Text: Jan Åman
De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde
Better to say it right at the outset: De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde is not an exhibition about Ulf Linde. It does not have a biographical basis. It does not in any way cover Ulf Linde’s life, either within or without his artistic and literary achievement. Most of his texts on art, and works by most artists in which he has taken an interest, have been left out. Neither Pierre Bourdieu nor the News of the World have contributed methods for its realisation. Put simply, the exhibition does not approach its subject from a sociological or cultural policy perspective.
De our par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde is not an exhibition by Ulf Linde, either. It is true that it’s based on years of continuous conversations with Ulf Linde about that which the exhibition deals with. But in fact the subject himself has had no idea, right up until the opening, about what kind of exhibition it is that bears his name. “You do whatever the hell you want to”, he declared already a couple of years ago. Which has been duly noted. Instead, De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde is an exhibition for Ulf Linde, shaped for one ideal visitor – in a wheelchair. Rather than the artist or the artworks, the core this time is the spectator. That is a position we all can and must share. But when this someone is Ulf Linde, there are consequences. An exhibition based on Ulf Linde as spectator necessarily becomes just as much an exhibition about Marcel Duchamp. For nearly 60 years, Ulf Linde has been – in his own words – obsessed by Marcel Duchamp’s oeuvre. He probably knows more about the The Large Glass than any other living person. Maybe more than Marcel Duchamp himself ever did…Ulf Linde was one of the big authorities on Duchamp already in the early 1960s. This was a position he developed thanks to his writing and, not least, his extensive production of replicas of Duchamp’s works. These were made in close dialogue with Marcel Duchamp himself. In addition to conversations held in Stockholm, their correspondence was considerable. Among more heavyweight early players, only Robert Lebel and Richard Hamilton had the same opportunities of exchanging thoughts directly with the artist. In a famous photograph from the first big Duchamp retrospective – the one Walter Hopps arranged at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963 – a 76-year-old Marcel Duchamp is playing chess with a naked woman named Eve Babitz. As a backdrop to the pair is Ulf Linde’s first replica of The Large Glass, authorised and signed, as so many of Linde’s early replicas, by Marcel Duchamp himself. The work has been a central hub of Moderna Museet’s collections ever since it was made. Despite the fact that Marcel Duchamp, without making a big point about it, withdrew from the turbulence of the art market in order to work in obscurity, it is today one of the most valuable works of art in Sweden. And this despite the fact that it is a replica. And this despite the fact that it was created by a writer who has never called himself an artist. No work by a modern Swedish artist comes anywhere close – either in terms of historical significance or pecuniary value. That’s how strange reality really is. In 1977, when Ulf Linde together with Jean Clair curated the Centre Pompidou’s opening exhibition, Marcel Duchamp, his position as one the leading Duchamp interpreters was strengthened. Since then Linde has chosen to stay in Sweden to pursue his studies and his making of replicas. It is only in connection with De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde that some of Linde’s central texts on Marcel Duchamp, written between 1963 and 2011, are being made available in English. An unavoidable justification is the fact that Ulf Linde has been obsessed by an artist about whom Guillaume Apollinaire claimed, as early as in 1911: “The reunification between art and the people is reserved for an artist who has succeeded in tearing himself away from aesthetic considerations and instead devotes himself to energy”. Duchamp opened art. Duchamp shifted the focus. Duchamp shifted the focus from the flat surface in a painting to the transparency of glass and later to requisitioning entire spaces. He shifted the focus from cubism’s idea that the surface of the canvas could show both the outside and the inside of the object, to asking whether it was possible to say anything at all about man, art and reality. He shunned denominations but played with terms in a way that has made many see him as much as a philosopher and poet as an artist. Marcel Duchamp shifted the focus from artist and artwork to something very few artists had taken an interest in: how posterity creates a continued story about a work of art. For Duchamp himself, this implied a way of living and working that differed radically from that of his contemporaries – and for that matter, even more from that of our era’s artists. Duchamp chose not to participate in the struggle over attention and the market. He retreated from the limelight for almost 50 years. He worked in obscurity, even if he was seen as a forerunner at an early stage. He freed himself of competition and intrigue, with the clear risk of being forgotten about, in order to achieve the peace he needed to develop his ideas about “art in art”. He did not begin communicating again with the rest of the world in earnest until he was nearing the end of his life. He mounted his first one-man exhibition, at the Chicago Arts Club, when he was already in his fifties.
He did everything contrary to custom and convention, and to all the ordinary ways of getting acknowledgement. But now, 45 years after his death, Marcel Duchamp is the 20th-century artist who created the most meaning. Aside from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it is to Stockholm and to Moderna Museet – thanks to Pontus Hultén’s and Ulf Linde’s early sensitivity and, not least, to Ulf Linde’s replicas – that people with an interest in Marcel Duchamp’s art travel from all over the world. Ulf Linde has dedicated nearly 60 years to continuing studies of Marcel Duchamp. These have included meticulously executed replicas of Duchamp’s most important works, as well as the translation of The Green Box, in which Linde’s attention to detail is particularly apparent. If the translation had been into English and not Swedish, it would have been an international event in itself. In Francis M Naumann’s major Duchamp monograph, Linde’s two replicas of The Large Glass are at the heart of the concluding discussion about the future reception of Duchamp. In De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde the earlier replicas are complemented with what is perhaps the most challenging: Ulf Linde’s replica of Duchamp’s last work, Étant donnés – at a scale of 1:10. Where Duchamp’s original can be seen as a precursor to whole-room installations – he makes the spectator stop outside and look in on the space like a voyeur, through two peepholes in a wooden door – Linde instead lets us see the construction in its entirety. This is in order to demonstrate how the work that Duchamp only had made public after his death, in 1968, is based on the early painting Moulin à café, from 1911. Marcel Duchamp’s work has, since the 1960s, attracted interpretations from just about every school of thought. He has been interpreted through the lens of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, feminism, cultural sociology, post-Marxism, post-modernism; every new theoretical current seeks a new idea about Duchamp. Ulf Linde’s approach has been different: in his making of replicas, he sets out from what he himself calls facts. These are the result of his extremely detailed studies of Duchamp’s works, which have led him to observe that formal reality is a reflection of a complex inner reality. Just as every person is made up of different parts forming a complex individual, Linde shows how Duchamp’s collected works form a whole which is as coherent as it is complex. Ulf Linde saw that Duchamp sought the continuing conversation, that he sought the handover. That is why there is also a remarkable connection between Linde’s early texts – such as the small but crucial Duchamp monograph that was published in connection with the exhibition at Galleri Burén in Stockholm in 1962 – and his later texts. Only now is he ready to make public the results of the mathematical analyses of Duchamp’s works which have occupied him in recent decades. Ulf Linde is the opposite of the modern notion of the artist. Linde does not create anything new from an empty canvas or sheet of paper. Linde’s manner of working is more that of a transcribing monk. His own work is born by means of already existing works – in which complete attention is devoted to each detail. In a number of books about Marcel Duchamp – from Spejare (translated into English as The Scout), published in 1960, to the current manuscript Verkets hemligaste poesi – och dess djupaste (“The work’s most secret poetry – and its deepest”), completed only a few weeks before the opening of the exhibition – , Ulf Linde has told a story which is as much his own as it is Marcel Duchamp’s. From one oeuvre another has taken shape, one that gives the rest of us quite a lot to think about when it comes to the nature of spectating – as well as the nature of art and man. It is about the absolute opposite of passive viewing: with precision and sharp senses, with paper, pencil, brush and a pair of compasses, and with a library, to spend decades searching for an artist’s most secret poetry. It is precisely this that De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde is about. Duchamp never asserted that all routine spectating is artistic creation. He pointed out that when a work leaves the artist’s studio, he or she needs an audience willing to receive the work in order for it to be given meaning. Art happens in dialogue with the spectator – in what the world manages to make of an artwork and/or an artist after the work has been created. Almost everything that is created – art, literature or anything else – falls into oblivion, no matter how highly a temporary market has valued it. A very small number of things and thoughts survive the harsh ravages of time – and thereby, in Duchamp’s view, step beyond the values that can be measured in money and newsprint. Due to luck – as Duchamp himself used to say – or because the artist reaches someone who is capable of passing the works on, of handing over that which has been said and thus create new statements and make them interesting for future generations. Duchamp wasn’t merely amused by Ulf Linde’s early interpretations. He authorised both the replicas and the summary of The Green Box. What Duchamp was interested in was something completely different from our era’s obsession with copyright. A central part of his oeuvre is about how works of art continue to have an effect by being recreated – by the artist himself, who spent decades making miniature copies of his own works, but also by spectators’ texts, replicas and conversations. This leaves exhibition organisers faced with a dilemma, albeit a gratifying one. For if Duchamp asserted that the spectator and posterity create the long-term significance of works, Linde has shown how this is carried out in practice. As an exhibition, De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde must therefore be based on something other than just “showing” Ulf Linde’s and Marcel Duchamp’s work. It’s not enough to document the process or safely exhibit some works of art, no matter how significant. In order to respond to both Duchamp’s and Linde’s approaches, the exhibition has begun from the inside, in numerous and lengthy conversations held over a number of years with Ulf Linde himself – and then it has sought its own way. In his works about Duchamp, Ulf Linde uses – just like the cubists did – classical geometry as a basis, taken from the one-point perspective and the golden ratio of the Renaissance. There is no doubt whatsoever that Marcel Duchamp studied mathematical theory. His two older brothers – twelve and fourteen years his senior – were part of the more theoretical cubist school in Paris. Mathematical reasoning was part of their daily life. Duchamp’s life as an artist was formed by listening to and then relating to older artists: artistically, mathematically, conceptually and socially. Across the ceiling of the Duchamp Room in old Moderna Museet, Linde had lengths of rope extended according to an old golden ratio matrix. The play of shadows caused by the lighting above this net created an illusion of the cracks that exist in the original Large Glass – but it also provided a hidden key to Duchamp’s works. The matrix recurs in a few places in De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde. So do 22.5-degree angles and the numerals 1, 2, 3, 7 and 8, which are the basis of Linde’s work on Duchamp. Another recurrence is the boundary that Duchamp drew between an outside and an inside in art. In The Large Glass this boundary is named The Bride’s Clothes, in Étant Donnés it consists of an old wooden door that Duchamp had found in the village of La Bisbal, near Cadaqués in Spain. On this side of that boundary we are in our shared public context. In the social space where the individual coffee bean has already been ground to anonymous coffee, and where we are dressed in the institutional uniforms of conventions. On the other side is what we covet – art within art, sexuality, rapture, that which lacks designation and is impossible to share with anyone else. It is a merciless boundary that turned Marcel Duchamp into the most significant artist of the 20th century and Ulf Linde into his interpreter.
One of the better-known portraits of Marcel Duchamp was taken by Irving Penn. Wearing a suit and black shoes, with a scarf around his neck and holding a pipe to his mouth, Duchamp is standing in a corner, leaning against one wall. The image is a typical studio job: two temporary walls have been placed on a concrete floor. There is one detail, however, that makes it different from the typical: the angle of the corner in which Duchamp is standing is unusually acute.
Irving Penn must have liked this corner. He later photographed other famous personalities in the same position, including Truman Capote and Igor Stravinsky. But Duchamp was probably the first subject to pose there. And it is therefore equally probable that he was involved in arranging the portrait, as was his wont.
Ulf Linde has made the observation that the angle of the walls in the photo must be half of 45º, or 22.5º. That angle has become a key for Ulf Linde’s work about Marcel Duchamp.
They meet in a pointed corner measuring 22.5º.
For the wider public, Marcel Duchamp is known above all for the works or acts that took out a new bearing for what an artwork or an exhibition can be.
To submit, as early as in 1917, a completely ordinary urinal to the Society of Independent Artists in New York – albeit signed by one “R. Mutt” who was completely unknown to the exhibition jury (on which Marcel Duchamp himself sat) – is asking for notoriety. Until then, modern artistic revolutions had been about developing what it was possible to say within the frame and on the canvas.
One of his ready-mades was never carried out. But Duchamp chose to speak about it anyway – it is included already in the The Green Box. In an interview at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1961, he was asked to comment on the “reciprocal ready-made”. It differs from other ready-mades by being associated with an everyday act. With laconic clarity, Duchamp explained: “You take a Rembrandt… – and use it as an ironing board.” The interviewer asked if that isn’t hard on the painting. Almost absent-mindedly, Duchamp replied: “It is…”.
Duchamp’s most famous work is probably L.H.O.O.Q., Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with an added moustache, from 1919. With its publication in Picabia’s periodical 391 it became a symbol of the DADA movement, even if Duchamp never saw himself as part of any movement.
In 1938 Marcel Duchamp helped his friends André Breton, Paul Éluard, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí to put together the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. Duchamp’s contribution, besides showing five of his own works, was to help “install” (a term not used in the art context at the time) the exhibition.
Among other things, Duchamp’s installation consisted of suspending 1,200 coal sacks from the ceiling of one of the exhibition rooms. Visitors were forced to crouch down under the sacks, opening drink in hand, and watch suits and dresses get increasingly blackened by the coal dust. Marcel Duchamp, who boarded a ship to London on the same day and thus missed – as he usually did – the opening, had suggested yet another measure which in the end was not carried out. He wanted the Galerie Beaux-Arts, where the exhibition was being held, to be in complete darkness. Visitors would be given torches at the entrance so that they could light their way through the gallery to catch a glimpse of the paintings hung on walls and screens, under the dust from the coal sacks.
A few years later André Breton asked Marcel Duchamp to help him stage the exhibition Le surréalisme en 1947. Duchamp, who also on this occasion left before the opening, was nevertheless helped by the artist Frederick Kiesler to arrange a rope that extended like a spider’s web throughout the exhibition space, from floor to ceiling and between the exhibition screens. This web made it difficult even to approach the individual works of art and look at them.
Duchamp was ruthless.
But he was ruthless for a reason.
His ruthlessness was just one side of the coin that was made visible in 1912, when his painting Nu descendant un escalier was turned down for the Salon des Indépendants. Duchamp’s brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, were asked by the exhibition jury to tell Marcel that his painting was unsuitable – and at least get him to change the title of the work.
Being betrayed by one’s kin can amount to a deliverance.
It is no exaggeration to say that the brothers’ actions created the most significant artist of the 20th century. Until 1912, Marcel Duchamp had been working in close concord with his two older brothers. After his painting was turned down, Duchamp could at last see art and the artist’s life for what it was. Even his own brothers chose career before art: they preferred not to ruffle the feathers of either the prevalent public, current art theory or a stuck-in-the-mud jury.
Duchamp was no longer content to maintain a view of art as a social alternative to an ordinary salaried job. As he once said about his early years as an artist: “It was a bit the Montmartre-style bohême life – you lived, painted, were an artist – all that really doesn’t lead anywhere.”
Duchamp now resolved to make art beyond all ingratiation. Art that was utterly “dry”.
David Bowie has described how, with Station to Station in 1976, he was looking for a new “dryness” to the sound. He was tired of all the effects – tape echo, fuzz, tremolo and string reverb – that characterised rock music in the 1970s. He wanted to let the electronically amplified music speak for itself, in a dry and precise manner. Unfortunately that is not what happened in the end.
Much earlier, Marcel Duchamp had gone all the way – in art. He steered away from the personal brushstrokes and flat surface of the canvas. The transparency and delay of glass – and the “dryness” of geometry – became his weapons.
It is true that the cubists had already had their way with the one-point perspective. But Duchamp wanted to go further. He sought art that better matched how we see and experience the world. We see, think, make references, feel – all in the same instant. In order to get there, he had to throw ordinary art on the fire.
Duchamp was clear: he had to break the prevailing way of thinking in art, which included the recent attainments of the so-called avantgarde – he wanted to observe an object from two directions at once (with one eye shut, close up, for an hour…); he sought movement in the stationary; language in momentary seeing; chance in precision; seriousness in laughter. He simply wanted us to pull out a torch and search our way towards…art.
Mathematics became his weapon.
Exact geometry became his weapon.
Dryness became his weapon.
From this point on he dedicated most of his life to only two works, La Mariée mis à nu par ses célibataires, meme (The Large Glass) and Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau 2. Le gaz d’éclairage. The first he worked on for eight years, signing it in 1923 – as being “definitively unfinished”. Étant donnés he worked on in secret for 20 years, between 1946 and 1966. Only after his death in 1968 was it donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, subsequently becoming known to the world.
With his singular ability to work out a future chess game about his art, he laid out clues and created connections between his own artworks, in which the superficially provocative works are part of the same whole as The Large Glass and Étant donnés. Using a Rembrandt for an ironing board was more than an iconoclastic manoeuvre; as Olle Granath as pointed out, the French word for ironing clothes is repasser – to reuse, recreate. Duchamp was always looking for art within art, that which can be glimpsed behind and underneath all the historic layers, moulds and prescribed interpretations.
For decades, Marcel Duchamp put a lot of effort into assembling his oeuvre in boxes – collections of meticulously made replicas of his own works. He called them “portable museums”. Even though he wasn’t interested in exhibiting in galleries and museums, he thought it worth the effort to compile his artistic estate into a convenient whole – as if waiting for a select few interpreters to carry on the handover.
The first time I heard Ulf Linde talk about his mathematical studies of Duchamp was in 1995, when I visited him together with the Russian artist Yuri Leiderman. It was on that occasion that Ulf Linde delivered the classic line: “I don’t believe in ideas, I only believe in facts.”
It has taken time to understand that Duchamp really was as exact, as complex and as open as Ulf Linde shows him to be. These days, mathematics and art are usually irreconcilable quantities. They weren’t for Duchamp, and not for Linde either.
What distinguishes Ulf Linde from other Duchamp specialists is that he has concentrated, with the tenacity of the religious convert, on the only thing, on the only thing that Marcel Duchamp himself left to posterity: his artworks, his artistic testament.
On Marcel Duchamp’s own recommendation, Ulf Linde has approached the works as a collective whole. It isn’t enough just to see and interpret if one wants to get truly close to the thought and the work. Hence all the replicas. Recreating an extant work of art requires the same “dryness” of attitude and method that Duchamp himself strived for. It really isn’t that strange that it has taken 60 years.
Ulf Linde therefore takes liberties – as in the replica of Étant donnés – that extend even beyond Duchamp’s own “directions”. Ulf Linde has realised that an artist who allowed himself complete freedom in relation to art would hardly have created rules and regulations for his last work (the instructions stipulate that only the technical staff be allowed to see how the work is constructed) without leaving something to be discovered. Joseph Brodsky gave him the key – Duchamp’s own notes for the installation of the work in Philadelphia. An exact replica at a scale of 1:10 could be made without Linde even having to get on the plane to America.
As the opening of De ou par Marcel Duchamp par Ulf Linde approached, one of Marcel Duchamp’s lesser known works cropped up more and more often in conversation. As a wedding present in 1919, Duchamp’s sister Suzanne received instructions for setting up an “unhappy ready-made”. She was instructed to tear off the covers of a school textbook in geometry and mount the bared contents on her balcony in Rue Condamine in Paris. According to the instructions, the book was to be mounted in such a way that it was exposed to the elements: rain and sun to make the print fade, and the wind to tear away page after page. Mathematical exactitude ultimately dissolved into a poetic nothing: “there is no art, only artists”.