Duchamp & Androgyny:
The Concept and its Context

by Lanier Graham

For my grandson Kai


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Figure 6
Marcel Duchamp, The Chess Players, etching of 1965, after a drawing of 1911

Such teachings were very important to many major artists of Modernism in their secular search for the spiritual. Artists of the Surrealist era were especially interested in various esoteric traditions from Alchemy to Zen. One of these artists was Duchamp. If he had not had some kind of insight into the nature of the transcendent realm, Duchamp might well have continued as a follower of the Cubists, as in his quasi-Cubist composition of 1911 The Chess Players (Fig. 6). Chess was his favorite game, and he worked out many pictorial space-time problems
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Figure 7

Marcel Duchamp, Bride, 1912

around this theme. But he soon saw all this "retinal art" (as he called it) as extremely limited. He wanted to return art to something that could be (as he said) "at the service of the mind." (11)  

In 1912 came Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and then the Bride (Fig. 7), as Duchamp rapidly moved past the last vestiges of Cubism toward purely mental, imaginary images. The new images start to center on semi-mechanical metaphors. In the process of changing styles, Duchamp was seriously questioning selfhood. He told Pierre Cabanne how much he had been regretting that art no longer had its traditional functions: "religious, philosophical, moral." (12) He looked back on the Dada movement that developed during World War I as not just fun and games (even though that was a large part of it), but also as:

   extreme protest against the physical side of painting.

            It was a metaphysical attitude. ... It was a way to get out of

            a state of get free.

            Dada was very serviceable as a purgative.  And I think I was

            thoroughly conscious of this at the time and of a desire to effect

            a purgation in myself. ... (13)  

Duchamp also recalled : "My intention was always to get away from myself...". (14)   

It is said that once Little Self is out of the way, or at least set aside a bit, windows rapidly open toward hitherto unknown realms. One of the radical questions Duchamp was asking himself early on was, "Can one make works which are not works of 'art'?" (15)   

One of his radical answers was the revolutionary "ready-made", which he described as "a work of art for which there is no artist." (16) His ready-mades were industrial products that he selected and signed, declaring them works of art. He went on to redefine art in a highly democratic way by stating that art is whatever an artist says is art (not what critics say is art). Many critics still hate him for that. By removing the "artist" from the center of the concept of art, Duchamp also seems to have been removing the assumed importance of his own Little Self, and thus the whole ego-centered idea of self-importance and self-expression. In short, he seems to have been moving toward Androgyny.

There are a number of traditional indications of how much a person is self-centered. One is aggressiveness.  Duchamp was anything but aggressive. He was gentle and humorous, confident and resolute; he never forced himself on others. Another traditional indication is how much money and material wealth one thinks one needs. Duchamp had little desire for money. His indifference to it was legendary. Duchamp owned very little. For most of his life what he owned would fit into a couple of suitcases and a few boxes. Another sign is whether or not one needs to dominate a conversation, and make others agree with you. Duchamp went out of his way to allow people their positions, as people, as artists, or as critics, even if he did not agree.

Was he also spontaneous and humorous? Yes. Indeed, he loved word-play and was an incurable punster.  Another indication of Androgyny is said to be how much attention is paid to what others think of you, and how you treat other people. Duchamp seldom bothered to read what people wrote about him. Nor, for most of his life, did he feel the need to exhibit what he made. He did not have a retrospective exhibition until 1963. He also tried to live without selling his unique work, except to a few private patrons, by working in a library, teaching French, dealing Brancusi's art, and selling multiples.

Was he also generous and supportive of others? Yes. Was he able to feel so deeply into the heart of other artists that even short conversations with him often were transformative experiences? Yes. Many artists have testified to that. Indeed it is often said that no major artist of the last fifty years was not affected by Duchamp to some degree. Several thick books could be written on that subject.

Was he also deeply involved with experiencing and communicating transpersonal truth? Very much so. Did he frequently point toward the transcendent in his work? Yes, as we shall see. According to the Perennial teachings, this is what Androgynous people do, and they do it with spontaneous fluidity and grace. Did his thoughts and actions proceed with unusual fluidity and grace? Yes. Here, for example, is an observation by Georgia O'Keeffe:

            It was probably in the early twenties when I first saw Duchamp. ...

            I don't remember seeing anyone else at the party, but Duchamp was there... .

            I was drinking tea.  When I finished he rose from the chair, took my teacup

            and put it down at the side with a grace that I had never seen in anyone before

            ... .  I don't remember anything else about the party. (17)  

Duchamp's dear friend Beatrice Wood expressed the feelings of many: "He had the objectivity of a guru. His mind touched stillness, beholding the unity of life." (18) Arturo Schwarz, his dealer and cataloger, said: "I dare say he was a guru, in the Indian sense of the word. He would not, of course, have favored being so called. ...  His simplicity was a way of being, modesty was never a pose with him, he was as natural as his breath. He was generous and understanding. ... his advice could not have been wiser and his concern would never be merely skin deep." (19)  

The traditional teaching is that so long as one's awareness is contained within the psychological sphere of the ego, one cannot see beyond the realm of space and time. However, Duchamp obviously was moving beyond that. He was very much involved with perceiving and evoking the realm he described as "beyond time and space." If we assume that one has connected some of one's personal, qualifying consciousness with the unqualified consciousness, how can one express the transcendent experience of those higher realities?  Words work well to identify realities that exist inside the measurable world, the sphere of space and time. Beyond that sphere, any attempt to use words in the usual descriptive way is useless. How can one pictorialize the invisible? How to verbalize or visualize the transcendent are parallel problems. The most one can do is to suggest the transcendent with symbols and metaphors.

Much of Duchamp's work appears to have been the result of his efforts to do just that. Yet he is dismissed by some as merely humorous if not nihilistic. If there is something more, how might we find the wisdom that he wrapped in so many smiles? My approach has been to listen closely to his words, examine the philosophical context in which he did much of his thinking, and then focus on a singular metaphor that he used regularly, the Androgyne. Such an analytical approach (alas) will be somewhat more linear and "heavier" than Duchamp's light touch. Keep in mind that much of what he said was said with a smile, and that seems to be true of his visual work as well.  >>Next


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11. Duchamp in conversation with J. J. Sweeney, 1946.  Quoted in SS 125.

12. Duchamp in conversation with Pierre Cabanne.  Quoted in Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1967) 43.

13. Duchamp in conversation with J. J. Sweeney, 1946.  Quoted in SS 123.

14. Duchamp in conversation with Katharine Kuh.  Quoted in Kuh, Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 82.  Duchamp went on to add: "though I knew perfectly well that I was using myself. ... Call it a little game between 'I' and 'me'." It would be interesting to collect all of Duchamp's statements about ego, self, etc.  Included would be the following from the Western Round Table on Modern Art, San Francisco, 1949:  "...the 'victim' of an esthetic echo is in a position comparable to that of a man in love, or a believer, who dismisses automatically his demanding ego and...submits... ". Quoted in Clearwater, ed., West Coast Duchamp (Miami Beach, FL: Grassfield Press, 1991) 107 and 110; Also this statement: "And artists are such supreme egos!  It's disgusting."  Quoted in Tomkins, The Bride & The Bachelors (New York: The Viking Press, 1965) 67.

15.Duchamp. WB in SS 74

16. Duchamp in conversation with Francis Roberts.  Quoted in "I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics" in Artnews (Dec. 1968): 47. Duchamp questioned himself this way in a 1913 WB note; IBID., and soon developed the ready-made.

17. O'Keeffe, quoted in d'Harnoncourt and McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973) 212.

18. Beatrice Wood, "Marcel," in Kuenzli and Naumann, eds., Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987; 1990) 16.  For the story of their half-century relationship, see I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1988).

19. Arturo Schwarz, "Marcel Duchamp, the Man, Even" in Kuenzli and Naumann, eds., OP. CIT., 18.

Figs. 6, 7
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.