In celebration of the Walker Art Center’s 75th anniversary as a public art center, Martin Friedman—Walker director from 1961 to 1990—has generously agreed to share his unpublished writings from the era. In the first of the five-part Martin Friedman: Art (re)Collecting series, he shares his encounters with Marcel Duchamp, who visited the Walker 49 years ago this fall for the opening of his solo exhibition.
“And what exactly is it that you do, Mr. Duchamp?” That question was posed to the Walker Art Center’s guest one mid-October evening in 1965 during a dinner in honor of Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, held at the home at one of the museum’s trustees.
“Well,” the 78-year-old exemplar of Dada coolly responded, “I play chess.”
And that was true. Since he was a youth in Normandy, Marcel Duchamp had immersed himself in chess, seemingly to the exclusion of all else. A New York City resident since 1915, he had long since given up painting, in favor of what to others seemed a life of idleness. Only rarely did some cryptic creation come forth from him.
The dinner was the beginning of a big weekend at the Walker. Duchamp and Teeny, formerly the wife of the art dealer Pierre Matisse—the son of Henri—had come to the prairie to inaugurate an exhibition enigmatically titled NOT SEEN and/or LESS SEEN of/by MARCEL DUCHAMP/RROSE SELAVY. Only Duchamp could have come up with that appellation, a play on the name of his feminine alter-ego, Rose C’est La Vie. He occasionally assumed her persona in photographs in which he was in full drag. The exhibition at the Walker was comprised of paintings, drawings, documents, and a group of objects that, singly and in combination with others, Duchamp termed “readymades.” Though the readymades were for the most part ordinary daily objects, they were also, in his view, works of art simply because he declared them as such. These and other inclusions in the exhibition belonged to the New York collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Sisler. I learned, from Arne Ekstrom of the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York, that an exhibition of Duchamp’s work owned by Mary Sisler was being organized under the gallery’s auspices. Among institutions already signed up for its American tour were the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Milwaukee Art Center (now the Milwaukee Art Museum). The exhibition catalogue foreword and notes on specific works were by the English Pop artist Richard Hamilton, a discerning, articulate voice in the realm of Duchampiana. When I expressed interest in presenting the exhibition at the Walker, Ekstrom suggested that I speak with Mrs. Sisler directly, and that he would be glad to arrange a meeting. A few days later I called on Mrs. Sisler at her spacious, art-filled Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum, across the street. Would I care for some champagne, she asked graciously, gesturing toward a large silver vessel containing several uncorked bottles on ice. I demurred politely, wanting to be as clear-headed as possible in making my case for the show. I knew little about Mary Sisler, other than that she and her late husband had a collection of contemporary American art that ranged from Abstract Expressionism to Pop. I was aware that Duchamp had authorized the re-creation of some of his early readymades, the originals of which had long since been lost or destroyed. I knew that these new iterations had been fabricated under the supervision of Arturo Schwarz, Duchamp’s Milan-based dealer. One set of these had been purchased by Sisler from the Cordier and Eckstrom Gallery.
After interrogating me about the Walker’s history, collection, and especially what life was like in Minnesota, Mrs. Sisler was evidently comfortable enough with my responses to accede to my request that her Duchamps be shown at the museum. Even though no date for the opening in Minneapolis had been set, she regretted in advance that she would not be there. Sorry as I was about her decision, it was at that point that I thought of inviting Duchamp himself to attend.
I had met Marcel Duchamp in the early 1960s while working on an exhibition of the 1920s and 1930s Precisionist movement in American art. One of the artists prominently associated with that austere current, in which cubist and realist impulses were fused, was the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler. He was among the frequent invitees to the Upper West Side apartment of the prominent contemporary art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. Their 67th Street residence was a nonstop salon of leading European émigré and American avant-gardists. In my conversation with Sheeler, I learned that he and Duchamp, who was an especially frequent visitor to the Arensbergs, had become well acquainted. It must have been a curious friendship, considering the differences in their backgrounds and temperaments. Duchamp was an urbane figure whose ironical view of the art-making process had led to its subversion in his own work.
Sheeler, on the other hand, was a stoic Yankee, a compulsive craftsman for whom the process was a sacred ritual. During one of my interviews with Sheeler prior to the exhibition, he spoke warmly of their friendship and respect for one another’s work. Conversely, I was interested in Duchamp’s take on Sheeler. Though many in the early 1960s art world regarded Duchamp, who lived in an on 10th Street, near Fifth Avenue, as a visitor from another time, he was nevertheless venerated by and became friends with a few rising young artists, among them Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They found precedents for their work in his. Their incorporation of everyday objects in their paintings harkened back to Duchamp’s employment of such materials in his Dada ventures. It was not by accident, then, that their works of the late 1950s were characterized as “neo-Dada.”
However apprehensive I was about actually meeting Marcel Duchamp, I telephoned a number someone had given me. To my delighted surprise, it was he who answered the phone. I hesitantly explained the purpose of my call and asked if he might be free to talk with me sometime that week. “Why not now?” was the reply, and he suggested that we meet at a coffee shop downtown.
There he was, a slender, medium-height, elegant man. When I got my bearings—after all, this was Marcel Duchamp—we talked about the Walker’s upcoming Precisionist exhibition, in which Sheeler’s work would be shown, along with that of Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and other artists associated with that artistic current. That the internationalist Duchamp was even aware of this homegrown fusion of Cubism and photographic realism interested me. But as it turned out, not only was he aware of it but also fully appreciated Sheeler’s contribution to it. He talked to me about one of Sheeler’s conté watercolor-and-pencil drawings, a moody work titled Self-Portrait (1923), in which the lower part of the artist’s face and his upper torso are reflected spectrally in a window pane at night. Perhaps it was the candlestick-style telephone and separate earpiece that suggested a readymade to Duchamp, who vividly recalled that cryptic image during our discussion. He was unstintingly complimentary about Sheeler’s view of the world, so drastically different from his own.
Some five years later, emboldened by the memory of that earlier meeting, I phoned Duchamp to invite Teeny and him to come to Minneapolis for the opening of NOT SEEN and/or LESS SEEN of/by MARCEL DUCHAMP/RROSE SELAVY. He accepted instantly. The Duchamps could not have been easier guests. They wanted to see everything, not just the museum, but the environs: the Mississippi River, the grain silos, and the countryside. Marcel was happy with the installation of the exhibition, making a few suggestions here and there about final placement. There were some one hundred pieces on view. In the first section were works on paper and canvas, revealing Duchamp’s explorations of stylistic modes during his youthful days in Paris: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. The most arresting part of the exhibition were the readymades, which included such Duchamp icons as the bottle rack, the snow shovel, the glass ampoules containing the air of Paris, a bird cage stuffed with white marble sugar cubes, a bicycle wheel affixed to a tall round-top kitchen stool, and, perhaps best known of all, a small reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which Duchamp had added a dashing, cavalier-style moustache and beard in pencil.
There is always something disorienting about museum installations of the readymades. Within the pristine white walls of the Walker’s galleries, for example, they assumed an odd sanctity. The subversive Dada sensibility was at work: what at first seems improbable, if not ludicrous, becomes talismanic over time. Among the familiar objects on view to which Duchamp had given new identity was a replica of the 1917 urinal he had teasingly titled Fontaine. Like the original piece, the underside of its industrial ceramic surface bore the crudely lettered signature of R. Mutt, another of Duchamp’s punning artistic pseudonyms. The original Fontaine had achieved instant notoriety when it was excluded from the Society of Independent Artists’ 1917 exhibition in New York. In response, Duchamp resigned from the Society, an organization he had helped found only the year before.
Though most attendees at the exhibition’s opening were aware of Duchamp’s importance in the history of Modernism, they were probably less familiar with his specific accomplishments.
When I asked if the artist would mind submitting to a brief interview on that inaugural night, he readily agreed. This interview took place on the landing of the grand staircase in the old Walker Art Center building, which four years later would be demolished to make way for a new building designed by the late Edward Larrabee Barnes. The audience gathered along the railings on the floor above the landing and on the first floor, below it. After a brief introduction, our interview began.
My first question was, did he feel that the revolutionary spirit that had inspired Dada and other early twentieth-century Modernist movements was still alive? He did, indeed, observing that such revolutionary activity had begun after what he termed the “episode of Abstract Expressionism.” He talked about a new crop of young men involved in what was then called Pop and Op Art, movements entirely divorced from the expressionist art that had precede them. “So, it’s entirely a new revolutionary spirit, as it should be. Every twenty-five years a new spirit brings up some new men and expresses new ideas completely unknown before, not influenced directly by the preceding movement at all.”
Given that the young artists of the Pop movement held him in such esteem, did Duchamp sense any connection between the spirit of their work and that of his Dada production, I wondered?
He did, indeed, he answered, suggesting a familial connection between Pop and Dada that spanned generations, however different their sources.
Dada was a revolt against the whole idea of war, specifically the advent of World War I, he observed. “And here, in this time,” he added (it was 1965), “there is no war at all to be a reason for the new movement.” Thus, Dada had “no real influence” on Pop Art, which he described as having been “born of itself.”