My first encounter with Marcel Duchamp’s work would have taken place fifty years ago in my art history classes and American art museums, but was that really an encounter with Duchamp? How to know Duchamp? That question underlies all the discussion and always has. There was the rumor, the fantasy, the caricature, the myth. It was inevitable that the Duchamp one met after his death had an air of impersonality, which in turn encouraged many to project their own airs into the outline, as if to fill a void. The antidote was the memorial exhibition put together at the Museum of Modern Art in 1973.
The memorial exhibition of 1973 was overseen by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine. It would set the record straight—the catalogue of his work, the interplays with words and the first of the truly scholarly accounts of how Duchamp’s work spilled out beyond the confines of what was understood to be the work of art. Simultaneously those boundaries were being expanded by the current generation of artists and curators; they were themselves establishing new exhibition protocols, new orders of object and new ways of working at large. The collective exhibitions that have become legends—When Attitudes Become Form, Information, documenta 5—belong to this endeavor. As does the MoMA memorial to Duchamp, which itself expanded outward to include homages by sixty-one artists and poets, writers and musicians, dancers and filmmakers who knew him personally.
To know Duchamp best, in truth, was to know him personally. He was not abstract, or an abstraction, not a chess piece, not to be limited by someone else's characterization. The texts in the catalogue circle around this fundamental, beautiful and forever enigmatic fact. It falls now to the rest of us to respect it.
My first encounter with Duchamp the person would necessarily have to take place post mortem. I had been told, after having written my first essay on the readymade, that I really should meet Madame Duchamp, and with that firm suggestion came her address in Villiers, so I quietly wrote, including the essay which ends with snow falling unnoticed. She took notice, invited me to visit. I went for the first of what would be many visits, lots of fun, stories galore, discussions of the way the past was surviving into the present, Wittgenstein out of the blue because I had brought the book to read on the train. I love Wittgenstein, Teeny said, and Marcel liked him too but he never worked with the ideas per se. Visions of chocolate, fine lunches, family and cigarettes, fires in the fireplace, long afternoons. She lived surrounded, informally, by works one would normally find in museums. But they were bound to her life by life and love.
We became friends, the only disappointment being my lack of chess. The Duchamp she introduced me to was a man, her husband. Over time she expected me to live in the foreground too and refer to him by his first name. Being a historian this was not my natural reflex but eventually I managed it, though only in her company. In the course of it all, incrementally, she described him. “He was very natural,” she once said, a remark that sums everything up.
I have met many more people who knew Duchamp personally. The need to describe him better seems to overcome just about every memory; words in general seem to fail. All these people have had the same reflex, the same way of starting to sketch with the words “He was…” No one sentence reads the same. I made a collection of these sentences. Here comes Marcel Duchamp:
He was warm.
He was very careful with his language.
He was magical.
He was not judgmental.
He was very frugal.
He was measured.
He was always in control.
He never interrupted.
He never raised his voice.
He was un bourgeois d'une haute culture.
Il avait des manières absolument exquises.
He was a very kind person.
He had time for everything and everybody.
He was extremely discreet.
He had a thing about waterfalls.
He wasn’t the kind of man you ran up and hugged.
He never talked about art.
He was simple.