Judovitz `unpacks' Duchamp and his legacy to modernism
It didn't bother Dalia Judovitz that she was officially an expert in 17th
century French literature and philosophy when she decided to write a book
on Marcel Duchamp, considered by many to be the major art figure of the
20th century. Even though she was not an art historian, she had a strong
background in aesthetics and a philosophical and conceptual interest in
art. She was intrigued by the philosophical significance of Duchamp's artworks.
In her 1995 book Unpacking Duchamp, Art in Transit, Judovitz examines how
Duchamp questioned the category of the artist, the creative act and how
art institutions define art. "Duchamp was not only an artist; he was
interested in how art objects reflect institutions and how those institutions
enshrine the artwork; he also challenged the limits between art and non-art,"
said Judovitz, professor of French and Italian.
"Duchamp is considered to be the father of French and American conceptual
art, and much of the modernism of visual arts is indebted to his legacy,"
said Judovitz. "This guy has obsessed the entire 20th century, and
there's a large body of literature about his work from philosophers, literary
types, artists and art historians."
Judovitz became intrigued with Duchamp in the early 1980s while she was
teaching French literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where she
visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That museum has the best collection
of Duchamp's work because it was the only museum willing to show his works
in their entirety. "He wanted people to see all his pieces together,
to look at the relationship of his works in reference to each other,"
said Judovitz. "I puzzled about him and his work and thought, how can
this be art?"
In 1987 she began working on Duchamp in earnest when she was asked to write
an article on what is considered Duchamp's defining piece, "Given,"
for the journal Dada and Surrealism. "`Given' is part painting, part
mechanical reproduction and part ready-made; it is a restaging of everything
Duchamp has done," said Judovitz. "When I finished the article
I realized that I had written a conclusion to a book."
In her book, Judovitz chronicles Duchamp's career, which stretches from
1909 to 1968. "He started out as a painter, but after his work was
rejected by the Salon des Independants, he quit painting," she said.
He chose "to move beyond painting in order to challenge the social
and institutional conventions that define both pictorial production and
Judovitz traveled to see all of Duchamp's works, which are scattered in
Paris, New York and Philadelphia. "When you see the painstaking care
he took with making things, it's absolutely remarkable. His body of work
is so serious, so careful. When he does make things by hand the attention
to detail is incredible."
After abandoning painting, Duchamp turned to a series of works called ready-mades.
"He shocks the art world with the exhibition of ready-mades, mass-produced
objects that he relabels and displays as art," said Judovitz. "He
used items that he in bought a hardware store, such as a shovel, a bicycle
wheel or a bottle rack, and fashioned them into art objects," said
"In his ready-mades Duchamp was looking at the status of an art object,"
said Judovitz. "He was saying that people consider objects as art only
if they are made by hand, but really it is institutions that make objects
into art. The ready-mades were a commentary on painting.
"Some people say Duchamp always thumbed his nose at art, some say
`he's simply a prankster,'" continued Judovitz. "But he relied
on the conventions of art and understood it. The joke in the ready-mades
is that they were not made by hand; he was saying that making is not only
an activity of the hand, but also of the mind."
Judovitz also examines Duchamp's commentaries on the role of the artist.
"The interesting thing about Duchamp is that he makes clear that anything
we do artistically is in relation to what has been done before," said
Judovitz. "He's intellectually interesting because he always recognized
the meaning of artistic terms. He said art was like a chess game; that a
new place on the board had to take into account the place on the board of
the previous position."
Judovitz's argument about Duchamp's work (and what she said convinced the
University of California, Berkeley press to print her book) was that Duchamp
used the printing medium as a way to rethink the painting medium, and in
so doing to then rethink the meaning of art. "What's really modern
about Duchamp is rather than decry industrialization, he looked at mechanical
reproduction and how that could create art," said Judovitz. "The
publisher was interested in my new approach to Duchamp and the fact that
not many people had looked at his work from beginning to end."
She said the title, Unpacking Duchamp, is in keeping with his sense of
playfulness in his work. "I don't just survey the historical development
of his work, but I assert that there are a certain set of questions present
in his work that continue to be there until he dies. People had not understood
his work that way."
Judovitz also said the title can be taken in a literal way. "At a
private collector's house in San Francisco I saw `The Green Box,' one of
his 60 works that are in valises that he made in the 1940s as a kind of
portable museum during the war. In a sense all of his works are in boxes,
they all need unpacking. The art in transit portion of the title relates
to his idea that artists and art are all in transition.
"Artists since Duchamp have had trouble going beyond what he did and
said about the artist's role and the creative act," said Judovitz.
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