Happy Birthday Marcel Duchamp: “There are too many artists. When there are so many artists, all possible, all good, then nothing is good “

Hans Richter (1888-1976), Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1947 (2009.18.2)

Marcel Duchamp. French painter, Cubist, Dadaist, artist and antiartist. Born Blainville, France, 1887 preoccupied with the esthetics of machinery. First ‘ready made’ objects, 1914. Great composition in painted glass ‘Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors,’ 1915-1923. Influenced Dada movement, 1916-20. Abandoned painting in the early twenties for chess. Associated with Surrealist movement. Now living in New York.

Hans Richter (1888-1976), Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1947

Alexander Liberman (1912-1999), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), New York City, 1959 (174.1990)

His face tortured with subtleties, his hands moving in a courtly ballet, Marcel Duchamp has a strange, regal presence, an ecclesiastical authority. Only the prelate’s robes are missing. He is a truly Renaissance man, a curious mixture of poetry, earthiness, and cunning. In his New York apartment are many sets of chess, the game with which he is obsessed, perhaps because in it he finds a sublimation for power. Duchamp is a professional chess-player. “I never abandoned painting for chess,” he said. “That is a legend. It is always that way. Just because a man starts to paint does not mean he has to go on painting. He isn’t even obliged to abandon it. He just doesn’t do it any more, just as one doesn’t make omelets if he prefers meat. I do not see the need to classify people, and, above all, to treat painting as a profession. I don’t see why people try to make civil servants out of painters, officials of the Ministry of Fine Arts. There are those who obtain medals and those who make paintings.”
Duchamp is the aristocrat of modern art. He has the haughtiness that comes with the dismissal of creative torment. He has put an end to his creative suffering; but even before this his hands did not be sullied for him to create. He had the arrogant vision to see and to confer art upon what he deigned to see.
Marcel Duchamp, the man who painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa to show his contempt and irreverence for the sacrosanct attitudes that he felt were stifling the creativeness of young artists, shocked America with his Nude Descending a Staircase, in the 1913 New York Armory Show. He was one of the first dadaists, the group which started out in 1916 as a revolt against traditional art. His was a revolt against academic aesthetics; he wanted art without art. Marcel Duchamp was one of the first to discover the “ready-made”; he realized that the everyday object could be transformed by artistic selection into an object with aesthetic qualities.
During our conversation he said, “There are too many artists. When there are so many artists, all possible, all good, then nothing is good. In each century there are no more than one or two geniuses. Otherwise art becomes a profession, a handicraft, and a painter makes a good painting just as a cabinetmaker makes a good piece of furniture.
“Today the artist is free, free to die of hunger. An artist should have no social obligations. If he marries, has children, he very soon becomes a victim. He must earn money to feed his family. Only one person who does not have to be fed is easier than three or four. To increase the number of people around an artist is a calamity. By forty or fifty he can earn his living comfortably, but thirty years have gone by during which he had to compromise to do it. An artist must be an egotist. He must be completely blind to other human beings – egocentric in the grand manner. It is unavoidable, one cannot create great things if he is only half involved and in doubt.
“The life of an artist is like the life of a monk, a lewd monk if you like, very Rabelaisian. It is an ordination.”

Alexander Liberman, The Artist in His Studio. New York: Random House, 1988, p. 244

Alexander Liberman papers, circa 1912-2003.
Marcel Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Alexander Liberman (1912-1999), Marcel Duchamp’s Hands, New York City, 1959-60 (157.1990)

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