The Marcel Duchamp Joke Just Isn’t Funny Anymore

“Marcel Duchamp,” writes Francis M. Naumann, “professed an aversion to any form of artistic repetition.” Like so many other of the arch utterances one encounters in Mr. Naumann’s latest opus on the artist, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Henry N. Abrams, $70), this deadpan reference is itself yet another tiresome rehearsal of Duchampian paradox. For as every reader of this ponderous tome is certain to know, Duchamp is an artist-or, if you like, a pseudo-artist-who is now mainly known to the public through the myriad repetitions or replications or appropriations of the small number of works that he himself condescended to produce in his lifetime. He died in 1968 at the age of 81, but the production of Duchampian repetitions continues on its merry way without abatement.

During the course of his long career in esthetic mystification, Duchamp eagerly presided over the kind of repetitions he is alleged to have been adverse to, and one of these-a replica of the Fountain , the ready-made lavatory urinal that Duchamp first produced in New York in 1917, is scheduled to be sold at auction at Sotheby’s on Nov. 17. It is one of an edition of eight that was fabricated under Duchamp’s supervision in 1964 and, according to a press release from Sotheby’s, is expected to fetch around $1 million. This replica currently occupies a place of honor in Part I of The American Century at the Whitney Museum.

That announcement from Sotheby’s, by the way, seems to have become infected by a Duchampian virus, for it speaks of the initial showing of the Fountain at the “groundbreaking 1917 New York Armory show” as a “watershed in the history of art,” when all the world knows that the Armory Show took place a little earlier-in 1913-and in that show it was Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 , that caused an uproar. The Fountain was indeed first submitted for an exhibition in New York in 1917, at the lesser-known Independents exhibition, but was rejected. In the Duchampian universe of discourse, however, dates are as fungible as the concept of authenticity or originality, and nobody but a few old-fashioned sticklers for accuracy seem to mind.

To get back to Mr. Naumann’s statement about Duchamp’s alleged aversion to “artistic repetition,” however, I must cite a little more of the passage in which it occurs, for it will convey something of the spirit in which his weighty study of Duchamp’s repetitions is written as well as the spirit of the two gallery exhibitions that have been mounted to mark its publication.

“Marcel Duchamp professed an aversion to any form of artistic repetition,” Mr. Naumann writes. “‘The idea of repeating, for me,’ he told an interviewer in 1960, ‘is a form of masturbation.’” Mr. Naumann then hastens to add: “Not that he had anything against the practice; in 1946, at the age of 59, he produced-or perhaps ‘issued’ is a better choice of word-one of the most original works of his artistic career: Paysage fautif , or Faulty Landscape , an essentially abstract composition made entirely out of his own semen.…When Paysage fautif was made, the use of human sperm for artistic expression was unique within the history of art; today, in more ways than one, the work can be considered seminal, for as future generations would prove, it was to have many followers.”

It is yet another Duchampian paradox, of course, that Mr. Naumann should be so concerned to establish what is “original” and “unique” in an oeuvre largely devoted to repetitions and replications, but I am myself prepared to accept the idea that Paysage fautif may be Duchamp’s most original work. As with so much of Duchamp’s production, whether it is art is entirely beside the point. You will find a full-color, full-page reproduction of this “seminal” work on page 17 of Mr. Naumann’s new book.

With Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction , in which Duchampian mystifications are conflated with the mystifications of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), we seem to have arrived at a late Alexandrian phase of Duchamp studies. Now it is not so much the work itself as the cataloguing and classification of its repetitions and influence that are the primary focus of an immense scholarly labor. Thus the two exhibitions that have been organized to mark the publication of Mr. Naumann’s book-the show at Achim Moeller Fine Art that takes its title from the book itself, and the show called Apropos of Marcel: The Art of Making Art After Duchamp in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction at the Curt Marcus Gallery-have a sort of reliquary character. We are expected to be amused by this surfeit of Duchampian repetition, all of it scrupulously documented and classified, but we are also expected to worship at the shrine of the mind that created this joke in the first place.

As a collection of Duchamp memorabilia, the show at Achim Moeller is by far the more amusing. Everything that you may ever have wanted to know about Duchampian repetition is on display in two floors of the gallery and is also documented in an elegantly produced catalogue that will surely figure in many future exhibitions of Duchampian relics. Apropos of Marcel , at the Marcus Gallery, is rather more depressing, but it brings us the work of four living artists (so to speak)-Richard Pettibone, Elaine Sturtevant, Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo-who have voluntarily consigned their talents to a task that Duchamp himself likened to masturbation. That there is now a lively market for such Duchampian imitations is itself part of the joke, of course.

I seem myself to have made a minor contribution to this Alexandrian phase of Duchampian research, as I now learn from Mr. Naumann’s book. In writing about some of Mr. Naumann’s earlier labors on Duchamp’s behalf, I characterized one of his footnotes as “absurd[ly] didactic.” (This was in a Sept. 30,1993, Observer column.) This has prompted Mr. Naumann to append a glossary to his new book in which he painstakingly attempts to clarify the significant differences that are alleged to distinguish such terms as “appropriation,” “replica,” “imitated rectified ready-made,” and “semi-ready-made,” among others. This glossary is itself one of the most hilarious contributions to art-historical scholarship ever attempted. I won’t say it is worth buying the book for, but a Xerox of this two-page glossary is guaranteed to enliven almost any dinner party at which the inanities of the New York art world in 1999 are under discussion.

The exhibition at Achim Moeller Fine Art, 167 East 73rd Street, remains on view through Jan. 15. Apropos of Marcel , at the Curt Marcus Gallery, 578 Broadway in SoHo, closes Nov. 6.