- The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp by Elena Filipovic
by Elena Filipovic. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2016. 360pp. Trade. ISBN: 9780262034821.
Rather tellingly, Elena Filipovic gives the introduction to her study the title “A History of Marcel Duchamp and Other Fictions,” indicating that his is a narrative like any other. What Filipovic makes clear is that the history of an artist like Duchamp is written not only by [End Page 542] participants in a discipline like art history but also by the art market and the appreciation of peers and critics. The difference in this case, as is widely known among Duchamp scholars but convincingly exemplified by Filipovic, is that Duchamp was rather instrumental in writing his own narrative. Anyone who is slightly familiar with that story knows the basic ingredients. As Filipovic sums them up at the beginning of her introduction, this basically comes down to “a story of things: artworks invented or hand-made, original or in copy, influential and in some cases revolutionizing” (p. 2) .
While Duchamp made it sufficiently clear that he was at a certain point no longer interested in painting due to its “retinal” qualities and therefore resorted to the selection of “readymades,” or as Filipovic succinctly puts it, “nominating store-bought stuff as art,” he seems to have also been quite happy with the limited view of what an artist constitutes in the eyes of many. This approach bought him, namely, the freedom he was after. If there is one reason why Duchamp still fascinates, then it is because of his elusiveness. What is clear and further demonstrated by Filipovic is that Duchamp was always eager to cross the boundaries of what an artist constitutes—not boxed in by style, discipline or activity. By focusing on “apparently marginal activities,” Filipovic addresses the issue of an artist being too much identified with certain of his or her things or artworks, through either art history or the art market. In Duchamp’s case, the emphasis has certainly been on his so-called readymades and more specifically his “urinal” or Fountain (1917).
The “apparently marginal activities” that Filipovic however alludes to are the kind of activities that are usually not seen as being artistic or at least (still) not fully appreciated as such. In earlier publications and talks, Filipovic has already done much to rectify this oversight, such as in her talk during the 2012 conference “Artist as Curator” organized by the magazine Afterall and the subsequent series of appendixes under the same denominator for the magazine Mousse. For those familiar with Duchamp’s work, or with the realities of the activities of the average artist for that matter, the outcome of this book, therefore, not so much surprises as continues to put things in the right perspective for a wider audience.
That Duchamp early on had an interest in a wider scope of activities than “just” producing art is demonstrated through among other things his role in setting up the Society of Independent Artists in New York and being involved as head of the hanging committee for its inaugural exhibition in 1917. Even though the Society had promoted a jury-free setup and Duchamp subsequently advocated a democratic hanging according to the alphabet rather than subjective preference, the board of directors nevertheless famously refused to show his anonymously submitted readymade Fountain. Duchamp nevertheless became a sought-after curator, administrator and art dealer among fellow artists such as André Breton. Although Duchamp did not want to be reined in by the Surreal-ists as a member, this did not prevent him from collaborating with Breton and curating several exhibitions with him, making very clear that life does not come in the boxed entities of the art market or art history. Boxes, and especially ways to escape them, nevertheless played a significant role in his work, either literally or figuratively. Starting with his lifelong love for chess and its black-and-white squares that could be seen as equal and thus interchangeable, his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy could also be regarded as a way of escaping too-fixed boundaries...