Duchamp Carves A Chess Set

It wasn’t that long ago that I ran across an image of something made by Marcel Duchamp that I was completely unfamiliar with: a chess set. He had made it in 1918, during a nine-month sojourn in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That I was unfamiliar with it surprised me; I was pretty sure I’d seen every single thing he’d ever made.

Not like that’s a real feat of scholarship by the way. His output, compared to pretty much any other artist out there, could charitably be described as sporadic, and sparse. It meant that when I did actually see his chess set, designed and made by his own hand, it felt like finding something in King Tut’s tomb that had been overlooked somehow; a forgotten artifact in one of the most picked over spots in the world.

A couple of things struck me about it immediately: the first was that he was a woodworker, like me. This was such an improbable realization I laughed out loud. The image I saw in my head of Duchamp surrounded by sawdust, with cuts and calluses on his hands, seemed to upend everything I thought I knew about him. True, he probably had help with it, and true, most of the pieces looked like they were turned on a lathe, but the knights and the rooks were definitely carved, something that Duchamp was known to do in his past. The second thing though was that it was free of any kind of oppositional posturing, which is a quality that permeates virtually all of his art. The feeling I got from it instead was one of comfort, utility, and beauty, three words that I would have a hard time attaching to anything else he ever did.

It could be said, of course, that he wasn’t trying to make art with the chess set, which is why it reads so differently. But it could also be said that he didn’t really want anything he ever made to look like art - he bridled constantly at what he considered traditional art making, without ever being able to fully free himself of it. That’s because, while he might have made non-art instead of art, the negation of something is only possible if the original something exists clearly in the mind of the negator. But all of that gamesmanship (no pun intended) falls away with his handsome, carved wooden chess set, free of any kind of obfuscation, humor, or oppositional critique. It’s just…a chess set.

Something nagged at me about it though - there seemed to be a set of contradictions bundled up in there that begged to be untangled. It had always struck me as ironic that Duchamp was (and is) exhibit A when it comes to defining iconoclastic, rule-breaking artists, yet at the same time, he was slavishly devoted to a game whose rules he happily accepted, played on a mere 64 squares. The irony of that extends even further with this chess set, because it intersects with aesthetic decision-making, and actual hand-making for that matter– the stuff of traditional art. It makes clear that he had a certain posture in the art world, a certain stylistic and conceptual starting point, that simply fell away as soon as he was outside of it.

That realization quickly lead to another: if one has separate aesthetics for art and for life, then how do you make art about life? To which the answer might be – you don’t. As Duchamp himself once said: “There are two kinds of artists: the artist who deals with society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has nothing to do with it – no bonds.” It’s pretty clear which one he saw in himself.  And while Duchamp was original in most things art related, his no-bonds thing was very much a product of his time. The image most of us have of the unshackled, rule-breaking bohemian artist is very much a modernist invention, and defines how we view artists even now. It’s such a cliché that we forget why it was so important for artists to be unshackled in the first place. And it was because freedom was important.

Pushing the boundaries of art defined progress, because artists saw the freedom of art as analogous to human freedom in general, and they very consciously saw themselves as being the ones tasked with enlarging its sphere. As Gordon Matta-Clark said in one of his letters: “The value of art as it services and sometimes flourishes in our system is so closely related to occidental beliefs in individual rights of free expression that one can accurately speak of the state of art as a measure of the state of freedom in our society”. The idea of artists getting into the weeds about feelings and desires, or human foibles, or just making something beautiful, wasn’t nearly as grand a vision as enlarging the human capacity to be free. Art was a noble struggle. For that reason, art wasn’t about showing life, as much as it was about being life - this the crux of the work by Jackson Pollock for example, or Mark Rothko, two artists whose work attempted a spiritual realism, while being mislabeled abstract expressionism. And while they and others like them might seem laughably romantic to us now, viewed through our suspicious postmodern haze, understanding this fundamental impulse during the modernist era is key.

Into this project stepped Duchamp. Or should I say, he stepped in for a minute, and then he stepped back out. His patience with the art world could at best be described as limited, which explains why he was in Buenos Aires in the first place; he was trying like hell to run away from it. That also explains why he was in New York, (the place he left to get to Buenos Aires) he was trying like hell to get out of Paris. Here he is sharing some of his observations about the art world to his friend Katherine Dreier: “The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get to be successful in the smallest way. This means also that all the dogs around artists are crooks. If you see the combination fakes and crooks how have you been able to keep some kind of faith (and in what?) Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “art game.” In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much.” It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums. So much for posterity.” And here he is, writing to his friend Alfred Stieglitz, who asked him if a photograph can have the significance of a “Work Of Art”: “You know exactly how I feel about photography, I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.” And here is one more, in a letter to his sometimes-patron Jacques Doucet: “ All expositions of painting or sculpture make me ill.” And so on.

He may have been running away from art, but in Buenos Aires he found something he could run towards: chess. He had always liked the game, but his time in Buenos Aires made him into what he later described as a ‘Chess Maniac’. He joined a chess club, he hired a coach, he played so often, and for so long, that his girl friend left him. He made the aforementioned killer chess set. And he basically embarked on a new career.

When he came back, he said in a letter to his good friend Man Ray, “My ambition is to become a professional chess player”, which he did. At this point it’s important to note that those who think Duchamp’s incessant chess playing was some kind of performance piece, and that he was really an artist the whole time, tend to ignore not only his words, (lots and lots of words), but his actions. As Calvin Tompkins notes in his biography on Duchamp, “For about 15 years, from 1918 to 1933, Duchamp’s activities had very little to do with art.” but everything to do with chess. In time he achieved his goal and became a touring professional, he wrote a book about chess endings, (woah) and even represented France in the Chess Olympiad. Here he is describing the difference between artists and chess players: “From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” Even when he wasn’t really in the art world, he still took the time to flog artists now and again.

For decades afterwards, it’s difficult not to get the sense that Duchamp was a chess player first and foremost, who occasionally, on a strictly part time basis, and with very limited conviction, made art. That phase lasted until well into his sixties, when people like John Cage coaxed him back into the art world. Even then, as a new found fame was settling on him, he said: “Art is only one occupation among others. It’s not all my life, far from it.” To which he added this capper: “Art is a habit forming drug. That’s all it is for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People speak of it with great religious reverence, but I don’t see why it is to be so much revered. I’m afraid I’m agnostic when it comes to art. I don’t believe in it with all the mystical trimmings.” And so on and so on.

Spending a lot of time outside of the art world really allowed him to identify the invisible membrane that separates the art world, from the world world, and artists from regular civilians. He was able to see an insular aspect to the art world that simply did not occur to his peers, subsumed as they were within it, and dependent as they were upon it. His readymades in particular seem to demonstrate that anything within that membrane can plausibly be seen as art, while those same things seen outside of it, not so much. That’s how a urinal flipped on its back could be art – it was dependent on the context to make it so. The same could be said of a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa, with a mustache and goatee hastily drawn on it. Inside the membrane, it’s a comment about authorship, appropriation, gender roles, and so on. The commentary and scholarship on that piece alone is vast. Yet outside of that membrane, it’s just visual detritus, graffiti, or a prank. And to Duchamp it actually was a prank of course; if the whole alchemical process of the art world seemed suspect, and worthy of his mistrust, well it was - in his era, and in ours.

There is an inherent irony to this observation of course. (The word just can’t be avoided with him). If art is a thing separated from life by context, and that separation seemed like it was worth pointing out, then he failed to notice that he was guilty of doing the same thing - that’s how a chess set and a readymade don’t operate in the same way. Not like Duchamp thought they should – he was into the no-bonds thing after all. But if art was about being life, and not simply showing it, then his chess set is a whole lot more convincing than a snow shovel, or a bottle rack – things he deliberately chose because he had no connection to them, aesthetically or otherwise.

Be that as it may, his shots across the bow of the art establishment, on those rare occasions when he actually made art, were exactly what it wanted, and exactly what it needed. Which is…ironic. And so is the idea that his very mistrust of the art world ended up setting the stage for his chief artistic contribution to it, which was to understand that art was a thing dependent on context rather than on aesthetic choices, much less on the vagaries of taste. The ability to understand that required having a clear view of the big picture, and seeing the big picture required distance. Duchamp did distance better than anybody.

Today, it’s very hard to resist accepting as gospel what Thierry De Duve calls the ‘Duchamp Syllogism’; that is, Duchamp is generally assumed to have said that if a urinal can be art, than anything can be art, and therefore, anyone can be an artist. Duchamp managed, in other words, to single handedly liberate art from any conceivably objective definition. That didn’t happen of course. First of all, it’s necessary to note that ‘Fountain’ wasn’t really seen by anyone until Duchamp’s retrospective in 1963. The original object was lost not long after it was created, 46 years beforehand, and had never been shown. Secondly, Duchamp wasn’t really positing artistic liberation, as De Duve further points out. He was more concerned with poking the eye of the Society Of Independent Artists. They were the group that held the show that ‘Fountain’ was submitted to, a group that Duchamp was also member of. They wanted to have a juried show based on the idea that everyone who entered it would have their work accepted. This was pure hypocrisy of course, as Duchamp made perfectly clear, by submitting something that was summarily rejected. But as we’ve seen, his concentration on critiquing art meant that art was the context that defined him - he was never fully free of it, despite repeated attempts.

While other artists in the 60’s may have garbled Duchamp’s message that anything could be art, the fact of the matter is that the membrane that separated art from life was finally breached for good, making the Duchamp Syllogism essentially true. That this happened at all was a lesson in how misreading historical precedent is every bit as effective a driver of change than actually understanding it. What people like Beuys, Kaprow, Judd, Warhol, Matta-clark (Duchamp’s godson), Smithson, Rauschenberg and Cage took from Duchamp may or may not have been what he intended, but it was definitely what they needed. Their subsequent efforts made Duchamp one of the 20th centuries most important artists, and prompted the walls separating art from life to all come tumbling down.

Today, we live in an environment that has made the idea of defining what art is, or who exactly artists are, essentially moot. There are not many people left who would say that there is a narrative structure that defines art, or a training regimen required to become an artist. (That would eliminate Duchamp by the way). So while we are generally able to agree that art is an environment free of limits, there seems to be latency in understanding what that actually means. What happens if you demand freedom and you actually get it?

The first thing to realize is that expecting artists to figure it out what happens next is to miss pretty much entirely what just happened. And what just happened (really over the last century or so), was an incredible effort designed to make the word ‘Art’ functionally meaningless. That in turn has meant that the people who describe themselves as ‘artists’ are essentially out of a job – who exactly are ‘artists’ without ‘art’, and what exactly do they do? At this point though, we are pinned on the horns of dilemma – there may be no more art as we formally understood it, but there is definitely a need to digest the experiences of our lives, and the need to share those experiences with others. We are beings who are aware that we are aware after all, able to contemplate the past and the future, along with the consequences of each. It turns out that the existential questions that awareness entails don’t go away even as we tinker with the semantics related to describing it. Which is why, as the dust clears, we become aware that art hasn’t completely disappeared; it just has gotten subsumed by something bigger – life.

In 1912, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this about Duchamp: “ Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” To which Duchamp himself responded later, “What a joke!” Forcing art and people to become friends seemed as silly to him then as it probably does to most of us now. If anything, we are more comfortable than ever with the idea that art is not suited for a general audience, a stance that Duchamp himself would have undoubtedly approved. In fact, within this vast new territory we find ourselves, it’s not surprising that a whole lot of people would prefer that the walls separating art and life were still there. Call it Basel Syndrome. Into this latency comes what I now think of as the Neo-New - a genre of activity that retains the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’, and casts both in the familiar roles of Modernist Freedom Fighter.

And yet, Appolinaire’s wish that art and the people reconcile in some ways sounds more prescient than goofy, mostly because that’s exactly what happened. Not like people in general are suddenly endorsing contemporary art right now – they aren’t. Contemporary art is a niche experience at best. But they are endorsing the need to digest the experiences of their lives through visual information, the same as they have done for what increasingly looks like millions of years. This end run around the established art world can be seen in the rise of things like the Pop Surrealist movement, glass art, the interest in websites like Etsy, Instagram, and basically the entire Internet. Feel free to scoff at the philistines who are responsible for this stuff (art people scoff the loudest), but visual culture has moved on, with or without artist’s approval, much less control.

That lack of control is in some ways the fulfillment of the modernist mission to morph art into life, though somehow that conclusion has the feel of an unintended consequence. The shock of what that actually looks like is probably analogous to what rich landowners felt like when they allowed everyone to vote. Modernism essentially allowed everyone to vote. Spurred on by Duchamp, and re-assessed, re-cast, and re considered by others, it knocked down every wall, hurdle, or barrier designed to limit what art could be. No limits means no edge, no edge means no more membrane separating art from life, and no more membrane means art dissipates like a puffy little cloud into a clear blue sky, falling as life-giving rain now and again when it’s needed. Part of a larger eco-system, rather than creating it’s own.

Today, we could see someone like Sam Maloof, the MacArthur award winning furniture maker, being an equally important figure in this conversation, as well as someone like the carver and craftsman Wharton Esherick. Neither of them was ever concerned with art as an end point. Here is a picture of a chess set Esherick made in the thirties:


The difference between Duchamp’s chess set and Esherick’s of course is that the rest of Esherick’s house looks like it, all of it designed and made by his own hand. The idea of having separate aesthetics for anything wouldn’t have occurred to him. And as for Maloof, his own 22-room house, also made by him, is now a museum. The way he lived his life is every bit as important as any piece of furniture he ever made.

These are people for whom life was the subject, and the artifact was art, rather than the other way around. In fact, maybe the word ‘artifact’ can be thought of as describing a welcome byproduct to something, almost by accident, and 'art’ is just shorthand for whatever that is. For example: if one wanted to facilitate thinking, and daydreaming, and reading, and having long conversations, it might be logical to make a chair. The artifact would be the result of that original intent. A crap chair wouldn’t do the job efficiently of course, so making a good one would be key. Artists wouldn’t call the results Art (too crafty!), and neither would Sam Maloof, but what exactly is art again? And what is it supposed to do? The repercussions of deliberately eliminating art as a description of anything specific means that trying to achieve it as a goal is functionally impossible. And as the old saying goes: if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead there.

Maybe the new conversation that we have, the one that starts when we have fully digested the repercussions of no longer needing to have an art world to have art, involves talking about living life as a full expression of one’s values, and then seeing what comes from that. This represents a fundamental flip in approach – the modernists made art, and the outcome defined their lives. The new approach sees making a life – and the outcome defines art.  Seen through this lens, we might start talking about the time that Marcel Duchamp, the famous chess player, made a lovely chess set. He would be so relieved. 

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