"Puppeteer of your own past” Marcel Duchamp and the manipulation of posterity
Lee, Michelle Anne
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The image of Marcel Duchamp as a brilliant but laconic dilettante has come to dominate the literature surrounding the artist’s life and work. His intellect and strategic brilliance were vaunted by his friends and contemporaries, and served as the basis of the mythology that has been coalescing around the artist and his work since before his death in 1968. Though few would challenge these attributions of intelligence, few have likewise considered the role that Duchamp’s prodigious mind played in bringing about the present state of his career. Many of the signal features of Duchamp’s artistic career: his avoidance of the commercial art market, his cultivation of patrons, his “retirement” from art and the secret creation and posthumous unveiling of his Étant Donnés: 1° la chute d’eau/2° le gaz d’éclairage, all played key roles in the development of the Duchampian mythos. Rather than treating Duchamp’s current art historical position as the fortuitous result of chance, this thesis attempts to examine the many and subtle ways in which Duchamp worked throughout his life to control how he and his work were and are perceived. Such an examination necessarily begins at the start of his relationship with the general and specialist media, through the auspices of his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. This is followed by an examination of Duchamp’s decades-long relationship with the press through the interviews given during his life. Duchamp’s concern for his physical legacy is explored next, initially through his relationships with his two dominant patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg and Katherine Dreier. Not only did he act as advisor and dealer in the development of both prestigious collections, Duchamp had the privileged position of participant in the negotiations surrounding the disposition of the collections he had helped to build. Duchamp’s concern for the preservation of his physical legacy continued after the installation of his own work within major American museums. Thus, next is considered the development and effects of the two large-scale retrospectives of Duchamp’s work held within his lifetime. Finally is considered the role of Duchamp’s posthumous work, the Étant Donnés. Through the combination of secrecy and strategically revealed hints, Duchamp ensured that his final work would engender discussion long after his death.