Installation view of Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019 (photo by Lee Stalsworth)

WASHINGTON, DC — If Marcel Duchamp was still alive, he probably would laugh over the public scorn heaped on Maurizio Cattelan’s duct-taped banana at Art Basel Miami Beach.

If Duchamp’s “Fountain” — a urinal — can be art, then why not a wall-mounted banana titled “Comedian”?

“Anything is art if an artist says it is,” Duchamp proclaimed. But he likely would have scoffed at the banana’s $120,000 price tag because he believed art was so commercialized “it has become one of the most trivial activities of our epoch.”

Installation view of Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019 (photo by Lee Stalsworth)

Duchamp’s legacy as the father of conceptual art and the readymade is on display in Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum, featuring more than 35 works by Duchamp, including his readymades, paintings, and experiments in optical art. The Hirshhorn, which previously had only one work by Duchamp, now ranks near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art as holding the most prominent public collections of his work. The gift from the Levines also includes letters by Duchamp and portraits of him by Man Ray, Diane Arbus, and others.

Born in France in 1887, Duchamp’s career began in Paris but he eventually found a more receptive audience in New York, where he moved in 1915 to escape the devastation of World War I. Even though “Fountain” was refused by the newly formed Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in 1917, a photo of the urinal by Alfred Stieglitz published in the journal The Blind Man helped cement Duchamp’s reputation as an iconoclast who brushed along the edges of several art movements without fully embracing any of them. An original copy of the journal is in the Hirshhorn exhibition, along with a collotype of his Cubist-inspired painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” It was rejected by the tradition-bound organizers of the Salon des Indépendants exhibition in Paris in 1912 and was ridiculed a year later at the seminal Armory Show in New York. Those experiences planted the seeds of Duchamp’s distrust of the conservatism of the art world, from which he withdrew for a time to focus on his fascination with chess.

Marcel Duchamp, “With Hidden Noise” (“À bruit secret“) (1916/1964), ball of twine (containing unknown object), brass plates, screws. Edition: 7/8. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (photo by Cathy Carver © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019)

Marcel Duchamp, “From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (The Box in a Valise)” (“De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy [Boîte-en-valise]”) (1935–1941/1963), reproductions of 68 works by Marcel Duchamp in dark green imitation leather box, Series E. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (photo by Cathy Carver © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019)

The Hirshhorn exhibition also includes 1960s editions of some of Duchamp’s readymades that were originally created five decades earlier, including “Comb” (“Peigne“) and “Hat Rack” (“Porte-chapeaux“). These later editions test the bounds of conceptual art. Is an edition (or addition) of eight hat racks that Duchamp deemed to be art in 1964 any different than the original hat rack from 1917? What if Duchamp opened a comb factory and proclaimed that thousands of combs were now art? When does conceptualism ultimately reach its absurd end point?

Maybe with a banana duct-taped to a wall.

Installation view of Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019 (photo by Lee Stalsworth)
Marcel Duchamp, “Why Not Sneeze?” (1921/1964), painted metal cage, wood, marble, cuttlefish bone, thermometer. Edition: Publisher AP. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (photo by Cathy Carver © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019)
Installation view of Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019 (photo by Lee Stalsworth)
Alfred Stieglitz, “Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’” (1917), photograph. Reproduced in The Blind Man No. 2: P•B•T Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (photo by Cathy Carver. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019)
Installation view of Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2019 (photo by Lee Stalsworth)
Marcel Duchamp, “Pendu femelle” (“Female Hanged Body”) (1913), colored pencil, charcoal, black ink on paper. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (photo by Cathy Carver © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019)
Marcel Duchamp, “Self-Portrait in Profile” (“Autoportrait de profil“) (1958/1963), torn origami paper on paper.
Edition: 1/25. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (photo by Cathy Carver © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2019)

Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection continues at the Hirshhorn Museum (Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington DC) through October 15, 2020.





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