Visual epiphanies, those moments when you deeply understand an artist, an ‘aha’ moment, if you will, are, i believe, rare occurrences (unlike the comma splices in this sentence.) There have been several for me over the years, but the one I want to discuss happened in the spring of 1974. When you reach a certain point in your life, when the music of the spheres is in harmony with the cycles & synapses of your brain, truly when the stars & planets are aligned, if you let it, it will hit you on the head like a coconut falling from a tree (salesmen, you know whereof I speak.) You must be open to the possibility of the epiphany & be able to recognize it for what it is–eyes open, ears open, mind open, heart (soul) open because it comes without warning, without preamble, without trumpets. It can be like the fog, slinking into the room (or landscape or wherever) on little cat’s paws, but unlike the fog it offers clarity where there had been none before.
I had had one a few years earlier, at least one that I recognized as such: driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota I crested a hill and below lay a valley all green & bathed in an orange light just like in many of the landscape paintings that Cézanne created when he lived in the south of France. (Read the complete post here.) That experience left me breathless and a little star-struck, not unlike a celebrity sighting on Hollywood Blvd. (as if,) but I did have to pull over & glory in the beauty that lay before me & contemplate on the vision of the artist–that seeing is being & that I could recognize it when it presented itself.
For me, these visual revelations continued unabated over the next couple of years, & as real today for me as if I had been presented with the exact same experience minutes ago. Much of it had to do with the fact that I had moved to Chicago to study at the Goodman School of Drama, at the time housed in a grand theater on Monroe east of Michigan Avenue and part of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sometime between March 23, 1974 and May 5, 1974, the exact date sadly lost to time (but not the experience) Marcel Duchamp decamped at the Art Institute in a major retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Anne d’Harnoncourt & Kynaston McShine (Duchamp could’ve made up that last name, yes?) As students at the Goodman, we had back door access (free!) to the Institute & libraries, entering through a intricate series of underground passages, all overhead pipes & institutional green paint, belching us out in a basement gallery from which we emerged into the Institute bathed in the skylights of the main stairwell.
The Duchamp exhibit was set up in the south galleries that I believe have now been demolished, but at the time were a ‘modern’ addition to the Beaux Art pile on Michigan Avenue–a sweeping & floating curved staircase led you to the main entrance of the gallery & there they had installed ephemera from Duchamp’s life (more on that later.) Slipping past the guard (clad in a maroon jacket with gray slacks & ‘sensible’ black shoes, regardless of sex) with my student pass’ chain cool against my neck, I faced the gallery; my memory tells me it was dark and that the works were starkly, dramatically lit with what I remember to be a single light source (but that could be the result of the effect the work had on me.)
& then, then, there was “Fountain,” “Fresh Widow,” “Bicycle Wheel,” “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” “L.H.O.O.Q.”; all of Duchamp’s Ready-mades with their pun-y titles. You have to know it turned me on my head. The sheer audacity of his pissing on the establishment, not only the art establishment but also the cruelest of worlds, with its wars & destructions & its mayhem & murder & madness (this after 10 million dead in WWI,) but for me, for me then, at that point in my life, young, coming out, the thrilling discoveries of power & upsetting the establishment, the revolution of sex–Duchamp sparked that, ignited it, fanned the flame, intellectually, & coolly emotionally & spit at you, daring you to feel or think otherwise.
He made people nervous. You could sense that in the galleries; oh, there was laughter, coupled with nervous undercurrents, a murmuring stream of conversation, questions, disbelief that this could be art. To me, though, Duchamp was art, art that was clever & insidious & thrillingly simple & complex & sexual. It rubbed up against you, slipped under your skin like a needle connecting to a vein, harsh, compelling, thoroughly addictive.
Could an artist be this disruptive, 40, 50 years after the fact? Could an artist’s work from the 1920s & 30s speak to a young man as honestly & directly as Duchamp’s did to me? It was revelatory, it explained unspoken meanings & revealed truths, I felt, meant just for me. Yes, yes, I know, but what about Duchamp the man, his times, his life, you say. & I tell you it does not matter, his life is but a clothes hanger on which his art hangs (but more on that later.)
I only recall two paintings/constructions & they are the ones most commonly referred to, parsed, explicated: “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2” and “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” because, after all, I am describing a feeling, a thought & a motivation not the exhibit as it unfolded. At the time, I recall thinking to myself (I first saw the exhibit alone, but went back on subsequent visits with friends from school) that Duchamp had done this work solely for my enjoyment. It was a powerful sensation, & with some sense of entitlement attached to it. I owned his intent. But perhaps, now, nearly 40 years later, I believe that he owned me, & my little universe & without meeting we shared something unique to us & us alone. That to me is an epiphany.
Et maintenant, je voudrais présenter, Rrose Sélavy! I mentioned earlier in this post that Duchamp’s life’s ephemera was on display in the antechamber to the exhibit. This room, although square, seemed round because of the large floating curving staircase that wound its way down from the second floor past floor-to-ceiling windows (facing Michigan Avenue.)
Bathed in the cloudy gray of a Chicago spring day, these artifacts, letters, photographs (most by another favorite of mine, Man Ray) laid out Duchamp’s life — but there, there was Duchamp in drag (the aforementioned Rrose Sélavy, possibly a pun on the French adage, “Eros, c’est la vie.” ) A fetching flapper from France (couldn’t resist the alliteration, sorry) & that photo, key to lock, the last thing I saw in the exhibit, turned it all around for me. The door swung open & revealed his subversive, sexually ambiguous (but deeply sexual,) revolutionary thumb in the eye of convention. Pffft!