Guest post by Nanette Esseck Brewer, The Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at IU’s Eskenazi Museum of Art.
The French-American modernist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) didn’t attend Indiana University or teach at the school and as far as I know never even visited Bloomington during his lifetime; nevertheless, IU has several important connections to the noted artist and theorist, who is the subject of October’s Art and a Movie featured presentation, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible (2020). The first connection is the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art’s unusually impressive holdings of his work, while the second is through the artist’s personal relationship with IU Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus Robert Barnes.
Duchamp is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking (and still sometimes shocking) Readymades, which presented mass-produced, everyday objects like a urinal, hat rack, bicycle wheel, and snow shovel as fine art objects within a gallery setting. Since many of his original Readymades — made between 1913 and 1921 — were lost, Duchamp and his Milan dealer Arturo Schwartz decided in 1964 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first Readymade with an authorized, limited edition set of thirteen replicas. While eight copies were made, only two complete sets sold: one to the National Gallery of Canada and the other to Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York. The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s second director, Thomas T. Solley, negotiated the purchase of the latter in 1971.[i]
This farsighted acquisition also included an additional “rectified” Readymade replica of Apolinère Enameled. IU’s rare set remains one the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s most popular attractions (now featured in its entirety in the museum’s new installation), and its individual objects are among the museum’s most frequently requested items for loan by museums around the world. When asked why, a curator at a major New York City institution once joked that it was like “one-stop shopping.” This completeness, likewise, made the Eskenazi Museum of Art an ideal location for shooting footage for the new Duchamp documentary.
Robert Barnes, who taught painting and drawing in IU’s fine arts department (now the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design) from 1964 until his retirement in 1999, met Duchamp in 1957. In 2001, Barnes gave a rare interview to Thomas Girst for toutfait.com (The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal) about this period of his life.[ii] As a young artist who had just graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, it seems surprising that he could have become associated with leading members of New York’s avant-garde art community so quickly. Barnes explained that it was only possible because of his connections to the Chilean-born surrealist Matta, who had become his close friend and mentor in Chicago. Barnes moved to NYC to serve as the older artist’s apprentice and to study art history at Hunter College.[iii]
Through Matta, Barnes not only met Duchamp, but other important artists, writers, and dealers, including William and Noma Copley, Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Hans Richter, and Julien Levy. The twenty-three-year-old newcomer became a frequent guest at Duchamp’s East 58th Street apartment, while the great artist even occasionally came down to his own Lower East Side loft above a tire store. Barnes mused that Duchamp’s circle liked to have him around because he was a pretty kid. He was, however, more than merely decorative: he was attentive and thoughtful. Barnes learned from Duchamp about French literature, and they shared a joint appreciation for the plays of Samuel Beckett and the popular American juvenile novels about the adventures of Tom Swift. Duchamp also played a role in Barnes’s first major museum acquisition, Judith and Holofernes (1958), for the Whitney’s collection.[iv]
Known in the art world for being especially accessible and generous, Duchamp cared relatively little about fame, fortune, or his legacy. Barnes described him as “a normal guy” and “very, very bourgeois.” This does not mean that he was simple. On the contrary, Barnes said, “He was so smart, so intelligent, his brain was so complex… Being around Duchamp was always — I wouldn’t say challenging because he made people comfortable — but the thinking was rapid.” Neither dogmatic nor snobbish, Duchamp broke down the barriers between high and low art.
Although he balked at being labeled as “Duchamp’s last assistant,” Barnes played a small part in the master’s last major project, Étant donnés (1946–66), for which he was sent to Trenton, New Jersey, to pick up a pigskin for the “flesh” of the work’s reclining nude female figure. Ironically, Barnes didn’t particularly appreciate Duchamp’s Schwartz edition of the Readymades, worrying that Duchamp might have been exploited. The elder artist saw the project slightly differently — both as a way to preserve works that were lost and to bring his concept full circle: by taking a piece of “junk,” making it art, and then making it into a marketable commodity again. By embracing the works’ reproducibility, he raised questions about authenticity and value and ultimately extended the reach and influence of his ideas.[v] Just think how many young students in Indiana have been introduced to Duchamp’s revolutionary concepts about what makes art over the years by these replicas.
Barnes didn’t particularly like talking about his close relationship to Duchamp — with whom he remained friends until the older man’s death — because as he said, “I am not a ‘hem of the cloak’ person…touching Marcel’s hand to become empowered.” He even felt guilty about his most obvious homage to the seminal artist’s work, Belle Haleine, eau de Violette (1996). In the large painting, part of his “Blood and Perfume” series, Barnes made several direct allusions to Duchamp’s assisted Readymade of the same title (1921), which featured a dime-store bottle of perfume with an altered label bearing a portrait of Duchamp dressed as his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (similar to the grisaille figure in the bottom right corner of Barnes’s painting). He also referenced the three squares in the “ectoplasmic thought cloud” at the top of Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23) and his Readymade Air de Paris (1919).
The painting’s composition not only suggests the Cubist-like jumble of some of Duchamp’s earlier works, but also the interesting collection of works in progress that, Barnes recalled, littered Duchamp’s studio floor, which was painted like a chessboard: “…I always thought that you almost needed to hop in that studio the way you hop from one square to another.”
Chess was a large part of Duchamp’s later life, and Barnes played the master on occasion, despite his own total lack of skill at the game. Indeed, Barnes noted that Duchamp seemed to like the challenge of playing a novice whose moves were unpredictable. Although they sometimes incorporated an element of chance, as in the randomly dropped strings in Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14), most of Duchamp’s works involved thoughtful, careful planning. He embraced the idea of transition in time, space, and even meaning by suggesting that an artwork wasn’t complete until the viewer added his/her own interpretation. As such, Duchamp’s work continues to evolve and remain relevant.
Although Barnes’s own work differs stylistically and thematically from Duchamp’s, Barnes always felt that his mentor supported his interest in traditional figurative painting and encouraged him to explore historical and literary references in his work. After all, Duchamp’s goal wasn’t to kill painting/art, but rather, as Barnes observed, he encouraged a more democratic approach “to follow what you are.” Interestingly, Duchamp playfully re-embraced representational art and an implied narrative in his three-dimensional tableau of a nude in the landscape for Étant donnés. Barnes felt that there was a romance and power to Duchamp’s imagery that went beyond entertainment — something deeper that you learn to believe and enter into.[vi] However, it may have been Duchamp’s modeling of a life devoted to art and ideas that most inspired the young painter, who would join IU’s faculty within seven years.
Duchamp’s role as an inspiration for generations of younger artists and innovators is at the core of Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible. The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection includes several works by artists — such as John Cage and Ai Weiwei — that offer a direct acknowledgement of Duchamp’s legacy, as well as countless others that simply reflect the freedom of expression made possible by his opening the door to a whole new way of thinking.
[i] To learn more about the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Duchamp holdings, see Jenny McComas’s essay in Masterworks of the Indiana University Art Museum (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press with Indiana University Art Museum, 2007), pp. 324-326.
[ii] Girst, Thomas. “’A very normal guy’: Robert Barnes on Marcel Duchamp and Étant Donnés.” toutfait.com (The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal), vol. 2, issue 4 (January 1, 2002/updated May 22, 2019), pp. 1-7. (All quotes by Robert Barnes in this blog are from this source). https://www.toutfait.com/a-very-normal-guy-an-interview-with-robert-barnes-on-marcel-duchamp-and-atant-donnas/
[iii] For a full chronology of Robert Barnes’s career, see Michael Rooks, Grand Illusions: Robert Barnes—Late Works 1958–2015. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Art Museum in association with IU Press, 2015), p. 84.
[iv] See Robert Barnes’s interview with Yaël Ksander on WFIU’s Profiles (October 23, 2015) https://indianapublicmedia.org/profiles/painter-robert-barnes-refuses-boxed.php
[v] Marcel Duchamp (or Rrose Sélavy) had already made a few duplicates of the Readymades in the 1950s and had used replicas and reproductions of his earlier artwork and/or archival notes in Box in a Valise (1935-41) and The Green Box (1934).
[vi] Profiles interview, ibid.
On October 9, join IU Cinema for a virtual screening of Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible, complete with an introduction by Jenny McComas, the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Curator of European and American Art, and a virtual Q&A with the film’s writer/director Matthew Taylor and IU art history professor Jeffrey Saletnik. This special virtual event is part of both the Art and a Movie and International Arthouse series.
Nanette Esseck Brewer is the Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. She manages a collection of more than 22,000 prints, drawings, and photographs and oversees a new center dedicated to the study and exhibition of those works. Brewer has served in the curatorial department at the Eskenazi Museum of Art for more than 30 years. During her tenure at the museum, she has organized or managed more than 100 exhibitions. Brewer also coordinates the Art and a Movie series, a partnership with IU Cinema which started in 2011.