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Amelia Jones on Marcel Duchamp

On November 29, 1994, art historian Amelia Jones gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center entitled, “The Duchampian Phallus.” Jones introduced her book, Postmodernism and the Engendering of Marcel Duchamp. Her critique of the “fetishization” of Marcel Duchamp offered an alternative view to the masculine-oriented sensibilities that pervaded modern art. The talk was presented […]

On November 29, 1994, art historian Amelia Jones gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center entitled, “The Duchampian Phallus.” Jones introduced her book, Postmodernism and the Engendering of Marcel Duchamp. Her critique of the “fetishization” of Marcel Duchamp offered an alternative view to the masculine-oriented sensibilities that pervaded modern art. The talk was presented in conjunction with the Walker’s exhibition Duchamp’s Leg. Below is an excerpt from the transcript, published today in recognition of the 125th anniversary of Duchamp’s birth.

Amelia Jones
The Duchampian Phallus

I’ve written a book entitled Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp. This book attempts to make a critical intervention into dominant histories and theories of postmodernism and the visual arts. My book focuses almost exclusively on discursive constructions of Duchamp within United States texts about post-1960 art rather than on the work of artists who may have been influenced, jolted, inspired, pissed off, or tantalized by the work and persona of Marcel Duchamp.

I’d like to retrace very briefly here the arguments I make in the book, and then as seems appropriate for this forum address, what I see as a striking difference between constructions of Duchamp within United States art history and criticism and artists’ uses and abuses of Duchamp. In my book I point out that since the late 1960s a dominant and accepted account of postmodernism has developed, one that defines postmodernism as radically overthrowing modernism’s masculinist investment in genius and hierarchies of quality, and yet one that consistently invokes Marcel Duchamp, the French-turned-American Dadaist as the father of this postmodernism, in this way assigning him the phallus of postmodern authority. The central argument of my book is that this construction is self-contradictory and that it explicitly defines a male modernist as the paternal origin for a supposedly anti-modernist, anti-masculinist postmodernism.

I also argue that this construction closes down the highly charged eroticism that I feel Duchamp’s work so dramatically encourages in the interpretive exchange. It does this by ignoring the sexual aspects of his work and focusing exclusively on the institutional critique put into play by his readymades, and these of course are the mass-produced objects he selected from the world of things in the nineteen-tens and signed as art objects, so that the readymades are identified as indicative of his dislocation of modernism. I spend the first third of the book tracing the obsessive critical invocation of Duchamp as originary postmodernist, but the bulk of my text is more playful, attempting to reopen the circuits of desire closed down by the vast majority of Anglo-American art critical and historical texts referencing Duchamp.

To this end, I re-read Duchamp’s readymades as his performative self-display as a woman in the Rrose Sélavy photographs taken by Man Ray. And his final masterpiece, Étant Donnés, or Given: The Waterfall, The Illuminating Gas. And I’m not going to go into a detailed discussion of this piece here but I have a whole chapter in the book on the piece. These re-readings are explicitly feminist attempts to re-eroticize the interpretive field surrounding Duchamp and his works.

Man Ray. Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy (1920-21). Gelatin silver print. Image and sheet: 8 1/2 x 6 13/16 inches (21.6 x 17.3 cm) Mount: 9 x 7 3/16 inches (22.9 x 18.3 cm). Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

So why Duchamp as origin? Very briefly let me trace here the various historical reasons that might account for the fetishization of Duchamp in United States art discourses about postmodernism. American art practice and criticism in the 1940s and 50s are now seen to be epitomized by the figures of Jackson Pollock, the heroic genius of modernist painting’s last gasp, and Clement Greenberg, that now-infamous avatar of the transcendent abstract formalism linked with Pollock and his New York School colleagues. By the mid-1950s with the inspiration of counter-cultural anti-genius geniuses such as Merce Cunningham, the dancer, and John Cage, musician-poet-artist and friend of Duchamp, a younger generation of artists began to search for alternative avenues of expression in their work and self-presentational strategies. That is, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg who had worked with Cage at the Black Mountain School in North Carolina in the early 1950s; Jasper Johns and Allan Kaprow, linked to Duchamp through Cage’s classes at the New York New School, these artists began to produce non-formalist and specifically ironic or self-critical paintings, objects, and performances, some of which explicitly reference Duchamp, such as Jasper Johns’ According to What? of 1964, literally paraphrasing Duchamp’s 1959 Self-Portrait in Profile. So this is an example of the direct reference of Duchamp’s work.

Robert Rauschenberg. “Trophy II (For Teeny and Marcel Duchamp). 1960. oil, charcoal, paper, fabric, metal on canvas, drinking glass, metal chain, spoon, necktie. overall installed 90 x 118 x 5 inches. Photo: Walker Art Center

In this way these artists definitively distance themselves from the pretentious aesthetics and masculinist authorial politics of the Pollock – Greenberg tradition of high modernism. Johns in particular began collecting works by Duchamp during the 1950s, and both Johns and Rauschenberg, along with any number of other younger artists, had access to Duchamp’s works in bulk at the newly-acquired Arensberg collection in Philadelphia which was opened to the public in 1954; through the first monograph published on Duchamp by Robert Lebel in 1959; and through the widely attended retrospective of Duchamp’s works at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1963.

As an Americanized-to-exotic French artist whose roots extended into the racy and countercultural Dadaist period of French modernism, and whose dandified persona struck chords of great desire among art writers in this country, Duchamp was a perfect idol, mentor, inspiration for the younger generations of artists and desirists, whether consciously or not, opposing themselves beyond the histrionic genius identification and austere self-important aesthetics of Greenbergian modernism. Duchamp’s seeming ambiguity, his eroticism, which while rarely overtly acknowledged by United States critics and historians until recently, has clearly contributed to his seductive appeal and his unfixability [which] paradoxically became precisely those characteristics that encouraged these critics and historians to try their best to fix him in the genealogical firmament of contemporary American art.

Why the readymades? Why is it that the readymades became such a central part of this construction? Why, given the multiplicity of the Duchampian figure and [inaudible], have these discourses tended to reduce Duchamp to the function of the readymades? I tackled this question at some length in my book. Here I will just note briefly that borrowing from modern European cultural theory, influenced by Marxian and more specifically Frankfurt school theory, in the 1970s and 1980s the critical value system became dominant in the United States, one that privileged the readymades as originary gestures in the dislocation of the market politics of modernism. That is, as Frankfurt-school-influenced writer Peter Burger wrote in his Theory of the Avant Garde of 1974, the ready-made is a paradigmatic gesture of radically avant garde practice.

And, this is Peter Burger’s quote: “Duchamp’s provocation through the readymades not only unmasked the art market where the signature means more than the quality of the work. It radically questions the very principle of art and bourgeois society, according to which the individual is considered the creator of a work of art. By inserting the mass-produced into the art context, a gesture legitimated to the signature of the author, Duchamp negates the category of individual creation, undermining the bourgeois conception of genius.”

Now of course you should be noting a slight paradox here since Duchamp is then celebrated as a genius. In this way the readymades have come to function as iconic statements of avant garde resistance to the usually hidden market structures that give aesthetic value to, and take economic value from, high art. At the same time they have obviously been fully incorporated into structure, just as Duchamp who was celebrated as the radical critic of artistic genius, has come to be seen as the quintessential genius origin of postmodernism. I would hardly deny this conception of the readymade. This isn’t a question after all of the true meaning of Duchamp but rather an examination of how and why his meanings are constructed as they are. What interests me about this fixation on the readymades, however, is the myopia it entails, both in terms of the meanings of Duchamp’s works, among which I would include his persona as a performance of himself as author, and in terms of the history of contemporary art in general, with Duchamp simplistically reduced to the readymade, a gesture that hardly challenges the modernism implicit in art history. The discipline can continue to believe in and enforce its self-satisfied, ostensibly disinterested, and de-eroticized narratives of modern and postmodern art.

It is only through recognizing the eroticism of interpretation and eroticism again that I believe Duchamp’s works exacerbate, that its conservatism can be challenged. If my book makes any impact at all I hope it serves to emphasize the need to complicate our own assumptions as viewers and interpreters as well as makers of contemporary art about the ways in which those works are placed historically and given meaning. It behooves us if we are to privilege the postmodern as that which subverts or challenges modernism’s solipsistic self-importance, closed value systems, and investments in centered authorial genius. It behooves us to question our own investments – erotic, intellectual, and otherwise – in determining particular meanings for Duchamp’s as well as other artists’ works.

I should stress again that my argument in the book is taken against art critical and historical accounts of Duchamp’s influence in relation to United States postmodern art, not against the artists who have explored various aspects of the Duchampian project. My book in fact only discusses a few contemporary works and those are by a little-known group of French artists. As I think about Duchamp’s Leg or legacy in contemporary practice – l-e-g-s is the French word for legacy – it seems to me that artists have had far more subtle and multivalent relationships to Duchamp than art critics and historians. For the moment I’d like to look at some artistic projects that negotiate a range of issues raised by Duchamp’s art and public persona. This discussion will inevitably circle around phenomenological issues involving the body and the subjectivity of the artist, as this is my current book project which I’m writing at this moment.

Certain interesting gender-sex divides will arise in relation to these works negotiating Duchamp as well. And I think this is because Duchamp occupies a very different role for women feminist artists attempting to critique the masculinism of art discourse than he does for the majority of male artists who are forced to approach Duchamp’s phallus, his paternity, through a rather classic Oedipal relationship. And very briefly I think this approach marks the deeply sexual nature of our relationship to art and artists in general. It marks the impact of what I call in my book Duchamp’s seduction on our understanding of his work. As a seducer, Duchamp is the quintessential desired object but also the actively titillating subject who animates the field of discourse around his life and work.

Robert Morris, who became a prominent figure here on the avant garde art scene in the early sixties and is still an active artist, having been honored with a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, represents a seemingly clear-cut but ultimately I think complicated example of the difficulties faced by an artist attempting to negotiate what I’ve called here the Duchampian phallus. I’d like to engage just very briefly with a piece he has done that in my view most brilliantly negotiates the profound issues of meaning and subjectivity put into play by Duchamp, not just as author of the readymades but again as the seductive, complexly engendered author function.

This piece is called Eye Box from 1962. In this self-critical and ironic piece, Morris hides a picture of himself the male artist, self-assured but radically unveiled behind the hinged eye-shaped door of this modestly-sized box. It’s about 18 or 19 inches tall. As I argued Duchamp did with his self-presentation as Rrose Sélavy, Morris opens out and simultaneously inscribes the masculinism of the artist, parodying the modernist alignment of the male subject via the veiled but nonetheless unmistakably virile body of the male artist with the phallus of artistic authority. Presenting the artist directly unveiled, Eye Box is an aggressive refutation of the New York School’s unself-critical celebration of phallic prowess and masculine genius, as for example evidenced in the now-famous images of Pollock in action thrusting aggressively across and over his canvas.

Morris emphatically marks the way in which the male artist takes the position of the I, the centered artistic subject, who speaks the object as a work of art, as Duchamp’s signed [inaudible] did for the readymades. Morris’ smart filial relationship to Duchamp allows him to play with the phallus of artistic authorities, such that like Duchamp he can critique and get mileage out of the masculinist author-genius function at the same time. Several feminist artists have also grappled with Duchamp’s paternal influence, but to stress the point again I think their negotiation takes a different cast. Thus in 1976 in front of Duchamp’s Large Glass at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Hannah Wilke performed C’est la Vie Rrose, a feminist version of Duchamp’s notorious chess game with a naked Eve Babitz at the Pasadena Museum in 1963. And this, for those of you who know Duchamp studies, is a kind of thorn in the side of people who want to argue for his radicality in terms of gender issues. Here the identities of chess players are transformed. The author-artist in the Wilke piece is a female and it is she who is unclothed. The opponent is also female but dressed in a butch style with heavy leather jacket and closely cropped hair. A pointed comment on the overtly misogynist character of Duchamp’s image, Wilke presents the female nude as both author of and sexual object of both male and potentially butch or female desire within the piece.

Sherrie Levine has also negotiated the Duchampian function in pieces that interrogate both the readymades and more complexly the corporeal politics of The Large Glass. In Fountain: After Duchamp, 1991, she has reconstructed his infamous Fountain of 1917, a readymade urinal rotated and hung as a work of art. Levine reconstructs it in bronze, emphasizing the aesthetic exchange value of the mass-produced but now with the Duchampian reference, highly valued readymade object.

Sherrie Levine. Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.) (1991). Bronze. overall 14.5 x 14.25 x 25 inches. Image: Walker Art Center

As Levine herself has noted, The Fountain now becomes a kind of gorgeous anthropomorphic sculpture, closer in appearance to Brancusi or Arp, and yet produced by a woman artist I think it intervenes rather aggressively into this masculine genealogy of modernist form.  In Levine’s untitled The Bachelors [indaudible] from 1989, Levine has fabricated in lovely white glass the bachelor molds that are sketched on the surface of Duchamp’s Large Glass. Placed horizontally in the vitrine, the bachelor lies helpless with legs spread, referencing Duchamp’s ownÉtants Donnés. Frozen in a display case, unable to hide from the probing gaze of the gallery goer. Levine literalizes Duchamp’s metaphoric narratives of the interrelationships among sex, desire, and aesthetic values.

Of course many others have also played with the Duchampian function. While male artists from Morris to Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons have explored and expanded upon the ironicized virility of the Duchampian author function to various effects, obviously very different effects, the majority of feminist artists interested in Duchamp have approached him through the readymades, but in such a way as to intersect these objects of institutional critique with an erotic politics of subjectivity, encouraged both through Duchamp’s own work and through the feminist movement. Maureen Connor, for example, reconstructs Duchamp’s readymade bottle rack piece of 1914, anthropomorphizing the menacing rack by making it life-sized, turning the prongs inward in this case, and by embellishing it with fabric or with cast body parts such as lungs.  In another piece by Levine called Penis, a rather unsubtle title, 1989, she again turns the prongs inward and constructs an explicitly feminist reply to Duchamp by marking the phallic pretension of the ostensibly neutral rack, and yet she does so by draping it with pink lace so it’s a kind of play on the masculine-feminine. Connor, like Morris I think, approaches Duchamp through deep questions of sex and of body subjectivity. In my view it is not only through the readymade as an isolated gesture of institutional critique that Duchamp and his postmodern admirers most dramatically intervene into modernism, but through this interrogation of authorial identity and subjectivity.


Installation view of Walker exhibition, Duchamp’s Leg (November 5, 1994-March 26, 1995).

I close the book by offering an alternative theory of postmodernism in the visual arts, one that argues per the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard that postmodernism always existed within the modern, hence the postmodernism of Duchamp’s readymade gesture which took place in the teens, the heyday of the modernist avant garde. But while postmodernism always existed within the modern, it has only in the last 25 or so years begun to emerge as the dominant discourse. In this way as [inaudible] has argued in relation to Duchamp, postmodernism is a performative function. It is the speaking of itself in relation to modernism. Thus when Robert Morris spoke himself as an ironicized male authorial I in 1962, he claimed an aspect of Duchamp for postmodernism. When Levine remade Duchamp’s Fountain, she reclaimed him too for postmodernism. I am speaking him here again as a formidable but if always equivocal force informing postmodern art and art history.

The whole point of all of this really is to argue that Duchamp has become what we, having related to his works and what we know of his authorial identity, make him to be. This is his leg. I am insisting here that his greatest gift to us has been his coy seductiveness, his simultaneous challenge of the phallus of artistic authority and obvious use of it to confirm his own indispensability to the practices of contemporary art. The interpreter’s relationship to the Duchampian phallus is one that implicates her or his desires and subjectivity in the determination of the work’s meanings. Our fascination with Duchamp and desire to fix him has to do precisely with the confusion and undecidability his works put into play. I will end then with an anti-phallic statement by Duchamp, quote: “A genius is not made by the mind itself. It is made by the onlooker. The public needs a top mind and makes it. Genius is an invention of man just like God.” Thank you.
Transcribed by Yvonne Bond.

Note: Images in this text were not those included in Jones’ lecture. They are inserted here for reference.