Reading About Contemporary Art: Dialogues with Marchel Duchamp

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In my continued quest to read further on contemporary art there was one person I couldn’t ignore. The number of times Marcel Duchamp was referenced from Hans Ulrich Obrist’s numerous dialogues with artists to Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery, he was on the fringes of every conversation. Where to start though? There are a number of biographies but if the price tag didn’t raise an eyebrow enough it was the thought of reading someone else’s view on the man that concerned me. Thankfully Koenig Books came to the rescue with the suggestion of Pierre Cabanne’s Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp.

Through a series of recorded interviews Cabanne traverses Duchamp’s tricky and curious mind. From charting his denouncing of painting in the 1920s to his eventual American citizenship and rise to fame, the conversations documented are a great opportunity to delve into Duchamp’s world.

From various tit-bits I’ve read elsewhere Duchamp was considered the trickster of the art world. His ready-mades were shunned by much of the establishments, or rather the salons in Paris (his Urinal was purposely put behind a wall), but also he wasn’t one to do straight talking interviews, preferring to not do them at all if he could. Thankfully Cabanne’s straight talking and persistence throughout the interviews pays off. Several times he repeats his questions to Duchamp’s protest and eventual submission, other journalists would have floundered.

What is perhaps most interesting to someone exploring contemporary art is how influencial Duchamp’s work has been within the art world and upon the artist communities he floated within. His shunning of painting and turning to ready-mades, his obsession with his “Glass” work that took him years to complete (before it was subsequently broken), makes for Duchamp being an artist who continually pushed against the boundaries. Curiously however hard he tried to back away from being defined and shrugging off his influence, the more he became ingrained in a movement that rippled throughout the art world; paintings were old hack, challenging the norm was in.

What is refreshing is how candid Duchamp is on money and the life of an artist. He clearly detested the world of art sales – most of his work was sold to a single person – and through this rejected the invitations for substantial financial gain from his work. He sold work to survive and to be an artist, but never to make his fortunes. All of this is wonderfully teased out of Duchamp through Cabanne’s questioning across the interviews. At times circling around the topic several times before a satisfying answer.

Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp certainly became an essential piece of reading on the work, theory and intellect of Duchamp. He’s a fascinating character and it is easy to see why much of the art world has kept him in their memories. An excellent quick and thoughtful book of conversations.