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 Marcel Duchamp  (1887 - 1968)

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About: Marcel Duchamp
 

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Lived/Active: New York/California / France      Known for: Dada, avant-garde, cubism, assemblage

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Marcel Duchamp, born in Blainville, France, became a painter and sculptor who was part of the early 20th-century Dada movement that blurred the boundaries between these two aspects of fine art. In league with Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Man Ray, and Kurt Schwitters, Duchamp held to the Dada credo that "everything the artist spits out is art." (Mayer 105)

Duchamp made his first big impression in the American art scene with his entry of Nude Descending the Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show in New York. This event was the first organized exhibition in the United States that included avant-garde artwork from Europe, and the biggest French names were Picasso and Braque. However, Duchamp and his artist brothers, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon received the most advance publicity of the French entries, because the press built them up "as a family of avant-garde artists; pictures of them in their garden at Puteaux were the only photographs of contemporary European artist distributed by the Association". (Brown 135).

However, Marcel Duchamp was the sensation of the Armory Show with his cubist painting in the Dada tradition of Nude Descending the Staircase. According to Milton Brown in his book, The Story of the Armory Show, the painting drew the largest crowds and the most controversy because both the style and the subject matter were shocking. "Some tried to understand, others tried to explain, the great majority either laughed or were infuriated. It could be seen as a symbol of the ultimate in moral degeneracy or as a mad and irresponsible joke." (136) One critic, Julian Street, wrote that the work "was an explosion in a shingle factory", and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, described it as "A staircase descending a nude".

In 1915, Duchamp came to New York for his first extended stay, and of course, his reputation as being among the avant-garde was already established from the Armory Show two years earlier. He was readily accepted into the social and intellectual circle of Walter and Louise Arensberg, wealthy collectors of modernist art. The young Beatrice Wood, a member of that group and a future well-known potter, described meeting Duchamp at the Arensbergs. "Marcel at twenty-seven had the charm of an angel who spoke slang" (22).

Two years later, the Arensbergs with Duchamp spearheaded a group called the Society of Independent Artists, whose goal was to hold exhibitions that allowed anyone to exhibit anything if they paid the six-dollar entry fee. But according to Beatrice Wood, Duchamp again became the subject of controversy when two days before the exhibition began, "there was a glistening white object in the storeroom getting readied to be put on the floor." It was a urinal on its side and was signed R. Mutt. Unknown to his fellow organizers, Duchamp was the anonymous entrant.

George Bellows asserted that the urinal was a joke and should not be allowed, but Walter Arensberg said that the whole purpose of the exhibition was freedom of expression. Bellows retorted: "You mean to say, if a man sent in horse manure glued to a a canvas that we would have to accept it." (29). Apparently Bellows carried the argument, because the urinal was rejected, and Duchamp resigned from the Society of Artists.

He also attempted in 1917 to publish journals on Dada art, but they had minimal reception. New York Dada: The Blind Man had only 2 issues in 1917, and Rongwrong had only one issue.

After 1918, Duchamp did very little painting and devoted himself to making collages, constructions, and optical machines.

In 1920, he and Katherine Dreier founded the Societe Anonyme, an organization to exhibit leading-edge artwork and to form a modern art collection (now owned by Yale University).

For much of his life, Duchamp lived back and forth between New York and Paris and also spent time in California. In the 1950s, he became an American citizen. Towards the end of his life, Duchamp devoted more time to playing chess, becoming quite professional and becoming a delegate for the French Chess Federation. In 1967, a year before his death a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Museum Nationale D'Art Moderne in Paris.

Source:
Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show
Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Ralph Mayer, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


Marcel Duchamp is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
New York Armory Show of 1913
Painters of Nudes
Modernism
Sculptors

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