The Art of Looking Back and the Reward of More or Less Being Seen
Our ability to believe
our eyes is often overridden by our unquestioning confidence in the
judgment of "experts". As in Jasper John's The Critic Sees (fig.
1), we seem to put more trust in the words of these experts whose
insights are often the reiteration of yet others' conclusions, than
in our own ability to bear down and witness what is before us. Marcel
Duchamp understood the human tendency to categorize and simplify as
well as rely on the filters of contemporary opinion to color observation;
I believe he used this knowledge to make a powerful commentary on the
state of affairs of modern thought and the direction that art was taking
in his lifetime. Duchamp fought quietly against the move in twentieth
century art towards the purely visual experience, the 'retinal shudder'
as he put it, where "aesthetic delectation depends almost exclusively
upon the sensitivity of the retina without any auxiliary interpretation."(1)
This auxiliary interpretation was to Duchamp the operation of the intellect
in making and understanding art. Duchamp rejected the Matissean and
later the related Greenbergian theoretical view that saw art in terms
of expression and taste rather than concept. As a result, Duchamp sought
to transform his art and its appreciation into an intellectual endeavor
that would restore it's ties "with society" by once again including
"the religious, philosophical and moral content that bonded the two
I believe it was this multi-dimensional conceptual stance on art, investigations into the wonder of human perception and a drive to subvert the art world's digestive cycle, rather than a Dada prankster spirit, that may in part have motivated Duchamp to design and handcraft his ready-mades and thereafter claim them to be found objects as recent discoveries suggest. The litany of contradictory statements regarding their provenance and the mysterious loss or destruction of the original ready-mades denying any close inspection stood as a challenge to his generation as it continues to be to ours to look not just through the glasses of contemporary interpretation but to have confidence in the complexity of our own mind's eye and what it can discern. Calvin Tomkins quotes and paraphrases Duchamp from an interview he gave to promote the Société Anonyme in 1920 as follows: If Americans would simply remember their own "far famed...sense of humor when they see our pictures," he added, and think for themselves instead of listening to the critics, "modern art will come into its own."(3)
In Wanted: $2000
Reward (fig. 2) Duchamp puts a price on this challenge and
offers not only monetary compensation but seemingly a clear set of clues
to any who wish to question accepted interpretations and jump beyond
retinal readings of this and his other works. Today we know through
the research primarily of Rhonda Roland Shearer and a growing number
of others that the ready-mades and rectified ready-mades such as L.H.O.O.Q.(4)
were not purely operations of choice by the artist but in fact highly
manipulated wholly original works.
This work originally appeared sometime between 1922 and 1923 and later in 1938, when Duchamp used photos taken in 1936 of the original (figs. 3,4) to reconstruct it.(7) In 1963 Duchamp used Wanted: $2,000 Reward as the central image, a poster within a poster, for his first museum retrospective, by or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy (fig.5). In the context of his retrospective, where 114 of his works were displayed,(8) we are left wondering why Duchamp sought to portray himself as a criminal. The implication being that the character pictured, Duchamp, has gotten away with something, the question is what? This analysis attempts to determine the nature of the crime as it was presented in the exhibition poster to spectators in Pasadena in 1963 and in doing so reveals that Wanted: $2,000 Reward may not be a simple rectified readymade but instead a wholly original work.
We know at least from
Genre Allegory (George Washington) of 1943 that Duchamp is familiar
with this well-known first President in American history though we cannot
determine whether he was aware of him in 1923. If we assume that in
the interval between his first arrival to the United States in 1915
and 1923 Duchamp learns of George Washington, we can then speculate
that perhaps the middle initial "W" as in the common abbreviation GW,
in the first sentence of Wanted: $2000 Reward is a stand in for
Washington resulting in the proper name "George Washington Welch". I
make this leap in considering simultaneously the proceeding word "Welch"
and how it interacts with the name and mythology of George Washington.
If we look up welch in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary we find
that it is a variation on Welsh a word already in usage by 1905, whose
second entry means to break one's word:
The translation from French to English for trier is to sort, select, pick or hand pick.(14) The resulting phrase "et c'est [le] tri" translates to the English "and it is [the] sorting" or "and it is [the] choosing". Now, if we combine the lowercase words alias and etcetry linked by their proximity, repetition and lowercase status in the sentence we arrive at the phrase "lies and it is [the] choosing, lies and it is [the] choosing" or "lies, lies, and it is [the] choosing, and it is [the] choosing." As in the case of George Washington Welch, the theme of deception emerges from the text in Wanted: $2000 Reward. In this example an allusion to the ready-mades, defined as objects "elevated to the status of art by the mere act of the artist's selection,"(15) may surface as the act of selection is directly addressed by the use of trier while simultaneously the definition of the ready-mades as a process of selection is put to question by prefacing the act with the notion of lying. As we will see, the next example reiterates this emerging theme of false choices.
In the same sentence we find the proper names "Bull" and "Pickens" thematically connected by the use of capital letters. Other than the large male farm animal, "Bull" signifies a falsehood or a down-right lie in a colloquial sense, as in the common expression "that's a load of bull." The next word "Pickens" is the southern drawl equivalent of "pickings" from which one need not go far to arrive at its synonym, "choices [selections]". When these two words are combined the result is "Bull Pickens [Pickings]" or " false choices [selections]." In light of the previous two examples and in the context of the ready-mades this example also seems to challenge the authenticity of the ready-mades as everyday objects raised to the status of art solely through an artist's choice.
The following sentence - "Operated Bucket Shop in New York under name HOOKE, LYON, and CINQUER" - may further the theme of deception in connection to the ready-mades. First, we should take note of Duchamp's use of "Operated" at the beginning of this sentence since he often uses the term "operation" when referring to processes surrounding the ready-mades. An example appears in one of his notes in the The Green Box that states," to separate the mass-produced ready-made from the ready found - the separation is an operation."(16) A definition for "bucket shop" from Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary a term that dates back to 1875, aids in addressing the remainder of the sentence:
Indeed up until a few years ago, our reading of Duchamp's oeuvre had long ago shifted from direct observation to glimpses at inaccurate versions of the ready-mades and the reiterated voices of what the critics saw and see as Jasper John's cast sculpture reveals so eloquently. Even early on, though, there were murmurs that may have pointed at the "deception." André Breton, founder of the surrealists and friend of Duchamp, may have made allusions to it in the publication Minotaure from 1935:
I wonder still if Breton's mention of reactionary maneuvers and stock-exchange brokerages is a direct reference to Duchamp's bucket shop bait and switch strategy of signing his name to copies of lost ready-mades or simply to moves in the art world in the 1930s. In 1964 the "deception" was questioned again when Alfred Barr challenged Duchamp's concept of indifference in selecting the ready-mades at a panel discussion at MOMA by asking "why do they look so beautiful today?" Duchamp answered,"Nobody's perfect."(22)
Perhaps the imperfection was always intended; perhaps the fugitive pictured in Wanted: $2,000 Reward wants to get caught, just not immediately. The remaining text in Wanted: $2,000 Reward seems more descriptive than cryptic describing a set of physical attributes following the convention of wanted type posters. Other than the well-known homophone RROSE SELAVY, Duchamp's female alter ego first appearing in 1920, which when pronounced in French yields "Eros, c'est la vie" or in English, "Eros, [that] is life," this final text appears barren of secondary meanings. It seems simply to function as a delay in the capture of the "criminal" by misdirecting our attention and keeping us from challenging the "official story" of Wanted: $2,000 Reward.
But does it really end there? If we continue looking for further wordplay relating to the ready-mades we could read "Height" as its equivalent in French, "Hauteur" a homonym for auteur that translates to the English author followed by the numbers 5 and 9 correlating to feet and inches. Could these instead be an approximation of the number of important ready-mades 'about' 14 that Duchamp 'authored' and wishes to be measured against? And could 'Weight' be a homonym for "Wait" or delay, a concept Duchamp explored from his subtitling the Large Glass of 1923 delay in glass,(23) to the various delays in the publication of his notes, to his posthumous unveiling of Etant Donnes in 1969 to our present delayed further understanding of his works? If we continue to translate measures, could we take the 180 lbs. in the context of delay and translate it to the French kilogram and end up with 81.81(repeating), Duchamp's age at death. This number also roughly matches the number of years in delay from the unveiling of the first well known ready-made, Fountain of 1917, to our present understanding that it along with the other ready-mades were more than simply operations of choice. Indeed this particular delay brings us to a time in history when we can finally asses the true "weight" of his oeuvre, particularly when we recall that he was willing to wait fifty or a hundred years for his ideal audience. And if as they say, "time is money" can we translate the $2,000 or 2K from money to years and mark our time and ourselves as the arrival of his much 'wanted' ideal audience?
Many of these last observations, I realize, may be marred with conjecture but I offer them to raise the question of intentionality in reading Duchamp's work. When is one over reading or misinterpreting the work and when are certain connections justified? When our readings turn up incredible results we are left to wonder whether it is just our imagination or if it is possible for one man to juggle simultaneously such a vast amount of multiplicity of meaning.
Whether he could, could not or did should be debated and in terms of Wanted: $2000 Reward the apparent references to lies, choices and the ready-mades should be central to the discussion. To answer the question of intentionality I believe it is important first to attempt to find a version of the original joke poster, if there ever existed one. If the search turns up an original then the argument is settled and Duchamp simply found an extremely appropriate ready-made in 1923 and modified it slightly.
As the body of evidence grows and demonstrates Duchamp's ability and wish to visually layer his works in terms of multiplicity of viewpoints and simultaneity of meaning then it follows that he may have pursued similar ends in works like Wanted: $2,000 Reward that focus on the dimension of language. Duchamp puts it best:
If we take Duchamp at his word in this instance, we hear clearly that he not only can arrive at multiple meanings (up to four or five levels) but also enjoys bending language in the manner this deciphering of Wanted: $2,000 Reward proposes he may have done.
To end I want to add
one last possible reference to the ready-mades and the meaning of art
in general found in the title of the piece, WANTED, printed in bold
red block lettering at the top of the poster. The connection comes when
we think of the reason for wanted posters in the first place.
Wanted posters are meant to activate looking in the eventual hope of finding. As when we "L.H.O.O.Q." [read: LOOK] closely in 1919 and find Marcel Duchamp where the Mona Lisa should be and "rasée" [read: re-see] in 1965 (figs.11,12) that he has gone again,(27) then perhaps in Wanted: $2000 Reward, Marcel Duchamp affords us another chance to find him out and in the process of re-discovery we end up claiming our reward: a way back to an active role in the appreciation of art that involves not only looking with our eyes but also with our imagination and the full capacity of our intellect or as Jasper Johns describes "through the retinal boundaries which had been established with Impressionism into a field where language, thought and vision act upon one another."(28) And, if we accept this role, in the end we become artists in a sense as our readings - what we choose to see - become the true ready-mades found again in the wake of their disappearance.(29) After all, tout-fait (ready-made) is a homophone for tu fait (you make).(30)
is a work of art without an artist to make it.
Ades, Dawn; Cox, Niel; Hopkins, David. Marcel Duchamp. London:
Thames and Hudson, 1999, p. 71.
18. Incidentally, Duchamp signed these copies with the inscription "pour copie conforme," re-written as a homophone in English it yields "poor copy con for me". By "poor copy" Duchamp may be referring to the growing evidence (by Rhonda Roland Shearer) that the ready-mades are impossible objects whose construction in three dimensions is quite simply impossible since the lost originals, now only seen in photo form, appear to be composite images comprising multiple viewpoints spliced to form one coherent image. The "con for me" reference may thus point to the notion that with every new manifestation of an incorrect three dimensional version of a readymade we grow blinder to the discrepancies in the originals thus the new version serves to support Duchamp's ruse and thus the con [is made] for him.
19. Naumann, p. 235.
21. André Breton from Nauman, p.161.
22. Tomkins, p. 427.
23. Joselit, p.143.
24. d'Harnoncourt, p. 289.
25. In Tomkins, p. 445, Duchamp discusses with the author in 1964 the roughly fifty year cycles that scientific ideas go through before being replaced by newer ideas that challenge everything before them. He also touches on humor as follows: I never could stand the seriousness of life, but when the serious is tinted with humor, it makes a nicer color. Duchamp further explains his position on posterity in 1952 in Bonk, p. 18, from a conversation with Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti: "Artists of all times are like the gamblers of Monte Carlo, and this blind lottery allows some to succeed and ruins others. In my opinion, neither the winners nor the losers are worth worrying about. Everything happens through pure luck. Posterity is a real bitch who cheats some, reinstates others (El Greco) and reserves the right to change her mind every 50 years."
26. Marcel Duchamp, quoted from: Kuenzli, Rudolf and Francis M. Naumann (eds.). Marcel Duchamp, Artist of the Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1989, p. 6.
27. Follow this hyperlink to see the hide and seek Wilson-Lincoln effect illustrated. For Duchamp, the ephemeral nature as well as the relativistic aspect of perception may be central to his oeuvre, where the theme of "now you see it, now you don't" constantly surfaces. This is consistent with the frustration of trying to grasp multiple viewpoints/meanings simultaneously in Duchamp's work both with his puns as well as the "impossible ready-mades."
28. Johns, Jasper. "Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)," Artforum 7, no. 3. (November 1968), p. 6.
29. Tomkins, p. 397. Duchamp speaks of the artist's role: the creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
30. Special thanks to Monsieur André Gervais whose comments during the writing of this article have strengthened the final result.