Janis Mink – Duchamp (2006)
Marcel Duchamp in one of the most important and most notorious artists of the 20th century, and oddly enough he really didn’t make that much ART. I’ve never really considered myself a huge fan of Duchamp, although I appreciate his sense of humor. Anybody willing to submit a toilet to an art show HAS to have a sense of humor, right?
What Mink does well in this book is explain some of what Duchamp was THINKING when he produced his art, and (as with Warhol) what the artist MEANT by his work is often more interesting than the finished product. The toilet wasn’t REALLY intended to be a beautiful work of art, it was meant as a CONCEPT and a CHALLENGE. The group that was putting together the show that this piece was submitted to supposedly had an open-door policy, meaning that anyone who paid the entry fee was allowed to show ANY two pieces of work that they wanted---but R. Mutt’s piece was rejected. (Duchamp submitted the work under a fake name, knowing that if he submitted it under his own name, the group would have to accept it.) The work of art was ACTUALLY intended to expose the hypocrisy of the group that was putting the show together, and supposedly Duchamp resigned from the organization when they rejected a paid member's submission.
Mink (using Duchamp’s journals and notes, as well as interviews and other sources) exposes the hidden jokes behind many of Duchamp’s most famous works. I’ve never been that moved by the art that Duchamp produced (except “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which was described by a critic in 1913 as “an explosion in a shingle factory,” and I also enjoyed his modified Mona Lisa postcard, in which Duchamp gives the old girl a mustache and beard!) Learning about the JOKES, bad puns, and clever concepts behind some of Duchamp’s works, however, is fascinating. He was a weird guy---deeper and much more clever than his individual pieces may seem at first glance. And he was apparently less interested in making art than he was in messing with people, and I respect that!
In contrast to all his humorous work, though, his final major creation is absolutely horrifying. “Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas,” is a “peep show” style diorama that he spent nearly 20 years constructing, and it is so unsettling, so disturbing and disgusting, that I really don’t care for it. The work itself looks to the viewer, at first, like an unmarked wooden door with two eye holes in it, but when the viewer looks through the holes, they are subjected to what appears to be a murdered corpse dumped in a field. A naked, pale torso, one bent leg, and the lifeless arm of a female figure can be seen laying in a grassy area. No face is visible, but the scene is still horrible, and to my sensibilities, it’s a bit TOO realistic (even though it is stylized) and horrific. Again, I’m a fan of horror movies and gothic literature and monsters, but REAL LIFE horrors make me very uncomfortable, and this work is very, VERY disturbing. It seems like such massive shift away from the playful, joke-filled, and more language oriented work that characterized Duchamp’s previous art, and I have even read one book that suggested the work was directly influenced by the Black Dahlia Murder, though Mink doesn’t mention anything like that here.
Still, Janis Mink has written an interesting book, and Taschen (the publisher), doesn’t skimp on the artwork or photographs. The book is short, though, much more of a survey or quick overview than a definitive biography (and Mink mentions several other books that interested readers can look for if they want to explore deeper), but I would recommend this one for readers who are interested in “modern” art, in conceptual art, or for those who wondered what was up with that TOILET that someone was trying to say was art!
---Richard F. Yates