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NONFICTION | RICHARD EDER

Zen Master : DUCHAMP: A Biography. By Calvin Tomkins (Henry Holt: $35, 550 pp.)

November 24, 1996|RICHARD EDER

Marcel Duchamp was a computer virus in the Modernist program, a graceful saboteur of the cult of artist as hero-creator-prophet that ran from the Romantic movement up through Renoir and Manet, Van Gogh and Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso and the Abstract Expressionists.

Early in the century he painted a handful of exquisite Cubist works ("The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes," "The Bride") and a lesser Cubist piece, "Nude Descending a Staircase," that won him scandalous fame at the 1914 Armory show in New York.

It was not an angry, Paris-style scandal, though, but the sunny American kind. He gave witty interviews, the newspapers were delighted--"The Rude Descending a Staircase" was the caption of a subway rush-hour cartoon--and he was perfectly content to provide an excuse for New Yorkers to laugh at modern art. His own smile--complex and with a hint of premonitory mourning--was in the making.

For 10 years, beginning in 1912, he attended on and off--mostly off--to what is widely held to be his masterpiece: a series of shapes worked on or into two plates of glass and entitled "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even." At the same time, in whatever mode is opposite to a storm of creativity--dismantling sunniness?--he began to turn out his series of subversions.

He drew a mustache and goatee on a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa and presented it as a new work entitled "LHOOQ" (sounded in French, the letters are cheerfully obscene). Years later, he displayed another Mona Lisa postcard, this one unaltered, and called it "LHOOQ (shaved)." He signed a snow shovel and named it "In Advance of the Broken Arm"--one of a number of "ready-mades" that, he argued, became works of art by the act of signing. He proposed converting a Rembrandt canvas into an ironing board, thus turning the process around. For years he spent most of his time playing chess or working on chess problems.

If Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe and inscribed it "This Is Not a Pipe," had done a portrait of him, Duchamp would happily have agreed to call it "This Is Not an Artist." Patently, he was one. Collectors and museums have vied for his work. The bulk of it is in the Museum of Art in Philadelphia and all but reverses the joke about first prize being a week in that city and third prize, three weeks--except that it is not a great deal of work and one week ought to be enough.

Beyond that, Duchamp is a grandfather of influence. Born in 1887, he stood apart from the Cubists he grew up with (they found him frivolous though charming) and the Dadaists and Surrealists who revered him (he found them portentous though charming). The Abstract Expressionists of the next generation, both the stormy God-in-me gestural painters (Pollock, De Kooning) and the priestly not-me-but-God color-field painters (Rothko, Barnett Newman), had little in common with him. It was in the Postmodern generation of Warhol, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns that Duchamp's elusive virus propagated.

"In the years since his death in 1968," Calvin Tomkins writes, "Duchamp has come to be considered a forerunner of Conceptual art, as well as Pop art, Minimal art, Performance art, Process art, Kinetic art, Anti-form and Multimedia art, and virtually every Postmodern tendency; the great anti-retinal thinker who supposedly abandoned art for chess has turned out, in fact, to have had a more lasting and far-reaching effect on the art of our time than either Picasso or Matisse."

In calling Duchamp the most influential artist of the century, Tomkins' lucid and judicious biography does not claim that he is the greatest. Even so, the assertion raises a question. The most influential figure in the play, it could be argued, is the man who turns off the lights. Many critics, even those sympathetic to Duchamp and the Postmodernists, see the end-of-art in their divorce of art from personal statement and in the concept that "the goal of art is not the work itself but the freedom to make it." Or, perhaps, unmake it.

One of the great virtues of Tomkins' book, in fact, is that it lights up the controverted debate in the arts: Is Postmodernism a burial of the dead and a move onward or is it the assassin? Tomkins praises the wit and gaiety of the wake, has no doubt that the body was already defunct but feigns no certainty about the move onward.

He writes of Duchamp with exhilaration--the artist's work does not so much ravish the eye as make the brain fizz--but without undue panegyric. He is acid about the search for meaningful profundities on the part of those he calls "Duchampions," "hagiologists" and "critical constabulary." His book buoyantly navigates the paradoxes and contradictions of a figure who decided 80 years ago that art was dying and forged ahead in the possibly Gallic belief that the best bons mots are obtained at the deathbed.

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