| Marcel Duchamp's "Study for Portrait of Chess Players" (1911), at Francis M. Naumann. |
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In the 1920s the buzz was that Marcel Duchamp was taking early retirement from art to devote himself to chess. Duchamp neither confirmed nor denied the story, but by then he had stopped painting and had dropped out of sight of the art world, sailing to Buenos Aires, where he spent a year or so plotting games, designing his own chess set and generally living the life of what he called a chess maniac.
Was he really finished with making art? No. Was he really devoting a huge chunk of his time and energy to chess? Yes. Were the two activities reconcilable? They were, according to a fantastic exhibition called “Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess” at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. More than that, they were complementary, an ideal intersection of brainpower and beauty. Chess was art; art was chess. Everything was about making the right moves.
The show, which originated at the St. Louis University Museum of Art and has been shoehorned into the modest Naumann space, demonstrates these propositions with a trove of Duchamp relics. He had first played chess in his teens with his family in France. And the show’s earliest and choicest piece, a large, Cubistic 1911 drawing called “Study for Portrait of Chess Players,” depicts the two older brothers he played with, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, bent over a chessboard.
Nearby you’ll find a pocket-size chess set with stick-on pins that permitted Duchamp to play while on the move. There’s also a poster he designed in 1925 for the Third French Chess Championship, in which he competed, and a letter to the art dealer Julien Levy with rubber-stamped chessboard diagrams indicating moves to be made long-distance.
To gain an understanding of exactly how chess and its principles wove through Duchamp’s life and art, I refer you to the excellent book written by Mr. Naumann and the St. Louis University art historian Bradley Bailey for the show. Its ideas are well argued, its writing is lucid, its small size a boon, making it a significant addition to the voluminous Duchamp literature. And the inclusion of analyses of 15 Duchamp chess games by Jennifer Shahade, a two-time American women’s chess champion, is a captivating bonus.
One life lesson that Duchamp took from chess — that patience and restraint could be keys to success — has stood him in good stead. If his career was something of a sleeper during his lifetime, since his death in 1968 he has become one of the most influential and versatile of all modern cultural figures. Artists have related to him in countless ways, and one of those ways is through chess.
To give a sense of this, the Naumann gallery has supplemented its Duchamp display with work by contemporary chess maniacs, from conceptual grand masters like Yoko Ono and Mike Bidlo to younger contenders like Charles Juhász-Alvarado, Trong Gia Nguyen and Sophie Matisse. Some of the work is participatory; pull up a chair and play.