born 1887 Blainville, France
died 1968 New York, USA
Born into a family of artists, Marcel Duchamp made his first paintings at age fifteen, and upon the completion of his high school education joined his two older brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, in Paris, where in 1904 he enrolled at the Académie Julian. He finished there in 1905 and spent a year in the army working in a print shop in order to avoid the general conscription laws then pending. When he returned to Paris, he found work as an illustrator and cartoonist for popular satirical journals. In 1909 Duchamp began exhibiting paintings that showed the influence of Paul Cézanne and the fauves. At the Sunday gatherings he attended in Puteaux, a Parisian suburb where his brothers had their house and studio, he participated in discussions about philosophy, music, literature, photography, and non-Euclidean geometry. In art, members of what became known as the Puteaux group embraced cubism, which found its most doctrinaire proponents in Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, who in 1912 requested that Duchamp remove his painting, Nu descendant un escalier (Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2), from the Salon des indépendants on the grounds that its kineticism was not cubist.
In 1913 Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2 was exhibited in New York at the Armory Show, where it and the three other canvases Duchamp submitted were sold to American collectors. Between 1913 and 1915, Duchamp adopted a consciously scientific attitude to art-making, compiling notes for a project that would become La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) [or The Large Glass], 1915-1923, and experimenting with methods of measurement and mechanical drawing. Although Duchamp was exempt from military service due to a minor heart defect, the atmosphere in Paris, where he worked as a librarian during the early years of the war, was increasingly hostile and reactionary. As he explained in a letter to his supporter Walter Pach, the art dealer and organizer of the Armory Show, “I do not go to New York, I leave Paris.”
When Duchamp arrived in June 1915, Pach arranged for him to stay at the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, collectors and patrons of modern art, who introduced him to New York’s avant-garde. He soon became the center of the circle that gathered at the Arensbergs’ apartment in the evenings, where he was often found playing chess with Arensberg or Francis Picabia. From 1915 to 1923, with the exception of brief visits to Buenos Aires and Paris, Duchamp made New York his home. His activities during his years in the United States directly influenced the conception of artistic practice elaborated as New York Dada. In particular, he provided key theorizations of strategies like the use of mechanical drawing, the deployment of found objects, and the assumption of alternate identities.
Construction of Duchamp’s major project, The Large Glass, began in New York. The thematization of sexual relationships as mechanical processes that he had begun to investigate as early as 1912 in paintings like La Mariée (The Bride), here reached a new and radical synthesis. Painted on glass and including industrially produced wires, The Large Glass represents a mechanical diagram of sexual intercourse, the functioning of which was elaborately, though enigmatically, explained by Duchamp in notes related to the project.
Sometime during the fall of 1915 Duchamp developed the idea of the readymade, an industrially produced object that becomes a work of art through the choice or assistance of the artist. His first New York readymade was a snow shovel bought at a hardware store on Columbus Avenue to which he added an inscription: “In Advance of the Broken Arm [after] Marcel Duchamp.” The action designating a readymade could also take place at a distance, as demonstrated by Duchamp’s January 1916 letter to his sister Suzanne asking her to complete Porte-bouteilles (Bottlerack), which he had purchased as a “sculpture already made” and left in his apartment in Paris.
Fountain, the most notorious example of Duchamp’s readymades, was submitted to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, an organization Duchamp helped to found, under the pseudonym R. Mutt. Despite the stated program of the group to exhibit anything submitted by artists who had paid the fee, Fountain was rejected, resulting in a scandal that was only heightened when it was revealed who had authored the work. Duchamp created his female alter ego Rose Sélavy in the fall of 1920, and for the next twenty years, he signed his work with this pseudonym. As a persona, Rose Sélavy was consistently identified with commercial methods of signifying authorship, such as the copyright and the trademark. Fresh Widow, the first work copyrighted by Rose Sélavy in 1920, was built by a carpenter for Duchamp and is a reproduction of a set of French doors. By replacing the window panes with black patent leather and titling the work “fresh widow” (a pun on “French window”), Duchamp alluded to the mass casualties of World War I.
On Duchamp’s visits to Paris throughout these years, he created works that would become emblematic of Dada’s sensibilities, including L.H.O.O.Q. and 50 cc Air de Paris (50 cc of Paris Air). He also contributed to the formation of Dada identity when in 1921, he and Man Ray collaborated on the only issue of New York Dada. Including a mock statement of authorization sent by Tristan Tzara from Paris, the issue was the only official Dada publication to appear in the United States.
Between 1923 and 1942, Duchamp lived in Paris, where he continued investigations into optics begun in 1918 with the creation in 1925 of Rotative Demisphére (Rotary Demisphere) and in 1935 of the Rotoreliefs, both of which experimented with the visual tricks produced by forms in motion. Duchamp designed the Rotoreliefs to be played on an ordinary record player and attempted to sell them at the annual inventors’ fair in Paris, a largely unsuccessful venture. He also pursued his passion for chess, participating in tournaments in the United States and Europe and publishing a guide to endgame situations cowritten with the German chess master Vitaly Halberstadt.
When the Germans occupied Paris in 1942, Duchamp left again for New York, where he renewed contact with the avant-garde and its patrons. Beginning in 1942, he began making notes for the last major project of his life, Étant donnés, a three-dimensional tableau in which his lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between viewing and sexuality gained a direct and unambiguous representation. Duchamp died in 1968.