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Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Duchamp’

Erasing Duchamp

December 11, 2014 | by

On Marcel Duchamp, Mad Libs, and conceptual writing online.


Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1917.

As Marcel Duchamp had it, an artist is nothing without an audience. No work of art—no balloon dog, no poem mentioning cold-water flats, no four-minute-and-thirty-three-second performance by silent musicians—is a great work until posterity says so. In a 1964 interview between The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins and Duchamp, the latter remarked, “The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, ‘You have produced something marvelous.’ The onlooker has the last word in it.”

This is also a tidy summary of Duchamp’s short lecture “The Creative Act,” given in Houston in 1957, in which he calls the artist a “mediumistic being,” one whose “decisions in the artistic execution of the work … cannot be translated into a self-analysis.” Analysis is the work of the spectator, who “brings the work in contact with the external world.” Posterity decides if an artist’s works are deserving enough of an extended solo show at the Whitney, or should be reprinted in every iteration of the Norton Anthology until the end of time. The “creative act” is a transaction between artist and onlooker, and in it, again, the onlooker has the last word.

This is literally true in Joe Milutis’s new conceptual project Marcel Duchamp’s The [Creative] Act, released last month via Gauss PDF. Milutis’s text is a free fourteen-page PDF file that takes Duchamp’s 1957 lecture and turns it into a sort-of Dadaist Mad Libs: Read More »


Plumbing the Depths

September 18, 2014 | by


It was 1917 when Marcel Duchamp debuted Fountain, that perennially scandalous urinal, that Dadaist taunt, that porcelain keystone. Since then, befuddled museumgoers worldwide have asked, “How is that art?”; about half a dozen performance artists have made a show of peeing on, in, or around one of the many replicas of Fountain; and, at the Pompidou Center, one guy threw a hammer at it. But now, in 2014, the artist Alexander Melamid has outdone them all: he’s reconnected the urinal to plumbing. It flushes anew. And through its pipes, he hopes, will flow more than a century’s worth of the art world’s built-up shit.

Melamid’s new exhibition, “The Art of Plumbing,” opened last night at Vohn Gallery. It comprises paintings of assorted plumbing components—sometimes superimposed on canonical works by, say, Picasso or Rothko—with names like Form-N-Fit 1-1/2 Flanged Tailpiece, Large Drain Cleansing Bladder, and The No Clog Drain, Permaflow. At its center, atop a kind of plinth, is a fully functional urinal, its working parts very much visible.

“Modernism in art began in earnest with that urinal, severed from the sewage system. It was a truly revolutionary act,” an accompanying statement read. And yet, as the twentieth century wore on, artists descended into meaningless self-referentiality and the pursuit of wealth, thus necessitating another revolution:

Having acquired the skills to wield both pipe and wrench, the artist Alex Melamid will successfully perform an aesthetic coupling that will flush the human as well as the elephant waste from our great museums. Once sent down the drain and into the sewage system, this effluvial excess will affront the senses of public no longer.

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The Black Album

December 5, 2013 | by


Vahap Avşar’s “Black Album,” currently on view at Istanbul’s lovely Rampa Gallery, is a marvelous show. Its quiet, metaphorical registers are a departure from Avşar’s previous style, which found its strength in more overtly political statements and deft manipulation of popular iconography. On the other hand, “Black Album,” curated by Esra Sagiredik, has the subtle touch of great poetry. As one walks through the three rooms, spread across two separate but adjacent sites, the accumulative effect of Avşar’s vision is powerful: the artworks peak between each other in rich rhymes and deeply felt themes and variations, fusing into a moving vision full of quiet but firm political engagement and profound metaphysical thought.


The centerpiece of the exhibition is the eponymous Black Album (2013), a series of twelve 76" x 40" paintings of metallic silver paint on tar felt. The silver paint spreads and folds freely over the tar, creating different studies of chiaroscuro, texture, and perspective. Their inspiration was the vast and dangerous mountainous landscape of eastern Turkey that Avşar traveled through by bus at night as a young man. The rich visual complexity of these paintings, however, challenges the primacy of the artist’s personal perspective, as they distinctly resemble the primordial tumbling of lava down cliffs and the roiling rivers of the Earth during its creation. The fact that the paintings simultaneously are both things is the point and the root of the poignancy of the works.


Meanwhile, Disguise Paintings (2013), an oil and print on canvas diptych, presents two separately framed works of isolated men seated, completely by happenstance, in almost identical postures, their faces pixelated and those pixels painted over in thick layers of paint. One man is dressed army fatigues and sitting on the bottom bunk of an army installation. The other is in a Bob Marley T-shirt, preparing tea in a colorful apartment walled with numerous portraits of Abraham Lincoln. The details of the paintings reveal much about these men, and their erased faces infuse the two paintings with a hard-earned allegorical mood.


The 20th Century As We Knew It (2011–2012), composed of four bronze busts on wooden pedestals, is a clever variation on the idea of artistic idolatry and influence. The busts—of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Cengiz Çekil, and Avşar himself—form a circle of admiration and are arranged in circular fashion, their gazes trained on each other, standing on their heads, the base of the pedestals occupying the positions where their faces would be. That viewers must stoop—or, if they’re up to it, stand on their heads—to take in the details is a marvelously playful and intelligent statement on how we admire and are admired.


Other standouts include The Road to Arguvan (2013), a short, single-channel video shot in the artist’s native Malatya Province. It follows a road devastated by an unknown force, leaving a long jagged chasm and rendering the road—once a major artery to the east—useless. The camera is handheld and jumpy. Near the end of the video a discarded television monitor appears nestled deep in the crack in the road, and stares back at the now-still camera. Another is the looped four-channel HD video, two-channel audio Shoot Out (2011), which surrounds you in a room: on opposite walls a man with a high-powered assault rifle lies on the floor, his focus trained on his gun’s sight; projected on each of the other two walls is a can of Coca-Cola on a stump of wood. The men load, aim, and fire at the cans; the viewer, deciding where to stand, is uncomfortably stuck in the middle.


While “Black Album” is not a retrospective, the exhibition includes earlier work such as the prints Night Shift (1988) and Negatives (1990), as well as the site-specific installation piece Final Warning, all perfect additions as they unearth and recontextualize some of the roots of Avşar’s newer work.



The Known Unknown: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

November 15, 2013 | by

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on holiday in Italy in 1912.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on holiday in Italy in 1912.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family on February 11, 1887. At university, he studied law. In 1912, age twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, and Milan—for the young Krzhizhanovsky was the pure apprentice intellectual. After the First World War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to Kiev, where he taught at the Musical Institute and the Theatrical Conservatory. In 1922, age thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. He also worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater. Meanwhile, he wrote novellas and stories, which were never published—either due to economic problems (bankrupt publishers) or political problems (Soviet censors). Twenty years passed in this way until, in 1941, with Krzhizhanovsky now fifty-four, a collection of stories was finally scheduled for publication—but then the Second World War intervened, preventing even that collection from appearing. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year. (His works—almost all of them unpublished—were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment: in her clothes chest, under some brocade.)

Almost no one knew that Krzhizhanovsky was writing fiction, since the state never allowed its publication. They knew him in other guises—as a lecturer on theater, or essayist, or occasional playwright. In 1939, Krzhizhanovsky, despite his restricted publication history, was nevertheless elected to the Writers’ Union—which meant that posthumously he was eligible for the process of “immortalization.” In 1953, Stalin died, and three years later Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress instituted a revisionist anti-Stalinist thaw. In 1957—the same year as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—a commission was set up to examine Krzhizhanovsky’s literary legacy. It lasted two years and was then disbanded, having drafted a publishing plan that was never implemented. Then, in 1976, Vadim Perelmuter, a poet, literary historian, and essayist, discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive. He had to wait until 1989 and the full thaw of perestroika before he could publish one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. Between 2001 and 2008, Perelmuter finally edited a handsome five-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s works. Read More »


Electrical Banana

June 11, 2012 | by

Mati Klarwein, Annunciation (used for Santana's Abraxas), 1961, oil and tempera on primed canvas.

I have always been a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object. By an effort of the will, I can evoke a not very vivid image of what happened yesterday afternoon, of how the Lungarno used to look before the bridges were destroyed, of the Bayswater Road when the only buses were green and tiny and drawn by aged horses at three and a half miles an hour. But such images have little substance and absolutely no autonomous life of their own. They stand to real, perceived objects in the same relation as Homer’s ghosts stood to the men of flesh and blood, who came to visit them in the shades … This was the world—a poor thing but my own—which I expected to see transformed into something completely unlike itself.

So wrote Aldous Huxley just before an afternoon mescaline trip, his first, in 1954. The psychedelic sixties would take Huxley’s message to heart, opening new doors of perception while under the influence. But for graphic designer Heinz Edelmann, Huxley’s journalistic exploration was mescaline enough. After reading the British novelist’s account, Edelmann thought, “Well, I don’t need mescaline. I can do that stone cold sober.” If you don’t know who Edelmann is, have a look at Yellow Submarine: he created the look of the film and designed all the characters.

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A Week in Culture: Eric Banks, Writer

August 25, 2010 | by


11:30 A.M. One of my favorite things about going to Philadelphia is that when you’re disgorged from the train you step into 30th Street Station. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment—how many films1 have been made about the City of Brotherly Love that find some way or another to use the old Beaux-Arts structure as a set? I’m not sure what it says about a city that every filmmaker wants to signify Philadelphianess with the very place you’d pass through if you were either coming or going—or for that matter, why so many Philly films choose to stage their most extravagant moments of murder and witnessed mayhem in this relatively quiet corner of the city—but at any rate I get a little thrill2 of walking through the station, so much more humanly scaled (if still monumental in its own way) than Grand Central or Union Station but losing nothing of the rustle of urbanity in the process.

11:50 A.M. It’s a quick hop by cab to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first leg of our seaboard-descending art trip. It’s not so much a staycation—with the price of an Amtrak ticket down and back, plus a night among all the foreign tourists at a Dupont Circle hotel chain, we could as well have flown somewhere. We were lured by the recently restored Gross Clinic, on view for the first time since it’s been spiffied up by its new owners, who rallied to keep the canvas in Thomas Eakins’s hometown when the Walmart heirs were trying to buy it and exile it to an Arkansas museum, and the promise of an Arte Povera installation. The latter turns out to be a bit overblown—really just a couple of ho-hum works thrown in to a room alongside great but familiar pieces by Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. Povera, indeed.

12:30 P.M. The Duchamp gallery is, happily, nearly empty of other visitors. Our companion, a Yale art historian who did his dissertation on Duchamp, seems almost deliriously placid sitting in front of "The Large Glass." You don’t associate that sort of copacetic plenitude with looking at Duchamp, and it’s sort of marvelous to behold. “It never disappoints me,” he says in a church voice. I’ve never had that experience with "The Large Glass," though "Étant donnés," no matter how many times you’ve peeped through the hole in the doorway, never loses its filthy staying power and fresh smell of mystery. What other creaky and canonical artworks of the last one hundred years can you say that about? I still feel like a perv squatting so slightly to look through the peephole at the splayed, spread-eagle figure and the twinkling faux waterfall. It’s almost obligatory afterward to cut back through the Brancusi gallery and have a look at the plain, unmarked door allowing maintenance access to the piece. The sight is a purgative for the eyes.

2:00 P.M. After a bite in the commissary, we catch the trolley to the museum’s annex, where "The Gross Clinic" is the star attraction. There’s a dismayingly large crowd on hand to see Eakins’s bloody study from 1875, which until a few years ago was off-the-beaten trail at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital (where Gross, a celebrated military surgeon during the Civil War, held his classes). There’s a lot of documentation on the walls about the painting’s history and how its subject matter—the surgery to remove a diseased bit of femoral bone, which pre-Gross would have entailed amputation of the leg—revolted audiences in 1876, when it was excluded from the city’s Centennial Exhibition. I hoped there’d be a picture of how it was in fact installed at the time, hanging at the end of an art-meets-life prefab model army hospital tent, neatly and almost hilariously in situ, but no such luck.

The canvas now has far more commodious digs—almost its own mini-chapel, where it’s flanked by Eakins’s other surgical masterpiece, "The Agnew Clinic3." And after the restoration effort, it’s that much clearer just how strange a picture it is. Before, you saw Gross holding his scarlet-flecked scalpel upright like a paintbrush, you made out the scene of the operation, with its attending surgeons wielding their blood-tipped knives like pencils4. But so much else was clouded and clotted in a bizarrely blah electrically colored background glare—the tonal registers were just weird, almost fecklessly unresolved. Now you can really pick up the dark clarity of the whole background, including the image of the figure just behind Gross, who’s taking notes and whose grip on his pencil ramifies that of the doctors going after the rotting bone. The sharply foreshortened patient’s fuzzy blue socks jut out at you all that more dramatically and make a clean rhyme against the ether-soaked pillow over his head. And the guy lingering in the hallway—Gross’s son—behind the theater, swallowed in a red haze, is a lot more fiendishly integrated into the scene. I first saw the canvas when it was in the Met’s Eakins retrospective in 2001, and this was like seeing a totally different picture.

When we had dinner a couple of nights earlier with an art historian who has a book coming out on the “pleasure dairies” of the ancién regime (the best known being Marie-Antoinette’s white marble Hameau at Versailles), she complained about the recent exhibition tendency to make a fetish of the tech-wiz conservationist. Philadelphia’s played up its efforts to clean Eakins—a misnomer, since what they did in essence was to add a level of varnish that the old medical hospital canvas doctors stripped away to try and make the gloomy tones brighter, mucking up the balance in the process. They’ve clarified it strangely enough by making it more oblique. In a lot of the press notices, the conservators make a fascinating observation that their restoration process can easily be undone by future generations if viewing tastes should change—what they’ve got now is a painting that is more attuned to the way nineteenth-century viewers looked at canvases, though most nineteenth-century folks couldn’t stand to look at them. Could you do the same thing with literary translation—build in some sort of tacit statement that the new translations of Proust or Tolstoy or Kafka that you’re reading are only provisional, or for that matter, opt to retranslate them backward, into their earlier and less contemporary idioms? I’ve just read a passage in Tom McCarthy’s new novel C where Egyptologists are discussing a dig and talk about the fact that what they drag up aren’t pure artifacts but the record of earlier plunderers, Romans, Arab, even pharoaic. Where the latter-day architects make their historical mistake is in thinking that their own moment is somehow the definitive one. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a long book. I think McCarthy would approve of "The Gross Clinic’s" restoration relativism. Read More »


  1. I immediately think of Witness, and Trading Places, and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. (I can’t recall whether there was a 30th Street Station scene in Philadelphia, but it seems to be on AMC every five minutes, so I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough, but if there wasn’t, there should have been.)
  2. Do Philadelphians have the same feeling, or does it communicate this little charm only for the visitor?
  3. While we’re standing there, a couple of kids in T-shirts and white gloves come out of the woodwork to make a show of dusting the frame.
  4. The pencil-brush contrast is one of the palpable dramas, of drawing pitted against painting, taking place in the canvas; once you know that Eakins’s father was a successful calligrapher and have seen enough Eakins to register how frequently he tried to couple both graphic perspective and painterly chiaroscuro to produce his own brand of realism, the violence of the operating room gets a lot more Oedipal.