Motivated by an internship at the Pollock-Krasner House in East Hampton, New York, and the effortless charm of its director, Helen Harrison, I went to graduate school at Case Western Reserve University to study with Ellen Landau, a leading scholar of Abstract Expressionism and an ideal mentor for an easily distracted student in need of a straight shooter. I was quickly introduced to the Swiss art historian Dario Gamboni, whose fascination with chance and ambiguity in art was infectious. His time at Case Western was brief, but before he returned to Europe, he taught a seminar devoted entirely to the art of Marcel Duchamp, an artist I’d known from the Nude Descending a Staircase (1911–12), the Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14), and some of the readymades, but probably not much else. I had a vague sense of his importance, mostly via artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, but the extent to which Duchamp’s career alone could fill what at the time seemed like the enormity of an entire semester was at that point beyond my ken, but I was ready and willing.
My conversion was quick, but I resisted admitting to having fallen out of love with Abstract Expressionism, even to myself. My point of entry—as I suspect it is for many—was The Large Glass (1915–23), a work so impenetrably esoteric and staggering in scope yet bizarrely solipsistic, I was engrossed in the sheer audacity of this quasi-autobiographical epic. Sure, Pollock was self-centered too, but he seemed to be afraid of everything, whereas Duchamp didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, least of all failure, largely because he seemed unconcerned with any traditional notions of success. This was around the time that Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s exhaustive study of the source material for The Large Glass was published, and I marveled at the comprehensive depth and diligence of her research.
Intimidated but inspired, I identified an aspect of Duchamp’s life that had not been investigated quite so rigorously: his passion for chess, a pursuit that appeared to have been as curious to art historians as his art had undoubtedly been to his chess competitors. Not being an expert chess player, I was unencumbered by the obligation to study the games and instead was able to focus on what it meant for Duchamp to choose to play chess rather than make art. In short, I think Duchamp best expressed it with his now-famous declaration that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists,” which over time I have come to understand was likely intended less as a compliment to chess players and more pointedly as an insult to an entire generation of painters. With the gentle urging of Ellen Landau, who had the perspicacity to know which way the wind was blowing, I dropped the obscure Abstract Expressionist I was determined to put on the map as a thesis and wrote a dissertation about Duchamp and chess.
Several years later, during a brief stint at a faculty position in Texas, I began to sense that perhaps I’d taken a niche subject like Duchamp and chess about as far as it was willing to take me. “I think I’m done with Duchamp and chess” I confided to my wife in a moment of candid frustration, a phrase so ludicrous to us today that it is regularly repeated between us as a gentle admonishment for being excessively hard on oneself, or, in worse cases, as a reprimand for not seeing something through to the end. I say ludicrous because not long after that fateful phrase was uttered, I took a faculty position in St. Louis, where, as chance would have it, a wealthy philanthropist and chess fanatic was about to open a state-of-the-art chess club in the city, and there was a sudden need for programming ideas around the theme of chess. Within a year, I had gone from questioning the very relevance of Duchamp’s chess career to my future to organizing the first exhibition and a book dedicated entirely to Duchamp and chess with my soon-to-be mentor, coauthor, and friend, Francis Naumann, without whom I can’t imagine being the art historian or person I am today.
I’ve been asked on occasion if I had the opportunity to ask Duchamp a question what would it be? I struggle to respond because I think I understand him well enough at this point to know that any question I would ask him would inevitably be the wrong one.