Marcel Duchamp once observed that “a technique can be learned, but you can’t learn to have an original imagination” – a perfect mental note for visitors to Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection, which opens this month at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The first of a two-part exhibition celebrating a promised gift to the institution, it presents some 35 pieces spanning Duchamp’s career as he went back and forth between Paris and New York; portraits of the artist by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others in his orbit; and even homages by contemporary talents. The second exhibition, slated for April 2020, will examine Duchamp’s legacy through the lens of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection.
Associated with movements such as Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism but a true adherent only to his own singular vision, Duchamp pioneered the notion of idea as art, favoring the conceptual over what he termed the “retinal” and emphasizing the essential contribution of the viewer. “Although you cannot define art, he expanded its definition,” says Aaron Levine, the avowed Duchamp obsessive who acquired the collection with his wife, Barbara, in an interview with Hirshhorn Senior Curator Evelyn Hankins. “He expanded it like John Cage expanded music, like Bach expanded music.”
Duchamp did this most famously through his “readymades” – everyday manufactured objects that he signed and sometimes modified slightly or combined, revealing, as the artist Robert Rauschenberg put it, “the lack of art in art and the artfulness of everything.” That these pieces survive only as signed replicas turns traditional beliefs in the value of uniqueness and authenticity still further on their head. Several readymades appear in the show, among them Hat Rack and Comb – a lowly dog comb, no less.
Some viewers might be surprised to learn that the “author” of Comb started out as a traditional painter. Born into an artistic family in Normandy in 1887, he would follow his elder brothers, printmaker and painter Gaston, a.k.a. Jacques Villon, and sculptor Raymond (Duchamp-Villon) to Paris after high school, study painting at the Académie Julian, draw cartoons for magazines, and dabble in Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. Yet even the more cerebral Cubism failed to hold his interest.
In 1912, things crystallized for him. That spring, he submitted the painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 – a Cubist-meets-Futurist robot-woman in motion – to the Salon des Indépendants and was asked to replace it with something less provocative. Instead, he opted out. “From that moment onward,” writes art historian Francis M. Naumann in the exhibition catalog, “Duchamp decided that he would no longer subject himself to any form of jury system, nor would he attempt to conform to the expectations of others, a liberating principle that would change his life forever and set him free from the entrenched systems within the art world.”
Nevertheless, this same painting was a “succès de scandale” at the Armory Show in New York the following year, a crashing debut on the American scene that reverberates to this day. When he himself arrived in New York for the first time in 1915, exempted due to a heart murmur from serving in World War I and eager to escape Paris, he was surprised to discover that he was a celebrity. Duchamp relished the city’s lack of reverence for the past, which in his view made it “a perfect terrain for new developments.” He left in 1918 but would return for stays of up to a year, eventually immigrating in 1942 and becoming a U.S. citizen in 1955.
During that first year in New York, Duchamp would start constructing his mixed-media masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), which Aaron Levine describes as an “attempt to create sexuality in a mechanical way.” The artist would later put meticulous facsimiles of his scores of handwritten working notes and drawings in The Green Box and The White Box, companion pieces to The Large Glass that invite the viewer’s active participation. Both are displayed in the show, as is his box of all boxes, La Boîte-en-valise – an ingeniously assembled portable museum containing tiny replicas of dozens of his pieces, fittingly the first Duchamp the Levines acquired.
When Evelyn Hankins asked the Levines why they chose to bestow their gift on her institution in particular, Aaron’s first response was, “because you’re next to the Air and Space Museum, where a million kids visit. And hopefully some of them will walk by the Hirshhorn, come in, see the show, and get a new vision of what art is all about.” Any young visitors will surely get a kick out of L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp’s mustachioed and goateed version of the Mona Lisa. Their parents can puzzle through the risqué French title, which Duchamp translated as “There’s a fire down below” – or just go with the more G-rated take: It sounds like “Look” in English.
Another key factor for the Levines was that admission to the Hirshhorn, as at all Smithsonian museums, is free. Duchamp’s work will thus be accessible to a broader audience than ever before. Hankins acknowledges that that’s a little daunting but welcomes the challenge. “One of the great things about the Hirshhorn is that we have this well-earned international reputation among the art world, but then we’re very committed to the tourists coming through and doing the crawl along the National Mall, as well as our local audiences. Duchamp can be a very challenging artist, but we’re going to put him out there and try to get people to engage with him. That’s our job.”
Challenging though Duchamp may be, his work seems uniquely suited to this wide-open venue. The Abstract Expressionist artist Willem de Kooning summed it up perfectly: “There is that one-man movement, Marcel Duchamp – for me a truly modern movement because it implies that each artist can do what he thinks he ought to – a movement for each person and open for everybody.”
Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection
From November 9, 2019, through October 12, 2020
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Article published in the November 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.