The Wall Street Journal looks at the Philadelphia Museum’s show of Marcel Duchamp’s Étants Donnés, his last work and one of his most enigmatic. Writer Candace Jackson calls it the first piece of installation art and describes the debt Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Mathew Barney owe to the artist:
Much of the mystery surrounding the piece, perhaps Duchamp’s most elaborate, stems from how little is known about how it was actually made. “Duchamp’s work process is important, sometimes more important than the final product,” says Paul B. Franklin, who works with the Duchamp family to help manage the artist’s estate, and is the editor in chief of “Étant donné Marcel Duchamp,” a Paris-based scholarly journal dedicated to his work.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit begins with some of Duchamp’s very early work, including a drawing he did at 15 years old of a lamp similar to the one used in “Étant donnés.” Michael R. Taylor, the show’s curator, says it foreshadows his final masterpiece. “Things that obsessed him as a boy, still obsessed him as an adult,” he says.
A catalogue that will be released to coincide with the show features 35 previously unpublished letters written by Duchamp to Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. Duchamp and Martins, the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to the United States, carried on an affair for years during the construction of “Étant donnés,” before Duchamp was married to his third wife, Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp. The letters, held by Martins’s family until recently, reveal much of what was unknown about how Duchamp created his last work, and provide insight into his emotional life. “My little one, let us devote the most possible time to ourselves alone,” he writes on Sept. 5, 1950.
Duchamp’s perfume bottle was one of the surprise hits of the YSL/Pierre Bergé auction in Paris, this winter. Some have speculated that Richard Prince was the buyer who paid $11+m for the object. But that doesn’t mean there’s a powerful market for Duchamp’s work:
Francis M. Naumann, owner of the Francis M. Naumann Fine Art gallery, which has sold many Duchamp pieces, says despite the recent record sale, Duchamp’s work is not easy to sell. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of works of art are meant to just be appreciated aesthetically,” says Mr. Naumann. “With Duchamp, there’s no choice but to penetrate about two inches behind the eyeballs into the brain.”
Duchamp’s Secret Masterpiece (Wall Street Journal)