Many of us think we know a thing or two about Marcel Duchamp. We have been studying his experiments for over a century and his work continues to influence artistic practice and critical inquiry. Currently on view at Miami Art Museum is a rare opportunity to get to know Duchamp more intimately. Rene Morales, Associate Curator at MAM, put together a generous display that takes a closer look at Duchamp’s editions, a body of work that remains a controversial and absorbing topic.
For the Focus Gallery’s exhibits, one piece is chosen from the MAM collection to take center stage, and the rest of the show is borrowed, providing context to the multitude of important works that MAM has acquired. The “focal” point in this case is an edition of Boîte-en-Valise, a linen-covered box containing miniature replicas and color reproductions of recognizable works such as The Large Glass, Nude Descending a Staircase, LHOOQ, Air de Paris, among others. During a personal tour with Rene Morales, my attention was turned directly toward a fundamental contradiction within the piece, its craftsmanship.
Early on Duchamp was heavily criticized for making editions of his original works, yet his attention to the “craft” of the replica introduces a different sentiment altogether. Joseph Cornell was hired to build the first twenty editions of Boîte-en-Valise, a choice well made considering his fascination with creating miniature worlds of his own, and also an ironic one for Duchamp. It places the concept of originality once again at a point of contention. The editions could have been made in a factory, mechanically reproduced at a lower cost, and worthy of arguments based on value or the merits of artistic labor, yet an artist was hired to carefully and meticulously carry out each copy one by one. Treating each edition as a unique object challenges all that we think we know about “Duchampian aesthetics” and the theories behind the readymade. The making and the meaning of Boîte-en-Valise begin to dance in circles forming patterns of uncertainty, a confusion that should necessarily be present in any argument concerning Duchamp.
Apparently, Ringling Museum in Sarasota owns a treasure trove of Duchamp editions. They provided all the other works, including The Green Box, a mini version of notes and drawings collected by the artist over a nine-year period that refer to the making of The Large Glass. This piece, as an edition, is just as well crafted and laborious as Boîte-en-Valise, and causes a similar sense of perplexity in terms of intent. In a 1972 text, John Berger attempts to analyze the status of an original object that has been reproduced, “…the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is.” He goes on to argue that as cultural mystification of the original occurs it is imbued with “an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.” This argument in relation to Duchamp’s editions simply send the viewer down another rabbit hole because at this point, the reproductions themselves have become mystified. This mystique is owed much to the possibility that each reproduction is itself a unique object.
The thought that a replica of something else could have as much integrity on its own as does the original is a mind-bending philosophical question. The issue is so problematic that it inspired Rhonda Roland Shearer to dispute the status of Duchamp’s readymades as mass-produced and claim that neither “Fountain” nor “LHOOQ” were made from objects that were purchased. She proposed that they are handcrafted copies of factory-manufactured objects.
Copies of copies, copies of originals, original copies… Regardless of what is fact or fiction, Duchamp remains the ultimate trickster. His work has caused much chaos inside the brightest minds of this century and most certainly will continue to do so in the next. Morales coined the phrase “Duchamp 101” when he described the mission of the show, and in scale it could, in fact, appear much like a school science fair, with its vials, vitrines and modest displays. This appearance may effectively suggest art is a series of scientific experiments, and Marcel Duchamp, a mad scientist whose classroom is a merry-go-round of ideas.
Image: Marcel Duchamp, De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (Boîte-en-valise) (From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy [Box in a Suitcase]) Series D, 1941/1961, Box covered in linen containing miniature replicas and color reproductions of works by Duchamp (68 items), Edition 1/30 Collection Miami Art Museum, museum purchase with funds from Lang Baumgarten as well as from Mimi Floback and Sally Ashton Story in memory of Jon Ashton (c) 2011 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp , Photo Credit: Sid Hoeltzell.