The National Museum of Art, Osaka, relocated this year from Expo Park to elegant new premises in the commercial Nakanoshima district. The architect Cesar Pelli — who is also responsible for the recent redesign of Haneda Airport in Tokyo — resisted contesting the air space of the surrounding and soaring Osaka office blocks, and instead had the new building plunge deep underground.
On entering the gallery at street level, visitors descend beneath an elaborate ceilingdesign of twisting metal pipework that alludes to the forms of bamboo and the plants’ perennial growth. If the building is anything to go by, the robust symbolism bodes well for the museum’s continued support and display of contemporary art, which it has made its specialty.
For its inaugural exhibition, titled “Mirrorical Returns,” the museum’s focus is on the French-born U.S. painter Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who is represented by about 70 works. But in fact there are very few originals on show, because many of Duchamp’s “Readymades” were either lost or destroyed. However, many were later re-made or authorized by the artist for re-editioning, while others were made by museums for the purpose of putting on art exhibitions like this one. Another reason for all the replicas is that there is a thriving market for all things Duchampian, and relatively few to go round.
Duchamp’s early artistic career in Paris was mired in controversy. The semi-abstract “Nude Descending a Staircase #2” was submitted to the Salon des Independants in 1912, but was considered offensive by the organizers and other painters, including his two brothers.
His experience in New York was much the same. “Fountain” is a mass-produced commercial urinal that Duchamp signed with the name of the manufacturer (R. Mutt) and then submitted to the Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in 1917. It was rejected as being “by no definition” a work of art. The work was lost and all that exists today are editioned replicas otherwise known as mass-produced urinals.
Nonetheless, “Fountain” was one of the most-discussed artworks of the 20th century, as it called into question the idea of artistic creativity and originality and became emblematic of Duchamp and Duchamp-like “readymades.” Last week, a survey of 500 arts figures by London-based Gordon’s Gin, the sponsor of Britain’s Turner Prize, voted it one of the most influential works of modern art.
Certainly Duchamp, too, thought of the “Readymades” as his most important (anti) art idea. They were often industrial objects he selected on the basis of complete visual anaesthesia, and which were then given titles, signed and exhibited. In choosing such items, Duchamp was claiming that “Art” is a concept the artist can apply to objects.
In Osaka, there are several “Readymades” on display that may or may not invite your scrutiny, including “Fresh Widow,” “Hat rack,” “Comb” and a snow shovel suspended from the ceiling, titled “In advance of a broken arm.” Interestingly, these works have now become aestheticized and fetishized.
Perhaps Duchamp’s greatest creation is a set of mechanical drawings on a pane of glass that he called “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.” Here, this work is represented by the “Tokyo version” made for the art museum of Tokyo University in 1980 (there are apparently four other versions). It is an excessively literary work that requires Duchamp’s notes to fathom how all the different imagery and diagrams relate, but once you’ve deciphered the symbolism, it concerns Duchamp’s vision of men and women as sexual machines, and male-female relations being irreconcilably disconnected and unfulfilled.
Duchamp’s oeuvre is bound up with notions of sexuality. His work that was put together posthumously, “The Given,” for instance, is a voyeuristic tableau that puts the spectator in the position of a Peeping Tom as they peer through eye-holes set in a door and steal a glimpse of an interior scene that has a naked female mannequin at its center with legs spread-eagled. The original work remains in Philadelphia, Pa., and what is on display here is a virtual reproduction.
The second part of the exhibition groups artists whose work pays homage to Duchamp. Some of the examples on show here parade the Duchampian legacy but fall a little flat because they are too reverential, like Robert Gober’s mass-produced “Drain” or Sherrie Levine’s jazzed-up urinal titled “Fountain (Buddha) (After Duchamp).” However, some such as Roberto Matta’s “The Bachelors, Twenty Years After” and Gerhard Richter’s “Ema,” are exquisite. So too are Jasper Johns’ silhouette portrait of Duchamp, “M.D.” and the slightly haunting installation by Sylvie Blocher.
Duchamp assumes immense importance in art politics as he appeals to the subversive instincts of late-20th century art that fostered a paradigm shift from “art as visual object” to “art as idea.” Indeed, whether in movements like Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Pop Art or much of the contemporary art scene today, Duchamp’s legacy remains clearly apparent. However, perhaps his greatest contribution was to challenge the tendency to categorize art and judge it according to a rigid set of historic and aesthetic principles.
“I wanted to put painting once more at the service of the mind,” quipped Duchamp.
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