Both of my seminars this summer have read Calvin Tomkins’s profile of John Cage, published in The New Yorker in 1964 and collected the following year in his volume The Bride and the Bachelors, which also contained long reads on Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham. The anchor of that volume wasn’t Cage, but Marcel Duchamp, who was enjoying a renewed popularity among younger artists, including Cage and his followers.
One early manifestation of the Duchamp revival came in Robert Motherwell’s 1951 anthology The Dada Painters and Poets, which included a 1922 appreciation of Duchamp by Andre Breton, followed by several reproductions from New York Dada, edited by Duchamp and Man Ray in 1921. “For Marcel Duchamp the question of art and life, as well as any other question capable of dividing us at the present moment, does not arise.”
Tomkins stresses this impulse as the premise for Pop Art and all forms of conceptualism emerging from New York’s downtown arts scenes, though he notes that this strain of contemporary art was still confined to the underground:
While it may sometimes appear that everything Duchamp did or said in the past is being mined as source material by a new generation, not many artists even today share the intellectual attitude that motivated his countless inventions. “I wasnted to put painting once again at the service of the mind,” Duchamp once said. As early as 1910 he placed himself in opposition to what he considered the dominant trend of painting in his time, which he traced back to Courbet and described as ‘retinal’ art — art whose appeal is to the eye alone. Until the time of Courbet almost all European painting was literary or religious, Duchamp maintained. Courbet introduced the retinal emphasis, or what Duchamp sometimes called the ‘olfactory’ art of painters who were in love with the smell of paint and had no interest in re-creating ideas on canvas; and this retinal, olfactory, anti-intellectual bias was accepted by the Impressionists and subsequent schools. “All through the last half of the nineteenth century in France there was an expression, bete comme une peintre,” Duchamp as said. “And it was true; that kind of painter who just puts down what he sees is stupid. In my case I was thinking a little too much, maybe, but I don’t care, that’s what I thought.”
WNYC’s art blogger Carolina Miranda writes today about Ken Johnson’s new book on art and drugs in the 60s. Certainly illicit substances were motivating factors in the production of psychedelic, minimalist, and conceptual art, but lurking beneath all these is the man who forced us to ask what it would mean to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa. We remain, in our most playful and intellectually alive moments, Duchampians.