In the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, we are told that each one of us must strive to reach the blessed state of Bodhisattva, knowing full well that Bodhisattva is a nonentity, an empty name. That is what Duchamp calls the beauty of indifference—in other words, freedom.
—Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare
What are we to do with Marcel Duchamp? Most of us who know the name put it in a box called modern art, with memories of Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a creative chess obsession, a drag alter ego, or the “Readymade” urinal Duchamp signed “R. Mutt” and called Fountain.
What were all of these productions—however dubiously original—other than the founding moves of Conceptual art to come, the primary visual discourse of the past several decades? To study Duchamp is to study the way so much contemporary culture works. Yet we take a particularly myopic view if we relegate him and his successors to a place we can wall in with the word “art.”
Duchamp’s own goal, he said, was to achieve a kind of holism—to find the empty center of the creative act, to “put art back in the service of the mind.” His work, wrote Chilean poet Octavo Paz, “is a philosophical, or rather, dialectical game more than an artistic operation… suspended by irony, in a state of perpetual oscillation.” That was no more literally the case than in the optical discs he called Rotoreliefs.
“A set of 6 double sided discs,” notes the Guggenheim, “meant to be spun on a turntable at 40–60 rpm,” they represent “Duchamp’s interest in optical illusions and mechanical art.” They also represented an interest in commerce. He made the discs in 1935 and debuted them at the Concourse Lépine, “a French fair for inventors promoting their latest gadget,” writes Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon. “In between a stand of instant vegetable choppers and another of trash compactors,” he hawked his wares. He sold “only two to friends and a single disc to a fairgoer.”
Duchamp made 500 sets of the paperboard lithographs. “They were well received and praised by the scientific community,” says Akemi May, assistant curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art. “Duchamp’s ultimate goal with these optical experiments was depth perception and the illusion of 3D.” Some of the designs “incorporate recognizable features, like a Japanese koi fish and a hot air balloon.” Duchamp himself called them a “play toy.” It’s not clear whether he thought of the Rotoreliefs as art objects at all.
He had, however, been working in this vein for some time. “Prior to creating these colorful sets,” writes Voon, “the artist had made his first optical, kinetic machine, ‘Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics),’ in 1920.” This experiment and others would lead to a film collaboration with Man Ray, “Anemic Cinema” (above with added music), a work that seeks, as we noted in an earlier post, what Jasper Johns called the “field where language, thought, and vision act on one another.”
Duchamp’s hypnotic spinning discs became iconic symbols of the mind’s turnings, appearing in films like Jean Cocteau’s 1930 Blood of a Poet and Hans Richter’s Dreams that Money Can Buy in 1947. In the cinema his off-kilter experiments serve a recognizable artistic purpose. But what are we to do with the Rotoreliefs? They are highly accomplished objects, like all his work except the Readymades.
Yet like the Readymades, they “are not anti-art,” writes Paz, “but an-artistic. Neither art nor anti-art, but something in between, indifferent, existing in a void,” a disorienting impersonal state arrived at through “an art of interior liberation.” See many more Rotoreliefs, all courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art, at Hyperallergic.