“Anything is art if an artist says it is,” Duchamp proclaimed. But he likely would have scoffed at the banana’s $120,000 price tag because he believed art was so commercialized “it has become one of the most trivial activities of our epoch.”
Duchamp’s legacy as the father of conceptual art and the readymade is on display in Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum, featuring more than 35 works by Duchamp, including his readymades, paintings, and experiments in optical art. The Hirshhorn, which previously had only one work by Duchamp, now ranks near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art as holding the most prominent public collections of his work. The gift from the Levines also includes letters by Duchamp and portraits of him by Man Ray, Diane Arbus, and others.
Born in France in 1887, Duchamp’s career began in Paris but he eventually found a more receptive audience in New York, where he moved in 1915 to escape the devastation of World War I. Even though “Fountain” was refused by the newly formed Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in 1917, a photo of the urinal by Alfred Stieglitz published in the journal The Blind Man helped cement Duchamp’s reputation as an iconoclast who brushed along the edges of several art movements without fully embracing any of them. An original copy of the journal is in the Hirshhorn exhibition, along with a collotype of his Cubist-inspired painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” It was rejected by the tradition-bound organizers of the Salon des Indépendants exhibition in Paris in 1912 and was ridiculed a year later at the seminal Armory Show in New York. Those experiences planted the seeds of Duchamp’s distrust of the conservatism of the art world, from which he withdrew for a time to focus on his fascination with chess.
The Hirshhorn exhibition also includes 1960s editions of some of Duchamp’s readymades that were originally created five decades earlier, including “Comb” (“Peigne“) and “Hat Rack” (“Porte-chapeaux“). These later editions test the bounds of conceptual art. Is an edition (or addition) of eight hat racks that Duchamp deemed to be art in 1964 any different than the original hat rack from 1917? What if Duchamp opened a comb factory and proclaimed that thousands of combs were now art? When does conceptualism ultimately reach its absurd end point?