By: Jonathon Keats
Among the few items remaining in Marcel Duchamp’s studio after he quit painting in 1914 was an unmounted coat rack that tripped him up whenever he passed. Rather than nailing it to the wall where it belonged, one day he fixed it to the floor and, declaring it a readymade, dubbed it Trébuchet.
Trébuchet means “trap” in French, and in chess it refers to a set up that leads a player to a self-defeating move. Duchamp had endured his fair share of those over years of amateur play and, as he devoted more and more time to professional tournaments in the ensuing decades, he would get to know the trébuchet well enough to analyze it in a book-length technical treatise. While few people have read or even heard of that work, Opposition and Sister Squares Reconciled, much has been made in the voluminous Duchamp literature of his defection to chess as the ultimate Dadaist act. The French critic Pierre Cabanne asked him whether chess is “the ideal work of art” in an authoritative interview in 1968, the year of Duchamp’s death at the age of 81. “That could be,” the artist acknowledged, noting that in chess “there is no special purpose. That above all is important.”
As Cabanne was well aware, Duchamp had drawn a connection between chess and art even before his Trébuchet, depicting the game in two significant paintings. The first of these, completed in 1911, is titled Portrait of Chess Players and was based on the matches his older brothers played when they weren’t working in their neighboring studios. Both were established Cubists—working under the names Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon—and up to that point young Marcel had been emulating them. Portrait of Chess Players was his first break with the prevailing tradition, an attempt to get beneath surface appearances, showing the thoughts inside his brothers’ heads as they competed. He accomplished this quite creatively (albeit rather awkwardly) by painting chess pieces as flattened shapes hovering in space on an otherwise conventionally Cubist canvas. Standing outside the system of perspective, the mental game represented symbolically by those chessmen was given a separate dimension: Thought occurred on its own plane.
Duchamp’s second chess painting, completed one year after Portrait, is compositionally more successful and conceptually more audacious. Following his notorious Nude Descending a Staircase—the work that made his name at New York’s Armory Show—The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes applies a Cubist solution to the problem of depicting motion, by showing the moving subject simultaneously in multiple positions. This was also the approach taken by the Italian Futurists, who could quite conceivably have produced Duchamp’s Nude (and with more grace). What makes The King and Queen different, and arguably Duchamp’s first revolutionary work, is that rather than showing the literal locomotion of a nude woman, the artist has given full physical form to the psychological reality: The chess player’s thought process is rendered dynamically on canvas. “My aim was turning inward, rather than toward externals,” Duchamp confided to MoMA curator James Johnson Sweeney, discussing this painting in a 1946 interview. “I came to feel that an artist could use anything—a dot, a line, the most conventional or unconventional symbol—to say what he wanted to say.”
Duchamp was liberated by The King and Queen. On the one hand, he could use unconventional symbols such as a chocolate grinder and a water mill to depict the psychological process of a “bride stripped bare by her bachelors” in The Large Glass(1915–23), his last major work for many years. On the other hand he could extend the reach of art far beyond the line and dot, appropriating coat racks and snow shovels, creating “new thoughts” for familiar objects in his readymades.
Volumes have been devoted to explicating The Large Glass, with interpretations ranging from the alchemical to the Freudian. (In his catalogue raisonné, the scholar-dealer Arturo Schwartz maintained that The Large Glass revealed Duchamp’s childhood lust for his sister Suzanne.) Duchamp neither endorsed nor rejected others’ theories. Instead he steadfastly insisted that “there is no solution because there is no problem.”
So what are we to make of The Large Glass, or, for that matter, of the readymades? In the latter case even Duchamp seems to have been uncertain, using the term in many contexts and subjecting it to myriad contradictory definitions. He confessed to the curator Katherine Kuh in an interview toward the end of his life, “I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me,” while at the same time venturing that the readymade might have been “the most important single idea to come out of my work.” He was probably right. Surely it was the most influential, underlying everything from the industrial materials of Minimalism to the commercial appropriations of Pop. But the readymade has also proven to be something of atrébuchet, leading countless followers into the self-defeating trap of making art about art.
In Duchamp there was always a far larger idea at work. The readymade, and indeed most all of his oeuvre—from the Nude to The Large Glass—becomes truly meaningful only within the framework of chess, as appropriated and transformed by the artist in the first decades of the 20th century. Duchamp made the creation of art equivalent to playing a game.
His initial approach was to challenge other artists with his provocations. Each of these gambits was usually given form in only one work. Noting the unprecedented speed and diversity of Duchamp’s “morphological development,” the late MoMA curator William Rubin once compared his spare output from 1911–16 to “the four years spanning the beginning and the end of Analytic Cubism, the stages of which are witnessed, in Picasso’s paintings alone, by thousands of paintings and drawings.” Rubin believed the difference was that Picasso developed his ideas “in the act of painting,” whereas Duchamp did so “through cerebration.” He was right, but he missed another crucial facet voiced by Duchamp himself when he said, in the 1946 Sweeney interview, that art “is not a question of progress.” If there’s no progress, no reason to believe that one approach is superior to another, then there’s no impetus to produce a whole body of work in the newest fashion. A single gesture will do, just as in a chess game a piece is advanced only once per turn, and a new game begun, history erased, when the previous one plays out.
To say that Duchamp was ahead of his time is a cliché, but pertinent here, because none of his contemporaries were prepared to conceive of art as he did in the early 20th century. From the Cubists to the Surrealists, everyone who embraced Duchamp was invested in the illusion of progress, even the Dadaists, whose antiart was intended to advance civilization beyond art’s failure. Duchamp’s moves were misconstrued as alchemical tips or Freudian slips, or, far worse, forerunners of manifestly “advanced” movements such as Surrealism. The playful motive underlying his provocations was ignored. In his game of artistic mischief, he had nobody to play against.
So he turned his attention to a game people did play, his original inspiration, the game of chess. He competed on the international circuit, and while he never won a major tournament, the chess master Edward Lasker ranked Duchamp among the top 25 players in the United States through the 1920s and ’30s. Lasker also observed that Duchamp “would always take risks in order to play a beautiful game, rather than be cautious and brutal to win.” There can be little doubt that for decades chess became a surrogate for his artistic production. As he liked to say, the game is “very, very plastic.”
Yet, with its narrow terms of victory and defeat, chess also has its limitations, especially in the case of a man like Duchamp, who played fairly conventionally, with the middling creativity that his brother Villon brought to Cubism. Coming to terms with his level of talent in the ’50s and ’60s, he competed less actively. At the same time the artistic games he’d launched in the ’teens began finding a new audience with a fresh generation of artists—including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg—who wanted to subvert the heroics of Abstract Expressionism and the dogma of progress in art. Like a game of correspondence chess long delayed in the mail, the readymade was received by these artists in the spirit of a game, and shuttled back into play.
Duchamp’s response was ambivalent. In 1964, for instance, he permitted Schwartz to issue a limited edition of his major readymades in reproduction, a gesture that could alternately be perceived as revolutionary or reactionary; revolutionary in that it anticipated Sol LeWitt’s 1967 Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (“the idea becomes a machine that makes the art”), and reactionary in that Schwartz’s ambitious pricing looked antediluvian in the context of Conceptual anticommercialism. Indeed, the more heated the play between postwar artists—and the more insular—the less willingly Duchamp engaged in it. The games within games simply didn’t hold his interest. Nor did their academicism meet his provocative standard: “A painting that doesn’t shock isn’t worth painting.”
But Duchamp was still secretly working, slowly creating Etant Donnés, the installation that would be exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum only after his death. A meticulously crafted tableau showing a woman sprawled out naked in a field, Etant Donnés appeared to some contemporary critics a repudiation of Duchamp’s lifelong cerebral commitment. Others saw it as a posthumous checkmate, proving that he could shock even his own acolytes. Both interpretations now seem too narrow, however, especially if we consider a recurrent theme in interviews and talks during the later years. As Duchamp phrased it to the American Federation of Arts in 1957, “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
Ultimately Duchamp recognized that a game played by artists, for artists, was an exercise in futility, an infinite regress. Chess makes sense only if there is the possibility of victory. Art, in contrast, is inherently winnerless. Duchamp couldn’t make chess of it even if others were eager to play along with him. What he did instead was to invent a new kind of game, to which there is no conclusion because there are no restrictions. It is a game that is still altogether too rare, in which the artwork is very, very plastic, and the players are the artist and the spectator.
Marcel Duchamp: Chess Master
St. Louis University Museum of Art
Through Aug. 16, 2009
Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess
Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York
Sept. 10–Oct. 30, 2009
Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess
By Francis M. Naumann and Bradley Bailey
Readymade Press, $45
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