- Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb by Kenneth Goldsmith
New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. $95.00/£78.00 (hardcover).
In justly celebrated brief poems such as “Between Walls,” “Young Sycamore,” “To a Poor Old Woman,” and “The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams encourages readers to focus on parts of the world that they might otherwise ignore. In “Between Walls,” for instance, the poet locates “broken //pieces of a green /bottle” in the “back wings” of a “hospital where /nothing //will grow” (CP1 453). Unlike the organic sublimity found in romanticism, the inert “green” glass can “shine” because Williams, the urban modernist, applies form and language to curate a place where Depression era hoboes sought warmth from a homemade fire and maybe some wine. I thought of “Between Walls” when reading Duchamp Is My Lawyer because Goldsmith inaugurates his history of UbuWeb, the website he created in 1996 to curate avant-gardism, with a comparable example of how to encounter artifacts behind another sort of respected institution: “‘Invisible to the bustling crowds at the main entrance on Fifty-Third Street, there’s [End Page 80] a back door to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City that few know about,” writes Goldsmith (1). MoMA’s former Poet Laureate then explains why the usually “desolate” back door that commands “only a lonely intern sitting at a desk” is, in fact, the portal outsider artists use to enter their work into the museum with no questions asked. It turns out that in the 1970s, a MoMA librarian named Clive Philpot “decreed that anybody could mail anything to the MoMa Library, and it would be accepted and become part of the official collection” (1). Through the literal and figurative “back door,” MoMA has added “anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 artists to the collection” (1). As Williams understood in “Between Walls” and as Goldsmith demonstrates in spades throughout Duchamp Is My Lawyer, “[t] he back door is a powerful tool. While all eyes are elsewhere, magical things can happen in the margins. Andy Warhol once said that if you want to collect something in New York, you have to find out what it is that nobody else wants and collect that. Before long, everyone will want it” (2).
Following Warhol’s compulsive strategy in Time Capsules (1974–1987), where “the distinctions among collecting, curating, archiving, and hoarding collapsed into an artistic practice,” Goldsmith assembles, documents, and distributes peculiar sonic, visual, and textual artifacts via UbuWeb (12). Combining reframing techniques Marcel Duchamp developed in “Fountain” (1917) with the ludic impulses that animated Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q (Mona Lisa With Moustache; 1919), Goldsmith doubles down on Dada. We may, however, distinguish Goldsmith’s practice from Duchamp’s. Duchamp tweaks the admittedly postcard version of Da Vinci’s masterpiece, so familiar that when it was stolen from the Louvre on August 21, 1911—possibly as a prank by Picasso and Apollinaire—it was not until August 22 that anyone noticed La Gioconda had gone missing. Goldsmith, by contrast, exhibits rarely seen artifacts belonging to the avant-garde itself. Preserving unusual music, film, art, and poetry in the spirit of fandom, not professional curation, he preserves the rebellious ethos of avant-gardism while removing its baggage of elitism, imperialism, masculinism, and militarism (the term avant-garde, of course, refers to soldiers on the vanguard of a battle zone). As Goldsmith freely admits, UbuWeb is an amateurish endeavor. “The site is filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists better known for other things,” Goldsmith writes (4). Indeed, goofy curios proliferate on UbuWeb: Pop entertainer Marie Osmond reciting Hugo Ball’s Dada Poem “Karawane,” William Burroughs singing with The Doors and REM, the electronic music (not the painting) of Jean Dubuffet, the videos by Richard Serra, not the metal sculptures, the country music of sculptor [End Page 81] Julian Schnabel. UbuWeb also features outsider artists such as David Daniels. A once promising painter who was rejected by leading abstract expressionists in the 1950s, Daniels remade himself in the...