“affectionately, marcel: the selected correspondence of marcel duchamp”

Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp
(edited by Francis M. Naumann & Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor)
(Ludion Press, 2000)

Naumann & Obalk’s edition of Duchamp’s correspondence presents a selection of Duchamp’s letters presented chronologically. What one notices most about these letters – especially if you start at the beginning & read right through, as I did – is how workaday they are. Duchamp is not, for the most part, sharing his ideas with his correspondents. None are exceptionally long; most are brief records of what he’s been up to, detailing his travels, financial dealings (many of these), and of course his work attempting to sell art for his friends. One gets the weird sense of Duchamp as a boring person. I don’t think he was, of course; consulting a timeline, it’s clear that he was almost always busy doing interesting things while writing these letters. But these letters present the quotidian Duchamp; certainly, he wasn’t using his correspondence to work out ideas. There’s a vast gulf between the Duchamp presented here and the Duchamp of the interviews.

These letters were gathered from the recipients, as Duchamp never saved copies of his own letters (or letters sent to him). Gaps sometimes emerge: barely anything is said about the construction of the Large Glass; letters to Beatrice Wood don’t show up until 1940. Only one letter was sent during his very brief marriage to Lydie Sarazin-Levassor in 1927 (he tells Walter Pach on 24 June that marriage is “a delightful experience so far and I hope it will go on. My life is in no way changed by this.”). The next letter, sent to Katherine Dreier on 12 March 1928, notes that he’s been divorced since 25 January. An explanation of his personal life is not to be found in these letters; clearly, there’s a distinction between the public Duchamp and the private Duchamp, and the private Duchamp doesn’t make it into letters. (His letters to Maria Martins, which one presumes might be some of his most revealing letters, haven’t been made public.) Which is not to say that bits of emotion don’t show through: for example, in a series of letters to Katherine Dreier in 1928 he defends his backing out of the art world vociferously:

Your 2 letters announcing the possible stop of activities in the S.A. did not surprise me___ The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get successful in the smallest way.
     This means also that all the dogs around the artist are crooks___ If you see the combination fakes and crooks___ how have you been able to keep some ind of a faith (and in what?)
     Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “Art game”.
     In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much”___ It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums___ So much for posterity___
     Please come back to the ground and if you like some paintings, some painters, look at their work, but don’t try to change a crook into an honest man, or a fake into a fakir.___
     That will give you an indication of the kind of mood I am in___ Stirring up the old ideas of disgust___
     But it is only on account of you___
     I have lost so much interest (all) in the question that I don’t suffer from it___ You still do___ (5 November 1928; originally in English)

It’s unclear what exactly has stirred him up into this rage – in the letters that bookend it, he complains that he was never friends with Alfred Stieglitz (but he was never friends with anyone) and he rails against the idea of Waldemar George writing a book about him; he also complains that he’s feeling his age of 42. There are two letters from 1930 (one detailing his book on chess); none at all from 1931 or 1932, and by 1933 he’s happily in a relationship with Mary Reynolds and trying to get Brancusi’s art shown in New York. These letters don’t serve as biography: the exciting things seem to be happening in the margins.

But there are enough interesting details to make this book well worth reading: in 1935, for example, Duchamp attempted to sell his Rotoreliefs at Macy’s on consignment, with no luck. He accuses Alfred Barr of “malicious incompetence” in a rare unguarded moment. His correspondence attempting to get funding for his system of playing roulette (which became Monte Carlo Bond is entertaining: he’s not trying to figure out how to win, he’s just trying to get by, which he suspects could be done scientifically if he only had the funds to do it. In a letter to Yvonne Chastel, Duchamp mentions that a first edition of Lautréamont’s Les chants de Maldoror is “one of the 5 or 6 books that make up my entire library”; one immediately wonders what the other volumes would be. In 1950, Walter Arensberg, who believed that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare, appointed Duchamp Vice President of the Francis Bacon Foundation. And in a letter to the French critic Jean Suquet, Duchamp indicates his indebtedness to Roussel:

One important point for you is to know how indebted I am to Raymond Roussel who, in 1912, delivered me from a whole “physicoplastic” past which I had been trying to get out of. A production at the Antoine theater of “Impressions d’Afrique” which I went to see with Apollinaire and Picabia in October or November 1912 (I would be grateful if you would check the date), was a revelation for the three of us, for it really was about a new man at that time. To this day, I consider Raymond Roussel all the more important for not having built up a following. (25 December 1949)

A letter to Michel Carrouges points out that he hadn’t known Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” as Carrouges had suspected; rather, Roussel filled that space.

This is, it needs to be said, a beautifully edited and produced book; one might quibble, at times, about the jocularity of the English translations, but the French original is always provided for reference. Marginal notes identify figures and artworks mentioned in the letters; significant events in Duchamp’s life are similarly presented chronologically, creating a biography of a sort. The picture that emerges of Duchamp at the end of this book remains opaque. Certain correspondents recur over his life: Man Ray, Brancusi, the Stettheimers, Henri Pierre Roché, Katherine Dreier. But these are, by and large, Duchamp’s friends from whom he was separated by distance; letters, for Duchamp at least, present an odd cross-section of life, and at the end of this book Duchamp is still hiding.

ray johnson & bill wilson, “a book about a book about death” / “from bmc to nyc: the tutelary years of ray johnson 1943–1967”

Ray Johnson & Bill Wilson
A Book about A Book about Death
(Kunstverein Publishing, 2010)

From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson 1943–1967
curated by Sebastian Matthews
(Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 2010)

These are two catalogues of recent shows of the work of Ray Johnson. Johnson was a visual artist; but it’s his use of language, in its different incarnations, that keeps me interested in his work. Johnson could profitably be read as a poet; to my knowledge, this hasn’t really happened.

The first of these catalogues accompanied a show at the Black Mountain College Museum; it focuses on Johnson’s work when he was attending that school (then being run by Josef Albers) and work done during his early years in New York, though it draws back even further, presenting a series of illustrated letters and cards that Johnson sent to a high school friend, Arthur Secunda, in the early 1940s. In all of these, there’s a mixing of text and image: sometimes illustrations added to text, sometimes text built around illustrations, and, more rarely, collage, the principle that much of Johnson’s later work would spring from. It’s unclear whether Johnson thought of this as “mail art,” though it certainly could be described as that; he did declare that he thought his work should be catalogued back to 1943, which might make that case. Despite this, Not a huge amount of Johnson’s early work, especially what he was doing at BMC, survives: he cut up most of it to serve as content for later works in the form of tesserae, and he evidently burned his class notes in the 1950s. Julie J. Thomson’s essay scrutinizes the effect of the teaching of Albers on Johnson: in particular, she points to his assimilation of Albers’s ideas on colors, which resonate through his later work. His famous portrait of Elvis Presley as Oedipus, for example, might be seen as a meditation on the meaning of red, that collage’s dominant color: red streaming from the eyes signifies blood, but were the image in black and white, as the original image of Presley is, the streams might as easily be tears. In front of Presley’s mouth appear blocks of red, rectangular but of irregular proportions, seemingly representing words: the shapes are abstract like language, and though each is of the same color red, the meaning of a word varies with context, just as the value of red varies in the color studies of Albers.

Kate Erin Dempsey’s essay looks at how Johnson used language: in particular, the influence of Mayan hieroglyphs, a frequent subject of scrutiny at BMC. The hieroglyphs had not yet been discovered, but it was clear that this graphical system signified: the form of a glyph has several layers of meaning, only some of which were available. This fascination with the visible form of language continues in Johnson’s later work: an work from the 1980s owned by the LACMA is given the title Untitled (James Dean with Magritte’s Pipe):

untitled (james dean with magritte's pipe)

The apostrophe is a clue for the informed viewer what the rectangles stand for: Magritte’s ceci n’est pas une pipe, though actually fitting those letters into the rectangles proves challenging: the text both belongs there and it doesn’t belong there. The image is both Dean but also – and very clearly – the Ben-Day dots that make up his image. The pipe is a silhouette of Magritte’s. Dempsey points to earlier work employing the same strategies:

Several collages contain definitions cut out of a Yiddish dictionary. Others include Chinese characters with their English translations below. In Untitled (Toad/Water) of 1957, for example, a picture of a toad is followed by the Chinese symbol for toad, “Toad,” and then the Chinese symbol for water and finally “Water.” It could very easily also have text explaining, à la Magritte, “This is not a toad,” for neither the image, the Chinese symbol, nor the English word really ARE the signified. (p. 25)

It’s hard to tell from the reproduction if the image above the words is actually a toad (there might be bumps on its back) or a frog (as the coloring of the legs seems to suggest); while I’ve seen the original, I don’t remember whether it actually was a frog or a toad.

The BMC book concludes with an essay by William Wilson, owner of the toad collage, ruminating on the meaning of hats – and specifically Marianne Moore’s tricorner hat – as they cascaded through Ray Johnson’s work:

Those hats for women in society, perhaps worn for lunch at Schrafft’s, were a visual answer to the question, What do women want? The hats provided an answer for husbands: women want too much, and want more than is good for them, hence they must be governed by men for their own protection. The men judged themselves as reasonable and functional, indulgently governed the women whom the men assigned themselves to protect. The plot of many movies from the 1930s is telegraphed ahead in the hats the male and female characters are wearing. Katherine Hepburn did not wear fanciful hats. Watch for the moment a wife removes her dizzy hat, takes off her white gloves, and turns toward the husband, who feels he knows better than she does what she needs.
     Moore’s tricorn Napoleonic hat was androgynous, with a military air, suggesting an image that had survived historical forces, and picturing and imagination capable of military strategy and reason. Her hat was, and is, an image of her imagination as she kept it persistently answerable to experience. She praised New York (Manhattan) for its “accessibility to experience.” And she aspired to an art of poetry as an imaginary garden with real toads in it. Marvelously, she mentioned that she wore her tricorn hat because her head was shaped like a hop toad. A toad is an image of experience without false illusions, like the toad before it is enchanted into a prince, who must become like a poet, a self-governing governor of images and themes. Moore used the hat to meditate on her modesty, to challenge herself, for while she wore it as armor for her soul, the hat revealed her imagination and her aspirations, so that she could not lie to herself about her modesty, and always had to review her renunciations. (p. 28)

Wilson was a long-time friend of Johnson, and the executor of his estate after his death; his earlier With Ray: The Art of Friendship (published as part of the Black Mountain College Dossiers series) is the best introduction to Johnson’s work available; a complete set of his essays would be an invaluable book. A Book about A Book about Death is an extended essay about Johnson’s A Book about Death. From 1963 to 1965, Johnson mailed 13 pages of his Book to a handful of correspondents (including several members of Wilson’s family); the pages weren’t sent all together, and most recipients didn’t all the pages. The book-ness of such a work comes into question; so it was also referred to as a “boop” or a “boom”.

Wilson works through each page of A Book about Death, which is very much about death. The first page, for example, contains an ouroborous; the text “Mary Crehan, 4, choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich last night” (handwritten, though presumably found in a newspaper); an accidental splotch of ink next to the author’s name. Wilson’s analysis of how this page is worth reading in its entirety and doesn’t lend itself to excerption; after a discussion of chance in the making of art, an enormous subject for American art in the 1950s and 1960s, we get this:

The accident of a drop of ink is part of the comedy of constructing a work of art, a process which can’t say much about how it works. However, the comedy of chance is answerable to tragedy, because some accidents cause something good to perish. The effect is that “chance” renders the accident unknowable in its causes, and unintelligible in a universe presided over by a God who is good. The child choking to death is a large irreversible accident, and such perishing is a tragedy such as art is answerable to. That Mary Crehan choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich is absurd, so that it joins the absurdities which raise questions of consolations for the death of a child four years old. The cartoonish image of a rabbit at the bottom of the page is not adequate as explanation or consolation. The rabbit is Ray Johnson, representing the rest of us, who understand no more than a rabbit does of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. Ray was aware that Anne and Bill Wilson had had a daughter who had died shortly after her birth. (pp. 15–6.)

Wilson is not a disinterested reader; but this is not a disinterested text; as mentioned, this was a book created as correspondence, sent to specific readers, some of whom were mentioned directly in the text. This is not a book in the simplistic sense that we usually have of how an author and readership works: this is a book that was designed for specific readers. Wilson’s reading of the book is something of a gift: it opens Johnson’s thinking to the potential readers who did not know him. Johnson is of course dead: he can no longer explain his work directly.

So many causes may have contributed to the incompleteness of the Boop about Death that no one cause can be isolated. Without an explicit cause, no one is either responsible for this book, not to be credited with this book. Thus the question is about what we have here, an unbound book which no one was supposed to have a complete version of. For Ray, The Book about Death must remain an open work, lest an event of dying close a book on life. A closed book is death, or is an image of death, while The Book about Death is an open book. One theme of this unfinished Boom about Death is that death does not close, death opens. (p. 55)

klaus ottmann, “yves klein by himself”

Klaus Ottmann
Yves Klein by Himself
(Éditions Dilecta, 2010)

Klaus Ottmann compiled the collected writings of Yves Klein ( Overcoming the Problematics of Art (2007), which I have not read); this book is a refraction of those writings and others to form a sort of biography of Klein. Ottmann points out as his model Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (the same text that Dick Higgins would declare the source of intermedia: something of a magpie, Klein tended to cut and paste from his sources much as Coleridge did, and Ottmann accordingly takes the same approach in this book. Klein’s life was of course very short; but he found his art through a bewilderingly diverse set of sources. Ottmann’s method allows him to scrutinize Klein from a number of directions.

Ottmann sees Klein as a conceptualist; perhaps in accordance with this, this book is not illustrated so that it can concentrate on Klein’s words, which might be his real work. Klein: “My monochrome canvases are not my definitive works but the preparation for my works; the are the remains of the creative process, the ashes” (p. 67). Klein worked in the tradition of Duchamp:

Throughout his writing, Klein refers to the viewer or observer of art as lecteur (reader) perhaps in allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s well-known declaration that “it is the observer who makes the painting” (c’est le regardeur qui gait le tableau). While for Duchamp the work becomes activated by the observer, the lecteur of Klein’s paintings literally absorbs the sensibility of pure color like a sponge. (p. 14)

Ottmann argues that Klein was to French painting as Robbe-Grillet was to the French novel (Pour un Nouveau Roman was published the year of Klein’s death). But Klein appears to have bricolaged his philosophical apparatus from all over the place. Some sources are obvious (the influence of Gaston Bachelard, for example); others are less so, but correspondences can be drawn through these disparate sources. It’s surprising to find out, for example, that Klein was a practicing Catholic. The idea of Klein as Christian is odd: but among his writings are a number of prayers addressed to St. Rita of Cascia. Not that he was especially orthodox: Klein prayed to St. Rita that his work would establish him

without my having a hand in it – as the official head of France with the approval of all. Above all, may it come about peacefully, withou bloodshed or civil commotion. One day, I would like to be in this position, without anyone complaining about it. (p. 89)

The picture that emerges is Klein as a feeling man – not quite an intellectual, not quite an artisan – who understood things through a variety of approaches (judo, Christianity, Rosicrucianism). One sees why he might have been so distressed – to the point of death – at his being held up to ridicule in Mondo Cane.

Klein was very serious about judo, having gone to Tokyo to study it when that was still a strange thing to do. Klein seems, however, to have been disinterested in the mystical aspects of judo; he liked it as “the sport of the sportsman, the passion and emotion that modern intellectuals despise” (p. 129). His book about the sport might be seen as an analogue to Duchamp’s about chess, though Klein’s infatuation with judo was before his major artistic work, rather than after: Klein effectively gave up judo for art. But correspondences might be seen; for example, in the way that Klein explains the body in judo:

Our physical body consists of a skeleton and flesh. Inside the bones, the marrow circulates, a substance made of stuff nearly identical to that of the brain. The bones are the lines of the body. The line is intellect, reason, academicism, flesh, passion, all that was created by the intellect after man’s fall, the original sin, and it is what supports all, without which nothing would be living. Spirit, pure sensibility, life itself in man is apart from all that, although it is tied to the physical and emotional. (p. 133)

Later, in “My Position in the Battle between Line and Color,” Klein finds lines to work in much the same terms:

Ordinary painting, painting as it is commonly understood, is a prison window whose lines, contours, forms, and composition are all determined by bars. The lines concretize our morality, our emotional life, our reason, and even our spirituality. They are our psychological boundaries, our historic past, our skeletal framework; they are our weaknesses and our desires, our faculties, and our contrivances.
     Color, on the other hand, is the natural and human measure; it bathes in a cosmic sensibility. (p. 53)

Or back to religion:

In the final analysis, the line can only suggest; whereas color “is”.
     It is a presence already in itself that can be charged by the artist with a particular life, bringing its presence within reach of the human sensibility.
     The scenes of the life of Jesus described in the Gospels vividly strike our senses and touch us almost physically; more than a narrative account, more than a representation, they are a presence. Although no color is named and neither face nor landscape described, we are constantly face to face and one on one with them. (pp. 151–3.)

There’s a unity of thought here, of a sort: while Klein is anything but systematic, it’s an appealing sensibility. Yves Klein by Himself selects and edits Klein’s words; certainly it’s not the only picture of Klein that could have been drawn (there is, one notes, no mention of the market and Klein’s relationship to it and little attention is paid to Klein’s architecture) it’s as good an introduction to an artist’s thought as I’ve seen recently.

This is also, it needs to be said, a beautiful book. The cover is a bright orange; when stared at against a white background, the viewer is left with an afterimage that might approximate International Klein Blue. There are plenty of blue books about Klein: it’s nice to see one that’s different. The book is hardcover; the page edges are gilt; there’s a bookmark. It’s a lovely object, and I’m a bit surprised that Éditions Dilecta, a French company, can be selling it in this country for only $29. The interiors, though, are what stand out: text appears on the recto pages, while notes appear on the versos. It’s a beautifully designed book; more importantly, it’s readable in a way that isn’t automatic.