(Henri-Robert-) Marcel Duchamp was born in 1887 in Blainville-Crevon, Normandy, the third of six children. Early on, his interest in art was awakened in a family where the grandfather was a painter and engraver, and the siblings too devoted themselves to art. Before long the eldest brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, became a successful cubist sculptor. In 1904 Marcel Duchamp passed his baccalauréat at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen and followed his brothers to Montmartre. Enrolling at the private Académie Julian in Paris, where his studies were interrupted by a one-year military service, Duchamp initially came to know Impressionist painting. Soon he met Juan Gris, with whom he tried to make a living with magazine illustrations, an endeavor that remained without success. Still, Duchamp’s life in Paris provided insights into the various developments going on in the metropole of art. He created first paintings, drawing on Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Fauvism, or Symbolism. As Duchamp stated retrospectively, they were first artistic »swimming exercises.« In 1909 he had an exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. However, his work did not attract much attention.
Especially Redon and Cézanne remained important points of reference (Portrait of the Artist»s Father, 1910), until in 1911 Duchamp finally turned towards Cubism (Portrait de Joueurs d«Echecs, 1911). He became friends with Guillaume Apollinaire and Francis Picabia and joined the »Section d’Or,« an artist group that was closely affiliated with Cubism. Other members of the group were Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, and Duchamp’s brother, Jacques Villon.
Duchamp’s travels brought about a further reorientation: After a one-year stay in Munich, his following journey to England resulted in first sketches for La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même and Large Glass (1915 — 1923). Moreover, Duchamp’s participation in the 1913 »Armory Show« in New York, where he showed hisNude Descending a Staircase, suggested an increasingly theoretical as well as a conceptual focus. The painting Nude Descending a Staircase had been rejected by the Salon des Indépendants and caused fierce debates in New York. It was inspired by Muybridge’s chronophotography. Duchamp’s work with movement in the static picture, his perception of the visual qualities of objects, as well as his increasing interest in a self-reflexive, ordering, theoretical position vis à vis his own work, attest to a radical questioning of art concepts of the time. Duchamp also turned his attention to questions of contextualization and ascription of meaning to art via exhibitions, museums, and publications. Unchanged everyday items, e. g. the Bicycle Wheel from 1913 or the industrially produced iron Bottle Dryer acquired in 1914 in Paris were detached from their original function and elevated to the status of art through the signature of the artist. To Duchamp these first Ready-mades were signs of a new, conceptual anti-art, liberated from the art canon.
In 1916 Duchamp was involved in the founding of the »Society of Independent Artists,« again indicating a new artistic orientation. This shift also manifested itself in the enormously varied spectrum of mediums the artist used. In the context of the annual exhibition of the group in 1917, Duchamp’s work Fountain, which he had submitted under the pseudonym »Richard Mutt,« caused vehement discussions about the limits of art: The exhibition of the urinal from a New York plumbing store that had mutated into a »fountain« through its upright positioning, was foiled by the jury. Duchamp himself had been a member of the jury. The urinal itself was lost. The process of decision-making and the subsequent publication of the work in a journal became prime examples of boundary drawing in the art business, even within the circle of artists that had declared themselves to be independent. At the same time it demonstrated a different way of addressing the viewer, a way geared towards critical questioning. Finally, it also showed the new possibilities of artistic use of mediums. Duchamp’s dealing with the icons of art, e. g. his provocative painting of a moustache on a reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (1919) and his phonetic re-spelling of the title as L.H.O.O.Q. (»elle a chaud au cul«), all testified to an art perception that shook the foundations of established art concepts.
Back in Paris, where Duchamp was hardly known, he founded the »Société Anonyme,« together with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray. Yet he still remained open to Surrealist influences, also due to his contact with André Breton. For his conceptual notion of art, both movements remained basic points of orientation. Duchamp’s fully turning away from painting in 1923, a logical move, led to a further concentration on the object world of the everyday. With the Ready-made he staged this world beyond the constraints of social purposes and meanings in ways that were path-breaking for 20th-century art. Moreover, Duchamp’s optical experiments and inventions (Rotative plaques de verre / Rotary Glass Plates, 1920/1960) and his Rotoreliefs that mechanically evoked optical illusions and virtual volumes, resulted from the intense study of objects and their visual qualities.
Duchamp’s conceptual art term becomes especially obvious in the emergence of his work, in its history. Despite its belated reception, it proved to be of central importance for the entire spectrum of approaches to art in the 20th century. On the basis of his unfinished work The Large Glass, followed by the publication of TheGreen Box and the edition Rotoreliefs (1935), Duchamp had developed The Box in a Suitcase by 1941. With this work, published in different editions, sometimes also under the name of his female Alter Ego »Rrose Sélavy« and in luxury editions, he elaborated on his works done since 1910. Laid out like an archive and in miniaturized form, the artist drew on the techniques of reproduction, consciously distancing the work from art’s dogma of singularity. The model of recording his work in the specific folding system of the Box – an act of retrospective structuring – as well as the medium of the Box itself as one that is geared towards circulation, document Duchamp’s foundational reflections on a spectrum of issues: on the question of creating an archive, on the contextualization and museum presentation of one’s own works, but also on art in general. With this, the artist who until this point had seldom approached the public with new works and had primarily been recognized in the U.S., developed a new, groundbreaking, artistic concept of musealization. It addressed notions of transportability, reproduction, and dissemination that became a decisive starting point for many artists of the later 20th century, especially in the context of Pop Art, Fluxus, and Happenings.
After an early phase of taking part in exhibitions, especially in Paris, Duchamp became involved in organizing exhibitions, primarily in the area of Dada and surrealist art. In 1936 he participated in the »International Surrealist Exhibition« in London and was also part of the New York exhibition »Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.« In 1942 Duchamp, together with André Breton and Sidney Janis, initiated the exhibition »First Papers of Surrealism.« Only in 1963 did the Pasadena Art Museum dedicate a first retrospective to his work. After that the belated reception of Duchamp continued with numerous international exhibitions, one of them being a comprehensive show in 1993 at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. In 2002 the Museum Jean Tinguely in Basel dedicated a large exhibition to his work, curated by Harald Szeemann.
Marcel Duchamp died on October 2, 1968, in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Marcel Duchamp: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Jean Tinguely, Ostfildern-Ruit 2002
Mann, H.-H.: Marcel Duchamp 1917. München 1999
Tomkins, C.: Marcel Duchamp. Eine Biographie. München 1999
Daniels, D.: Duchamp und die anderen. Der Modellfall einer künstlerischen Wirkungsgeschichte in der Moderne, Köln 1992
Paz, Octavio: Nackte Erscheinung. Das Werk von Marcel Duchamp. Frankfurt/M. 1991
Molderings, H.: Marcel Duchamp. Frankfurt/M. 1987
Marcel Duchamp: Die Schriften, hg. v. S. Staufer, Zürich 1981
Schwarz, Arturo: The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. London 1969