Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood
The Blind Man
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)
Edited by Sophie Seita
“New York, far ahead in so many ways, yet indifferent to art in the making, is going to learn to think for itself, and no longer accept, mechanically, the art reputations made abroad.” So speaks The Blind Man on April 10, 1917, in the first of its two-issue and two-month lifespan, published just four days after President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany with the approval of Congress. Ugly Duckling Presse celebrates this centennial with a new facsimile edition of 1,000 of The Blind Man’s two issues, plus its successor, Rongwrong, along with other alluring ephemera.
The Blind Man and Rongwrong were made as a collaboration between Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, a French-born writer active in the New York avant-garde, and Beatrice Wood, an actress, artist, and free-spirit born into a wealthy family in San Francisco. Although largely unknown today, Wood had an immense hand in the content, production, and distribution of the issues. Her humorous and satirical writings on art and the function of exhibitions epitomize her essence as well as the tone of the publication. In the first issue, she writes of viewing art, “To laugh is very serious. Of course, to be able not to laugh is more serious still.” In issue two, “Letter from a Mother,” anonymously written but attributed to Wood, she is as an actress in character, playing sensibility: “It is only by elevating the soul and keeping the eyes of our young ones filled with lovely images that we can expect good results from the generation that will follow.” This parody of artistic sensibility reflects Wood’s cleverness, as she mocks this limited conception of art. This self-assured, independent female voice is found elsewhere in the publication, as in passages from British-born poet Mina Loy, and manifested in French critic Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia’s review of artist Marie Laurencin for the second issue. “She does not recognize esthetic conventions,” explains Buffet, “She recreates the world to her image. She does not know but herself, does not represent but herself, and even when she copies she does not express but her own imagination.” Along with the increased contribution of female writers, The Blind Man offered much-need critical attention to female makers as well.
The Blind Man is famously connected to Duchamp in its defense of his 1917 readymade Fountain, which was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists for its inaugural exhibition, a democratic show including over 2,000 works of art by 1,200 artists, the largest of its kind to date. This Society and exhibition were a reaction to the 1913 Armory Show, which introduced the people of New York, and later Chicago and Boston, to the myriad schools and theories of modernism active throughout Europe. “I do not suppose the Independents ‘will educate the public’,” Loy argues in The Blind Man’s first issue, “Education is the putting of spectacles on wholesome eyes. The public does not naturally care about these spectacles, the cause of its quarrels with art.” The Society of Independent Artists (shortened to Indeps throughout) had very simple submission guidelines: any person that paid a $6 fee to enter could submit any work of art, which were all listed and displayed in alphabetical order by the artist’s last name. Succinctly put by Alfred Stieglitz in the second issue: “NO JURY—NO PRIZES—NO COMMERCIAL TRICKS.”
Duchamp sought to literalize this simplicity and submitted an ordinary urinal under the pseudonym R. Mutt. In response to the rejection of such an audacious work, issue two of The Blind Man includes “The Richard Mutt Case,” written anonymously but likely by Duchamp and Wood. The essay validates the work, arguing the artist “took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for the object.” Responding to the criticism of indecency: “Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. […] The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Despite having only been seen by a handful of people, Fountain’s existence is known because of Alfred Stieglitz’s canonical photograph of the work, published and distributed in issue two.
The second issue also includes a small poem by Charles Demuth, “For Richard Mutt,” in which he writes: “For some there is no stopping. / Most stop or get a style. / When they stop they make / a convention. / That is their end.” It is compelling to read Demuth’s defense of Mutt’s urinal as poem. Demuth’s defiant, homoerotic paintings and watercolors of this time are as radical in their content as Duchamp’s intention was to create a new non-art art object. To view Demuth’s images of sailors and encounters in bathhouses in the face of the homophobia of his day (sodomy was a felony that carried fines and imprisonment of up to 20 years) is to understand how radical these artists were, and how this attitude emboldened others to expect equal rights alongside freedom of expression.
Roché, although one of the co-editors, didn’t write much content for the issues. His main contribution in issue one is a manifesto-cum-constitution, eponymously titled, “The Blind Man.” Split into numbered articles, it contains maxims, questions, and provocations of the Independents exhibition: “The hanging of all works in alphabetical order, for the first time in any exhibition, will result in the most unexpected contacts and will incite every one to understand the others. […] New York will catch the Indeps’ fever. It will rush to see what its children are painting, to scold them, laugh at them—and laud them.” Roché’s text disjoints traditional cohesion used to explain an exhibition as a means to envision a new art. “To learn to ‘see’ the new painting is easy. It is even inevitable,” Roché writes, “if you keep in touch with it. It is something like learning a new language, which seems an impossibility at first. Your eye, lazy at the start, gets curious, then interested, and progresses subconsciously.”
After these two issues, The Blind Man’s demise was not due to lack of submissions, but to a chess wager between Francis Picabia and Roché. Picabia, who published the magazine 391 concurrent to The Blind Man, and challenged Roché to a game of chess, with the winner gaining the right to continuing publishing. After Picabia’s loss, Rongwrong was published in May 1917, mostly in French. It included the move-by-move results of their chess game opposite a letter by ‘Marcel Douxami,’ coyly saying “Picabia’s little charades are certainly harmless enough.”
Between the three booklets, other contributors include artists, writers, and intellects such as Walter Arensberg, Charles Duncan, Louise Norton, Erik Satie, Frances Simpson Stevens, Joseph Stella, and Clara Tice. This avant-garde grouping preceded women’s suffrage, gay rights, and their political weight is mirrored in our own fraught moment. The Sedition Act of 1918 prohibited any to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” That propensity of censorship, a threat to free speech and expression, was felt by Duchamp and Roché, who refrained from adding their names to either publication for fear they would be deported back to war-torn Europe. (Only Beatrice Wood’s name appeared in print, as publisher, even more striking considering women’s limited rights at the time.) Yet The Blind Man represents the high point of short-lived Dada ideals in New York, utilizing an arsenal of wit and the strength of collaboration to reject a passive acceptance of things-as-they-are. This new edition is an apt reminder that influence has an orbit, and The Blind Man has much to demonstrate in vision: defiance and subversion of normativity is the role of art publications.
Endnote: Purchasing a copy of this edition is highly recommended. Really, you’ll be happy to add this to your library. But if the price doesn’t fit your budget, you can view each issue at: http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_3/Collections/girst/index.html
Nick Bennett is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.