2008 art history writing: Dada's Daddy: Marcel Duchamp's Legacy

In April of 1952, Winthrop Sargeant published an article in Life Magazine entitled, “Dada's Daddy, A New Tribute to Duchamp, Pioneer of Nonsense and Nihilism,” an interview that, by its title, credited the genius of the Dada art movement to Marcel Duchamp.1 This wording alone suggests that by the 1950’s, Duchamp’s legacy as the most highly-regarded Dadaist was well cemented; a modern textbook, Gardner’s Art Through The Ages, identifies him as “perhaps the most influential of all the Dadaists.” However, Duchamp’s prominence as the most influential Dadaist was no mistake, nor was it based solely on the virtue of his artwork or strong historical record; Duchamp had an active hand in his own rediscovery and newfound prominence in the revival of the Dada movement. Marcel Duchamp is the most influential of the Dada artists because of his own involvement with the media, with gallery owners, and with prominent artists of the 1950s. This is not to say that his legacy is not well-deserved or that his artwork is inferior to that of other Dada artists, but that his influence is one of his own making, a legacy that he had intentional hand in. His massive influence is the result of having known the right people to secure a legacy.

In 1951, a year previous to the Life Magazine article, Robert Motherwell published a book entitled, “The Dada Painters and Poets,” a survey of the Dada movement, an anthology composed of numerous Dada writings, retrospective assessments as well as manifestos from the height of the movement. A number of the writings in this book are Duchamp’s own, and Duchamp “in fact helped Motherwell selecting and organizing material for the collection,” as he was one of the sources available to him in New York who had witnessed the original Dada movement.2 “He examined proofs of the book as it progressed, made suggestions for the inclusion of pieces,” and played an incredibly important role in what remains a very important literary work defining the Dada movement.3 This is not to suggest that Duchamp’s writings have no place in such a book, but only to highlight his role in their inclusion. It is no accident of history that Marcel Duchamp has become synonymous with Dada- his cooperation with Motherwell guaranteed for himself influence for the future. Providing his works for such a thorough historical record provided them with prominence and weight, with historical importance, and were certainly important in building his legacy.

Not long before the Life Magazine article was published, his work also figured prominently into a number of art shows, most notably the showings of the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection in Chicago, and the Sidney Janis collection in New York. Again, Duchamp had an active hand in the arrangements that landed him an “unprecedented total of thirty of his works were shown” in the Chicago showing, and “thirteen of the twenty-seven New York Dada items listed in the catalogue were by Duchamp” in the New York showing.4 His involvement and prominent placement in both shows may have been because he and the curators in both cases were close friends; he had stayed at the Arensberg home in New York upon first arriving in the city, and had known Sidney Janis for a “number of years,” having personally authorized Janis with creating a pair of replicas of his Fountain.5 This is another instance of Duchamp’s direct involvement with his repositioning into the center of the Dada movement during its revival in New York in the 1950s. The ability to not only attend his own retrospective exhibitions, but to assist in designing them, provided him his opportunity to include Fountain where he thought it should be. This time, no exhibition committee would reject it, unlike when the original was rejected from a group show in 1917.6 The replicas of Fountain included by these retrospective shows are of critical importance to his repositioning; they allow him to correct historical record, to include Readymades in Dada when the other Dadaists had rejected them.

The final factor that secures Duchamp’s legacy is his close friendships with the artists of the Fluxus movement, particularly John Cage, “who saw in Duchamp a Zen master, a great liberator from any traditional concept of art, who creatively opened the way to new possibilities.”7 While there is nothing manipulative about these friendships, it is these artists who learned most heavily from Duchamp, who studied heavily from him. Cage served as an “intermediary” between Marcel Duchamp and the “[younger] generation of artists after the Second World War,” as he had begun their acquaintance in 1942.8 The influence that Duchamp had on the next generation of modern artists, on the Fluxus movement that had so many similarities to the Dada movement, was a much more personal influence than that the Fluxus artists were reading his writings in Motherwell’s book. Duchamp secured his legacy with his friendship of the younger generation.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Your browser may not support display of this image. Contemporary artist Robert Smithson goes as far as to say, “I think there is a very false view of art history, an attempt to set up a lineage,” about Duchamp’s later positioning of himself into prominence.9 This seems overwhelmingly harsh. Marcel Duchamp’s work is remarkable, his readymade sculptures may have been only ahead of their time, not ready to be recognized as art until they were rediscovered in the early 1950s. He is eloquent about his own work, and deserves a chance to leave his opinions on it, as artists have before there was a legacy of art history to be considered. Leonardo DaVinci, another artist before his time, would not be recognized as nearly the genius he was if not for his attempts to seek patronage, or his incredibly thorough journals. Much of art history is about established legacy and, while his is transparent, he can hardly be considered the only artist to have ensured his own fame. And if intentional changes to the history of art were his aim, then he not only succeeded, but his success is in the spirit of the Dada movement; his only reaction to a movement that made no sense, one that was interested in artistic exploration and yet rejected his works, was to go back later and get the last say about what was and wasn’t art. In this, Marcel Duchamp may really have been the best Dadaist, and not only the most influential, as he was the very last of the fathers of Dada to practice his art, and continued it to the end.

Roth, Moira, Jonathan D. Katz, and Saul Ostrow. Difference / Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. Routledge, 1998.

Martens, Klaus. Pioneering North America: Mediators of European Culture and Literature. Königshausen & Neumann, 2000.

Craft, Catherine. New York Dada? Looking Back After a Second World War. The Museum of Modern Art, 2006.

Kuenzli, Rudolf, Francis M. Naumann. Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century. MIT Press, 1989.

Kleiner, Fred S., Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages. Wadsworth/Tomson Learning, 2005.

National Gallery of Art, "NGA - DADA." NGA-DADA. 30 11 2008. National Gallery of Art, Washington. 1 Dec 2008 http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2006/dada/cities/index.shtm

Elisofon, Eliot, Gordon Parks. Marcel Duchamp Painter, and Artist Marcel Duchamp walking down a flight of stairs in a multiple exposure image reminiscent of his famous painting "Nude Descending a Staircase". 1952. LIFE photo archive hosted by Google.