Connecting the Dots - The Puzzles of Marcel Duchamp
Augustus Rose is a novelist and screenwriter. He was born in the northern Californian coastal town of Bolinas, and grew up there and in San Francisco. He lives in Chicago with his wife, the novelist Nami Mun, and their son, and teaches fiction writing at the University of Chicago. His new complex and multi-layered novel, The Readymade Thief, is part literary detective novel, part art history, part conspiracy thriller. Seventeen-year- old Lee Cuddy, on the run in Philadelphia, is inadvertently plunged into a twisted world where a secret society of fanatical Marcel Duchamp fans are intent on cracking what they believe to be the cosmos-altering code of the French artist’s oeuvre. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Augustus explains how he first came across the work of Marcel Duchamp and the influence the artist has had on him and his new novel.
Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (aka The Large Glass) is a towering work, comprising two large panels of glass framed in steel and standing over 2.7 meters tall. Arranged between the glass panes is a menagerie of forms — some abstract, some mechanical, one vaguely insectoid — that represent a narrative of frustrated desire caught in a moment of time. Duchamp worked on it for eight years until 1923, when he reportedly grew bored and simply declared it 'definitively unfinished'. And yet, after it was shattered in transit in 1926, Duchamp spent a full year piecing it back together, shard by shard, like some cruel jigsaw puzzle. The story goes that when he’d laid the final piece in, pleased with the lattice of cracks that now ran through the whole work, he was satisfied it was finished at last.
I was 18 when I first saw a photo of The Large Glass. I was working in a bookstore at the time, sorting through boxes of used books to shelve when I came across a volume on Duchamp and began flipping through it. The photo shows a man gazing up through the glass, his expression at once mesmerised and perplexed. I can’t remember what struck me about it so many years ago — perhaps something about its transparency, or some intuition of the unrequited love narrative — but I’ve been fixated on Duchamp, as both artist and man, ever since.
In 1969 another of Duchamp’s works, Étant donnés — what Jasper Johns once called the 'strangest work of art in any museum' — was permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a small alcove near The Large Glass. Duchamp, who had died the year before, had been constructing the work in almost total secrecy for two decades, having convinced the world he’d abandoned art to play chess. Étant donnés is a 3-D tableau, to be viewed through a small peephole in an antique door, and forms a kind of corollary to The Large Glass. In it a nude woman lies supine on a bed or dry reeds, and holds aloft an antique gas lantern. She is commonly seen as The Bride from the former work, perhaps post-coital. The 'illuminating gas' of the lantern is another connective thread between the two (the gas being a component of The Large Glass as well).
As I revisited his work in anticipation of what would eventually become my Duchamp-centered novel The Readymade Thief, I began to notice how much of his work was interconnected, self-referential and often carrying over various themes and motifs. If looked at in the right way ('from the other side of the glass with one eye, close to, for almost an hour' — to riff on the title of one of his works), his oeuvre can be seen as a kind of system, each work a part of a greater whole.
For example, in 1916 Duchamp made With Hidden Noise, one of his 'assisted readymades', which comprises two square brass plates held together by four long screws, sandwiching between them a ball of nautical twine. Written on the top and bottom of the work is a seemingly nonsensical cryptogram. Before assembling it Duchamp gave the pieces to his friend and patron Walter Arensberg and told him to put something inside the twine before screwing it together. Duchamp never knew what it was and he swore Arensberg to secrecy, so to this day no one knows what rattles inside when the object is shaken. In the novel, when my young protagonist Lee Cuddy picks it up, she thinks of it as 'nothing more than a whimsical curio she might have picked up from a table and held with only momentary intrigue'.
But the ball of thread in With Hidden Noise references another Duchamp work from three years earlier, Three Standard Stoppages, for which he dropped three threads of equal length onto sheets of paper, then traced their outlines to create rulers for new units of measurement. These same lines later became the network of 'capillary tubes' that carry the illuminating gas in The Large Glass. Thread appears in other Duchampian endeavours as well, such as in his contribution to the 1942 First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, for which he strung several hundred yards of twine in an elaborate web throughout the exhibition space.
Duchamp’s intent behind this kind of interconnectivity remains unclear (he was notoriously obscure on issues of intent) but for me, the writer of a conspiratorially-minded novel, it proved to be a goldmine. For years I’d circled for ways to write a novel around him, yet it all proved elusive until I hit upon a kind of 'What if?' question: What if Duchamp had left behind a final undiscovered work, housed in a hidden room beneath the Philadelphia Museum of Art? And what if his entire oeuvre was in fact a series of cryptic keys that, if solved, could unlock a secret encrypted within that final work? Connecting the (unintended) dots became a game I played along with the Société Anonyme, the group of nine Duchamp-obsessed men in the novel who are trying to solve this same puzzle. Once the stars became clear it just became a matter of imagining the constellations within.
I even found a tidy solution to the cryptogram on With Hidden Noise (an artwork that a California art professor found 350.000 words to write about), using another of Duchamp’s works as a key. I’m guessing it’s not a solution Duchamp ever intended, but as Duchamp himself once said: 'There is no solution because there is no problem.' I hope Duchamp would have approved of my taking it upon myself to invent both.