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To Poke, to Prod, to Flip, to Fold: Unpacking the Box

Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space. Let’s start by unpacking what we […]

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung
Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman

Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space.

Let’s start by unpacking what we mean by the title Unpacking the Box. We are referring to, of course, the literal box (you’ll see that all of the objects on view take the form of a box or box-like container, whether that be a suitcase, a cabinet, or a backpack) but also the metaphorical box, meaning the museum as white cube or box. These objects throw into question the distinction between an artwork and its immediate frame, or container, and by extension, between the art object and the museum that houses it. The container is complicit, even critical to our understanding of the artwork; in fact, it is the artwork.

This type of so-called “institutional critique” has a relatively long history within the history of art. Perhaps the best place to begin would be Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), the first edition of which was created between 1935 and 1941. A suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks (rendered at precisely 33 percent of their original size), the Boîte questioned the status of the unique work of art. What did it mean for an artist to reproduce at miniature scale objects from his own oeuvre? Are these “multiples” diminished as works of art? In reproducing and disseminating his artworks, Duchamp challenged not only the unique work of art but also the authority of the institutions that displayed them. Here, one could have a portable exhibition of one’s own outside of the museum apparatus.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

The Boîte en valise has been reproduced several times, thus embodying the spirit of the facsimile. The Walker’s red Boîte is from Series F, produced in Paris in 1966 in an edition of 75. It includes several intentional changes from the first production, including 12 additional reproductions. Most recently, the publisher Walther König produced a new, posthumous facsimile, edited by Mathieu Mercier under the supervision of Association Marcel Duchamp. It uses contemporary digital printing and production technologies to allow for a larger edition at a modest price. This new edition, released in 2015, makes it possible for the Boîte to be viewed, reimagined, and even purchased outside of the museum and gallery system, honoring Duchamp’s original democratic desire.

The intentional variations between the two Boîtes is one that we tried to highlight by placing them side by side. In addition to the obvious differences in color, material, and scale, there are more subtle changes that speak to Duchamp’s playful and irreverent sense of humor. If you look at the backsides of two of the elements on view, for example, you’ll see that the 2015 Boîte presents a two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil approximation of the three-dimensional wooden armature of the earlier Boîte. In other words, the structural function of this detail has been rendered purely decorative. Moreover, the proximity between the two editions and their linear sequencing mimics an assembly line of sorts, perhaps intimating the seriality of their production.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

Across the hall from the vitrine hosting the two Boîtes is a selection of Fluxus multiples that took their inspiration, in part, from Duchamp’s transgressive gesture of shrinking his life’s work into a portable container. On display are a number of Fluxus editions that take the form of a box, suitcase, or so-called “Fluxkits.” Fluxus was a movement of international artists active in the 1960s and 1970s founded by George Maciunas. In 1964, he established ©Fluxus Editions—a collection of affordable publications and multiples. ©Fluxus Editions allowed Maciunas to bring together concepts by a network of artists around the world, facilitating an ethos of collaboration through joint publication.

Many of the objects on view were acquired by the Walker in 1989, establishing one of the most comprehensive Fluxus collections in the United States, and were subsequently displayed in the Walker’s 1993 exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss. Although similar in packaging, each multiple is distinctive in terms of idea, the items they contain, and how artists intended audience interaction. These editions were performative, acting as “scores” or instructions, for exercises of the body and mind.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

While many of these Fluxus multiples were meant to be physically unpacked, poked, prodded, flipped, and folded, they—like Duchamp’s Boîte—have become fragile over time. Fluxus multiples posited play as practice and audience participation as fundamental to the full realization of the work, but these boxes now exist behind glass in a state of suspended animation. Unpacking the Box attempts to activate these works by prompting passersby to imagine new modes of interaction. Boxes and kits are propped open, the door to a cabinet is left slightly ajar, contents spill out of a backpack in a manner of what might be called orderly chaos. We’ve started the process of unpacking and leave it to you to use your imagination to unpack, arrange, and rearrange the objects on view.

Unpacking the Box is on view until February 19, 2017.

This Week in History: Merce Cunningham’s Les Noces

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s […]

Merce Cunningham and Brandeis University Dancers in Les Noces, June 12, 1952

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.

Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.”[1] Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.

This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.

Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s.[2] Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.

Les Noces, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 1923, Music Division, Library of Congress

Howard Bay, copy of sketched costumes study for Les Noces" 1952. Walker Art Center 2011.313

Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.

Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”[3]), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess.[4] Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” [5]

Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.

Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.

Footnotes:

[1] David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal  34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.

[2] Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.

[3] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

[4] Leonard Bernstein: Teachers & Teaching (accessed June 11, 2016).

[5] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, Again

"Man on a Balcony" Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, Walker Art Center, April 1966

Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, installation view with Seated Woman

The Walker now holds three large reflective works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, thanks to the recent gift from John and Sage Cowles of Man on a Balcony (1965), which is currently on view in 75 Gifts for 75 Years. The other works are Three Girls on a Balcony (1962–1964, on view in International Pop) and Seated Woman (1963). All three pieces entered the Walker’s collection separately over several decades, but they were all together years ago—during the 1996 Walker-organized one-man show Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, the artist’s first exhibition in North America.

"Man on a Balcony" Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, Walker Art Center, April 1966

Man on a Balcony as seen in the 1966 Walker exhibition Michelango Pistoletto: A Reflected World. All images courtesy Walker Archives

The young Italian artist captured the attention of Walker Director Martin Friedman in the mid-1960s. It was around the time Pistoletto began working on his reflective paintings and in March 1964, Ileana Sonnabend Gallery, Paris presented an exhibition of his new paintings. At the same time, Ettore Sottsass Jr. wrote an article on Pistolettos’s work for Domus (published in 1964, it was entitled “Pop e non Pop, a propsoito di Michelangelo Pistoletto”). The Walker assembled 30 of these new paintings for the spring of 1966.

Installation view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World," with "Seated Woman" center, Walker Art Center, April 1966

Installation view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, with Seated Woman at center

Pistoletto made the paintings from tissue paper on stainless steel. The life-size figures float in the shiny reflected surface of the steel that captures the world outside of the painting. As one looks at the paintings it produces the affect of gazing into the space with the figures. The spectator and all he sees becomes part of the canvas. Many of the paintings are seen in mundane poses like Seated Woman. Some, like Three Girls on On A Balcony and Man on a Balcony, are seen from behind and one is left to wonder what they, or you, are gazing at. The paintings are very contemplative, as Pistoletto explained, “The world that surrounds me is really the inner world. … Everything is within me just as everything within the figures I paint is an interior reality.”

"Three Girls on a Balcony" installation view from "Michelango Pistoletto: A Reflected World," April 1966

Three Girls on a Balcony in Michelango Pistoletto: A Reflected World

The Walker’s 1966 presentation also included an element of fun, as WCCO-TV’s footage demonstrates, showing Public Relations Director Peter Georgas and the news crew on a tour through the galleries.

At the close of the show in May 1966 several of Pistoletto’s works remained in Minneapolis including the three now reunited in the Walker’s collection. Although Pistoletto could not attend the Minneapolis show he was quite pleased with the result. He wrote to Martin Friedman, “I feel quite pleased to have a personal exhibition at Walker Art Center and I am specially proud of your personal interest.”

Installation view "MIchelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World," April 1966

Man on a Balcony in A Reflected World

Living with Pottery: Warren MacKenzie at 90

As the inevitable retrospective pieces on Warren MacKenzie are published as he turns 90 today, February 16, it’s important to remember that he thinks it’s foolish to consider his functional pottery works of art. At least, that’s what his artist statement declares, although he adds this caveat: “… but I do hope that they communicate […]

Warren and Alix - Everyday Art Quarterly, No. 27 (1953)

Warren and Alix MacKenzie. Photo: Everyday Art Quarterly, No. 27, 1953

As the inevitable retrospective pieces on Warren MacKenzie are published as he turns 90 today, February 16, it’s important to remember that he thinks it’s foolish to consider his functional pottery works of art. At least, that’s what his artist statement declares, although he adds this caveat: “… but I do hope that they communicate something of what I feel regarding personal expression in pottery.”

In Design Quarterly, released in conjunction with MacKenzie’s 1961 show at the Walker, editor Meg Torbert wrote that his work is “completely dedicated to art, yet … pursued for the express purpose of sales.” Looking back on a career approaching 70 years, how do we comprehend the seemingly opposing views MacKenzie and Torbert are presenting? It’s best that we eschew the classification of art or non-art and view MacKenzie’s pottery in terms of individual experience.

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Installation shot of Pottery by Alix and Warren MacKenzie, 1961

Putting his career in the simplest of terms, MacKenzie just loves to make pots. His fascination with this form of independent creation began at the Art Institute of Chicago and continued in St. Ives, England. He and Alix MacKenzie, his first wife, spent two years there learning from renowned potter Bernard Leach. This defining experience and his subsequent partnership with Alix led to his artistic process of throwing between 50 and 200 pots a day. This was a normal output for him when his work was first shown at the Walker in the 1954 show MacKenzie Ceramics.

warren_mackenzie001

Installation shot of Pottery by Alix and Warren MacKenzie, 1961

MacKenzie’s work has been shown here four times, and always through MacKenzie Pottery, the name he and Alix adopted after they converted a barn into a studio in Stillwater, Minnesota. Their last and most comprehensive Walker show, Pottery by Warren and Alix MacKenzie, was on display 52 years ago.

“I think it was a good exhibition for our work at that time,” MacKenzie told Robert Silberman of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in 2002. “It wasn’t a great exhibition if I look back on it now. At that time it was the best we could do, I’d say.”

But coming from a potter known for saying “The first 10,000 pots are difficult and then it gets a little bit easier,” this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a criticism of the show. It is a nod to the progression of a traditional potter — one who makes accessible objects for everyday use — where the artist learns more about the making of pots with every piece. There is no threshold at 10,000 or 100,000 pots — an output that MacKenzie has undoubtedly exceeded — where the art is perfected and nothing more can be learned or experienced. Mackenzie Ceramics marked a point on the development of MacKenzie as a potter, as did Pottery by Warren and Alix MacKenzie, as do each of the days he continues to sit at his Leach wheel and throw clay.

MacKenzie pots Design Quarterly, No. 54 (1962)

Fig. 4 (left) and fig. 5 (right) as printed in Design Quarterly, No. 54, 1962, accompanied by Warren and Alix MacKenzie’s commentary: “On the shoulder of each of these pots, extra feldspar and wood ash were powdered over the wet clay. On pot No. 4 the glaze produced is almost pure feldspar, giving a milky, heavily cracked surface. The wood ash on No. 5 reacted in two ways, by melting into the glaze and, in some places, by resisting the fire and popping out as a dry surface. The watery, irregular quality of the glaze itself in contrast to the dry areas is related to natural relationships which most of us see every day such as rocks and water, or branch and leaf.”

Each of the four times work from MacKenzie Pottery was exhibited at the Walker, the pieces were equally meant to be sold as admired, but the idea of the sale has been a contentious aspect of his career. As Torbert noted, MacKenzie’s aim has always been to give the general public access to his work. Unfortunately, as his name recognition grew — and the value of his pottery with it — it became impossible for him to distribute his work as he desired. For instance, the honor system he set up in a Stillwater showroom was taken advantage of by people who bought more than was allowed and then resold items online for profit. The problem with his work fetching high prices on secondary markets, besides the money going to someone other than MacKenzie, is that the objects become more precious and less likely to be used in day-to-day life.

minneapolis sunday tribune

Warren and Alix MacKenzie in their Stillwater studio. Printed in the September 10, 1961, issue of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Photo: Wayne Bell

MacKenzie challenged the idea that sophisticated art cannot be an everyday object. Looking at a pot he has made, with its irregularity of form and uneven glaze, you may think it looks like any old pot; but looking does not lead to understanding. To drink from, to eat out of, to wash a Warren MacKenzie pot is to understand it.

In conjunction with the 1961 show at the Walker, MacKenzie wrote an essay titled Some potter thoughts by Warren MacKenzie, in which he offered a simple instruction on getting to the essence of their pottery: “In the final analysis it is our work that should communicate what we have to say about pottery, and if these words are more confusing than helpful, I can only ask that you examine and live with the pots to see what they can say to you.”

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Warren and Alix in their Stillwater studio. Photo: Wayne Bell

In celebration of Warren MacKenzie’s birthday, and his life’s work, Walker Executive Director Olga Viso extends her wishes. “We are happy to join in the chorus of celebratory reflections about Warren as he turns 90. He is one of Minnesota’s most inspiring and beloved makers whose work has had a deep impact far beyond Minnesota. Happy birthday, Warren, from all of us at the Walker Art Center!”

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From the Archives: Lucy Lippard, the Walker, and Materializing “Six Years”

The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Materializing “Six Years”:  Lucy Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art, explores the impact of Lucy R. Lippard’s groundbreaking 1973 book Six Years and the development of the era’s highly influential conceptual art scene. In addition to works by 90 artists–including Vito Acconci, Eleanor Antin, and John Latham–the […]

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s photo album of Maintenance Art Tasks (1973), next to an album containing N.E. Thing Co’s work North American Time Zone Photo-VSI-Simultaneity

The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Materializing “Six Years”:  Lucy Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art, explores the impact of Lucy R. Lippard’s groundbreaking 1973 book Six Years and the development of the era’s highly influential conceptual art scene. In addition to works by 90 artists–including Vito Acconci, Eleanor Antin, and John Latham–the show features catalogues, photos, artist publications, and ephemera from key Lippard events. Among the objects presented to help illustrate the period are photographs and notes from Lippard’s exhibition at the Walker, c. 7,500, a November 1973 show of conceptual works comprised entirely of women artists.

In early 1973, Lippard’s writing and interest in conceptual art was becoming well-known following a series of shows and essays, culminating with the release of Six Years, a compendium of Lippard’s writings that both catalogued and described the development of conceptual art, while introducing readers to the works of artists and collectives.

Beginning in 1969, Lippard’s conceptual art “numbers” shows were small affairs, curated solely by Lippard and accompanied by hand-made catalogues, composed of randomly arranged index cards designed by each artist and following brief descriptions from Lippard on how these works related and what conceptual art meant to her. Lippard’s seemingly vague exhibition titles were derived from the population of each show’s host city: 557,087 was held in Seattle, 955,000 in Vancouver, and 2,972,453 in Buenos Aires. Each edition varied in style, construction, and content, as Lippard noted in a letter to Walker director Martin Friedman when asked about her shows for planning purposes at the Walker.

c. 7,500–named for the small town of Valencia, California, where the show originated–was Lippard’s fourth numbered exhibition but her first foray into showcasing conceptual art created solely by female artists. A feminist herself, Lippard had been troubled by questions regarding women in conceptual art. According to the accompanying catalogue, “the show was organized in part as a reply to the comment ‘there are no women conceptual artists.'”

Lippard described some of the participating artists as “not known names,” but many conceptual art greats, including the N.E. Thing Co. Ltd, Eleanor Antin, and Athena Tacho, were involved. “[I]t should also be added that the artists in this show are of no ideological persuasion,” she wrote in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue. “Some are feminists, some are not. All are artists. Their ages, backgrounds, even nationalities range too broadly to succumb to generalization.” Fittingly, the array of featured work included a variety of pieces from Mierele Ukeles’ Maintenance Art Tasks, which depicts Ukeles fulfilling a variety of household tasks, to Martha Wilson’s photographs of various breast shapes and Poppy Johnson’s audio recordings of words.  c. 7,500’s works were unique but fit into the idea of art where “permanence, formal or decorative value, are secondary, if of any concern at all.”

The show was also rather different from her previous exhibitions by its small scale and casual organization. As she explained to Friedman, most of the work could easily be shown in “notebooks on a long table.” Consisting mainly of books, printed material, photographs, and audio recordings, the layout of the show was dependent on the space in each venue and could easily be changed to suit the available room, giving a more collaborative and laid-back feel to the show. Lippard described this as a far less “sculptural” show of her previous “Numbers” exhibitions. This casual aesthetic would eventually be a source of praise to the exhibition when held at the Walker.

Clockwise from left: Athena Tacha’s Feet and Shoes (1970-1972), Expressions I (A study in facial motions) (1972), Hands (two versions) (1970-1972) and Ears (1970-1971). Visible to the right in the corner is 100 Identical Drawings (1969) by Nancy Wilson Kitchel

The Walker’s involvement with Lippard’s c. 7,500 began with a letter from the curator in February of 1973 discussing the show idea with Friedman. Writing rather matter-of-factly, Lippard explained: “I have put together a small conceptual art show for Cal Arts. They’ve run out of money and I need three institutions to take the show to cover catalogue costs.”

Held in the lounge on the Walker’s top floor gallery, this space was what registrar Gwen Lerner described to Lippard as “conducive to a leisurely perusal of the show, including reading and listening.”  The show was a success, attracting numerous attentive visitors, especially students. In a letter from Lerner to artist Adrian Piper, whose work was featured in the show, c. 7,500 was described as “fun to have and attracting many visitors.”

Christine Kozlov’s Nine Books Neurological Compilation: the physical mind since 1945 installed in c. 7,500 at the Walker Art Center, 1973

c. 7.500 was an important show for both Lippard’s career as well as the Walker. As Lippard’s work is revisited and her legacy is explored at the Brooklyn Museum, her brief stay at the Walker is an important part of that legacy and in the development of conceptual art.

Amaryllis and the 100th Anniversary of Tony Smith’s Birth

On the centennial of Tony Smith’s birth, Big Red & Shiny looks at the Minimalist sculptor’s 1965 work Amaryllis, a version of which was reinstalled last week outside the Wadsworth Atheneum. The 7,000-pound sculpture, made of painted Cor-Ten steel, was created in an edition of three: the Wadsworth and the Met each own one, while […]

Tony Smith and Martin Friedman, Walker director from 1961 to 1990, pose with Smith’s Amaryllis (1965/1968) in front of the former Guthrie Theater building, 1970. Photo: Walker Art Center

On the centennial of Tony Smith’s birth, Big Red & Shiny looks at the Minimalist sculptor’s 1965 work Amaryllis, a version of which was reinstalled last week outside the Wadsworth Atheneum. The 7,000-pound sculpture, made of painted Cor-Ten steel, was created in an edition of three: the Wadsworth and the Met each own one, while the Walker owns the third, which is on view in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. BR&S’s John Pyper describes the work:

If the flower is to be found in this sculpture, it hides its petals well. The Amaryllis is a cold weather flower that blooms readily and is associated through Ovid with devotion. Emerging out of the solid base (metaphorically its bulb), this metallic flower curves, possibly towards the sun. Created of strong triangular shapes, some truncated, the sculpture seems stable and solidly connected on the ground at some angles and balanced on a knife’s edge from others. The raised surface steadily grows out of its base. Depending on the angle, it forms an optical illusion, where it can seem shorter or taller as you circle it.

Born September 23, 1912, Smith passed away in 1980, but his legacy can be witnessed both with Amaryllis in the garden and in the galleries. He was patriarch of a creative family: his wife Jane was an opera singer, and two of his daughters, Kiki and Seton, are visual artists. Kiki Smith’s Kitchen is currently on view in the exhibition Midnight Party.

Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965/1968

Flashback to the ’80s: New Dance USA

Cotton balls were given out to lessen the intense volume of Rhys Chatam’s music accompanying Karole Armitage’s Drastic-Classicism (1981), a performance in which “pitting punk pretenses against formal facility, it was a ferocious barrage of smashing guitar chords juxtaposed with an off-kilter corkscrewing of classical dance techniques.” – Allen Robertson, The Minneapolis Star, October 6, […]

Karole Armitage, Drastic Classicism 1981    Children’s Theatre, October 5, 1981

Cotton balls were given out to lessen the intense volume of Rhys Chatam’s music accompanying Karole Armitage’s Drastic-Classicism (1981), a performance in which “pitting punk pretenses against formal facility, it was a ferocious barrage of smashing guitar chords juxtaposed with an off-kilter corkscrewing of classical dance techniques.” – Allen Robertson, The Minneapolis Star, October 6, 1981

In Lucinda Childs’ Dance (1979), with a set by Sol LeWitt and sound by Philip Glass (and performed for a less convinced audience than the captivated one watching Dance in the Walker’s McGuire theater last year), “by combining speed and repetition in an unrelenting two-hour mathematical equation, Childs puts herself in the vanguard of new dance.” – Iris M. Fanger, The Boston Phoenix, October 20, 1981

At New Dance USA (October 3–8, 1981), the Walker invited Karole Armitage, Lucinda Childs, and 25 other choreographers to perform their work at five locations throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. The festival lineup piqued the interest of audiences near and far who came to check out and assess what the 1980s postmodern dance scene was about. Along with the week of performances, the Walker—known as one of the nation’s leading presenters of dance—put together a three-part lecture series on postmodern dance, a Dance Critics Conference, a panel of dance presenters discussing creative ways to organize residencies, an exhibition of scores and graphic works by some of the participating choreographers, and a 50-page catalogue. (more…)

Happy Birthday, John Cage: Do You Know This Cake?

Today we, like many others, are remembering John Cage on what would have been his 100th trip around the sun. In 1982, in honor of Cage’s 70th birthday, the Walker produced the exhibition Happy Birthday John Cage. In addition to showing works by his friends and collaborators such as Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, the exhibition also featured pieces from Not Wanting to […]

John Cage celebrating his birthday with an unidentified friend in Minneapolis, September 1982. Courtesy Walker Art Center.

Today we, like many others, are remembering John Cage on what would have been his 100th trip around the sun. In 1982, in honor of Cage’s 70th birthday, the Walker produced the exhibition Happy Birthday John Cage. In addition to showing works by his friends and collaborators such as Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, the exhibition also featured pieces from Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel, 1969, a series of screenprinted plexiglass plates (“plexigrams“) that Cage produced with Calvin Sumsion. The 70th birthday celebration also included music and dance performances, poetry readings, a symposium called John Cage: Art and Influence, and the masterful yin/yang cake pictured above. If you have further details on the story behind this cake, who produced it, or what it consisted of, please help our archive fill in the details.

 

 

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.

 

Molly Nesbit on Marcel Duchamp

On November 8, 1994, Vassar professor Molly Nesbit gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center in which she discussed gender and language in Marcel Duchamp’s glass painting, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even—a work commonly referred to as The Large Glass (1915-1923). Nesbit’s talk was presented in conjunction with the Walker’s exhibition […]

On November 8, 1994, Vassar professor Molly Nesbit gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center in which she discussed gender and language in Marcel Duchamp’s glass painting, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even—a work commonly referred to as The Large Glass (1915-1923). Nesbit’s 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.

Molly Nesbit
Now Her Words

The Large Glass is Duchamp’s first great work. It is a glass painting. It’s currently in Philadelphia. It was broken when it was being shipped in the 20s from an exhibition and repaired by Duchamp in the 30s, which is why the cracks are in it. It’s a piece Duchamp worked on from 1912 to 1923.

The glass is composed, you will remember, of two registers: the upper part of the window, and it’s an American-style window, not a French window because Duchamp was in America in 1915 when he put the window together.

The upper register is the home and the register of the bride who has an apparatus that rises in a kind of tubular way with shields and rods on the left, and then expands into a cloud. At the bottom is the bachelor apparatus. So it divides into two according to male and female. The bachelor apparatus begins at the left with the malic moulds and is attached to a whole range of little machines. The apparatus is meant to move like a physics experiment or a chemistry experiment set up from left to right, distilling bachelor splashes and flipping them through those discs at the right up into the upper register. Its connecting mechanism was never completed. All that you have in The Large Glass are the gunshots, which in one plan emerged from a kind of cannon aiming for the cloud. It was an intersection.

From the period when Duchamp broke with conventional painting, with art actually, which was in the summer of 1912, until 1923 when circumstances really forced him to finish the work on the glass because he was on to other things and he was going to live in Paris, the glass did provide the frame through which he thought a non-aesthetic frame. But the glass was in the end a step, not a premonition of a life or a life’s work. It was always a catalyst, always a problem, never man’s nap. For in the beginning there was very prominently a woman, the bride. She was different and she had a voice.

The glass has had its commentators, beginning in 1934 with André Breton, Duchamp’s friend, though not a best friend, who took the challenge of the notes for The Large Glass that Duchamp had written during this long period of work and then collected together as photographed scraps in what he called The Green Box. Breton stitched a narrative out of the scraps. It’s a narrative which is implicit from the notes. And Breton typically paid what I would say is insufficient attention to the independence of the bride. Duchamp had expressed her independence, which was also her difference, in two ways: there was a difference in her sexual machinery, which is a difference I think you can see, and a difference in her form of expression: less visual. In other words, her difference is to be seen in her drives and in her words. Funny that Breton, who was after all a writer, didn’t focus on her words. We shall, and my talk is actually entitled Now Her Words.

Her words contained first of all a difference from the bachelors. Initially in late 1912 and 1913, The Large Glass had taken the business of the sexes away from the nude altogether and imagined the figures as car engine parts. In 1914 the work developed out from the old motor narratives into the problem of the expression of desire in dimensions. Marcel by then was far from being a Cubist though he had been one before 1912. But like them he was most interested in dimensions numbering n or 4. And so the bride’s desire would be expressed not by tampering with her [inaudible], her cylinder breasts or other such genital equivalents, but by turning to what Duchamp came to call her épanoissement, her blossoming—a Milky Way that was a dynamic cloud of her thoughts and commandments, a dimension maybe. Certainly a space. And it is that cloud at the top of the large glass.

Marcel Duchamp. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels. 109 1/4 x 70 x 3 3/8 inches (277.5 x 177.8 x 8.6 cm). Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was a space voluntarily hers. Now that space might be figured by draught pistons. Still a motor, but they would be there outside of the bride, outside of herself, like a negative, a negative of desire, right? A photographic emulsion, a film of lace netting, a flutter over a radiator. An image of a cube gone feminine, backlit by his dormer window, strung nonretinally into a pearl of whitest sky. Her desire would be white. Duchamp knew that early on. But it would have a malicious tip. Not a malic to be confused with male. Oh no. Her desire contraption would not take up so much room. It would be but the string around the bouquet. That’s Duchamp’s term for it. The blossoming then would be in a space apart from her, but hers. And it was a space, this blossoming of her desire, that Duchamp imagined being cinematic as well as linguistic. It’s complicated.

Now it’s quite an idea or jump from the drive and its string, to the flowering space of language apart from her, but hers. It wasn’t exactly like a movie. It wasn’t a subtitled silence. It was more like Mallarmé, but that would be another talk. In any case, understand that the image of the Milky Way had been stripped from Apollinaire, another poet, with whom Marcel had gone in the spring of 1912 to see Roussel’s play The Impressions of Africa, Impressions d’Afrique, from which he got the general approach to the glass. And it was also with Apollinaire that he’d taken the car trip that October to the Jura [Mountains] that had provided the first storyline in which the machine had five parts, the machine being the car. Remember, I said it was a motor narrative. And it was filled with Apollinaire, Duchamp, Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire’s mistress, Picabia – that’s four – and then the figure of the hood ornament make five. They were on their way to the Jura to meet up with Picabia’s wife Gabrielle Buffet and they’re going to her family’s country house.

It was a trip. From that same trip Apollinaire derived or made the poem Zone. The Milky Way, though, was not part of Zone. It was part of a short stanza that repeated periodically but not quite like a refrain. In the Chanson du Mal-aimé, or the Badly Loved One. And it’s a rather beautiful stanza in French. I’ll read it in French and then I’ll read an English translation. It goes like this:

Voie lactée ô sœur lumineuse
Des blancs ruisseaux de Chanaan
Et des corps blancs des amoureuses
Nageurs morts suivrons-nous d’ahan
Ton cours vers d’autres nébuleuses
*transcriber’s note: copied from Internet

Or,

That sister light, the Milky Way, whose whiteness
Flows from Canaan’s streams
And from the white of lovers’ flesh
Shall we at death not follow her
And swim toward further nebulae

It’s a small, squaring lyric, sung by a bachelor. Marcel took the Milky Way – everybody knows Milky Way – for his bride and let the stanza go.

Her space would be linguistic but wordless; if language, a blank. Unlike Apollinaire, nobody would cry in public. This would be cinema with the lights up. Now that was one idea for the blossoming of that space of her language, her words. It wasn’t really realized. In terms of Duchamp’s meditation on language, though, it led him to the dictionary. For Marcel was interested to pull the words away from physical reference—even words having desire as their business, and to work with words that were abstract about the physical. In other words, abstract.

So we have [dictionnaire] Larousse and another idea and more notes. For right away in Duchamp’s plans there would be supplementary text, a pamphlet for his glass, an idea that was a kind of a premonition for what would be The Green Box, the notes for The Large Glass that were published in 1934. Now in the pamphlet that language, as opposed to the bride’s, would be absolutely cryptic. Composed only of abstract words from Larousse which would then be redesigned as new signs, perhaps with the help of the stoppages and possibly using colors to differentiate the nouns from the verbs, from the cases. It was an idea. It was idea of a language that was going thick.

Now the inscription in the blossoming would be a different language, a tripled imprint of the drafty lace, a trace of something no longer there, indexical but thin, a veil that would permit all combinations of letters to be sent through it to join up with the gunshots and the splashes sent up from the boys below. Her space and their projections would combine in this transparency, this cloud. But hers was a language not going thick but rather thin. And the bachelors, they did not speak. They would only splash and splash and splash. Their drive led not to language but directly to splashing, and it never transcended the mechanics of their fluids.

Duchamp’s view of the bachelors was inspired by Cubism, or rather the vulgar response to Cubism, which saw the Cubist nude to be an obscenity or cul [derived from the Latin word for tail], which is the French word for the combination of all the lower orifices. It’s an extremely dirty word. We don’t have an English equivalent. It’s not ladylike, though I shall pronounce it, hoping not to offend. It’s a combination word basically that shifts to give it its English sense, between cunt and asshole. The cartoons that lampooned Cubism beginning in 1910, liked to put the geometry right there at the cul, seeing a kind of word play, clever on their part, that extracted the cul from cubisme. Now Duchamp took that idea not to the bride but to the bachelors.

Now the bachelor’s face had been mapped by making the stoppages lines fan into a perspective. The malic moulds were laced together at their tips, and they provide the channel through which the splashes would be channeled and begin the course rightward through this increasingly elaborate grinding apparatus.

But the space of the bachelors’ desire was actually set up by another set of lines connecting them together at the crotch. It was a line that made a polygon that Duchamp called the polygone du sexe in 1913. Later he called it the polygone imaginaire du sexe, the imaginary polygon of sex. It was not a triangle. It was not a cube. It was not the Milky Way. It was also not a language. It was his version of cul. Imagine male solids as void. It’s one of the nice perverse little places in Duchamp’s Glass. The bachelors would listen—said the notes Marcel kept writing and revising—to the litanies of the neighboring chariot, singing the refrain of every bachelor machine. But, one of the notes explained, they will never be able to pass beyond the mask. They would have been, as if enveloped alongside their regrets by a mirror reflecting back to them their own complexity, to the point of their being hallucinated rather onanistically in the cemetery of uniforms or liveries. That’s the end of the note. In other words, there’d be a song of the dog ringing in their ears, if they had ears. But their cul would be a burial ground, cemetery, but not exactly a death. The polygone imaginaire, the sexe, kept splashing. And it occupied the kind of space – so you remember the outside world – normally reserved for women.

Now the two different registers of the glass, the pistons and the polygone imaginaire, actually contain different kinds of libidinal regime, differently articulated. The bride would speak, kind of, but never appear in the conventional sexual way. The bachelors would not even have mouths, only their collective pants, a devilish collective hairless beaver all their own, an existence that risked becoming solipsistic, self-referential, narcissistic to a fault. Duchamp found all of this hilarious. He designed his glass to be funny. And if you take the time with it, it is.

 

Transcribed by Yvonne Bond.

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