Duchamp’s Poetic Geometry

Ulf Linde's half a century of work on Marcel Duchamp was presented at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Geometry is at the center and Duchamp turns out to be an artist obsessed with the missing eighth.

Replica of the Duchamp room from the old Moderna Museet © Photo: Prallan Allsten/Moderna Museet.

De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde is nothing less than a summation of a life’s work. For decades, Ulf Linde, the grand old man of Swedish art criticism, has spent most of his energy trying to solve the riddle of Marcel Duchamp. Is there a key that can unlock this crystalline closed universe, so that its ostensibly disparate parts can all get their rightful places? The exhibition shows us an answer to this question, although not in a physical formation that has been signed by Linde himself, even if it uses his interpretations as a starting point. Linde’s reflections can be found in the catalogue, in what one can assume to be their final form after more than a half a century of work.

For those who have followed Linde throughout the years, the authoritative tenor of his voice is not surprising. It belongs to his personal aesthetic, as does the consequent hostility he has shown to those who from the 1960s onwards tried to see Duchamp as a precursor to the “open artwork” and later the “postmodern” in all its variants. Linde’s Duchamp (the possessive tense here must be given its full weight) is no relativist: his work does not destabilize Art’s claims through semiotic, psychoanalytic, institutional theory or other instruments. To the contrary, Linde’s Duchamp is the very prototype for the Artist who with total control implements an idea over his entire oeuvre – an authority he can transfer to his interpreter(s), each of whom may act as the legitimate heir.

Marcel Duchamp and Ulf Linde, 1961 © Photo: Lütfi Özkök.

Amelia Jones once called Duchamp a “generative patriarch” – with conscious irony, given Duchamp’s play with his gender identity – for generations of postmodern artists.(1) The laying on of hands and the mystique of the order of succession also rest heavily on this show, even if this claim is the complete opposite of that which Jones scrutinized. But Linde’s lengthy work on Duchamp has not only consisted in interpreting the word and law of the father, but also in being the one who re-creates his work with replicas, which in their turn were authorized and sometimes considered synonymous with the originals, and thereby taking over the vanished father’s position and authority (the show’s title, with its play with the French “de” and “par”, is certainly about the curators’ relation to Linde, but can also be taken a step further to be about the relationship between Linde and Duchamp). This remarkable drama – which certainly hasn’t been without its moments of aggression, like all such processes of identification – is concentrated in the replica (first vision 1961) of The Large Glass, which stood at the center of Linde’s interpretive work for half a century. For many visitors to the Moderna Museet, the replica has undoubtedly come to replace the original in Philadelphia; at the same time it is not just a piquant detail that Linde has never visited Philadelphia to see the work itself, unlike Richard Hamilton who made a similar copy at the same time, but always approached it through photographs and sketches, at the same time as he, as argued in the catalogue by one of the curators, Jan Åman, “probably knows more about The Large Glass than any other living person. Maybe more than Marcel Duchamp himself ever did…” The reasons for this may be personal (fear of flying is usually given), but it is still easy to see here a deeper irony: like Winckelmann, Linde never actually visited his Greece so to speak, but for that reason he experiences it even more intensely – “and for this very reason we feel a more earnest longing for the lost, and we contemplate the copies of the original images with even greater attention than if we had been in full possession of the originals.”(2)

Marcel Duchamp, detail from The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-1923 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/BUS 2011. “Certifié pour copie conforme Marcel Duchamp Stockholm, 1961”

The exhibition, organized by Daniel Birnbaum, Henrik Samuelsson, Susanna Slöör and Jan Åman, is coherently realized with a great deal of visual precision and elegance. The shabby rooms at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts have been transformed into a cool, but also focused, series of tableaux, where the viewer encounters all of the known replicas of Duchamp’s works that Linde created over the years, as well as lots of correspondence, sketches and documents of various kinds. The re-creation of the famous Duchamp room at the old Moderna Museet, where we get a condensed compilation of Linde’s work, is one of the highlights.

The story that unfolds step by step has a clear pedagogical ambition (conceived for a spectator who like Linde sits in a wheelchair), although this may appear to be contradicted by the lack of titles and other information in the show. This is, however, consistent on one level, given one of the premises that always laid the ground to Linde’s aesthetic: art is about vision, and other information is secondary, if not altogether misleading. The viewer will thus gradually be led step by step through Duchamp’s universe until she faces the solution to his riddle.

Marcel Duchamp, La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, 1915-1923 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/BUS 2011.

The solution that is presented in the catalogue however, via a text with the title “A work’s most secret poetry – and its deepest”, may not only appear puzzling, it also undermines some of the other claims made by the exhibition. To follow this contradiction, even accentuate it, which I will do here, does not imply myopic nitpicking – these pedantic exercises already abound in the literature on Duchamp, and are of the features that have transformed this rebellious and elusive artist into a favorite object for academic exercises.  Rather, and more productively, it should be seen as a fundamental question about the meaning of interpretation, and of the mystical authority that “vision” is often ascribed, and this is in a precise and not only broadly pejorative sense.

Linde’s thesis is first that Duchamp’s work as a whole is organized by an underlying geometry, or rather two numerical ratios that generate a series of possible geometries. The first is the series 1, 2, 3, 7, 8; the other is 1/8. These abstract relations have a base in the artist’s personal history, or in Linde’s own words, which serves as the motto for the catalogue: “The three brothers, Gaston Duchamp (Jacques Villon), Raymond Duchamp Villon and Marcel Duchamp had three sisters, Suzanne, Madelaine and Yvonne. With their father and mother a family of 8. Marcel Duchamp noted his own plight within the family. He could only see the other members of it. He was a leftover eighth – 1/8.”

Marcel Duchamp, Roue de bicyclette, 1913 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/BUS 2011.

This mathematic-geometric matrix will then take form in the painting Coffee Mill (1911), which becomes a point of departure for The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even and The Large Glass, which Duchamp himself points out in the book of interviews with Pierre Cabanne. This statement is certainly not unknown, but Linde was the first to take it up seriously and grapple with it in order to unravel Duchamp’s work in its entirety (or “most” of the work, which he says with some reservations). Here there are many discoveries to make, and a world of correspondences to discover, and Linde is the most reliable and conscientious of guides. This is particularly true in relation to the original construction of Etant donnés, which is shown here for the first time and whose dimensions can be derived in detail from the painting of the coffee grinder.

Despite all of this abundance of detail, there is still something oddly rigid in such an overarching conception. To a large extent this has to do with the fact that the thesis remains at a very formal level. Duchamps’s split affinities to his family become an indication of the mathematical hypothesis, but are ascribed no further implications – one could, for example, imagine that this ambiguous inclusion is also reflected in his ever-complex and temporally composite farewell: to cubism, to painting, to art as a whole, which are all condensed in the ready-made object, as Thierry de Duve has shown in a series of exemplary analyses.(3)

In addition to this, the thesis may have another consequence that is certainly as unexpected as it is striking: a distinctive reduction of the visual in Duchamp, and then not only in the sense that all of his polymorphic moves and countermoves on the chessboard of art are derived from a single model – at the press conference Linde himself spoke, possible inspired by the moment’s polemical energy, of a “geometric prison” – but that this model itself is at its basis not accessible to what we normally mean when we speak of vision. First, the key to the work is given by a text, that is the conversation with Cabanne, and is at bottom not taken from a consideration of the work’s form; second, meticulous work of measurement is required to confirm the hypothesis, and verification is by no means in the form that we see in the concrete sense, but only in the mediated “vision” do we take aim at the relationship between an equation or a geometric postulate and these concrete instantiations, where our ordinary perception can not carry us beyond the belief that A follows from B.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/BUS 2011.

Behind all the variations in form and material, media and techniques, there is an arithmetic relationship that cannot be directly observed, but generates all visual forms. Plato couldn’t have said it any more clearly, and from Timaeus via the Renaissance’s numerology, until Cézanne at least, such a generative geometry – divine, cosmic, or grounded in the natural processes of morphology – is one of art’s ongoing tropes. With Linde’s Duchmp the foundation is no longer natural, however – which was what guaranteed that the Platonic geometry always retains an intermediary “bond” (4) to the visible – but something even more abstracted, making him even more Platonic, even more conceptual, than the more hardcore conceptualist (the relatively conventional remarks about Plato in another of Linde’s texts in the catalogue, “Two Souls”, can be ignored here).

In this sense, the thesis of an arithmetic base may appear to completely undermine the previous thesis about the priority of vision: as for Plato to see is in the extreme to measure, and to measure is to discover an abstract relation, which is only accessible to a purified vision of a different order. But they fundamentally support each other, as vision’s epiphanic quality puts it in opposition to everyday vision, which often is the case when formalist art theories are pushed to their logical conclusion: ultimately they revert to theological figures of thought, and this energy and ultimate motivation that they invoke is akin to the nunc stans of the mystics.(5) The rather absent-minded theological reflections that pop up here and there in Linde’s later texts, for example in his book Sammelsurium, published concurrently with the exhibition, find at least part of their motivation here.

We are here far away from the Duchamp who has become a staple of contemporary art criticism, and that alone is valuable in itself. Whether or not this is the true Duchamp, even in some sense a truer Duchamp than any other, is a question that the generative patriarch himself would without doubt have handled with the irony that his own notes so often invoke, but that all those who claim to be his legitimate offspring must suppress.

Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle.

Ulf Linde© Photo: Moderna Museet / Hans Thorwid.

1) See Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

2) Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, red. Wilhelm Senf (Weimar: Hermann Bohlaus, 1964), 340.

3) Se Thierry de Duve, Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1996).

4) “But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union (desmon gar en meso) between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion (analogia) is best adapted to effect such a union.” Plato, Timaeus, 31b-c.

5) To give just one classic example: When Michael Fried in his essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967) wants to explain the “conviction” that the modernist work gives rise to, he emphasizes that the ideal character of the visual arts rests on a relation to a now that is lifted out of time, which no longer is a restriction but an opening towards another and higher time. The authentic artwork lifts us in its epiphanic moment out of the everyday, places us before another type of “presentness” that escapes the now of successive time (presence), and can even be understood as “grace”, like the religious mystic’s nunc stans, the perpetual present that stands outside of time. See Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) For the claim that formalism is always dependent on a hidden energetic moment, which developed with the thematic literary criticism of the 1950s, but is strikingly applicable to art criticism, see Jacques Derrida, “Force et signification”, in L’écriture et la différence (Paris: Seuil, 1967)

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