We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit

Dalia Judovitz

University of California Press,

308 pp., $34.95

Compared with these performers, Marcel Duchamp was a quiet sort. But as Dalia Judovitz’s Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit makes clear, Duchamp’s art has had a more lasting effect than the noisier doings of his contemporaries—in part (as Judovitz amply demonstrates) because his pieces were more than provocations.

In many ways, Duchamp anticipated the questions that have preoccupied artists and art critics since the fall of high modernism. “Duchamp’s postmodernity lies precisely in his discovery that Modernism would exhaust itself were it to simply conceive of itself in terms of vanguardism, seeking shock value for its own sake,” Emory University professor Judovitz writes in her book, a sustained meditation on the meanings of Duchamp’s works and the strange twists of his career. “Duchamp devises a strategic approach, one that ‘draws’ on previous traditions, only to uncover within them new forms of artistic appropriation. He plays chess with art, using both sides of the board to redefine the game.”

He first gained attention as a painter, when his soon-to-become-infamous Nude Descending a Staircase was exhibited at New York’s Armory Show in 1913. Having created a stir, Duchamp could have taken the path of many artistic rebels, turning his revolt into mere style, painting essentially the same thing again and again until his work achieved a certain respectability. But Duchamp gave up the genre almost entirely, beginning a series of experiments that ultimately challenged the fundamentals of art and aesthetics, and devoting most of his attention to matters of business and chess.

To Duchamp, Judovitz explains, art was an intellectual exercise, a vast game in which strategic thinking meant more than fantasies of self-expression. After Nude, his second move in this game was a 1917 sculpture called Fountain, which consisted of an ordinary urinal turned on its side. With this simple gesture, he challenged the very notion of artistic creation.

Having made his point, Duchamp once again moved on. His third famous work is a strange parody of science and artistic creation: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). A large work on glass, it depicts a strange and useless machine, a kind of Rube Goldberg device loaded with sexual innuendo, all of which is explained in Duchamp’s copious (if nonsensical) notes for the project.

Duchamp’s later moves represented what Judovitz describes as his intellectual approach to art; he produced “visual artifacts that embody thought-processes, logical and poetic displacements.” Noting that the signature of the artist—like the stamp of a notary public—had become in some ways more important than the work itself, Duchamp produced a series of works that were little more than facsimiles of checks. His final work, a naturalistic sculpture of a reclining female nude visible only through a peep hole, comments on the voyeurism inherent in all art.

Judovitz’s book is an inventive, if sometimes labored, explication of Duchamp’s major works—and a surprising number of his minor ones as well. Instead of making the obvious connections between Duchamp and the cubists, the dadaists, and the surrealists, she goes farther afield, finding in Duchamp’s fancy for visual puns an echo of the 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who crafted ingenious paintings in which ordinary items (from flowers to fish) were placed together so that they appeared to form human heads.

Unpacking Duchamp at times requires some unpacking itself. Judovitz’s elliptical style occasionally leaves the reader spinning as aimlessly as Duchamp’s ready-made Bicycle Wheel, and too much time is spent trying to explicate Duchamp’s visual and verbal puns (many of which don’t translate well). But the volume reaffirms the artist’s importance and audacity. “While there is no unifying style that defines his work,” Judovitz writes, “Duchamp’s works compel the spectator to question the traditional categories that have defined the notion of the art object, the creative act, and the position of the artist.”

The author effectively shows that Duchamp’s artistry still challenges, while that of his contemporaries—from Pablo Picasso to the Zurich dadaists—seems dated. At one point, Judovitz quotes an instructive comment from musician John Cage, who notes that while many of Duchamp’s colleagues “had become artists with the passing of time, Duchamp’s works remained unacceptable as art.” The pieces are still unacceptable today—because the questions they raise about the nature of art and creativity remain unanswered. They will stay on the margins until the next Duchamp arrives, and makes the next move.CP