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Inventing Duchamp

Born in Blainville, France, near Rouen, Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) first traveled to the United States in 1915. Forty years later he became an American citizen. Although not commonly considered in the context of American art, Duchamp was indelibly shaped by his adopted country. It was in the United States that Duchamp first made his mark on modern art even before his arrival, thanks to the explosive reception of Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) at the 1913 Armory Show.

Duchamp returned to France in 1923, making occasional trips back to the United States, where he settled permanently in 1942. He relished the opportunity to reinvent himself and did so frequently. Styling himself a provocateur, in 1917 he famously submitted a urinal, entitled Fountain, to a nonjuried art exhibition, from which it was rejected. The work bore his first pseudonym, R. Mutt. This alternate identity would not be his last.

Duchamp invented his best-known alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, in the early 1920s. Indeed, his attention to self-representation would become a hallmark of his art and would revolutionize portraiture, transforming it into a conceptual enterprise.
Recognizing that posterity would determine the true significance of his work, Duchamp told an interviewer in 1955: “You should wait for fifty . . . or a hundred years for your true public. That is the only public that interests me.” This exhibition takes him at his word.

The Portraits
Throughout a lengthy career, which spanned much of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp recast accepted modes for assembling and describing identity. In 1917, having recently arrived in the United States, Duchamp found special significance in a mechanically produced photo-postcard that depicted him simultaneously from five different vantage points, thanks to a hinged mirror. The Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp suggests the artist’s early recognition of the multifarious nature of personal identity, something he would continue to explore throughout his career. Fascinated with the way portraits shape identity, Duchamp exploited the genre, often turning conventional codes for portrayal on their head.

In 1921 Duchamp famously pictured himself as Rrose Sélavy (a pun translating to “Eros is life,” when pronounced aloud in French). He would associate himself with this female persona throughout the remainder of his career. At the same time, he posed for well-known photographs in which he sported an unconventional tonsure emblazoned with a star. Soon thereafter, he used mugshots to cast himself as a criminal of many aliases wanted for running an illegal gambling operation.

Among the numerous likenesses Duchamp’s playful approach to self-representation inspired are works by artists including Joseph Cornell, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Frederick Kiesler, Daniel MacMorris, Man Ray, Arnold Newman, Francis Picabia, Edward Steichen, Joseph Stella, Florine Stettheimer, and Alfred Stieglitz. Duchamp’s influence extended to artists of the 1960s and 1970s, spurring portraits by Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Brian O’Doherty, Richard Pettibone, Sturtevant, and Andy Warhol, among others.

Portraiture of Duchamp has continued since his death with recent depictions by artists such as Ray Beldner, Douglas Gordon, Yasumasa Morimura, and Mark Tansey. Together these works reveal the centrality of portraiture in Duchamp’s career as a tool for cementing friendships, challenging artistic hierarchies, and constructing a persona—dynamics that artists continue to explore today. A small selection is featured here; the gallery exhibition has additional portraits not included on this Web site.

“Duchamp should absolutely be considered in the context of American art. Conceptual art of the 60's would not have been able to question what art is without the road paved by Duchamp in the 40's. His work was essential in the development of postmodern thinking; to question the established traditions of the institution, and bring the readymade (objects of life) into the fine art context. Nice post.”
Posted over 5 years ago
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Jasper Johns
Marcel Duchamp


Visual Arts
Surrealist Photography


Self Reflection


National Portrait Gallery