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Museum fatigue is the sensation of becoming physically and mentally exhausted in the course of museum-going; taking in art can use up a lot of brainpower, and no artist can zap viewer’s cerebral energies quite like Marcel Duchamp. The early 20th century French painter and sculptor championed art that engaged the mind over the eye, which can present a challenge in showcasing his pieces, since the work is often more interesting to think about than it is to look at. Two exhibits at the Hirshhorn, one virtual and one in person, sidestep that issue by presenting Duchamp’s legacy as a collection of ideas and questions.
Upon entering Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection, the visitor is greeted by a massive projection of Andy Warhol’s video “Screen Test: Marcel Duchamp,” immediately focusing on the impact that Duchamp had on subsequent artists and art movements rather than his actual work. Around the corner, a cartoon by J.F. Griswold parodying “Nude Descending a Staircase” is blown up to mural proportions, while a small reproduction of the original painting rests on the wall next to it, demonstrating the often outsize furor that Duchamp’s ideas generated.
Duchamp’s biggest and best-known idea was the readymade, his sculptures made from preexisting, manufactured objects, transfigured into art by the act of the artist choosing them. The ones on display here (including “Hat Rack,” “Comb,” and “With Hidden Noise”) mostly come from editioned sets; because the idea was more important than the object itself, Duchamp had no qualms about buying replicas of earlier readymades and signing them, or creating collotypes or other copies of his paintings and drawings.
Duchamp’s seminal work “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” can’t be moved from its home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so it’s re-created on a mesh panel. Duchamp spent years thinking about this glass panel with shapes drawn in lead, depicting a schematic that imagines erotic desire as a complex mechanical process. Also on display is “The Green Box,” a painstaking reproduction of all of his notes and writings related to “The Large Glass” that proves the written word can’t fully capture an artist’s ideas, as well as several other editions of book and box works that unfold in clever ways to show miniature reproductions of his pieces.
In the latter half of his life, Duchamp became increasingly absorbed in playing chess and his creative output slowed significantly. The show includes some of his experiments with optical illusions like illustrations to be viewed through 3D glasses and Rotoreliefs that become animated when placed on a turntable. There’s also a coffee table’s worth of gorgeously designed book covers for surrealist publications and gallery catalogs.
“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” Duchamp said in a 1957 lecture, meaning that the audience’s observation and interpretation was a crucial part of the artistic process. The exhibit closes on this final thought, with a chess table available for those who fancy a match, and a light projector set up for participants to trace a friend’s Duchamp-inspired silhouette portrait.
It’s tough to re-create that kind of activity online; It’s Art If I Say So was originally intended as a companion exhibit alongside the in-person show, but was forced to go online due to COVID-19. Though virtual exhibits can easily fall flat compared with the experience of observing physical works of art, Duchamp’s work and ideas are uniquely suited to this format. This exhibit pulls from the Hirshhorn’s collection to demonstrate Duchamp’s influence on the artists that followed him. Organized around four core themes that drove Duchamp’s work, each section is anchored by a masterwork, and related back to the works by other artists. This approach forces viewers to think about the underlying concepts and theories driving the work, not just the aesthetics.
The online exhibit unfolds like one of his suitcase contraptions and becomes a choose-your-own-adventure, letting viewers ping-pong off in different directions and explore whatever ideas they choose. In addition to descriptions that echo the wall text of a traditional gallery, several works feature links to videos, further reading, or hands on crafts: make a Giovanni Anselmo-inspired light stencil, or watch an artist talk with the Guerrilla Girls. Even online, it’s the spectator that completes the work.
At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and online through May 8. hirshhorn.si.edu.