Dada Perfume: A Duchamp Interview

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In honor of the 100th anniversary of the readymade, a big batch of remade readymades are now on view at New York’s Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue (through Aug. 29, 2014). This fall, “Readymade@100” debuts at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Washington, D.C. (Sept. 9 – Oct. 19). One of my very own readymades (Stolen Readymade, 2014) is part of the exhibition.

As one might suspect, many of the iconic pieces now on display at Gagosian still convey the master’s wit, but with much less aura than the originals may have had. I suspect that the signing of the 1914 Bottle Rack and Fountain (a urinal, inscribed “R. Mutt” in 1917) imbued these classic found objects with more than enough aura for their time.

The remade readymades (perpetuated by critic Arturo Schwarz, beginning in 1964) have absolutely no aura at all. This is an accomplishment of great import. The remade readymades look like art because we have seen them in books and online, but the feelings and thoughts they evoke reach the same level you might attain at Macy’s or at an outlet mall.

Wit is not aura; in fact, aura itself is not eternal, which can be proved by looking at any masterpiece that has endured the eyes of multifarious spectators in any given temple of art. Under certain conditions, these very multitudes, by praying in front of tin saints, can coat those images with aura. But that kind of aura may fade if not continually renewed.  Wit, however, tends to endure. I am not so sure about irony.

To further celebrate the 100th anniversary of the readymade, I here republish my essay Dada Perfume: A Duchamp Interview, which first appeared in 1996 in REVIEW and was, upon the occasion of an exhibition at the Whitney, called  “Making Mischief: Dada Invades New  York.”

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John Perreault: It has been a long time since we had one of our little conversations. They always meant so much to me.

Marcel Duchamp: 1964? Bob Rauschenberg brought you by, thinking you could play chess.

JP: I can, but I hate it. Besides, I think it was Jill Johnston. I know it wasn’t Jasper, because I never really knew him and I didn’t meet John Cage until much later, actually, in the South Pacific at a kind of conference. A lot has happened since I first met you.

MD: Particularly to me.

JP: We needn’t go into that.

MD: It is kind of embarrassing. I used to say that what happened to me only happens to others.

JP: Not to belabor the point, but I remember that when I first met you, which was at the beginning of my career as an art critic, and the so-called end of my career as an artist – we might call it an occlusion — and almost the end of my career as a poet, you insisted that the true artist had no choice but to go underground. Now you are truly underground.

MD: Very amusing.

JP: Not as amusing as your last artwork, Given: 1. the waterfall. 2. the lighting gas. Very few knew about that tableau until after it appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art among your other masterpieces.

MD: My gift to the art world.

JP: Why did you keep it a secret?

MD: As we have discussed in the past, secrets have been essential to my work, which may or may not have anything to do with art.

JP: I read in Calvin Tomkins’ biography called simply Duchamp (Henry Holt, 1996) that your brother-in-law Jean Crotti once said that how you used time was your real art work.

MD: Rather, it was how I abused time.

JP: For me your main contribution has been your secretiveness. And this inspired my own Secret Artworks. I’d say that that secrets are certainly a theme in your work. I think of the 1916 Readymade called With a Hidden Noise, which is a ball of string with something inside of it that makes a noise when you shake it. What causes the noise? And the work, which I think is magnificent, is not Given itself — the barn door with peepholes and the nude and the waterfall beyond — but that it was kept a secret all the time you were working on it from 1946 to 1966 and beyond, until it was unveiled. Also, as I pointed out in print years ago, your output after the Bride Stripped Bare . . . when you were supposed to have given up art for chess has in retrospect proven not insignificant. Now when you look at the work, so much of which is at the Whitney now in Francis Naumann’s exhibition called “Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York,” it looks as if you were quite busy between chess games. The work was always there, but invisible, somewhat like Poe’s purloined letter in that famous short story: hidden but in plain sight.

MD: I always kept busy in a mental way.

JP: Was that mental activity art?

MD After a certain point I lost interest in making objects or pictures for sale. If you take away commerce and the prattle of critics, present company excepted, there is something left which may be art or something else.

JP: What is that something else? An idea? You have had an enormous influence on art that foregrounds an idea, on anti-object art, on process art, on postmodernism.

MD: No, not an idea. A rumor, a perfume.

JP: Yes. A perfume. You once said that art had a smell that only lasted 30 years. And in the interview I published in the East Village Other in 1965, I quoted you as saying that art left a scent behind, even when it was removed to another room, another state, another country.

MD: One of my many contradictory statements, so it must be true.

JP: Speaking of contradictions, does the current Whitney exhibition bring back memories? All your friends are there from the New York Dada period. The Countess, Man Ray, Beatrice Wood. Is there any art scent left in the objects, drawings, paintings, books?

MD: For me, none at all. All that work is dead. They have passed their 30 years. All the energy has been sucked out of them. I felt I was looking at work found in an Egyptian tomb.

JP: I had a different experience. You still come up as the kingpin, although most of your important work has always been on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art all of these years. On the whole, I think the show is worthwhile. You can see it and save the train fare to Philadelphia.

MD: Nicely put.

JP: I did, however, like the seven paintings by your old friend John Covert, particularly the one of an apple and an apple cut in half. And the little collection of things by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. It made me go and look up some of her poems.

MD: She was an inspiration to us all. She had absolutely no fear. Her costumes were her art. And I enjoyed the way she hunted down and tortured poor William Carlos Williams, who had somehow become the object of her lust. Hadn’t you seen her or Covert’s art before?

JP: Not that I can remember.

MD: There. That explains why they were still alive to you. They have not been seen as much as my works. They have not been drained of their energy by the public. That explains their present-day perfume. Also I am sure you have guessed by now that the art perfume is sometimes mostly in the nose of the sniffer.

JP: True. I also liked the mock-up of the Walter Arensberg apartment, where so many salons were held, having never been there myself.

MD: I found it suffocating. But business is business. Let the legend linger.

JP: Can I dare to urge you to be even more personal?

MD: I hate being personal, but since I have long admired what the awful Hilton Kramer in the N.Y. Times called your avuncular, haphazard approach to art criticism, I will do my best.

JP: This is a dangerous question. Why did you marry Lydie Sarazin-Levassor? I have been reading about that in Calvin Tomkins’ biography of you. I can understand your relationship with Mary Reynolds, and then your marriage to Teeny, but Lydia, whom you married in 1927, seemed totally unsuitable. She was uninterested in art and not even very rich.

MD: Although it would have been pleasant if she had been as rich as I first thought, I married her because she was indifferent to art. I now claim the marriage as an artwork, a Happening, a Performance, very much ahead of its time. After all, my masterpiece is called The Bride Stripped Bare by Bachelors, Even. My first marriage extended that theme.

JP: My next, quite personal question is also about money. We know you kept your expenses to a minimum. But isn’t it true that you became a private art dealer?

MD: There were all these Brancusi sculptures floating around and this and that. One has to make a living. But also remember that for a long time I made some spending money by giving French lessons.

JP: And the Whitney exhibition? Is it true to the period?

MD: It is not for me to judge. For me, it is a collection of ghosts; cadavers on a slab; dead meat.

JP: Is there Dada now?

MD: The Dada we tried to create has not yet come into existence, probably cannot come into existence. This exhibition is not Dada; Tomkins’ book is definitely not Dada. It might have been better to have added another floor showing fresh art, art with some surprise in it.

JP: The show is educational. It tries to capture a really wild period in American art. I am not sure that Naumann’s theory that New York Dada, as opposed to European Dada, is humorous rather than witty. Tomkins points out that the French word you used, usually translated as “mind,” in your famous statement that you wanted to put painting in the service of the mind, also means spirit, soul, vitality, character and wit.

MD: He’s right.

JP: The exhibition inadvertently confirms your role as a catalyst. But beyond the time frame of the exhibition, it is now a commonplace that without you, and without Dada, there would be not Pop, Conceptual Art and postmodern art.

MD: I take no responsibility.

JP: Have you seen any new art that you like?

MD: I don’t get around much any more.

JP: May I recommend an exhibition?

MD: Certainly. I am always interested in what other artists are doing, particularly when they are following up on my ideas.

JP: Just yesterday, when I was opening my mail, there was a large-format newsprint poster picturing what I thought was your Fountain, the urinal you signed as a readymade in 1917. The poster said Saint Duchamp and gave the address, which happened to be quite near where I live. How odd, I thought.

MD: And?

JP: It’s a brightly lit store front painted stark white, and directly in the window is a rack of novena candles, lit, and to the left a kind of kneeling device from a church with your Mona Lisa above it. Further inside: Nude Descending a Staircase, Fountain, Bottle-Rack, an unfinished Tu m’ and the two-way door from Paris. At the rear, a door is open revealing a toilet with the lid up. The gallery was locked.

Fortunately, I saw light pouring out of the open cellar door — it was early evening — and walked down the stairs. Inside were a man and three women sitting around, the walls covered with drawings of Fountain. I was recognized, and they offered to take off their clothes, because of the painting Alice Neel did of me nude. I said that wouldn’t be necessary. The man remembered that I once had a studio in P.S. 122, which is untrue. But then again, I recently discovered that there is a young poet in New Jersey using my name, or pretty close, so perhaps he was the one who had the studio.

MD: Don’t tell me. The man in the cellar was the notorious Mike Bidlo, who has made Jackson Pollock paintings and copied everything exactly. Even Andy Warhol.

JP: His best show yet. His name isn’t even on the announcement. At the risk of adding inspiration to injury, I would like to add that eight of the 16 objects by you in the Whitney are replicas, reproductions, reconstructions or latter-day editions. Bidlo’s Duchamps might be seen as replicas of replicas.

MD: Well, I always said that a readymade had to consist of something of no aesthetic value, and that is certainly true of my readymades. I think that Bidlo fellow is on to something… .

JP: Are you still making art yourself?

MD: It is one of my bad habits. I am sure there will be more posthumous artworks surfacing.

JP: Finally, since the Whitney show focuses on New York Dada, what did New York mean to you and your artist friends?

MD: Freedom.

JP: What did Dada mean?

MD: Freedom.

John Perreault is on Facebook, specializing in neo-modern, small-scale  residential architecture. Links here for John Perreault’s website & John Perreault’s art.

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