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 the painter."

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 Judovitz.

"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.

--Jan Gleason

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