Dude Descending a Staircase
MAY 11, 1998: Marcel Duchamp, hey, that's an easy one. French painter, early Cubist, painted Nude Descending a Staircase, which scandalized the famous Armory Exhibition in 1913, flirted around the edges of the Surrealists and Dadaists, and then gave up painting sometime in the 1920s and spent the next 40-odd years playing chess. So why make a fuss about him? And especially why a 500-page book on his life? Because, if you'll forgive the pun, there's more there than meets the eye.
Calvin Tomkins, who as a young journalist working for Newsweek in the early Sixties interviewed Duchamp and was instantly charmed (a fairly common reaction to the man), jumps right into it: The first chapter here is a lucid, intriguing essay on what he feels is Duchamp's masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, also known as The Large Glass, a piece which occupied the artist from 1915 to 1923, and which he never felt he'd finished, although eventually he just gave up. Demonstrating that there is a bewildering galaxy of ideas floating around this pair of panels with enigmatic shapes painted on them, he gently puts the idea before us that Duchamp's whole idea of what it is to be an artist was far different than it was for his contemporaries.
After that, it's bio time, and in Duchamp: A Biography (Owl Books, $16.95 paper) Tomkins proves just as accomplished a biographer as he is an art critic, whisking the reader into the heady atmosphere of Paris, where such luminaries as Picasso and Brancusi were feeling their way towards something new, and the upstart Surrealists were pushing even those boundaries aside. Duchamp, however, wasn't much of one for joining movements, although it can be argued that Nude is one of the great achievements of Cubism, just as Fountain, a urinal Duchamp anonymously entered into an exhibition, was one of the first indications that art was going seriously screwy.
But it was just this unwillingness to join any club that would have him for a member that was responsible for Duchamp's supposed retirement, fueled by his feeling that what he called "retinal" art wasn't what art was about, that merely pleasing the eye was too easy. And it was this, along with the secret and unpublicized work he did after he "retired," that has made him possibly the most influential artist of this century.
Not that he was all ideas, no indeed. Marcel Duchamp was a social creature, albeit an impoverished one most of the time, and he commuted between France and the United States, where, thanks to his 1913 scandal, he was much better-known and taken more seriously than he was in Europe, where the Surrealists and their kin spent so much time trying to define what they were and weren't that it's amazing they had time for any work at all. He bedded many women, often carrying on several affairs at once, and was a tireless promoter of artists he liked, like Brancusi. He may not have been a great businessman, but the money he made selling art in the States enabled him to stay alive, and his canny repackaging of his work in various forms (most notably Box-in-a-Suitcase, a sort of limited-edition Greatest Hits package of reproductions) kept his name alive in the supposed absence of new work.
Supposed. Biographies rarely have surprise endings, particularly when we know the subject is dead. But in the second half of Duchamp, Tomkins cannily begins to weave in an amazing and little-known story. In the mid-Forties, Duchamp, the detached womanizer, fell heavily in love with Maria Martins, the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to the States. A major sculptor in her own right, Martins was not about to leave her husband and family, but the affair continued for three years. Her husband was re-posted, she left New York, and Duchamp was stuck with some uncomfortable knowledge: He could be vulnerable.
And he was lucky: Shortly thereafter, he met Alexina "Teeny" Matisse, divorced wife of the artist's dealer son, and they were married. From the early 1950s until just before his death in 1968, she was the only one to know that he was working on another piece, as provocative and complex as The Large Glass. Given: 1. the waterfall 2. the lighting gas..., as it is known, was what you'd call a multi-media work, and caused howls of outrage when it was suddenly added to the Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Given that his conversational name for it was Woman With Open Pussy, you may be able to guess what the problem was. And given what you already know about Duchamp by the time Tomkins closes the book with yet another masterful piece of analysis, you can only imagine his post-mortem chuckles as the art world roiled with controversy about it.
In the end, Tomkins' achievement here is not his masterful job of delineating
Duchamp's life, nor is it his crystalline explication of his difficult work. It is
in making it perfectly clear that "Duchamp proposes the work of art as an independent
creation, brought into being in a joint effort by the artists, the spectator, and
the unpredictable actions of chance - a creation that, by its very nature, may be
more complex, more interesting, more original, and truer to life than a work that
is subject to the limitations of the artist's personal control." A Big Idea,
one which continues to resonate today, and just one more reason why this is an essential
book for anyone interested in the history of ideas in this century.
The late Joseph Campbell brought mythic consciousness into contemporary life in his famous series of books on mythology that began with The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In one of his most famous stories he tells us how, as he looked from his garret overlooking Times Square, he saw the Trickster Odysseus smoking and joking on the corner of 42nd Street. He noted how the ancient heroes and myths were still being played on street corners throughout America and, indeed, all over the world. Of course, a half-century earlier Sigmund Freud had given us the Oedipus complex (a brilliant fictional retelling of the myth) and C.G. Jung had opened up the entire mythic collective with his archetypal theory. By the 1970s, post-Jungian phenomenologist James Hillman was slashing away at all our sacred cows by demonstrating most persuasively how our views of the world are essentially mythic (and fictional) in their assumptions.
Drawing from such diverse quarters as Renaissance alchemical philosophers to the most advanced quantum physicists, Marxist semiologists, and Madison Avenue advertising executives, modern mythographers reveal that our ideas about the world, our acknowledged or unconscious myths about the world, are the lenses through which we construct and reconstruct the world: To the point, the world is how we believe it is. If you want a hard and fast scientistic world you'll have it, despite, even, any empirical evidence to the contrary. Paranoid, naïve, depressed, hyperkinetic, or whatever inclination, whatever mythic story you choose, you will find the necessary mythic characters in the world supporting your reality construct. The world has become a psychologized place. We cannot get around our psychological lenses. The best we can hope to do is see through to the harming and the healing properties of our personal and collective fictions. It is in these fictions which color our universe that we recognize the workings of the mythic Trickster.
Lewis Hyde in his Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $26 hard) brilliantly demonstrates how the use of classic myth, whether Greek, North American, or African, casts our own truths in an ambiguous light. He convincingly shows through the comparison of the lives of such artists and writers as Maxine Hong Kingston, Frederick Douglass, Picasso, Robert Mapplethorpe, and others with the American Indian myths of Coyote, the Hermes tale as told in the Greek Hymn to Hermes, as well as tales of Eshu, an African Trickster, that all our verities, all our assumptions about power relationships and proper boundaries, are always rightfully suspect viewed from either the liberal or the conservative point of view. They all play in the same fictional field and no matter what you may think you are doing when you change the power grid, something unexpected will inevitably result.
Hyde's book is a wily and intriguing account of the contingency ploys we humans use not only to exploit the changing conditions of the culture, but to actually be agents of that change. What is most interesting in our attempts are these unexpected changes that arise. Artists are, of course, seen as the best exploiters of the Trickster energy, but Hyde shows how even they are caught in the Trickster trap. His is a well-paced account and his storytelling is thoroughly engaging, yet something is amiss in a book that should be more telling, more imminently gripping in what the author clearly sees as a need for this culture to know about the power of myth.
Hyde's frequent resort to literalism, which he readily admits, and his insistent positioning of the Trickster in a socio-political power-player mode may win friends in the postmodern schools of Freudian Marxism, but the richness of the Trickster, the ambiguity and mercurial qualities of this mythic figure, demand a recognition of Trickster's primary understanding of reality: the fictive nature of the lenses (the personal and cultural ideologies) through which we gaze upon and by which we judge and create the world. Playing to the current paradigm of reality, the cause and effect, Cartesian, and poli-sci heroism of the age does little to open our collective eyes to the hubristic dangers of the mythic titans currently playing in and through us. The great mythic stories will always be there, the meanings and character names only change with time and place. It is the fictional aspect of our myths whether they be religious, scientific, or philosophical, the fluid nature of reality, the laughable fixity with which we imbue our belief systems; it is these aspects of human nature the Trickster calls us to explore with a lighter touch, with a different set of lenses than the titanic bosses Jesus, Marx, Gates, Gingrich, or any critic for that matter, compel us to wear.
Most especially the Trickster pricks our own smug self-assurance, our own self-righteous views of life and how we project our own Little Hitler ideas onto the world and its denizens. Hyde retells these delightfully debunking stories in a beautifully fluid and intelligent style. What he leaves out is the passionate, slippery nature of the Trickster who resides in us all. -Ric Williams
Sports books are seldom worth the paper they're printed on. Most seem mired in stereotypes, predominantly the "As Told To" autobiography or the "Badboy Rip Job." Two recent examples of each type come to mind, one by media darling Dennis Rodman and the other from wannabe badboy Keyshawn Johnson. Occasionally, however, a title or two manages to rise above the muddle, delivering sufficient human interest to perhaps win over even a non-sportsfan.
March to Madness: The View From the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference by John Feinstein (Little, Brown & Co., $24.95 hard) escapes the sports book doldrums by chronicling one entire season of college basketball's most storied alliance - the Atlantic Coast Conference, Michael Jordan's launch pad - from the viewpoints of seven ACC coaches, including Clemson basketball coach Rick Barnes, named a month ago to replace UT's Tom Penders.
The author knows that despite the transient glory provided on court by the sport's gifted future millionaires, college hoops' true headliners are its coaches. So, Feinstein leads his readers directly inside the camps of these warring luminaries - including Dean Smith, Bobby Cremins, and Mike Krzyzewski - revealing their pressures, compassions, and bitter rivalries. Like Season on the Brink, the 1987 Feinstein profile of iconoclast Bob Knight, this book is fueled by the writer's extraordinary access to the giants of the game.
From near-complete access comes vivid detail, but there's an added element of success here. The same year Feinstein wrote his profile of Knight, the volatile coach won the national championship, boosting that book's popularity. In March to Madness this luck continues. During the 1996-97 season, Duke's "Coach K" rebounds triumphantly from career burnout as well as major back surgery; Wake Forest's Tim Duncan (now of the Spurs), a shoo-in to be selected first in the NBA draft as junior in 1995-96, decides to forego the draft and stay in the ACC for his senior year; and North Carolina coach Dean Smith breaks Adolph Rupp's all-time victories record. Talk about timing - Smith's abrupt October 1997 retirement all but solidifies March to Madness as the definitive insider's chronicle of the final season of a coaching legend. -Stuart Wade
I love Iain M. Banks. He gives me chunks of philosophy interspersed with multi-dimensional characters, creative plot construction, and a healthy dose of sex and drugs. Oh, and did I mention he can be laughing-so-hard-you-are-crying funny as well as break-your-heart tender? I'd walk across hot glass for one of his books. I'd even go so far as to pay import prices, my penance for falling in love with a Scottish guy. But, as much as I worship the paper on which the man writes, I just can't quite recommend the latest Culture novel, Excession by Iain M. Banks (Orbit, $12.95 paper). Culture, for those who think it is only something snobby socialites aspire to, is a universe invented in Banks' fertile mind, a world in which technology and humanity have managed to find a peaceful and lucrative co-existence. Humanity, such as it is, has become more logical, more able to extrapolate what consequences actions will have. Technology, in the form of sentient starships and drones, has become more human, found irony, and developed a sense, albeit a skewed sense, of compassion.
Culture has spent many years and many novels, which are emphatically not a series, fighting the Idrians, a culture that is emphatically not like the Culture. But the war is over, peace has returned, and some of the larger minds within the Culture are bored. When an unexplained ship appears in an unimportant quadrant of known space, old rivalries emerge.
As with any really good book, the story is about so much more than the simple advancement of the plot. Banks usually tackles larger issues by bringing them down to an absorbable scope; there are characters that you become interested in and situations that are too creative to not investigate.
Excession, however, just doesn't quite live up to the rest of the Culture books or some of Banks' straight fiction. The balance between explaining the fantastic technology and exploring the characters' relationship that Banks has always delivered before is absent. While Excession is still a fun read, and a must for any who follow Culture, it doesn't have the same resonance as the rest of his work. But love means you ride out the less than stellar moments and wait for the return of the old passion. -Adrienne Martini
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