Vol.1 / Issue3

Duchamp's Perspective:
The Intersection of Art and Geometry

by Craig Adcock


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Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp, Three Standard Stoppages, 1913

Marcel Duchamp's readymade, but "not quite," as he called the Three Standard Stoppages (Fig. 1), is a highly ramified work of art.(1)  The pieces of string used in its construction are related to sight lines and to vanishing points.  In addition to their ostensive references to perspective and projective geometry, the Stoppages allude to happenstance.  They are perhaps the artist's best known work that incorporates uncertain outcomes into its operation.  (In one of his Green Box notes, Duchamp says that the Stoppages are "canned chance.")(2) To make the work, he glued three pieces of string to three narrow canvases painted solid Prussian blue.  (Each string had a different randomly generated curvature.)  He then cut three wooden templates to match the shapes of these "diminished meters."(3)


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Figure 2
Figure 3
Marcel Duchamp, Network of Stoppages, 1914
Marcel Duchamp, Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23

As this description indicates, the piece was quite unusual physically, and it was conceptually unprecedented.  In terms of his personal development, Duchamp said the work had been crucial: "... it opened the way--the way to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art. ...For me the Three Standard Stoppages was a first gesture liberating me from the past."(4) Duchamp used the Stoppages to design the pattern of lines in his painting Network of Stoppages (Fig. 2) and then, after rendering this plan view in perspective, transferred it to The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Fig. 3).  In the Large Glass, as the Bride Stripped Bare . . . is also known, the "network" comprises the "capillary tubes," iconographical elements that connect the "nine malic molds."(5) The Three Standard Stoppages, the Network of Stoppages, and the Large Glass are associated with one another through geometrical projection and section.  Duchamp's approach, with respect to establishing their mutual relationships, is complex.  He not only redrew the Network of Stoppages in perspective so that he could incorporate the scheme into the imagery of the Glass, he also recast physical counterparts of the Stoppages into the actual structure of the Glass:  the three plates used in the Three Standard Stoppages are conceptually related to the three narrow sections of glass used to construct the "garments" of the Bride (Fig. 4).  In each work, two plates are in green glass, and one is in white glass.(6)  The strips of glass at the horizon line of the Large Glass are seen edge-on, an arrangement comparable to looking down into the box of the Three Standard Stoppages with the sheets of glass inserted into their slots.  To my knowledge, this relationship was first pointed out by Ulf Linde:

The Bride's Clothes are to be found on the horizon--the line that governs the Bachelor Apparatus' perspective and which is in the far distance.  Thus, the Clothes seem to be the source of the waterfall.  Moreover, the Clothes are undoubtedly the hiding-place of the Standard Stoppages, as well.  For this part, as it is executed on the Glass, looks exactly like the glass plates as they appear set in the croquet case--as if the Clothes simply repeated the three glass plates in profile.  One might say that it is the three threads that set the Chariot in motion.(7)

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Figure 4
Marcel Duchamp, Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Detail:The "garments" of the Bride), 1915-23
Figure 5
Marcel Duchamp, Chocolate Grinder, No. 2, 1914

Although some of what Linde says here is unclear, at least to me, it is nonetheless suggestive, especially his proposition that the Stoppages are hidden in the Bride's clothing.  Duchamp's use of different colored glass in just the same way in both applications (and the colors are more apparent when the glass plates are seen edge-on) indicates that he somehow meant for the Stoppages and the Bride's "garments" to be linked together.  I believe that their most important affiliation is perspectival:  the vanishing point at the horizon line of the Glass is tied to the "garments" through geometry.

In a note from the Box of 1914 that was subsequently republished in the Green Box, Duchamp explains that pieces of string one meter long were to be dropped from a height of one meter, twisting "as they pleased" during their fall.  The chance-generated curvatures would create "new configurations of the unit of length."(8)  Although we do not know exactly how he constructed the work, we do know that he almost certainly did not use this method.  The ends of the pieces of string in the Stoppages are sewn through the surfaces of the canvases and are attached to them from behind.(9)  Presumably, Duchamp sewed down the strings, leaving them somewhat loose, jiggled and jostled them back and forth until he obtained three interesting curves, and then glued the segments to the canvases using varnish.  Sewing would not have been out of keeping with his general working methods, especially since he was also at this time (1914) sewing thread to his painting Chocolate Grinder, No. 2 (Fig. 5).

Duchamp wanted to relate his various works to each other.  The moving segments of thread in the Three Standard Stoppages are conceptually similar to the moving lines and shapes in his cubo-futurist paintings.  They are also conceptually similar to the parallel lines on the drums of the "chocolate grinder," which can, in their turn, also be related to the chronophotographic sources of the earlier paintings.  Chronophotography was among Duchamp's primary interests during this period.(10)  What I have in mind here can be seen by comparing Duchamp's works with Étienne-Jules Marey's images of moving lines (Figs. 6 and 7).  These kinds of time-exposure photographs not only recall such paintings as Sad Young Man on a Train (Fig. 8) and Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Fig. 9), but also the Three Standard Stoppages and Chocolate Grinder, No. 2.(11) >>Next

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Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9
Étienne-Jules Marey, Image of moving lines
Étienne-Jules Marey, Image of moving lines
Marcel Duchamp, Sad Young Man on a Train, 1911
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912


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1. Interview with Francis Roberts, "I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics," Art News 67 (December 1968): 62.

2. Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 33.

3. In a note included in the Box of 1914, Duchamp says that "the Three Standard Stoppages are the meter diminished." Ibid., 22.

4. Interview with Katherine Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 81.

5. The Network of Stoppages and its relationship to the Large Glass is explained by Richard Hamilton, The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1966), 49:  "The curved lines are drawn using each template of the Standard Stoppages three times, once in each of the three groups.  It was Duchamp's intention to photograph the canvas from an angle in order to put the lines into the perspective required for the Large Glass--a means of overcoming the difficulty of transferring the amorphous curves through normal perspective projection.  Photography did not prove up to the assignment and a perspective drawing had to be made."

6. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the "Large Glass" and Related Works (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) 63, 105; she credits Ulf Linde with drawing her attention to the different colors of the glass plates; see his Marcel Duchamp (Stockholm: Rabén and Sjögren, 1986) 138.

7. Ulf Linde, "MARiée CELibataire," in Walter Hopps, Ulf Linde, and Arturo Schwarz, Marcel Duchamp: Ready-Mades, etc. (1913-1964) (Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1964), 48; see also Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Abrams, 1970) 463.  Henderson (cited n. 6) 105, quotes this passage from Linde in her interpretation of the Bride's "clothing" as a condenser.

8. Duchamp, Salt Seller (cited n. 2) 22, 33.

9. This important discovery was made recently by Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould; see their essay "Hidden in Plain Sight: Duchamp's Three Standard Stoppages, More Truly a `Stoppage' (An Invisible Mending) Than We Ever Realized," Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal 1, no. 1 (December 1999) News <>.

10. See Craig Adcock, Marcel Duchamp's Notes from the "Large Glass": An N-Dimensional Analysis (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1983) esp. 135-46, 189-90; see also, idem, "Marcel Duchamp's `Instantanés': Photography and the Event Structure of the Ready-Mades," in "Event" Arts and Art Events, ed. Stephen C. Foster (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988) 239-66.

11. Duchamp's Three Standard Stoppages and Marey's chronophotographs are discussed by Jean Clair, Duchamp et la photographie: Essai d'analyse d'un primat technique sur le développement d'une oeuvre (Paris: Éditions du Chêne, 1977) 26-28, 52.  For statements by Duchamp about chronophotography, see his interviews with James Johnson Sweeney, "Eleven Europeans in America," Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 13 (1946): 19-21, reprinted in Duchamp, Salt Seller, 123-26; and with Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking Press, 1971) 34.  For Marey's work, see Étienne-Jules Marey, Le Mouvement (Paris: G. Masson, Éditeur, 1894).


Figs. 1-5, 8-9
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.