The following article is published in two parts within the exhibition
catalogue for “Aftershock: The Legacy of the Readymade in Post-War and
Contemporary American Art,” Dickinson Roundell, Inc., New York, May – June 2003


(Ab)Using Marcel Duchamp: The Concept of the Readymade in Post-War and Contemporary American Art

by Thomas Girst

Elaine Sturtevant

“[Duchamp’s] concern with trying to redefine what we consider art was a very big factor in terms of my own work.”

- Francis M. Naumann, Apropos of Marcel. The Art of Making Art after Duchamp in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, New York: Curt Marcus Gallery, 1999 [exh. cat.], p. 22.

Claes Oldenburg

“[Duchamp] was certainly on the scene. But I believe that the sort of thing I was into, which really was about the very gritty aspects of the Lower East Side, was very remote from Duchamp.”

- interview with Susan Hapgood, in: Neo-Dada: Redefining Art 1958-62, p. 124.

“Yes, he was a historical figure.”

- interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (1985), quoted in: Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon (eds.), The Duchamp Effect. Essays, Interviews, Round Table. Cambridge, MA: MIT/October, 1996, pp. 33-36, p. 33. [(originally published as “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris,” in: October 70 (Fall 1994).]

George Brecht

“The difference between a chair by Duchamp and one of my chairs could be that Duchamp’s chair is on a pedestal and mine can still be used.”

- Henry Martin, An Introduction to George Brecht’s Book on the Tumbler on Fire, Milan: Multhipla Edizioni, 1978, p. 71, quoted in: Neo-Dada: Redefining Art 1958-62, p. 27.

“I read somewhere, quite a while ago, that an interviewer asked: “How does it feel now, Mr. Duchamp, hat everyone knows your name?” And Duchamp answered, “My grocer doesn’t.”

- “Notes on the Inevitable Relationship GB-MD (If there is one)” (1973), quoted in: Anthony Hill (ed.), Duchamp: Passim. A Marcel Duchamp Anthology, Langhorne, PA: G+B Arts International, 1994, p. 167.

Andy Warhol

“Well, yeah, we saw him a lot, a little bit. He was around. I didn’t know he was that famous or anything.”

- interview  with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (1985), in: The Duchamp Effect. Essays, Interviews, Round Table., pp. 37-45, p. 37.

Jasper Johns

“Duchamp’s wit and high common sense (“Limit the no. of rdymades yearly”), the mind slapping at thoughtless values (“Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board”), his brilliantly inventive questioning of visual, mental and verbal focus and order (the beautiful Wilson-Lincoln system, which was never added to the glass; ‘lose the possibility of identifying … 2 colors, 2 laces, 2 hats, 2 forms’; the vision of an alphabet ‘only suitable for the description of this picture’) inform and brighten the whole of [the Green Box].”

- “The Green Box,” Scrap (December 23, 1960), p. 4, in: Joseph Masheck (ed.), Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975, p. 111.

“Marcel Duchamp, one of this century’s pioneer artists, moved his work through the retinal boundaries which had been established which had been established with Impressionism into a field where language, thought and vision act upon another.… The art community feels Duchamp’s presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here.”

- “Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968),” Artforum, vol. VII, nr. 3 (November 1968), p. 6, in: Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, 1975, p. 147.

“The ready-made was moved mentally and, later, physically into a place previously occupied by the work of art.”

- quoted in Wouter Kotte, Marcel Duchamp als Zeitmaschine/Marcel Duchamp als Tijdmachine, Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 1987, p. 84 (footnote 203).

Donald Judd

“Duchamp invented several fires but unfortunately didn’t bother with them.… The work Duchamp does have is of course highly interesting, but it’s a mistake not to have developed it. His work and his historical importance are different things. It’s to other people’s credit to have developed his or related ideas… The roto-reliefs and the ready-mades and assisted ready-mades are fine.”

- “Marcel Duchamp and/or Rrose Sélavy,” Arts Magazine, vol. XXXIX, nr. 6 (March 1965), pp. 53-54, in: Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, p. 121.

Robert Smithson

“I see Duchamp as a kind of priest of a certain sort. He was turning a urinal into a baptismal front… In other words, a Readymade doesn’t offer any kind of engagement. Once again it is the alienated relic of our modern postindustrial society. But he is just using manufactured goods, transforming them into gold and mystifying them.

- Moira Roth, “Robert Smithson, an Interview”, Artforum, vol. XII, nr. 2 (October 1973), p. 47, in: Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, pp. 134-137, p. 136.

William N. Copley

“If Marcel Duchamp ever died, his phoenix Rrose Sélavy lifted herself from the remains of the past that the former had desecrated by putting an ink-moustache on the Mona Lisa, thus creating a present for himself and all of us in which nouns like ‘art’ and ‘poetry’ melt into a single word.”

- “Art is not Furniture”, in: Alfred M. Fischer and Dieter Daniels (eds.), Übrigens Sterben Immer die Anderen. Marcel Duchamp und die Avantgarde seit 1950, Köln: Museum Ludwig, 1987 [exh. cat.], p. 283 (translated from the German).

Mike Bidlo

“Many artists have spent significant energies exploring his legacy”

- The Fountain Drawings, Zurich/New York: Bischofberger/Shafrazi, 1998 [exh. cat.], p. 54.

Joseph Cornell

“I believe that surrealism has healthier possibilities than have been developed. The constructions of Marcel Duchamp who the surrealists themselves acknowledge bear out this thought, I believe.”

- letter to Alfred Barr, 13 November 1936, quoted in: Anne Temkin, “Habitat for a Dossier,” in: Polly Koch (ed.), Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp…in resonance, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 1999 [exh. cat.], pp. 79-93, p. 87.

Robert Rauschenberg

“[Duchamp’s] recognition of the lack of art in art and the artfulness of everything, I think, is probably his most important contribution.”

- transcribed from the film Rebel Ready-Made: Marcel Duchamp (BBC, June 23, 1966), quoted in: Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp. The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, New York: Abrams, 1999, p. 294.

“Marcel Duchamp is all but impossible to write about. Anything you may say about him is at the same time untrue, but when I think of him I get a sweet taste in my body.”

- “A Collective Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” p. 217.

Yoko Ono

“drink an orange juice laced with

sunshine and spring and you’ll see Duchamp.”

- “A Collective Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” p. 215.

Jason Rhoades

“Duchamp for me is like L. Ron Hubbard. He’s a slippery figure who keeps popping up.”

- Russell Ferguson, “Given: 1. The Caprice, 2. The Ferrari,” in: Parkett, No. 58 (2000), pp. 122-125, p. 123.

Hannah Wilke

“To honor Duchamp is to oppose him… The issue that remains, was Duchamp trying to control his own death by killing art while he was still alive – aesthetic impotence for the sake of survival… Objecting to art as commodity is an honorable occupation that most women find it impossible to afford. Is this ready maid, having collected many of the readymades now in Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Wing owned by Peter Ludwig, owed an equal share for her part in the collaboration? Could commodities but speak, they would say; Our use, value may be a thing that interests men… In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values.”

- “I Object. Memoirs of a Sugar Giver”, in: Übrigens Sterben Immer die Anderen. Marcel Duchamp und die Avantgarde seit 1950, pp. 263-271, pp. 269,270.

Arakawa & Madeline Gins

Managing to position objects to hold their own in relation to that which ubiquitously happens along and even to redirect it, using very-adjusted and less-adjusted ready-made insertions into symbolizing power, an inchoate emanating-out ready-made in its own right, to convey and express enough and more than enough, M. D. changed the history of expression (read symbolizing) and redefined (artistic) purpose -- two remarkable achievements.

- e-mail to the author, February 7, 2003.

Ed Ruscha

“If [Duchamp] hadn’t come along, we would have needed to invent him.”

- interview with Robert L. Pincus, October 30, 1990, in: Robert L. Pincus,” ‘Quality Material…’: Duchamp Disseminated in the Sixties and Seventies,” in: Bonnie Clearwater (ed.), West Coast Duchamp, Miami Beach: Grassfield Press, 1991, pp. 87-101, p. 100.

“What do you think is Duchamp’s most significant contribution?”

“That he discovered common objects and showed you could make art out of them.”

- interview with Elizabeth Armstrong, June 17, 1994, in: The Duchamp Effect. Essays, Interviews, Round Table., pp. 55-56, p. 55.

Bruce Connor

“I still feel that he dealt with enigmas and arbitrariness in the world with a sharp analytical mind.”

- interview  with Elizabeth Armstrong, June 9, 1994, in: The Duchamp Effect. Essays, Interviews, Round Table., pp. 57-59, p. 57.

Vija Celmins

“I was greatly influenced by Duchamp, if only indirectly, by questioning what painting is – and should be.”

- interview  with Robert L. Pincus, March 26, 1991, in: ‘Quality Material…’: Duchamp Disseminated in the Sixties and Seventies,” p. 88.

Sherrie Levine

“I was very surprised when I saw my first Fountain. When I made the decision to cast the urinal, I was thinking primarily about Duchamp, but the finished high polish bronze sculpture more readily evoked Brancusi.”

- interview  with Martha Buskirk, May 13, 1994, in: The Duchamp Effect. Essays, Interviews, Round Table., pp. 177- 181, p. 179.

Louise Lawler

“[T]o me, Duchamp signaled a ‘bottle rack’ (who uses that?), a weird looking urinal, and a lot of pictures of him smoking and enjoying the sun with other people.…]n fact, all the readymades are interesting-looking things now, and their normalcy is gone. …This discussion of Duchamp seems a good opportunity to express my discomfort with too much referencing of authority that is restrictive, rather than enjoying the work’s ‘kindling’ effect and use.”

- interview  with Martha Buskirk, May 20, 1994, in: The Duchamp Effect. Essays, Interviews, Round Table., pp. 183- 186, pp. 183, 186.

“Duchamp’s fetishization gets on my nerves.”

- e-mail to the author, February 2, 2003

Chris Burden

“He was definitely a formative figure for me… In an age of Cal Arts and Jeff Koons, Duchamp is a different role model”

- interview with Robert L. Pincus, September 26, 1990, in: “ ‘Quality Material…’: Duchamp Disseminated in the Sixties and Seventies,” pp. 98, 100.

John Baldessari

“There is a serious unseriousness going on… I see a kinship there, I feel I understand what [Duchamp’s] about.”

-interview  with Moira Roth, January 6, 1973, in: ‘Quality Material…’: Duchamp Disseminated in the Sixties and Seventies,” p. 88.

Clyfford Still

“Few men cold better exemplify the antithesis of my work than Marcel Duchamp.”

- “Letter to the Editor,” Artforum (February 1964), quoted in Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp. A Biography, New York: Henry Holt, 1996, p. 438.

William de Kooning

“And then there is that one-man movement, Marcel Duchamp – for me a truly modern movement because it implies that each artist can do what he thinks he ought to – a movement for each person and open for everybody.—”

- “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. 18, nr. 3 (June 1951), p. 7.

Shigeko Kubota

“Are we dancing still on the gigantic palm of Duchamp, thinking it is a big continent and ocean?”

- “Twenty Questions About My Work,” quoted in: Zdenek Felix (ed.), Shigeko Kubota. Video Sculptures, 1981 [exh. cat.], p. 51.

Jeff Koons

“You can look at Marcel Duchamp… Everything comes back to the ability of the artist to be able to communicate, to focus.

- “Jeff Koons. I have my finger on the eternal,” interview with Andrew Renton, in: Flash Art, vol. XXIII, nr. 153 (Summer 1990), pp. 110-115, quoted in: Thomas Zaunschirm, Kunst als Sündenfall. Die Tabuverletzungen des Jeff Koons, Freiburg: Rombach, 1996, pp. 7-20, p. 16.

“My process of distancing myself from subjective art continued through the late ‘70’s, which included exposure to Marcel Duchamp. He seemed the total opposite of the subjective art I had been immersed in. It was the most objective statement possible, the readymade. I loved that aspect and started doing my first inflatables.”

- interview with Alan Jones, in: Temaceleste, nr. 88 (November/December 2001), pp. 34-39, p. 36.

Bruce Naumann

“The kind of questions important to Duchamp were absorbed and circulated. Many people dealt with them and thought about them. In this regard he certainly was an influence.”

- interview with Lorraine Sciarra (1972), quoted in: Christine Hoffmann (ed.), Bruce Nauman. Interviews 1967-1988, Amsterdam: Verlag der Kunst, 1966, pp. 66-87, p. 69 (translated from the German).

“He leads to everybody and nobody”

- “A Collective Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” p. 211.

It is obvious what Barry Schwabsky meant when he reviewed the Arturo Schwarz’s revised edition of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp in 2001: “Duchamp’s work is so deeply encoded in the fabric of contemporary art that I’m tempted to keep this book not with other art monographs, but on the ready-reference shelf next to Roget, Bartlett, and Merriam-Webster: Duchamp is to a great extent, our vocabulary.” (38)   The an-artist quickly had become the Über-father par excellence, creating an anxiety of influence some felt was too overpowering. (39) Particularly within the American context

Duchamp’s significance as originating father is generally seen to be identical to the significance of the readymades in relation to postmodernism. As paternal, theological origin, Duchamp is the readymades and the “readymades Duchamp” comes to signify postmodernism.… Duchamp has become a powerful authorizing function by which works produced by contemporary artists claim nepotistic validation as begotten by the Duchampian seed. (40)

Today, with the concept of irony co-opted and empty gestures of shocking for shock’s sake (41) held in high regard (with no one within the art world ever offended), many artistic strategies add up to nothing more than a “conformity of refusal.” (42) Could it be that the readymade – just one decade short of its 100th birthday – is finally losing its disruptive potential? (43) Maybe so, if its concept is only interpreted as an excuse for “anything goes” or the mere provocative gesture declaring anything to be art via a change of context. Duchamp himself had already noticed as much when he allowed his readymades to be turned into an edition precisely at that moment in the early 1960s when they had become celebrated icons and art-world commodities. Nowadays, it is not enough simply to appropriate formally the an-artist’s work. Every artist borrowing Duchamp’s highly charged visual vocabulary walks a fine line between creating a token pastiche (an art-world inside joke based solely on recognizing affinities) and intellectually engaging the ideas surrounding the work.

Duchamp –– except for his fleeting fame at the Armory Show of 1913, caused by the succès de scandale of the Nude Descending a Staircase–– had the luxury of being unrecognized as a major artistic force until he had reached his sixties. Left to himself, far away from the spotlight and thus from any system’s intricacies of interdependence, he could proclaim himself to be nothing but a “breather,” being mostly (and somewhat wrongfully) known for having abandoned all artistic activity from the mid-20’s on. Besides his many artist friends and a few wealthy patrons, Duchamp lived completely detached from the art world as we know it. He carefully kept himself independent, seeing to it personally that his works would end up grouped together with a few collectors and museums. Later in life, Duchamp thought the contemporary art market responsible for the impossibility of young artists truly to concentrate on what they were doing. He came to lament the perpetually increasing tide of attention, of dealers, galleries, collectors, critics, and exhibitions, turning art into an “over-developed exoteric”:

By that I mean that the general public accepts and demands too much from art, far too much from art; that the general public today seeks aesthetic satisfaction wrapped up in a set of material and speculative values and is drawing artistic output towards an enormous dilution.

This enormous dilution, losing in quality what it gains in quantity, is accompanied by a leveling down of present taste and its immediate result will be to shroud the near future in mediocrity.

In conclusion, I hope that this mediocrity, conditioned by too many factors foreign to art per se, will this time bring a revolution on the ascetic level, of which the general public will not even be aware and which only a few initiates will develop on the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks. The great artist of tomorrow will go underground. (44)

Underground, the artist would examine whole new ways of expression to subvert the overall status quo of the art world in all of its wide-ranging aspects. In a 1922 survey by Alfred Stieglitz regarding the status of photography as a form of art, Duchamp had answered: “You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable. There we are.” (45) Today, installation and video art are ever on the rise, figurative painting yet again en vogue (with often surprising results), and the idea of a single work of art often substituted for the impact of a whole group of them or an environment. More than ever, artists “on the fringe” (geographically and ethnically) make themselves heard. (46) As a critique of biotechnology, some artists are using new materials such as DNA, treating the body as a readymade.

click to enlarge
Figure 8
Marcel Duchamp, Étant Donnés (inside and outside view), 1946-1966

It remains to be seen how these strategies will eventually play out. An interesting aspect pertaining to Duchamp’s oeuvre is a renewed interest in his last major work, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (1946-1966) (Fig. 8), Étant Donnés for short. in a recent interview, Björk, Iceland’s Queen of Pop, declaring Duchamp a “genius,” expressing awe for the Étant Donnés: “And then he created an artwork, when he was already very old, when everyone thought he’d already be over with, and this artwork changed completely the 20th century.” (47) For the New York photographer Gregory Crewdson, “it’s extraordinarily photographic, to the point of looking through an aperture at a frozen moment in time. It’s everything I want from an art piece. It’s haunting, mysterious, troubling, beautiful, heightened, disturbing.” (48) Looking through two peepholes drilled at eyelevel into a massive wooden door in a separate room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the viewer becomes aware of a 3-D multimedia assemblage depicting the partly hidden body of nude woman (with a prominently displayed, shaved vulva) lying on a bed of twigs and clutching a gas burner in front of a trompe l’oeil landscape with a running waterfall and clouds made of cotton. Duchamp had secretly worked on Étant Donnés for twenty years. It was revealed only after his death in the summer of 1969. (49) After seeing the an-artist’s last work, Hannah Wilke, another artist greatly inspired by him, asked: “Did Dr. Duchamp (MD) disguise with dignity or despair the destruction, degeneration, and denigration of the maimed model of mortality – Mother?” (50) Since Socrates, asking questions often proves more beneficial and generates more creative energy than trying to provide that one right answer. Duchamp himself was not always right, of course. In 1961, for example, he predicted that “in five or six years, no one would talk about [the readymade] anymore.” (51) Throughout his late interviews in the sixties, he often pointed out that he was mostly interested in an audience fifty or a hundred years hence. Thirty-five years after his death, that audience is ever-growing.


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[38] Schwabsky, in “Coffee Table: Barry Schwabsky and Andy Grundberg on Art and Photography,” Bookforum, vol. 8, no. 2 (Winter 2001): p. 42.

[39] Regarding Duchamp’s overpowering influence, three examples come to mind: Joseph Beuys’ 1964 performance Das Schweigen des Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet (The Silence of Duchamp is Overrated) and Vivre et laisser mourir ou la mort tragique de Marcel Duchamp (To Live and Let Die or the Tragic Death of Marcel Duchamp), also of 1964, a series of eight canvases by Gilles Aillaud, Eduardo Arroyo, and Antonin Recalati. More recently, Peter Saul painted Pooping on Duchamp (1996).

[40] Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 8, 14.

[41] On the issue of Duchamp and concepts of taste and disgust, see the argument between Jean Clair, “Duchamp at the Turn of the Centuries” (a translated excerpt from his Marcel Duchamp et la fin de l’art, Paris: Gallimard, 2000), in: Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, vol. 1, no. 3 (Winter 2000), News,  <>, and Arthur C. Danto, “Marcel Duchamp and the End of Taste: A Defense of Contemporary Art,” in: Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, vol. 1, nr. 3 (Winter 2000), News, <www.toutfaitcom/issues/issue_3/News/Danto/danto.html>

[42] I have borrowed the phrase from the title of an article by Peter Bürger, “Der Konformismus der Verweigerung. Anmerkungen zur Neo-Neo-Avantgarde,” in: Texte zur Kunst, vol. 12, no. 48 (December 2002): p. 165.

[43] Since 1997, the artist Rhonda Roland Shearer and her husband, the late Stephen Jay Gould, have raised havoc, at least within the discipline of art history, by arguing that Duchamp did not select his objects, but fabricated them himself, or altered early studio photographs depicting the original readymades, now mostly lost, see the transcriptions of their conference Methods of Understanding in Art and Science: The Case of Duchamp and Poincaré, November 5-7, 1999 and Rhonda Roland Shearer, “Why the Hatrack is and/or is not Readymade,” Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, vol. 1, nr. 3, Multimedia (December 2000), Their hypotheses seem to revive some of the readymade's upsetting possibilities.

[44] “Where Do We Go From Here?” (1961), in: Duchamp: Passim. A Marcel Duchamp Anthology, p. 89.

[45] The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, p. 165; originally published in Manuscripts, No. 4 (New York, December, 1922).

[46] For a scathing examination of the contemporary art world’s mechanisms (while holding up the figure of Duchamp as an important predecessor), see Bedri Baykam, Paint and the Post-Duchamp Crisis. The Fight of a Cultural Guerilla for the Rights of Non-Western Artists and the Empty World of the Neo-Ready-Mades, Istanbul: Literatür, 1994. An excerpt follows: “The West, which is moving anyway more and more into the ‘multi-cultural art world,’ behaves as if it was doing a favor to the East and South. This is definitely wrong and no ‘favor’ is needed. In fact they are only starting to pay the interest of years of constipation and prejudiced blockheadedness. They are also trying to bring a fresh breath to their once again bored art world, which is sinking in an unspoken crisis generated paradoxically by the ever-growing importance of Marcel Duchamp, provoking lost generations working on pastiche ideas” (p. 212); “At this moment, Marcel Duchamp’s timeless, a-national, ambiguous, ready-mades and concepts, interpretable in 1000 different ways, come as handy and as opportune as water in the desert, although in its new variations the humor and witty sarcasm of Marcel, of course, is not present” (p. 303).

[47] Björk, from an interview Thomas Venter, in “Der Look Passiert Nicht,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 27 August 2001 (translated from the German).

[48] Dodie Kazanjin, “Gregory Crewdson. Twilight Zone,” Vogue (May 2002): p. 300.

[49] The appearance of the Etant Donnés after Duchamp’s death came as a complete surprise to most, contrary to many later accounts. John Canaday, reviewing the work for The New York Times, wrote that it was “very interesting, but nothing new, ” just “an entertaining invention that has arrived a bit late to make a sensation.… For the first time, this cleverest of 20th-century masters looks a bit retardaire. Edward Kienholz, as the major specific example, has gone so far beyond the spent and sterile slickness of this final Duchamp work that he makes Duchamp look like Bouguereau” (“Philadelphia Museum Shows Final Duchamp Work,” in The New York Times, July 7, 1969. Warhol, in 1971, is the first artist on record to be inspired by Duchamp’s last work, while contemplating an idea for a gallery show consisting only of binoculars with which the visitors would have to find the actress/artist Brigid Polka performing in the window of a faraway building: “It also has to do with the same thing Duchamp was doing [in Etant Donnés], looking through a box [sic]. the window...Oh, that would be nutty. That’s just the kind of thing you’d want to see with binoculars-some perversion, right? Somebody jerking off. Brigid could be the art. She could stand in the window.” (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York: Abrams, 1989, pp. 315-316; the quotation is from a telephone conversation between Bourdon and Andy Warhol in June 1971. I thank Ms. Yona Backer for drawing this source to my attention).

[50] “I Object. Memoirs of a Sugar Giver”, in: Übrigens Sterben Immer die Anderen. Marcel Duchamp und die Avantgarde seit 1950: p. 270.

[51] “Marcel Duchamp Talking About Readymades,” p. 40.


Fig. 8
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.