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A Museum That is Not

One could say that everything begins and ends in Marcel Duchamp’s studio. His first New York studio is perhaps best known from a series of small and grainy photos, some of them out of focus. They were taken sometime between 1916 and 1918 by a certain Henri-Pierre Roché, a good friend of Duchamp. Roché was a writer, not a professional photographer, clearly. He was the same guy who would go on to write Jules et Jim, arguably a far better novel than these are photographs. But their aesthetic quality was not really what mattered. Duchamp was attached to those little pictures. He kept them and went back to them years later, working on them and then leaving them out for us like his laundry in the picture. Or like clues in a detective novel.

There isn’t a single photograph among them that shows his studio (which was also his home, in this case) cleaned up. Duchamp’s drawers are open, his shoes and pillows are strewn across the floor, dust has collected in the corners. The supposed cold conceptualist, the guy who epilated his entire body because he seemed not to like the unkemptness of body hair (and requested that his partner at the time consider doing the same), the artist of the industrially produced readymades—lives in a pigsty.1 This is not the first nor will it be the last of many Duchampian paradoxes. Still, Duchamp’s sense of housekeeping and the dust that he bred in his apartment is not so much my point as is his arrangement of objects. While he might live with a mess, everything also has its place. The small photographs reveal that the shiny porcelain urinal on view is not in the bathroom (although there might be another one there), or even tucked in a corner—it’s hung over a doorway. The disorder of the room might appear careless, except that a urinal simply doesn’t get up there by accident. Duchamp’s snow shovel is not casually leaning against a wall waiting for use—it is suspended from the ceiling. And his coatrack lies inconveniently and ridiculously in the middle of the room, nailed to the floor. Selected objects in chosen positions.

Remember, this is sometime around 1917, several years after the artist first started to bring everyday objects into his studio. Back then, he had a Paris atelier, which his sister cleaned up when the artist moved to New York, throwing the first readymades into a dustbin, where she innocently thought they belonged.2 A few years have passed since then and Duchamp is in a new city now. By this point, his utilitarian things already have a category name, a genre: “readymade.” Sure, Duchamp claimed that he had begun fiddling with them as a “distraction,” but already by 1916 he had decided to title each one of them. He had also begun to sign them, and to submit them to public exhibitions (even if that pretty much failed).3 In short, he treated them like works of art, even as he repeatedly denied their artfulness.

Another indication that Duchamp thought of the readymades as more than mere things comes from these photos. The pictures show that these everyday objects are not—cannot be—useful. They were carefully arranged, displayed—indeed, exhibited—with their utilitarianism left undermined so that they became objects of contemplation and even of laughs, but decidedly not of use. In a way, then, the studio was the readymades’ first “exhibition” space. Now, the studio wasn’t an institution, but even if not exactly public, it was nevertheless a frequented space in which the objects were shown and could be read as artifacts that meant something. It was what Helen Molesworth rightly calls the readymades’ “major site of reception.”4 That site of exhibition/reception was a place of annunciation, declaring: this is not (only) a urinal. This is the tale the little photos tell.

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