to let him participate in the creation. His heart had done its work.”

Man Ray, Rrose Sélavy, 1921

More often, artists became Duchamp’s assistants, enabling him in various forms of role-playing. In a 1945 photo shoot by an unknown artist, Duchamp literally projected himself into the future, wearing makeup designed to make him appear much older. The two pictures from that shoot included here, both titled Marcel Duchamp at the Age of Eighty-Five and falsely dated to 1972, depict an age that Duchamp would never actually live to see.

In 1921, Man Ray was enlisted to help Duchamp create his feminine alter ego, named Rrose Sélavy—a bad pun on “eros, c’est la vie”. In one of the photos, another collaborator is present, albeit without the viewer’s knowledge. Artist Francis Picabia’s second wife, Germaine Everling, loaned Duchamp not only the hat and fur-lined coat that he wears in the photo but also her dainty hands, which she uses to push the coat’s collar around the artist’s face while hiding the rest of herself from view.

Rrose Sélavy seems like an obvious precursor to the kind of role-playing and gender-bending taken for granted in contemporary photography, but she also serves as an example of Duchamp’s elusive concept of the infra-thin—a nearly invisible distinction between two complementary elements. In his notes, Duchamp would sometimes describe infra-thin separations as being like “fire without smoke, the warmth of a seat which has just been left, reflection from a mirror or glass.” “When the tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it,” Duchamp once wrote, “the two odors marry by infra-thin.”

Infra-thin, then, implies frustrated erotic desire—as do Duchamp’s best-known pieces. In the Large Glass (1915–23), Duchamp depicted a mechanized bride, separated from a group of bachelor machines whom Duchamp would describe as locked in a cycle of automated masturbation. L’Etant Donnes (1946–66), Duchamp’s final work, is essentially a peep show: a life-size diorama in which the viewer glimpses a splayed female nude through two small holes in a wooden door. Neither work is on view here; Rrose Sélavy’s coquettish glance barely hints at the artist’s penchant for dehumanized flesh.

In the case of Duchamp’s career, he required women to physically complete certain pieces, claim responsibility for them, or to at least stir his imagination—so much so that, in the form of Rrose Selavy, he could become a woman, as needed.

Marcel Duchamp, Tonsure, 1919 (Credit: Private Collection; Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; &copyMan Ray Trust/Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris)

In the show’s catalog, essayist Janine Mileaf specifically explores the possibility that the creative contributions of certain women in Duchamp’s life have gone either unrecognized, or at least underreported. Fountain (1917), which British art historians recently voted the most influential work of art of the entire 20th century, offers one example. Fountain was a readymade: an ordinary object chosen by the artist as worthy of aesthetic consideration and given a title, and thereby transformed into a full-fledged work of art. In this case, the object was a discarded toilet.

In a note that Duchamp wrote to his sister, Suzanne Duchamp, he claims that Fountain was actually conceived by a female artist using the masculine pseudonym R. Mutt. This could very well be typical Duchampian misdirection, but some have suggested that Louise Norton, who helped produce the journal The Blind Man, in which the piece was explained and defended, may have actually been the instigator of Fountain.

However, it must be said that many portraits of Duchamp painted by the women artists around him offer little insight into anything but the admiration he enjoyed. Katherine Dreier, the collector who purchased Duchamp’s major work, The Large Glass, created Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1918), a scruffy, blocky, opaque piece that seems completely out of sympathy with Duchamp’s own oeuvre.

Even less helpful are some of the contemporary tributes to Duchamp present in the National Portrait Gallery show. Many artists have admired and appropriated Duchamp’s Wanted $2000 Reward poster from 1923, in which the artist pasted his own photo over the image of fugitive George W. Welch. Nearly identical tributes made by artists Richard Pettibone, Sturtevant, and Gavin Turk establish each artist’s interest in Duchamp but add little to the original premise. Sure, Duchamp opened the floodgates for appropriation in 20th-century art, so appropriating the appropriator is irresistible, but it is not always productive.

Jonathan Santlofer’s bas-relief-like portraits carved in hydrocal offer even less to the conversation. The fact that Santlofer’s Portrait of Richard Mutt (1996-98) shows both Duchamp and his trademark toilet sculpted from white, porcelain-like material is almost interesting—except that Santlofer has used hydrocal for portraits of folks whose art is not toilet-based as well.

Douglas Gordon, Proposition for a Posthumous Portrait, 2004

There are notable exceptions: Douglas Gordon’s Proposition for a Posthumous Portrait (2004), essentially a skull in a mirror chamber, is one. Whereas Duchamp once shaved a shooting star into his hair as a fleeting gesture for the camera, here Gordon carves that star into bone and presents the skull as an infinitely reflected, grinning, trepanned Duchamp. This alludes to an earlier postcard portrait of Duchamp in which the artist was shown facing multiple reflections of himself. But it also suggests how Duchamp has become endlessly re-imagined and imitated at the same time he’s become a fixed point in the landscape of art history—as fixed as, say, Dutch vanitas painting or Counter-Reformation religious imagery, both of which the skull recalls.

While much effort is made in the show to identify a broad range of specific instances in which the image of Duchamp has been employed, less time is spent illustrating how the creation and reproduction of that image has changed how artists now work. After all, an entire generation of Neo-Realist and Pop artists in the 1960s viewed Duchamp as their immediate ancestor; arguably Duchamp succeeded in radically changing the American cultural landscape—and the international avant-garde—forever.

Duchamp changed the rules of the art game, showing how artists could make careers not out of countless hours spent slaving in the studio but through ideas, play-acting, and positioning. Too often Inventing Marcel Duchamp loses this fact and looks more like an archivist’s roundup than a coherent art-historical argument. Still, regarding questions of gender and collaboration, the show happily gives the viewer food for thought and drives home just how strange and how human this particular walking, breathing masterpiece could be.