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Connections: Outside of the Usual Categories

This week Vassar students enrolled in Art 105/106 are considering Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs from the Art Center’s permanent collection. In the Fall 2010 issue of Art at Vassar, Molly Nesbit, Professor of Art, wrote about the rotoreliefs and the artist’s intentions.

This past spring in Art 106, when it came time to study original works of modern art using the Art Center collection, we began by playing Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs, works that Duchamp had printed up in 1935 as part of his ongoing interest in making works that were not works of art. He had just finished making the Green Box, which contained fine printed facsimiles of his notes for the Large Glass (Vassar has a Green Box, given by Katharine Kuh (169/300). Were the rotoreliefs also something like notes, this time looking forward to something not yet known? They fell outside the usual categories, that much was sure; they were two-sided circular prints designed to be placed on a turntable, just like a record, and spun. They would, therefore, strike one immediately as soundless, but as they rotated, fanned and bore down, the designs acquired volume and objects became visible, ballooning up and out: a Chinese lantern, a soft-boiled egg, a table lamp, a Bohemian glass, a Japanese fish circling in a bowl, a hot-air balloon, hoops, corollas, a cage, a snail, a white spiral and a total eclipse.

They did not comprise a set of anything. They are meant to be seen with one eye. It is possible, because of their motion, to perceive these things in three-dimensional depth using only one eye, something not normally possible. Scientists attuned to physiological optics grew interested in the rotoreliefs but it had not been Duchamp’s intention to make a scientific object. He would also have smiled at the idea of the Art 106ers comparing his disks to the advances of Alberti six centuries before.  He himself  by then had absolutely no ambition to inscribe himself in the great tradition.  He outlined the project to Katherine Dreier, the pioneer whose great collection of modern art would go to Yale, and called it a playtoy.1  He hoped to market it. Therefore he took the rotoreliefs to the Concours Lepine, the trade fair where inventors brought their prototypes and new products, and set up a booth.  No one there saw any commercial or other possibility and  Duchamp concluded that, at least in that way, the project had flopped. When in March 1937, the magazine Orbes and the Hot-Club of France organized an exhibition and an evening of jazz at La Cachette, a Parisian jazz club,  the rotoreliefs turned patiently, it was said, in a corner, part of a good time that no one wanted to classify or leave.2

Marcel Duchamp photographed with the rotoreliefs.

Still, the rotoreliefs turned in his own mind as well and Duchamp worked privately with the directions his odd, vicious circles had suggested. They seemed to remain extremely fertile. In 1943 he told Man Ray that he was working on a technicolor film, never finished, that showed them turning (one imagines that it would have been like Anemic Cinema, the film of rotating abstract geometries alternating with turning disks of impossible, and dirty puns, made in 1926, the work from which the rotoreliefs had been derived).3 For the rest of his life, periodically, he would issue new editions of the rotoreliefs—in 1953, 1959,1963 and 1965.  Vassar owns two copies of the 1953 edition, organized for the occasion of a small exhibition at Rose Fried Gallery of his and Francis Picabia’s works.  One should not make too much of this.  Belle Krasne (Ribicoff) in her capacity as editor of Art Digest had interviewed Duchamp the year before and he had told her, “I still have a decided antipathy for estheticians.  I’m anti-artistic.  I’m anti-nothing.  I’m revolting against formulating.”4

In other words, Duchamp left the response to his viewers.  Eventually he would explain himself better in his essay on “The Creative Act,” where he would lay out the essential problem as a general matter: the real extent of the creative act, any creative act, could not be unified or known, not even by the artist.5 Duchamp believed in the existence of a gap between the intention of the artist that never was expressed and the unintentionally expressed elements in the final work. He called this gap the “art coefficient” and noted that the artist could never hope to surmount it. The work’s weight on the aesthetic scale  could only be refined from the inert materials of the work itself by the spectator, much as sugar, he said, is derived from molasses. And yet the work of art would not be, automatically, sweet at all.  It is, as the Art 106ers would tell you, sometimes a pleasure and always a responsibility. For in this order of things, the responses are never pat, never closed down, never finished. They keep turning too.

1 Letter to Katherine Dreier, March 5, 1935, in Affectionately, Marcel:  the Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis Naumann and Hector Obalk (Ghent:  Ludion, 2000), p. 197.  The most complete account of the project is to be found in Bernard Marcadé, Marcel Duchamp:  la vie à crédit (Paris:  Flammarion, 2007) for a good account of the project 1935-36, p. 331 ff.
2 Madeleine Gautier, “La Soirée du 12 Mars à La Cachette,” Hot Jazz, v. 3 (mars 1937), pp. 17-18.
3 Letter to Man Ray, July 20, 1943, Affectionately, Marcel, p. 236.
4 Belle Krasne, “A Marcel Duchamp Profile,” Art Digest, v. 26 (January 15, 1952), p. 24.
5 “The Creative Act” was first given at a session of the Convention of the American Federation of Arts, in Houston, April 1957. The text first appeared in Art News, v. 56 (summer 1957), pp. 28-29 and has been reprinted in Salt Seller:  the writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York:  Oxford, l973), pp. 138-140.

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