An Artist’s Timely Riddles

Deploying scientific methods to understand a Dada artist's provocative creations

The artwork of Marcel Duchamp presents intriguing, yet maddeningly intricate, puzzles.

In this sequence of images, a computer simulation superimposes an image of a normal coat rack (depicted in color) on Duchamp’s “readymade” coat rack, as seen in a grainy 1917 photograph (above). When a particular hook in the computer-generated image matches the corresponding hook in the photograph, the other hooks don’t line up (below). Shearer and Greg Alvarez

Shearer and Greg Alvarez

Shearer and Greg Alvarez

One hook looks bent out of shape (right). Shearer and Greg Alvarez
Duchamp’s “readymade” snow shovel, photographed in his studio in 1917. The shovel appears to have a shaft with a square cross-section and an unconventional coupling between the shaft and the blade. Courtesy of Shearer

Born near Rouen, France, in 1887, Duchamp earned a reputation in later years as an “anarchistic dazzler,” says science historian Gerald Holton of Harvard University. Duchamp made a career out of pretending not to work, and he professed to take nothing seriously.

Among his more notorious escapades, Duchamp scribbled a moustache and goatee on a cheap, postcard reproduction of the “Mona Lisa,” added a salacious caption and his signature, and called the result art. He submitted an ordinary porcelain urinal to a major art exhibition as his own sculpture and gave it the label “Fountain.”

Such irreverent antics strongly influenced the development of 20th-century art, including the work of such later artists as Andy Warhol. They also overshadowed another facet of Duchamp’s restless, innovative mind—a passionate interest in mathematics and science.

Steeped in the philosophy and popular writings of French mathematician Henri Poincaré, Duchamp “understood the mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry and higher dimensionality in a far more serious and technical way than any other artist of his time,” sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer and Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould contend in an essay in the Nov. 5, 1999 Science.

Shearer directs the Art Science Research Laboratory in New York City, which is devoted to the scientific study of Duchamp’s art. In November 1999, she hosted a symposium at Harvard called “Methods of Understanding in Art and Science: The Case of Duchamp and Poincaré.”

Significant advances

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a vibrant period of significant scientific and technological advances, from the discovery of X rays and the advent of powered flight to Albert Einstein’s formulation of the special theory of relativity.

It was also a time of great popular interest in visualizing a fourth spatial dimension—a concept that appeared to offer painters and sculptors, in particular, an avenue of escape from conventional representation. Moreover, the development of non-Euclidean geometries, which overturned Euclid’s postulate that parallel lines never meet, provided alternative but perfectly consistent models of reality.

These ideas came together in a fascinating assemblage that Duchamp completed in 1914 and called “3 Stoppages Étalon,” or three standard stopping points.

In typically meticulous fashion, Duchamp described how he cut three lengths of thread, each 1 meter long. Holding each thread in turn horizontally between outstretched hands, he dropped them from a height of 1 meter onto canvas strips painted blue. He then used drops of varnish to fix the threads, no longer straight, in their new configuration.

The creation of these contorted lines was “drawing without using your hand,” comments philosopher Arthur C. Danto of Columbia University. It also exemplified Duchamp’s use of chance to create art objects, he says.

Moreover, echoing the spirit of the times, each mounted thread served as a new standard measure of length, Danto says. For any given “stoppage,” there would be a universe where the “line” would look straight. In fact, Duchamp later fabricated three flat wooden sticks, each with one edge cut to follow a thread’s curve, and added them to his three mounted threads in a display box.

Various people, including Shearer, have tried to follow Duchamp’s protocol, but they have consistently failed to duplicate his results, even roughly. “Something was very wrong,” Shearer insists. Moreover, threads of comparable diameter and elasticity laid down on top of Duchamp’s mounted threads wouldn’t hold those shapes.

When Shearer and her colleagues examined the artwork itself, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, they were shocked. Visible through the glass base were the ends of the threads, poking through from the side normally open to view, and they were glued to the back.

In effect, each thread forms a stitch. Ironically, the French word stoppage also refers to invisible mending or sewing.

No one before seems to have noticed or paid attention to this detail, Gould says.

Rather than simply recording chance events, Duchamp apparently manipulated his materials to create a convincing illusion of chance. Yet by putting the canvasses on glass bases, he didn’t hide that manipulation. The clues were there for anyone who looked closely.

Indeed, Herbert Molderings of the University of the Ruhr in Bochum, Germany, argues that Duchamp’s artwork is not the result of a physical experiment. “It does not propose any new standards for observing and measuring the material world but establishes the standards of a certain intellectual attitude,” he says.

Shearer describes her findings in the December 1999 issue of the laboratory’s online journal Tout-Fait.

Curious readymades

Duchamp is perhaps best known for his so-called readymades—a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool, a wooden hat rack, an Underwood typewriter cover, a snow shovel, a wood and metal coatrack, a steel comb, an advertisement for Sapolin enamel paints, a bottle-drying rack, his infamous urinal, and a number of others.

At first glance, the underlying idea seems to be that an artist can transform everyday, mass-produced objects into works of art simply by selecting them. Such items eventually move into art galleries and museums, completing their transformation into respectable art objects.

Duchamp himself stated that it didn’t matter who had originally manufactured his ready-mades. The point was that he, Duchamp, had chosen them. Those words echo Poincaré’s notion that mathematical discovery means selection—discerning patterns and laws hidden within apparent randomness.

In his 1908 essay “Science and Method,” Poincaré described an instance when he was unable to sleep because of an excess of black coffee. Wide-awake, he found his mind jammed with ideas. “I sensed them clashing until a pair would hook together . . . to form a stable combination,” he wrote. By the next morning, Poincaré had the solution to a mathematical problem that had plagued him for weeks.

“Discovery is discernment, selection,” Poincaré argued. “The real work of the discoverer consists in choosing between . . . combinations with a view to eliminating those that are useless.”

However, he went on to say that this unconscious work doesn’t supply a result “ready-made.” What it produces are merely points of departure for deliberate effort.

So, there may be more to Duchamp’s readymades than meets the casual eye.

Mysteriously, none of Duchamp’s earliest originals has survived. All that remain are various photographs of the objects in his studio and later reproductions of the items, including sets authorized and signed by the artist and miniature versions made for Duchamp’s “La Boîte-en-valise,” or the box in a suitcase—a portable museum of his artworks.

Shearer suspects that Duchamp’s original readymades, rather than being off-the-shelf, store-bought items, were all unique creations, extensively manipulated by the artist’s hand. The assumption that a readymade is an unchanged everyday object is false, she says.

In fact, Duchamp himself had described some of the objects, such as the paint sign, as assisted or rectified readymades. The question is whether that was true for all the readymades.

One way to check would be to find other examples of those mass-produced articles that he claimed to have purchased or, at least, images of them in catalogs.

Shearer and Gould have assembled an extensive collection of antique hat racks, coat hooks, snow shovels, paint signs, perfume containers, and other items. “It was impossible to find exact replicas of the objects Duchamp claimed to have purchased,” Shearer says, nor did they turn up in catalogs.

Another approach would be to take a close look at the photographs of Duchamp’s originals, some made by the famed photographers Man Ray and Alfred Steiglitz. Careful analysis of the pictures shows that some of these supposedly mass-produced items have implausible features, Shearer says.

For example, in a photograph of a snow shovel leaning against a wall in Duchamp’s studio, the shaft apparently has a square cross-section rather than the more customary rounded shape. Such an awkward, arm-numbing shaft may help account for Duchamp’s title for the piece: “In Advance of the Broken Arm.”

Moreover, a careful reproduction of the snow shovel based on the photograph reveals that the attachment between the handle and blade is unconventional and the blade itself improperly reinforced.

A person couldn’t actually shovel snow with it, Shearer declares.

Similar questions of usability arise with the racks for hats and coats. According to the available photographs, some hooks curve in the wrong direction, for example. Shearer’s team is now using image-processing technology to pin down differences among the various images and reproductions of Duchamp’s readymades.

“The readymades were not just unexpected individual art objects,” Shearer concludes. “They were parts of an experimental game reenacting the larger and more general creative process.”

Perceptual ambiguity

Duchamp had a great interest in perceptual ambiguity and conducted a variety of optical experiments. In the early 1920s, for example, he discovered that spinning disks painted with certain patterns look three-dimensional when viewed with just one eye. He later constructed a set of 12 images, including various geometric patterns and a goldfish in a bowl, to demonstrate the effect and to sell as a commercial product. Duchamp promoted his “Rotoreliefs” as a contribution to science.

Duchamp’s knowledge of optics also figured into his facility with photographic techniques for manipulating images. He could readily create composite images, for example.

Few people today recognize how widely photographic tricks were used early in the 20th century, Shearer says. Even amateur photographers could obtain handbooks for performing manipulations such as inserting anomalous figures or changing the lighting.

Intriguingly, some photographs of the readymades show signs of such manipulation. In one, for example, a shadow appears incorrectly placed. In another, a coatrack looks as if it’s being viewed from several different perspectives at once. Nobody can be certain, however, whether the object or its image was distorted.

Shearer and her coworkers have produced computer simulations that try to match a real coatrack to one in a photograph in order to demonstrate the distortions.

In the case of the stool and bicycle wheel, the stool looks different in different photographs. In some, it appears to have uneven or oddly angled legs so that it wouldn’t stand up straight. In others, different rungs are missing. The bicycle wheel itself looks as if it had been badly mounted on its axle, so it would wobble instead of spinning smoothly.

Duchamp also created several versions of his defaced “Mona Lisa” postcard. Image-analysis techniques reveal that one of the representations differs significantly from the others. This picture may actually be a composite of an early photo of Duchamp layered over the cryptically smiling face of the “Mona Lisa.”

In another instance, in 1933, Duchamp mailed a postcard showing a Paris bistro scene to Katherine S. Dreier, his patron in the United States. Close scrutiny now suggests that Duchamp actually fabricated the image and printed his own postcard.

Duchamp’s casual forgery was quite elaborate, says art historian Hans de Wolf of the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. The “Oasis” bar depicted in the postcard image actually existed, but the photo appears to be a clever collage. It seems to incorporate a figure that looks suspiciously like a young Duchamp into the mix of people in the scene.

Caution and skepticism

Museum curators, Duchamp experts, and others have so far been cautious in reacting to the new information about Duchamp that Shearer’s efforts have uncovered. Some are skeptical, and others are unsure whether it makes any difference.

To Shearer, her work builds a library of information—raw data—as a fresh starting point for analyzing the work of an influential artist.

There are facts that just can’t be ignored, Gould says.

Gould describes Duchamp as a “genius out of time.” He was a multidimensional individual who could function in the context of his own era, scandalizing society and exerting a powerful influence on the artistic community. Yet he could also look far deeper and farther, exploiting the acceptability of artistic idiosyncrasy to orchestrate an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with posterity.

Such a dynamic element was important to Duchamp. As a highly skilled chess player who competed in international tournaments, he appreciated not just the static positions of chess pieces at any given moment but also the patterns of the movements of those pieces throughout a game.

In effect, Duchamp wanted his art to transcend the inevitable mummification of museum and gallery displays. He wanted it to live on actively.

Duchamp created puzzles for the spectator to ponder, trace, and follow through, says French scholar Hector Obalk of Harvard.

Early in his life, for example, Duchamp had noticed a sudden revival of interest in the work of Leonardo da Vinci with the publication in facsimile of Leonardo’s notebooks, 400 years after they were produced. The prospect of that sort of immortality undoubtedly appealed to Duchamp. He later composed and published explanatory notes to accompany some of his key artworks.

Duchamp’s notes did not appear all at once but were carefully doled out over time. One set surfaced only after Duchamp died in 1968. It furnished fresh material for scholars to ponder and enabled them to appreciate his perplexing oeuvre anew.

Shearer’s team approach to art scholarship, taking advantage of the skills of computer scientists and other experts, represents another such reappraisal—one capable of producing additional time-release surprises.

In his distinctively inscrutable way, Duchamp, the master chess player and artistic puzzler, would have loved it.

More Stories from Science News on Humans