Last year, when Curator of European and American Art Theresa Papanikolas was working on “From Whistler to Warhol: Modernism on Paper,” she realized there was one glaring gap in our extraordinarily comprehensive collection of modernist works on paper. That gap was Marcel Duchamp. Anyone who’s taken an Art History 101 class knows him from his Nude Descending a Staircase. But Duchamp is so much more than that seminal painting. He is his own survey of modern art. He did it all, and he did it first. Go into the Marcel Duchamp room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and half the stuff in there could be in the next triennial at the New Museum. It just kind of makes your head explode. Anyway, as Theresa was thinking about that gap, she received a call from the Zabriskie Gallery in New York. They wanted to let her know that they had one of Marcel Duchamp’s “Boîte Series G” works for a museum-friendly price.
As you probably know, the Academy, like museums across the country, is reeling financially from the current economic doldrums, and that means no money for acquisitions. Theresa sadly told Zabriskie Gallery of the situation. But she had a brilliant idea: Would the gallery be willing to loan the work to the Academy to make her exhibition complete? Zabriskie generously agreed.
At the members’ opening of the exhibition, Academy Trustee Barney Ebsworth was captivated by the Marcel Duchamp, displayed prominently in a glass case in Gallery 28. He saw that it was on loan. He decided to fill the Academy’s Modernist gap. The museum is deeply grateful to him for his generosity and understanding of how this acquisition fills an important missing piece from the collection’s puzzle.
I’m just a layman, get the expert info on our newest member of the collection from Curator Theresa Papanikolas:
Duchamp was a French painter, sculptor, writer, and chess fanatic who devoted his career to demonstrating the richness and variety of conceptual approaches to art. From the moment he upended a bicycle wheel, mounted it on a stool, and called it sculpture, Duchamp repeatedly called attention to the fundamental aesthetic value of the intellectual exercise of selection, and, downplaying notions of creative individualism and authorship, he insisted that a even a facsimile could be a work of art. In privileging the idea over the original object, Duchamp questioned the notion that successful art required a public and, exhibiting only rarely, placed his best work in private collections.
In 1936, Duchamp began work on a compendium of “approximately all the things I produced”: a “portable museum” that would contain his oeuvre in miniature. Into this Boîte-en-valise [Box in a Suitcase] he carefully folded 69 scaled-down replicas of his paintings, drawings, and objects, including Cubist landmarks such as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), “Readymades” such as “Bicycle Wheel” (1913), “Bottle Rack” (1914), and “Fountain” (1917), and the archly erotic “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (The Large Glass) (1913) and L.H.O.O.Q. (Mona Lisa with a moustache, 1919). During the remainder of his life there followed six partial editions of the “Boîte,” each incorporating additional items and varying in presentation. Although fabricated in multiple editions, the Boîtes are not true copies, for Duchamp personally and meticulously oversaw the production of each component.
One of the most important and influential works of 20th-century art, Duchamp’s “Boîte” is not only a convenient summation of his life’s work, but also a clever synthesis of his conceptual practice. His artistic statements and achievements, in all their heterogeneous profusion, are presented here as a carefully ordered whole, from his early attempts at Fauvism and Cubism, to the groundbreaking objects and themes that place him at the forefront of Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.—Theresa Papanikolas
“Boîte Series G” will be on view through July 3. See it while you can.