Duchamp & Androgyny:
The Concept and its Context

by Lanier Graham

For my grandson Kai


There is another definition of "androgyny," one that is much older than any of those in common use today, one that is not even found in most dictionaries. This metaphysical definition is even older than the civilizations of Greece and Egypt. It goes back to the Stone Age, but seldom is discussed in scholarship today except by historians of mythology and religion.

The great World Religions of today usually are identified as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of them have some of their roots in the spiritual traditions of our Stone Age ancestors who, for thousands of years, venerated the Androgyne as a deity. The public (or exoteric) doctrines and rituals of today's World Religions usually make no reference to the Androgyne or Androgyny. However, the ancient Androgyne has endured as the image of a spiritual goal in the contemplative (or esoteric) teachings of all these religions--teachings traditionally available only in monastic settings for people who have made a total commitment to self-transformation in order to be greater service to the world.

Everyone interested in comparative religion is familiar with the symbolism of Yin-Yang in Taoism, Shiva-Shakti in Hinduism, Yab-Yum in Tibetan Buddhism, etc. These unusual symbols of oneness/two-ness are not limited to Asian religions. All World Religions symbolize themselves with visual forms that have a double structure. Consider the double triangle of Judaism, the star & crescent of Islam, and the horizontal & vertical elements of the Christian Cross. 

As with all mythological symbols, there are many levels of symbolism associated with these images of what might be described as bi-singularity. Among the most commonly discussed are the relationships between the tribe and the transcendent, between the individual and the divine, between male and female, between active and receptive, between spirit and matter, etc.

Among historians of sacred symbolism, it is widely accepted that these images symbolize both the appearance of duality (to ordinary ways of looking) and the larger truth of nonduality - the ultimate cosmic unity of all reality. In short, these double-images of nonduality represent a basic metaphysical teaching: what may seem to be two-ness actually is oneness when seen from a higher level of perception.

There are a handful of symbols that have been used in World Religions for many centuries to represent universal unity. One of the best known is the image of the circle-square usually called a "Mandala," from the Sanskrit term for sacred circle or sacred space. Generally speaking, the square stands for matter, or the material world of forms, while the circle stands for the infinite spirit that surrounds and permeates all forms. Less widely known is the traditional image of the Androgyne in which maleness and femaleness are combined in a single human figure. In the traditional literature, the term Androgyne is capitalized because of its transcendent meaning. So it will be in this book when that specific meaning is intended.

While the Mandala image represents a condition, the condition of cosmic unity, the Androgyne image represents one who has continuous awareness of this unity and therefore is said to have "cosmic consciousness." In the public art of Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example, Androgynous deities often are shown as part male & part female. In the esoteric art of these traditions, the teaching is that not only deities but human beings can have this transcendent consciousness. Illustrations of traditional Androgyne art appear in Chapter Two. A bibliography of the comparatively new field of Androgyny Studies is at the end of this book.

A rounded view of this primal meaning of Androgyny, and how Duchamp used his understanding of that meaning in his work, is the subject of this book. Our point of departure is a conversation I had with Duchamp when I was a young curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art.  Here is part of what was said:

May we call your perspective Alchemical?
We may. It is an Alchemical understanding. But don't stop there! If we do, some will think I'll be trying to turn lead into gold back in the kitchen [laughing].  Alchemy is a kind of philosophy, a kind of thinking that leads to a way of understanding.
We may also call this perspective Tantric (as Brancusi would say), or (as  you like to say) Perennial. The Androgyne is not limited to any one religion or philosophy. The symbol is universal. The Androgyne is above philosophy. If one has become the Androgyne one no longer has a need for philosophy. (1)


Androgyny & Perennial Philosophy

"It is undertake the reconstruction of the primordial
Androgyne that all traditions tell us of...within ourselves."

- - André Breton, On Surrealism in its Living Works (1953)

Duchamp was so full of humor that many overlook how philosophical he also was. When asked what adjective would best describe his work, Duchamp replied: "metaphysical if any."(2) From an early period, his primary purpose seems to have been first to find the transcendent, and then, as an artist, to suggest the transcendent realities of metaphysical truth. He phrased his transcendental goal in various ways. For example, " is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by time and space."(3) He later said: "...the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing."(4)

Click to enlarge
Figure 5

Marcel Duchamp, Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel, 1910

One of the earliest indications of Duchamp's interest in the esoteric was his 1910 portrait of his friend, Dr. Dumouchel, showing an aura around his body, an aura that is particularly luminous around his healing hands (Fig. 5). How Duchamp came to be interested in esoteric ideas is unclear. Might it have have been after reading some books about Theosophy or Alchemy? Perhaps. The subject requires further study. However his interest in metaphysics began, that interest obviously was strong about 1910-11 when his art was moving from Fauvism toward Cubism and beyond. While Duchamp was not interested in metaphysical systems, he was very interested in metaphysical thinking - the kind of thinking that moves the mind beyond duality towards what he described as "regions which are not ruled by time and space."

His way of thinking about metaphysical symbols was not part of a system but does parallel what is known as Perennial Philosophy. Perennial Philosophy is so called because it seems to have been present for as long as there has been philosophy, and because it has continued to appear century after century in Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.(5) All these traditions have their own uniqueness. Many of their public or exoteric beliefs are different from one another. Nevertheless, students of comparative religion have found that there is a body of esoteric beliefs that is common to all of them. This common core of understanding is now widely known as Perennial Philosophy. Here is a concise summary:

Beneath, beyond, around, and through all manifested reality is an invisible reality that is formless. It also is infinite, eternal, luminous, and loving. In Western traditions, this is often called the Ground-of-Being, or Unconditioned Consciousness. As a rule, only a few are aware of this transcendent reality continuously.  Ordinary egocentricity prevents the possibility of such awareness. Most people suffer all through life because they are bound within a self-referential psychology. This prison of the ego, this shell of selfishness, also prevents people from understanding what life can be like if one is ego-free, free to be world-centered rather than self-centered, free to be all-loving rather than loving only one's self. Selfish desires condition consciousness and cause constant suffering. There are many ways to break through this egocentric shell and begin to "glimpse light through the cracks." Every tradition has its own methods. 

Enlightenment or Illumination are names given to breaking through to a higher level of awareness. Breaking through, it is said, often takes place slowly, gradually, in painful stages. In the language of Tantric Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism, one moves up through chakras to higher levels of awareness. There are parallel stages of development in Christian Alchemy and Jewish Kabbalah.

Semi-Enlightened stages include proto-Androgynous awareness of dualities reconciling, of male and female elements uniting. In Alchemy what results from this Mystic Marriage is the Androgyne whose Golden Consciousness transforms life. Is the situation similar in yoga? Mircea Eliade reports that it is: "The union of the divine pair within his own body transforms the yogi into [an] 'androgyne'." (6)

How old are such teachings in the West? Certainly there was Androgynous thinking in early Christianity, long before medieval Alchemists focused on the image of the Androgyne. In one of Paul's letters in the New Testament he states that, after Baptism, "There is neither... male nor female, for ye are all one in Jesus Christ."(7) According to another early Christian document, the Second Epistle of Clement, when Jesus was asked at what moment the Kingdom of Heaven would come, the answer was: "When the two shall be one, the outside like the inside, the male with the female neither male nor female."(8) Probably even older is the Jewish oral tradition recorded in the Zohar of the Kabbalah: "It behooves a man to be 'male and female' always...."(9) It would be a mistake to think Androgyny is only an old ideal; its reality is very much alive. Consider, for example, this testimony from the contemporary Chinese Zen master Chuan Yuan Shakya. She recently reported: "Zen masters treat any monk who attains androgyny as if he were truly royal."(10)

The Perennial Traditions teach that even higher levels of consciousness exist beyond Androgyny. To suggest the nature of the "beyond" there is a special metaphor in Zen. Enlightenment or Satori is described as "entering the stream." At a higher stage one "becomes the water." The first step towards transcending the Little Self, and attaining totally fluid consciousness, is realizing there is more to life than the realm of the senses, the realm of self-satisfaction, the realm of space and time. Beyond space and time, where rational analysis and sense perceptions work, is the realm of eternity. According to Perennial Philosophy, eternity is not a long time; eternity is beyond time. Illuminated awareness is said to take place when time and timelessness are linked permanently, when the finite and the infinite always are perceived as aspects of each other continuously commingling, when the world and Nothingness are one. >>Next


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1. Duchamp in conversation with Lanier Graham, 1968.  Quoted in Graham, Marcel Duchamp: Conversations with The Grand Master (New York: Handmade Press, 1968) 3.  For more of this conversation, see below, 5.

2. Duchamp in conversation with William Seitz, 1963. Quoted in "What's Happened to Art?: An Interview with Marcel Duchamp" in Vogue (15 Feb. 1963) 113.

3. Duchamp in conversation with J. J. Sweeney, 1956.  Quoted in Michel Sanouillet & Elmer Peterson, eds., Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 137. [hereafter "SS."]

4. Duchamp, "The Creative Act" - a talk in Houston at a meeting of the American Federation of Art, 1957.  Quoted in Sanouillet 138.

5.The best-known book on this subject is Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946 & later editions).  For a bibliography, see Lanier Graham, "The Perennial Philosophy: A General Bibliography" in Iconography of Infinity: Essays on Art & Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 1 (Spring 1993).  The best-known twentieth century writers on this subject include Titus Burckhardt, A. C. Coomaraswamy, Réné Guenon, Karl Jaspers, Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, Alan Watts, and Ken Wilber.

6. Eliade, The Two and The One (New York: Harper Torhbook, 1965) 118.

7. Galatians 3:28.

8. The Gospel of Thomas 22 in Doresse, Les Livres Secrets des Gnostiques d'Egypt, vol. 2 (Paris, 1959) 157.

9. Scholem, ed., Zohar: The Book of Splendor (New York: Schocken Books, 1977) 10.

10. Ruminations on Zen Cows, Part 4 (1998) 3 <>.

Fig. 5
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.