A Duchampian Romp, Even
“Marcel, Marcel, I love you like hell, Marcel.” So wrote Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a poet and artist who, like Duchamp, ran in New York’s Dada circles after World War I. Nor was she alone in her fascination: as art historian Amelia Jones notes in an essay on women in dadaism, this “slim, sophisticated-seeming French artist…–in his own quiet way–triumphed.”
The father of readymades–bicycle wheels, snow shovels, and inverted urinals displayed as art–clearly neglected the sort of tabloid sensationalism that makes for good biodrama. He didn’t slash his wrists like Mark Rothko or take the Jackson Pollock route of unbridled alcoholism, rage, and eventual death by car crash. He didn’t disappear forever in the wilds of Mexico like his fellow dadaist Arthur Cravan. And where Cravan’s sport of choice was boxing, Duchamp gave up art almost entirely to pursue chess. As noted near the beginning of the Neo-Futurists’ new show, Duchamp once confessed, “I admire the attitude that consists of fighting invasion with crossed arms.”
Such stalwart passivity in an artist isn’t very dramatic. But writer-performers Greg Allen and John Pierson handily apply the Neo-Futurist aesthetic–“a fusion of sport, poetry, and living newspaper” and “non-illusory, interactive performances”–to their slippery subject in A Duchampian Romp, Even. It’s not the slickest or funniest show to come out of the Neo-Futurarium; Allen’s take on Freud, humor, and Freudian humor–Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which
will be remounted at the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival–made me laugh more consistently. Those with only a passing knowledge of Duchamp might not appreciate all the in-jokes–and given that his art was one of the biggest in-jokes of the last century, that’s problematic. And some seemingly germane details–three of Duchamp’s siblings were also artists, for example–are given short shrift or are lacking altogether.
Still, in their own quiet way, Pierson and Allen evoke what Duchamp’s crossed-arm resistance to commercialism and easy categorization has meant to them as artists. Any company that’s survived and even thrived for over 14 years by serving up a constantly changing platter of short, piquant, self-referential pieces that are the performance equivalent of readymades–the long-running Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind–owes something to the mischievous spirit of Duchamp.
The personal exposure begins immediately and literally. In the first of 22 “moves” that make up the evening, Pierson and Allen sit naked center stage playing chess with glass chessmen–a sly homage to one of Duchamp’s most famous works, The Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The two then proceed to dress, bouncing out from behind twin backdrops painted with Duchamp’s profile as they don each item of clothing and quoting some of his aphorisms, printed on outsize playing cards. The show is “disrupted by” Donovan Sherman, as the program tells us: among other things, he instructs the audience to “turn on your cell phones and pagers” and roams the rear of the stage as if it were the backstage of another play.
The next move raises the personal stakes–and personal exposure–more than mere nudity ever could. As Allen reads sections from Calvin Tomkins’s celebrated 1996 biography of Duchamp describing his parents and his childhood, he flashes albums containing photos of his own children. We’re told that Duchamp’s mother was deaf and that his relationship with her was troubled. Hearing this in conjunction with the visuals of Allen’s children–who will, of course, grow up, move away, and find many other people to love besides their parents–creates an atmosphere of incipient loss. Then, in one of the show’s most mournful moments, Allen reads a section praising the devoted woman who kept house for Duchamp’s elderly parents–and who drowned herself after they died. Allen walks over to a pitcher of water on a stool and immerses the woman’s photograph in it.
That moment encapsulates one of the show’s central paradoxes, the conflicted relationship between art and emo-tion. It doesn’t take the soul or skills of an artist to feel deeply, even to the point of self-destruction. Nor does being an artist ensure that we’ll have a proper understanding or appreciation of the people closest to us. Pierson revisits this conundrum later. So powerful was Duchamp’s pull on his imagination, he says, that he abruptly walked out on a woman in Chicago who loved him, and spent money he didn’t have, in order to see the artist’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When Pierson recounts the story, both his ardor for Duchamp and his confused, inchoate love for the woman he lost (or threw away) are palpably close to the surface.
But this is a Neo-Futurist show, so dark moments are few. A goony sequence illustrates the genesis of the bicycle-wheel readymade, as the fearless Pierson adeptly navigates the stage on a rapidly deteriorating bike. Both The Large Glass and L.H.O.O.Q.–Duchamp’s defacing of the Mona Lisa with a mustache–are recalled by suspending windowpanes in front of the audience, then drawing mustaches on them. The performers also hand red crayons to random audience members and ask them to draw. Other audience-participation sections are not as innocent; be warned that someone will be asked a series of questions about losing his or her virginity. (That someone was me on opening night. The answers, as best I can recall, were: 18, no, three months, a whole lot of alcohol, outdoors, no, no, yes, no, selling insurance, in Nebraska, and “Have a good semester break.”)
Allen’s attempt to explore Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Selavy (“Eros, that’s life!” as translated from the “French”), isn’t nearly as well developed as it should be. Duchamp’s androgyny, perhaps engendered by his mother keeping him in dresses and curls longer than most boys of that era, is one of the more fascinating aspects of his life. And his close, comradely relationships with many women–among them the baroness and his patron, Katherine Dreier–arguably deserve more attention than they get here.
But after all this isn’t meant to be a biography. Like Bobrauschenbergamerica, by Charles L. Mee and the SITI Company, this is an evocation of an artist who made indelible, often hilariously funny art from everyday detritus. That’s what the Neo-Futurists have always done best too. Though this show has some sagging moments and a nagging sense of incompleteness (acknowledged by the subtitle, “A Definitively Unfinished Work for Public Viewing”), it’s still a bold, smart, eclectic, and occasionally quite affecting readymade portrait of the artist.