Duchamp Scholars Face Off in Art in America Hate Mail

Arturo Schwarz is a 75-year-old Egyptian-born poet, anarchist and former Trotskyist who has resided in Milan since the 1940’s. In addition to numerous works on alchemy and cabala, he is also the author of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp , a two-volume catalogue raisonée that was originally published in 1967 and reissued in an 18-pound third edition at the end of 1997. Unlike most of the Duchamp scholars working today, Mr. Schwarz actually knew the artist, who died in 1968, and claims to have gotten the artist to approve the final text of the book and correct the proofs. What’s more, he maintains that Duchamp and André Breton, the father of surrealism, were aware of his central thesis about the artist’s main work, The Large Glass -that it was the result of Duchamp’s unconscious incestuous desire for his sister, Suzanne.

Whether Duchamp harbored any such desire will probably never be known, since the artist did not write about it and spoke about it to no one except Mr. Schwarz, according to the author. What is clear from the letters column of the January issue of Art in America is that Mr. Schwarz will probably go to his grave defending his theory. In a heated, lengthy response to a review of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp that appeared in the January 1998 issue of the magazine, Mr. Schwarz takes apart reviewer Francis Naumann, a New York-based critic and expert on Dada who was a protégé of Mr. Schwarz until they had a falling out in 1991, a fact that was never mentioned in Mr. Naumann’s review.

Mr. Naumann’s review disputes Mr. Schwarz’s unconscious incest theory. Mr. Naumann cites sources who maintain that Duchamp was not aware of Mr. Schwarz’s theory and never approved of the text of The Complete Works . He says that Duchamp slept through the lecture in London at which Mr. Schwarz introduced his theory.

In his letter, Mr. Schwarz points out that he himself made eye contact with Duchamp several times during the lecture Mr. Naumann claims the artist slept through, and spoke to him about it afterward. He believes that such criticism has been disseminated by Alexina (Teeny) Duchamp, the artist’s wife, who “never made a secret of her dislike for me” and did not share his theories.

Mr. Schwarz’s letter asks: “Can our profession condone a critic who uses the space of a periodical to vent his animosity, and who indulges in spiteful and vindictive language to defame an author? Is a critic allowed to replace argued objections with gossip and hearsay intended to delegitimate an author?” He goes on to maintain that “Naumann’s review abounds with malevolent insinuations, internal inconsistencies and misconceptions. Instead of discussing my analysis of actual works and statements which fully support my thesis, he resorts to the cheapest possible arguments, reporting malignant gossip, hearsay and prejudiced statements that have nothing to do with the thesis I expounded.”

In the year since the review appeared, Mr. Schwarz has rallied a number of critics to his corner. He quotes a letter he received from Arthur C. Danto, the art critic for The Nation : “At the moment there is a kind of epidemic of what one might call Duchamposis-or Duchampitis-which consists in rewriting the complete works in ways which, if true, would make Duchamp vastly less interesting than I believe him-and certainly you believe him-to be. My Duchamp is the Duchamp of Arturo Schwarz.” He also cites William Camfield, a source in Mr. Naumann’s review, as saying, “I do not share Francis Naumann’s opinion about your work on Duchamp. The fact that this comment looms in Naumann’s memory and is featured in his review represents him as an individual.”

In his response to Mr. Schwarz’s letter that also appears in the current issue of Art in America , Mr. Naumann writes, “Shortly after my review appeared, Paul Matisse, Duchamp’s stepson, wrote to inform me that I was incorrect when I stated that Duchamp died before Schwarz’s book appeared. ‘Schwarz sent him just about everything as he wrote it,’ he recalled. ‘Marcel spared himself by not reading it. Instead, he would just turn to the last page, jot something like, ‘Very interesting,’ sign his name and send it back.'”

Mr. Schwarz, in turn, has prepared a response to Mr. Naumann’s response for an upcoming issue of Art in America , which he shared with The Observer . “Naumann disregards Duchamp’s intense correspondence with me. Instead he quotes an opinion, and I wonder on which ground it was expressed, of Paul Matisse, Duchamp’s stepson, who notoriously shared his mother’s dislike for my writings, to the effect that ‘Schwarz sends him just about everything that he wrote. Marcel spares himself by not reading it. Instead, he will just turn to the last page, jot something like very interesting, sign his name and send it back.’ From this I gathered that Paul Matisse also has the gift of ubiquity since he was not living in New York, nor have I ever seen him in Neuilly or Cadaqués, when I was discussing with Duchamp.”

Mr. Schwarz confirmed that he threatened to sue the magazine because of what he calls the libelous comments made by Mr. Naumann. Elizabeth Baker, editor of Art in America , did not return a phone call seeking comment before publication. “It is not a question of opinion,” said Mr. Schwarz. “They should have checked whether what Francis Naumann wrote was true or not. As a matter of fact, I wanted also to sue Francis Naumann. But when I heard about the consequences of my suing him I decided not to do that, because it would have practically exiled him from Europe.”

Since Mr. Naumann has prepared his own book on Duchamp that will be published by Harry N. Abrams Inc. later this year. Mr. Schwarz believes that he has been motivated by a desire to “destroy my work to promote his work.” Ever the Freudian, Mr. Schwarz also believes that Mr. Naumann, who is young enough to have been his son, is also motivated by an Oedipus complex. “He turns against me because he considered me a father, and now, as Freud has very well illustrated, he tries to kill his father.”

Mr. Naumann has also prepared more material for publication in an upcoming issue of the magazine. He claims that Mr. Schwarz bullied the magazine into printing every word of his letter by threatening to sue and even added a new paragraph late in the process that Mr. Naumann never saw before publication. He also claims that Art in America cut his response, making room for an advertisement that ran in the space that could have been used for his words.

“The thing that I find troubling,” Mr. Naumann told The Observer ,” is that threats and intimidation can have any influence within the context of scholarly exchange. I can’t even get over it.”