More by luck than judgement came across a show at Blain|Southern (‘Tell Me Whom You Haunt’) featuring a most impressive selection of Marcel Duchamp’s work. Never seen so many of them in one place in fact: kudos to them for an impressive piece of curation. L.H.O.O.Q, 50cc of Paris Air, a Coat Rack, a suitcase and a lot of letters and preparatory drawings are among the work on display.
Whether I like them or not is another matter.
Today Duchamp seems to have been a pivotal figure in art history, but that is I suspect only because we of the present day have made him into one – a prescient speculator who sold all his shares in art at the very top of the market and then retired to indulge his passion for chess and supercilious silence. His anti-art position is now an article of faith that contemporary artists seem obligated to acknowledge. This is demonstrated by the second half of this show where various artists rehash (or pay homage) to the master.
But perhaps as Josef Beuys declared, the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated.
Duchamp’s best works – the Urinal, Paris Air, the Bride, seem like jokes about art, witty and pointed the first time but on subsequent repetition becoming stupid and pointless. Duchamp, who was clearly very alert to this possibility, saw that there was no future in diluting himself. Why can so few of his acolytes see that?
The blurb for the group show describes the other artists in the show as ‘leading contemporary artists’. And this is where I have a problem. Duchampian art practice can never be ‘leading’ – it is not forging ahead in a modernistic vanguard. It is in the wings, offstage mocking, reducing and turning its back
Duchamp’s work seems to consist of stripping away the layers of illusion that surround art, and at the core he shows there is nothing. This is his achievement – and if as an artist you adhere to his strictures you turn yourself from an artist into a critic. It is an Anti-Art. This is his legacy: artists feeling unable to make substantive images that can resist Duchamp’s posthumous gaze are sucked into a spiral of cannibalistic commentary on the mass of images in popular culture and art history. An artist’s production practice is the central issue here. Today, an artist who is churning out branded tropes to be marketed globally can never be a true Duchampian. When Duchamp turned his back on production, modernism was in full swing and confidently filling galleries the world over. Now we are filling galleries with a lack of confidence, of doubt in the meaning of the past and a sardonic disdain for the practice of making things. While making things.