Every art student knows Marcel Duchamp. He’s the big daddy of Dada. The artist who outraged critics in 1913 with his abstract painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, put a urinal in a gallery and labeled it Fountain, defaced the Mona Lisa with a beard, and dressed in drag under the name “Rrose Sélavy” (Eros c’est la vie).
The first conceptual artist. A dead-serious prankster in a more literal-minded time, the French provocateur’s heritage can be seen everywhere in modern art, from Andy Warhol to Andres Serrano. In 2001, when it is commonly believed that artistic expression has automatically passed into a new age, Duchamp (1887-1968) is proof that we haven’t yet digested the 20th century.
“They all look back to Duchamp,” says Lanier Graham, director of the Cal State Hayward Art Gallery, where a remarkable exhibition called “Marcel Duchamp: Artist, Humorist, Philosopher” is running through February 20, 2002 as part of a larger festival, “Marcel Duchamp & the Art of Life” (see www.csuhayward.edu/artgallery/ news.html). The show gathers together a number of Duchamp’s most notorious works and memorabilia, including Fountain, Bicycle Wheel, Nude Descending a Staircase, and Man Ray’s photo of “Rrose Sélavy.” Duchamp’s androgyny is one of his key motifs, according to Graham — but not necessarily sexual androgyny. “His androgyny was a metaphor for human wholeness. Thinking and feeling at the same time.”
Graham himself encountered Duchamp at MOMA in New York in the late ’60s, when the two shared a common interest in chess. “Duchamp,” recalls Graham, “was disappointed in art that was visual but had no ideas. The more profound the idea, the better.” In this time of war hysteria, Duchamp’s message of peace (he once declared: “I hate hatred”) is still timely, especially for Cal State’s students. Says Graham: “There’s nobody [of the artists taught in class] who excites them more, except maybe Van Gogh. Duchamp was open to any idea that anyone wanted to create. He said whatever an artist said was a work of art, was art. It was the first democratization of art.”