This Retinal Bias

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

I don’t believe in art, I believe in artists.
       — Marcel Duchamp

Many of us might find Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 more accessible than Large Glass due to its simplicity and obvious expression of previous trends in art. The influence of cubism is obvious as is that of the “serial” photography of Étienne-Jules Marey, for example, his Chronophotograph of 1890. In this photograph we see a series of exposures showing a pole-vaulter beginning and ending his vault in 11 positions all shown in one photograph. In like manner, Duchamp’s nude is seen walking down the stairs in a series of a hard-to-determine number of exposures.

What isn’t hard to determine, however is the impression of a dynamic movement in a brilliant combination of overlapping planes of form and color. The profound must, by definition, transcend logic and or involve unconventional insights. The 20th century artist that most embodied what can only be called a revolutionary creative process was Marcel Duchamp.

Placing Duchamp in the context of his times is necessary to appreciate just how revolutionary his oeuvre was. “Six years younger than Picasso, he made only a minor contribution to Cubism—although his Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase was the sensation of the 1913 Armory Show in New York.”

Moving quickly beyond Cubism, Duchamp sought to be free of representational painting of any kind even free from being confined to one form of artistic expression. Having his work appeal to the eye alone was too limiting for him and he quickly transcended what could be called a “retinal bias.”

Duchamp seemed to be always on the frontier of innovation and many times too far out in front to find much acceptance, but the art world always caught up with him to affirm his visions. There were the “ready-mades,” those utilitarian objects like his urinal or hat racks that became works of art simply because he had signed them. His experiments in kinetic art, objects in motion, foreshadowed the mobiles of Alexander Calder. It was Duchamp who created the label “mobile.”

His experiments with chromatic vibration, putting contrasting colors side by side that seemed to pulsate, was rediscovered 25 years later by “Op” art. His mise-en-scène creations for Surrealist exhibitions in the 1930s and 1940s set the stage for the “happenings” and “environments” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “installations” of today.He led the world of art in the West in both Europe and the U.S. for over half a century.

The Dada movement was a reaction among artists to the madness of World War I and advocated the abolition of logic. The opposite of logic in P-B which we know to be illusion is not anti-logic nor anti-rationality but “awareness.” We are all still waiting for that movement in art, but we can see momentary intuitional insights in the works of many artists Duchamp among them.

Like the rest of humanity Duchamp was being swept along by mega-forces beyond his awareness. We turn to C. G. Jung for a deeper insight. “From the psychological standpoint, the two gestures toward the naked object (matter) [e.g. bottle rack] and the naked non-object (spirit) point to a collective psychic rift that created its symbolic expression in the years before the catastrophe of the First World War. This rift had first appeared in the Renaissance, when it became manifest as a conflict between knowledge and faith. Meanwhile, civilization was removing man further and further from his instinctual foundation, so that a gulf opened between nature and mind, between the unconscious and consciousness. These opposites characterize the psychic situation that is seeking expression in modern art.”

By 1924 most Dadaists were following Andre Breton into Surrealism, the new “revolution of consciousness” which was anything but, and Duchamp was coming to realize that following leaders and joining groups only meant loss of freedom. When his fellow artists including his two older brothers urged him to withdraw his “Nude” from a show where it had provoked controversy, he learned that the principles that would truly support his vision for creating art would not be fellow artists but a life of simplicity, solitude and silence. From the incident where he acquiesced to his brothers’ request, he rarely had anything to say about his art.

Duchamp moved to New York in 1942 and unlike most European artists who didn’t usually stay in America for long he seemed at home. “He did not miss the café life in Paris, having never been a café lover in the first place, and he had many American friends who enjoyed his company. He could be reached only by letter or telephone: there was no telephone in his quarters, a small studio over a commercial building at 210 West 14th Street. William Copley, the American painter and collector, remembers seeing Duchamp’s studio once and being impressed by its Spartan décor.”

Dada was a highly energetic reaction to the whole artistic tradition of Western art aimed at freeing all artists from the constraints of the past. When existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said “I am the new Dada” he was agreeing with his fellow artists that there was absurdity in much of human behavior. It never occurred to these rebels that unconsciousness and conditioned false-self behavior was a better explanation for human self-destruction and one that left an opening for healthy change.

Dada drew much of its energy from shadow projection which Jean Arp exemplified as he targeted the middle-class values of his disillusioned generation. “The normally constituted bourgeois possesses rather less imagination than a worm and has, in place of a heart, a larger-than-life-sized corn which troubles him when there is a change in the weather—the stock exchange weather.” 

Arp was of course right when his intuition gave him the clue that materialism was part of the problem with Europe’s dysfunctional past. Francis Picabia sensed the problem of human unconsciousness and found the metaphor of the robot appropriate. His paintings from 1915-1917 entitled Very Rare Picture upon the Earth, Machine Turns Fast and Girl Born without Mother are all composed of machine-like parts.

All movements in art are unconscious reactions because most artists are unconscious, and Duchamp was always first to see the downside of such reactions and the first to keep moving so as not to lose his freedom of expression. Georges Hugnet made the following observation related to Duchamp’s behavior: “What is left of Dada? Above all the remarkable personality of Marcel Duchamp, whose spirit, whose moral austerity and haughty detachment, whose experiments and profound thought surpassed the limits of Dada.”  We can recognize “detachment” as one of the key insights in how to remain in the present moment.

Perhaps Duchamp understood that life lived consciously was the creative process whether for a painter, a poet or a farmer. His true self was satisfied with creating without any recognition or compensation. His fellow artists reacted, competed and sought satisfaction in the accumulation of plenty, pleasure and power but throughout it all decade after decade, he remained “detached.”

As Surrealism captured the imagination of many of those formerly committed to Dada, the energy driving artistic creation seemed to be less that of anger and reaction and more a sincere quest to understand what is meant to be human. Freud’s model of human consciousness influenced painters such as Giorgio de Chirico. “‘There are many more enigmas in the shadow of a man who walks in the sun than in all the religions of the past, present and future.’ For Giorgio de Chirico painting was primarily a means of evoking the mysteries that lay at the heart of existence.”  It is not surprising then that de Chirico founded with his friend Carlo Carrà what they called the scuola metafisica, the metaphysical school of painting.

Jumping ahead from post WWI to post WWII, and from Paris to New York, the quest for deeper meaning in artistic expression continued in the work of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollack, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline who were reacting against Surrealism. These Americans admired the Surrealists’ spontaneity and would incorporate that approach in their working methods, but they considered Surrealist painting too theoretical in the way that Freudian psychology when applied became less concrete and pragmatic.

In their “action painting” these artists spoke of abandoning the intellect in search of instinct. What they were unconsciously seeking was an expression of intuition in the present moment which is a universal longing in all of humanity seeking authentic self-expression, seeking the experience of life in the context of Oneness. 

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References and notes are available for this essay. 
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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