Marcel Duchamp (81) Interview with Joan Bakewell (35)
Late Night Line-Up
15 June 1968
JB: Marcel Duchamp, at the age of 15 you were painting pictures that looked very like the impressionists
MD They were
JB: Within a few years of that you challenged the whole of the artistic values that then existed. What did you so dislike about them that made you launch that attack ?
MD: well, when you are 15 and ah, paint like the impressionists, you’re experimenting with yourself, because you don’t know what you’re going to do, even that you are going to do anything else. It took me 10 years, or a little more, to change the style or at least to say well there’s nothing more in Impressionists to find, and I tried to find something else. I first went through fauvism, I went through Cubism, and then only in 1912 – 13 that I found, more or less, what I wanted to do, which would not be influenced by movements that I’d been through, you see.
JB: You attacked what you called “retinal painting” can you define it ?
MD: Yes, of course, everything since Courbet has been retinal, that is, the only . . . You look at a painting for what you see, what comes on your retina, you see, you add nothing intellectual about it, nothing else than what the visual . . . is on . . I mean, the visual side of the painting, because it would be, would have been anathema to say well this is ah, psychoanalytical analysis of ah, of painting an was absolutely an anathema then, you see, you should look, and register with your eyes would see. That’s why I would call them “retinal” Since Courbet all the Impressionists were retinal. All the Fauvists were retinal, the Cubists were retinal and even the ah, the Surrealists did change a bit of that, and Dada also, by saying why should we be only interested in the visual part, side, of a painting. There might be something else to put . .
JB: Even while you were working in the Cubist style, you nonetheless managed to produce a cubist painting, the “Nude descending a staircase” which shocked the cubists
JB: Why did it shock them so much ?
MD: Because they had, already even very soon in their production they decided to write a book, at least Metzinger and Gleizes wrote a book on Cubism, sort of theoretical expose of what Cubism should be. See ? So very early, a year or so after they had started painting. So, when I came with my Nude descending a staircase” they didn’t see that it applied to their theory, or was not an illustration of their theory, and in fact it had more than Cubism had, there is the idea of movement which the futurists had at the same time. So they thought it was too much either neither one nor Futurism nor Cubism and they condemned it
JB: throughout your life you really kept separate from groups, did you at that particular time enter into a debate with the cubists
MD: hardly any,no, no I was always in the margin of it
JB: you in fact been associated with dada and with surrealism
JB: But nonetheless seldom been a key figure in the group activities
MD: Never was, at least I tried to be away from it, keep away from, from the group expression, the group activity of it
MD: I don’t know it’s a form of individualism if nothing else
JB: did you not enjoy it ?
MD: No, I never enjoyed being part of a group I’ve always wanted to make something of a personal contribution to it, which is , can only be done if you think by yourself and not follow the general rules of the group, you see.
JB: when you arrived in New York, this Cubist painting we’ve spoken of had been - arrived before you and was already a great scandalous success
JB: Um, so your reception was obviously coloured by your work. Did you enjoy that ?
MD: Yes it was very nice to cough to come to a new country and be be be accepted and received in very nice terms you see. That was probably what made me like America. To begin with. It’s always like that with an individual, you see, if you are flattered you just fall in
JB: Ha ha and you’ve enjoyed it ever since
JB: Now, perhaps the most famous work of yours is the work the great glass on which you spent 8 years, and some years prior to that thinking about it
JB: Now, this was really bringing an intellectual approach into a work of art which no one had seen for many years
JB: There is in fact a published text that was published sometime after the glass was, not finished, but was abandoned. Do you wish the great glass to be appreciated with the text to inform it ?
MD: Yes, Exactly, that’s where, where the difficulty comes in because you cannot ask a public to look at something with a book in his hand and following sort of a diagram explanation diagrammatical explanation of what he can see on the glass. So, it’s a little difficult for the public to come in to understand it to accept it but I don’t mind that or I don’t care because I did it with a great pleasure. It took me 8 years to do part of it at least and the writing and so forth, and ah it was for me an expression really that had not taken from anywhere else see from anybody or any movement or anything and that’s why I like it very much. But don’t forget it never had any success until lately, much very, very much lately .
JB: Well, you worked on it for 8 years and enjoyed it very much, why did you stop working on it ? Because it’s not completed is it ?
MD: well you see after 8 years of a very tedious form of work because you make first a sketch then you transfer the sketch on the big glass, its more almost a mechanical it was than what you call a splash you know the splash of, the brushing or something of a painter. There was nothing of this satisfaction, you see, physical satisfaction of painting, and looking at it and finishing it in 10 minutes, or something like that. It was the opposite of it. All long. So, after 8 years of it, you just say enough, enough that’s enough and sometimes there’s something in abandoning a work before the finishing. Because the finishing sometimes, you know the Shubert . . . .
JB: It is enormously meticulous as a piece of worked out calculation. That it’s a combination of chance elements carefully organised with mathematical calculation. So that in fact you did make it more tedious for yourself
JB: That in plotting several of the points on the glass
MD: Yes it was, full of ah
JB: Why did you make it um make it so difficult ?
MD: Well because I didn’t want to make it easy. In other words, why, why shouldn’t one use my pleasure call it masochism if you wish, but it was like this you see . .
JB: in fact the plotting of the nine moulds, how long did that take to decide where they would be placed?
MD: well in fact in first place I made eight only, and then I had a remorse of some kind because the whole thing was more or less based on the number three, not uh, not uh, clairvoyantly, you see what I mean ? Number three as three for me is neither unity neither dualism, but three is everything. The end of the numer, numbering you see ? With three, with three units you have enough for the whole thing of counting things see, millions don’t count, three make it, does it. So eight was not eight , cannot be divided by three, nine can, so I made it nine, I added one of the moule mallics I called the ah stationmaster the last one I think the added to the eight to make nine . So there you are
JB: And, and how did you place them on the glass ?
MD: well according to the perspective, because it, the whole glass based on usual ordinary perspective, nothing very curious or difficult. So in order to keep this thing a certain width the glass itself you see. When you paint on it, and have the perspective help you reduce by the distance so that I could put my nine moule malics in, in a certain area, and they would be seen, not outside of the glass because you see I had to keep inside of the glass, after all. so that helped me find a place for each one.
JB: You, you said that the ideas in the glass are more important than its visualisation
JB: are these ideas a personal pleasure to you only or are they ideas you wish to communicate
MD: well they are, they are communicated by the fact that they are there . . and especially with the notes in the green box they are all there explained I mean there was no ideas like the chance ideas things of the holes bullet holes you see bullet holes done by a little cannon with a match in it and a little paint at the end of the match and like a baby playing you see
JB: and you shot the cannon
MD: nine shots you see and they marked on the glass where it should be and then after that I had the points bored you see as a hole to keep it more more ah visible
JB: You, you abandoned the glass, you never embarked on anything exactly like that again . . .
MD: No, no never, it’s too long an idea, too long an affair you see, too difficult because I told you also you cannot ah ah ah make yourself anew you see. You are one thing around 20 years of age 30 years of age, after that you cannot invent any kind of more, very seldom you do . it’s not true of painter, painter that paint on canvas they can repeat repeat repeat and repetition is good because you know why because the collectors can collect if they – even if it’s a repetition of a Renoir it’s a Renoir and it has a great value so it goes into the market and tales it’s place
JB: the glass was broken in transit to an exhibition in 1926. How did you feel when it was broken?
MD: Nothing, not much. At least I was oof no I was not, because I’m fatalist enough to take anything as it comes along. And fortunately, a little later when I look at the breaks, I love the breaks it happened to be that two panes two glass panes on top of one another with paints on it holding a bit when they break on the vibration of being transported flat you see on a, on a truck, the breaks take a similar direction in the two panes, so when you put them on top of one another, they seem to continue the same breaks as though I had done it, done it on purpose.
JB: Now chance in art was something Dada set to ah really exploit, to use. In this is an example of chance that you welcome in the glass itself
MD: oh yes that was a that was yes exactly without even thinking about it, it came of itself
JB: what do you think now, the element of chance in a work of art is, having tried to control and devise chance to serve your ends. Do you think it something subconsciously that the artist projects into the work.
MD: Yes, because chance maybe unknown to us in other words we don’t know the results of chance because we haven’t got enough brains for that , you see I mean the divine brain for example could perfectly say there is no chance, I know what’s going to happen, you see we don’t know because we’re ignorant enough to detect what chance is going to bring. So it’s a kind of adoration for chance or consideration of chance as almost a religious element so its very interesting to have introduce to put it at the service of art productions
JB: Chance must have played then some part then in some of your other most renowned achievement which is the readymades which you um began about the same time one work was taking eight years and at the same time you designated certain objects as readymades. Now what sort of effort went into the choice of the object you designated ?
MD: that’s another story completely . . . In that case, my idea was to find, to dis but to decide a choose an object that wouldn’t attract me by it’s beauty or its ugliness, to find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see ? Course you might say I’d find any number of those, but at the same time it’s not so much because it’s hard difficult after a while when you look at something it becomes very interesting you can even like it, and the minute I liked it I would discard it. So the choice came for only a few objects, quite disparate and different from one another. Enough so that today, looking at the thirteen readymade I made in course of thirty years maybe, I’m I’m satisfied by the fact that is , they don’t look like one another, see what I mean ? in other words there is a different completely strangeness from one to the other which shows there is no style there
JB: There is no taste
MD: and no taste and no liking and no disliking either
JB: Mmm, but in fact you had, you had to live with these objects before you decided you were indifferent to them, is that right ?I mean this is the bottle dryer you chose
MD: No, really because I didn’t have them with me for long you see they were somewhere. In fact they for 20 30 years I never saw them very much. It’s only in the last 20 years that people have been interested in them and asked me questions and things about them
JB: Indeed people now, say that the objects you chose have an aesthetic value , I mean this is the bottle dryer you chose, you felt indifferent to it, do you still feel indifferent?
MD: Yes, yes I’m still, less because I have to, after twenty years or forty years of looking at it you begin to like it. I mean . . .
JB: You really like it ?
MD: Yes ! At this point I might, I might have disliked it but I happen to like it. Okay. But that that’s the fate of everything, see ? any painting or anything at all, you look at for twenty years, very often every day. You have a liking or a disliking, if you dislike you discard and throw it away. But if you like it then you bec . .that . - liking augments, goes on with the time, with time. So that’s end by liking it.
JB: So you come to know and love all the ready-mades in fact
JB: What you are also attempting to do as I understand it, was to devalue the art as an object simply by saying “if I say its a work of art that makes it a work of art
MD: yeah, but well work of art is not so important for me> I don’t care about the word art because it’s been so, you know discredited
JB: But you in fact contributed to the discrediting, didn’t you, quite deliberately
MD: so I really want to get rid of it
MD: Because in a way, many people today have done away with religion. It’s sort of, an unnecessary adoration of art today, which I find unnecessary, and I think, I don’t know, but this is a difficult position because I, I’ve been in it all the time and still want to get rid of it, you see ?
MD: It’s not, um, and I cannot explain all I, everything I do because I do things and don’t know why they do it, you know ?
JB: Um, the anti-art movement of Dada, in fact, proved to be in the interest of art, because it re-generated and, and revived and freshened people’s attitude to it
JB: Do you, in fact, anticipate your own contribution, when the final reckoning comes, will have in fact contributed to something called art
DM: I did, in spite of myself, if you wish to say, but I’m sorry, in other words, I would like to , but at the same time if I did or I had done it, I would completely been – would not have noticed or people who not said anything 100 people who have given up art and condemned it and proved to themselves that it wasn’t necessary and religions and what not and who cares for them ? Nobody
JB: Nonetheless, a lot of people who care about art because its worth money and in fact in designating certain objects and signing them with your own name you have created a highly commercial object. In fact, in 1964, a new product was actually manufactured so that you could sign it, so you could produce an edition of ready-mades with a value of something like £2000
DM: well, alright, but this is not high enough. I tell you why, because when you compare this to a painting by anybody, by the difference in price with the painting, at least of a well-known painter. Ca va. So, even so I’m in the lower bracket, that’s what I mean, and I excuse for that reason by being in the low bracket instead of the high bracket, so twenty thousand, twenty million pounds if you wish to say, when you come to Cezanne or even Picasso, so you see, that doesn’t compare with the paintings
JB: No Indeed it doesn’t. But if, if you ‘re following through your determination to devalue art, what would happen if in fact these manufactured ready-mades were mass produced and we could all buy one – two shillings. What would you . . .
DM: No, no , you would have to sign them. They are signed. They are signed and numbered.
DM: In an edition of eight each, like any sculpture. So it’s still in, um, realm of art form of technique. You just make eight, and you sign them and number them. So, so that’s the end of it. You should never have one more, even if you could find them in the shops.
JB: So that in fact so far as that side of your work is gone, that actual production and signing and selling of your work, you stayed very much within the accepted standards of the art world.
DM: Yes. In fact I had to, or where would I be ? I’d be in an insane asylum probably.
JB: Why did you limit the number of ready-mades at the time ?
DM: Because you have to limit it, and if you to make it a little more than, not too, ah, too easy to find. You have to buy one of the eight you want it and they’ll be only eight people in the world who will have this
JB: Mm, no I meant at the time when 13, you chose in the 1920’s
JB: Why did you not, over the years, go on choosing more and more
DM: Oh, because the same as I didn’t finish my glass. There’s an end to everything, in a long life like mine.
JB: Your, your choice of ready-mades has appealed enormously to the Pop art of the modern day.
DM: Mm – mm
JB: They if fact, regard them as very aesthetic pieces of sculpture. How do you feel –
DM: Unfortunately yes. But also they they use it in their way. They’re not ready-mades themselves, but they use ready made objects to into, they introduce them in their paintings or in their sculptures, you know, and it’s, um. It’s a form of communion. I mean, friendship if you want to call it.
JB: Mm. A homage really.
DM: Well, homage doesn’t mean a thing.
JB: In fact the whole of the Dada movement and the Surrealist movement there seems to have been absorbed by the world of art and today figurative elements occur much to the fore in modern painting, as though they had absorbed all the discoveries made by surrealists and were returning -. Are they returning to what in fact you call retinal art.
DM: No, they are not. I mean people like the Pops, you mean the Pops and the Ops ?
DM: Yes, the Ops are, naturally. The Ops do return to pure retinal painting, retinal art and I deplore it because I , I am against retinal, as you know. We began that half way and get into that with the retinal with the, ah, the Ops, the Optical ones. But, I’m afraid there’s so much repetition in the sensation, in the visual sensation, the retinal activity that it may, might not develop very long, or get to an end. Even if there are many, many different cases I’m not, I like the Pops much more than the Ops.
JB: In terms of the activities of the Dada group other than painting, um, the sort of happenings they devised, are in fact happening again. Thy are called happening today, do you ever see or engage in these or feel any fellow feeling towards them ?
DM: Happenings are lovely I love them Capo and it’s always amusing and the point that they have brought out so well and interesting one is they play for you a play of boredom. It has been, I’m not discovering that, but its very interesting to have used boredom as a aim, a aim to attract the public, in other word, the public comes to a happening, not to be amused, to be bored. And that’s quite an invention a contribution to ah, new ideas, isn’t it ?
JB: When you set out to, um, challenge all the established values your, your means was shock. You shocked the cubists, you shocked the public, you shocked the buying public.
JB: Do you think the public can be shocked anymore . . .
DM: No !
JB: . . . by anything it sees now.
DM: Finish. Finish That’s over. You cannot shock the public. At least with the same means. To shock the public you’d have to, I don’t know what. Even, even that thing with the Happenings, boring people, boring the public doesn’t prevent them from coming. Public, the public comes and sees anything that Kaprow does, or Oldenburg and all this people. And I’ve been there and I go every time.
JB: Do you, are you
DM: You accept boredom as an aim, see ? An intention.
JB: Do you regret that, that the loss of shock or do you think it’s sort of the artist’s fault. That, in fact the public simply always expect to be shocked
DM: No but the shock would be of a different . . . way, a different, ah, character. See, by shocking at that time, shocking alongside the old channels, so to speak. But probably the shock will come of something entirely different, as I said, but then non-art, a n a.r.t you see with that no art at all, and yet something would be produced because, after all, I think that the word from, etymologically means “to do”, not even to make, but to do, you see, and the minute you do something you are an artist, in other words, but you are not so, you don’t sell your work, but you do the action, in other words, art is, means action, activity of any kind.
DM: Everyone. But we in our society have decided to make a group be called ‘artists’ a group ‘doctors’ and so on, which is purely artificial
JB: You said, you said in the 20’s, you proclaimed art is dead, it isn’t is it ?
DM: Yes, well that’s what I meant by that, you see, I meant ah, that dead by the fact that instead of being singularised in a little box like that, so many artists in so many square feet, I . . . by the fact it would be universal. It would be a human, a human, ah factor in anyone’s life. To be an artist, but not noticed as an artist, you see what I mean ?
JB: Marcel Duchamp, Thank you very much.
DM: I’m delighted.