“Duchamp is one of the great iconoclasts of the 20th century,” says Nicholas Chambers, coordinating curator of The Essential Duchamp. “He’s somebody who has shifted what we mean when we use the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’.” From bicycle wheels to nudes descending staircases, few artists can lay claim to the vast influence and career of Marcel Duchamp, which is now being traced at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Aiming to give a well-rounded introduction, The Essential Duchamp stems from Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection and features 150 works alongside archival materials. Including famous pieces such as Fountain (1950), a replica of 1917 original, and Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912), the retrospective is the largest seen in Australia, surveying Duchamp’s art and life.
Working chronologically, the show voyages into Duchamp’s early experiments in painting before he stopped to pose the question: “Can works be made which are not ‘of art’?” Here lies the conceptual turn, including the production of the infamous readymades. As Chambers explains of this period, “It’s looking at this very important shift in Duchamp’s practice where he turns away from what he calls ‘retinal art’ – art that’s there to please the eye – and instead sets about creating art that, as he puts it, ‘is at the service of the mind’.”
The show further considers Duchamp’s feminine alter-ego Rrose Selávy, his move from art to chess, a digital reproduction of his final work Étant donnés (1946-66), and his celebrated position as both artist and public intellectual. Yet as Chambers points out, what persists throughout The Essential Duchamp isn’t only that the artist questioned conventions of art making, “but that his works have often served to dramatically expand the possibilities for art.”