Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2002
Linda Henderson Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the "Large Glass" and Related Works Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. 374 pp.; few color ills. Cloth (0691055513)

The title of this book, Duchamp in Context, is an apt summation of Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s project: to recover Duchamp’s artistic evolution toward and the full range of scientific and technological sources for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23), his most important work. To say she succeeds is an understatement. This study is so rich in new information it is a veritable encyclopedia. Here is the long-awaited toolbox for pruning back the interpretive excesses that have plagued much recent Duchamp scholarship.

The book is divided into four sections and fourteen chapters, moving from Duchamp’s initial forays into x-rays to his interest in other early twentieth-century technological and scientific discoveries, such as wireless telegraphy, radioactivity, and thermodynamics. Along the way Henderson provides detailed explanations for each and every source that interested the artist, explaining, for example, how Henri Poincaré’s challenges to Newtonian mechanics inform features of the Large Glass, such as the division of the gravity-bound “Bachelors” from the free-floating, fourth-dimensional “Bride.” Misunderstandings about the work are also refuted, such as claims first raised by André Breton that Duchamp had a mystically driven penchant for occult alchemy. What may appear alchemical in the Large Glass, writes Henderson, is best understood as a by-product of Duchamp’s playful approach to chemistry and physics, coupled with his desire to multiply the referents (xxi). And multiply he did. To explain how this playfulness arose, Henderson returns to the milieu of pre-war Paris, where new discoveries in the sciences were seriously discussed by Parisian artists and, at the same time, where satirical games of artifice turned this seriousness on its head. In Section 1, “Duchamp and Invisible Reality: 1911-12,” we learn about the artist’s scientific apprenticeship. At this juncture he was a Cubist who, like Frantisek Kupka, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, and others in the Puteaux Cubist camp, endorsed the metaphysics of Henri Bergson and the belief that x-rays and non-Euclidian geometries were a means of penetrating to a hidden reality. Early paintings—Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel (1910), Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters (1911), Portrait (Dulcina) (1911), Portrait of Chess Players (1911), and Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912)—mark this phase of his career, when Kupka was the key influence. However, as his scientific interests developed, Duchamp, along with Francis Picabia and Guillaume Apollinaire, took a more critical view of Cubism and its pretensions as an art most attuned to modernity.

Section 2, “The Transition from Painter to Artist as Engineer-Scientist: Fall 1912-14,” discusses Duchamp’s desire to shed the Cubist artistic persona encoded by Gleizes and his cohort Metzinger in Du Cubisme (1912) in favor of an intellectual approach resembling that of the anarchist satirist Alfred Jarry, whose literary farces sparkled with learned erudition about the technological and scientific findings of his day. A second source of inspiration for this turn was the science-and-technology obsessed playwright Raymond Roussel, whose stage play, Impressions d’Afrique, left an indelible impression on Duchamp, Picabia, and Apollinaire when they saw it performed in 1912. Roussel filled his stage with strange human-machine hybrids acting out seemingly illogical scenarios that were intended to convey profound insights. What impressed Duchamp, writes Henderson, was the imaginative element in which Roussel transformed technological and scientific principles into a field for wide-ranging “poetic” invention. Spurred on by the example of Jarry and Roussel, Duchamp and his friends were swept up by “the lure of science” (40), a realm where parody and irony could be unleashed to devastating effect. Human sexuality and the Bergsonian metaphysics underpinning Cubism became favorite targets. So too did the practice of art itself, which Duchamp sought to supercede in his new role of “Engineer-Scientist.”

The transformation began in 1913, with Duchamp’s sole painting on canvas from that year, Chocolate Grinder No. 1. This work, writes Henderson, was executed in the precision-drawn manner of a mechanical draftsman “so as to deny the artist’s hand” (59). In like manner, the fabricated measuring device, 3 Standard Stoppages (1914), was constructed on the basis of the chance fall of three lengths of string. Here Duchamp introduced a “regime of coincidence” (62) into the universal standard meter while simultaneously repressing any deliberative part for himself in the creative act. The latter negation, Henderson continues, was the impetus for Bottle Rack (1914) and other readymades. These manufactured objects were selected by Duchamp to systematically refute the Bergsonian principles of artistic production as codified by Gleizes and Metzinger. Challenging his erstwhile allies with “the beauty of indifference” encapsulated in mass-produced utilitarian objects, Duchamp upended the Cubist notion of artistic privilege and superior taste, as if to say the activity of art production per se was an anachronism.

However, in Section 3, “‘Playful’ Science and Technology in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923,” Henderson suggests Duchamp was still intent on creating art, albeit art on a scientific-intellectual model at odds with hallowed conventions. The publication of Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscripts in 1906, she posits, played a key role in this regard. “In the face of the Puteaux Cubists’ Bergsonian focus on intuitive, emotive creation,” she writes, “Leonardo as artist-scientist” offered Duchamp “crucial validation for his belief in art as an intellectual activity” (72). This section focuses exclusively on the Large Glass, read through detailed analyses of the clues Duchamp left in his Green Box (1934), the posthumously published Marcel Duchamp, Notes, edited by Paul Matisse (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980), and other sources. Henderson recapitulates period scientific theories and technological inventions as they relate to the work through the lens of Duchamp and those who shared his interests, notably Picabia and Apollinaire. The performance is stellar, as she takes us, step by step, through the twists and turns of the “artist-engineer’s” puns and word games. Henderson’s concluding section is divided into two parts and a coda. Here she reviews Duchamp’s later productions as extensions of themes first explored in the Large Glass.

Henderson also addresses the reception of Duchamp and the artist’s role in shaping that discourse up to the time of his death in 1968. Art historians will be greatly interested in this section, where she critiques a host of interpretations, particularly those arising from Surrealist-related scholarship. One wishes she had turned her critical eye more on the recent wave of speculative (and often sophistic) gender-related treatments by Paul Franklin and others, but no matter. Henderson’s book is a much needed intervention in Duchamp studies, returning us to ground in an elegant and thorough exposition that will serve as a standard reference for a long time to come.

Allan Antliff
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Visual Studies, University of Victoria, Canada

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