Preservation. Miniaturization. Care. Performance. Vanity. Indulgence. Object. Materiality. Time.
Marcel Duchamp [1887-1968]. By 1925 his career as an artist in the traditional sense was effectively over, and he began a period of chess-playing, though he maintained his interest in the art world of exhibitions and theorizing, and was associated with the Surrealists, and other avant garde movements and figures of the time. By the mid-1930's, many of his early canonical works had either disappeared, or been damaged (The Large Glass [1915-1923] was broken in 1934, and had to be painstakingly repaired). Duchamp began to worry about his legacy. Also, though he'd abandoned the production of traditional media (painting, sculpture, etc.) in favor of readymades and "automated/chance" art experiments, he still understood the power of artifacts to "hold" the artist's message through the medium of time, and needed to discover a way to preserve his version of the artistic relationship between thinker (artist-inventor) and audience.
In 1935, he began work on what would become The Box in a Valise, a compendium, in miniature form, of all his art works to date. The Box consisted of a wooden or cardboard box, with fold-outs, tiny compartments, files, and mounted reproductions, all set to a certain scale. It looks a trifle precious. Designed as a limited edition, separate copies were destined for specific recipients, as in a subscription set.
There were successive "editions" or updated versions of The Box, originally intended to be limited to XX copies (+ 4 copies out of series), identified as Series A, between 1941 and 1949 [formally designated as The Box in a Valise series], in addition to six more series of limited copies [known simply as Box/es], with the following limitations: Series B 1941-52 (60-75 copies); Series C 1958 (30 copies); Series D 1961 (30 copies); Series E 1963 (30 copies); Series F 1966 (75 copies); and Series G 1968 (47 copies). Duchamp made slight additions and changes to subsequent issues, and there are other slight differences, such as color, construction. Only the first A Series copies were contained in a valise.
The idea of preserving, and limiting, the defined catalogue of his works appealed to Duchamp's finicky, categorical turn of mind, its reproducibility expressing his impatience with the unique object status of individual works as fetishized symbols of power and value--which has alternatively been interpreted as valorizing the object, or of devaluing it, contrary reactions which Duchamp himself certainly previsioned, and which he delighted to accommodate.
In one sense, the Boite is the quintessential museum piece, the perfect artifact destined for safe-keeping in the archival bowels of the gallery, compact, neat, economical, taking up little space, perfectly organized, dated, supervised by the Artist, whose value is never greater than the original artifacts to which its content refers. It may also have been an income-generator, as these boxes were (I presume) sold for considerable amounts to important patrons and institutions: Peggy Guggenheim, MOMA, the Arensbergs, etc., although it also served to keep his name indexed into the art community at large.
By self-cataloguing, Duchamp could define the limits of his own biography, historicize his own segment of time, and fix the coordinates of his intentions. There is a tension between the desire to allow chance methods (indeterminacy) into the production of the art object, and the need to fix the commodity--in all its fragility--against the inertial forces of time. While Duchamp may not have been willing to allow the object to dominate his efforts to understand and interact with his audience, he still understood the crucial nature of the record.
The Box in a Valise is a kind of super livre d'artist, a collaboration between himself and his posterity, wherein the value of his ideas--which ultimately involve an examination of the relationship between idea, performance, artifact, reception, and residual evidence of effect--are held in indefinite stasis, a pure transparency in which only the clarity of the mental impulse and its fragile representation exist. The Box in a Valise acknowledges this riddle, while perpetuating it.
The transparency of the artifact--which The Large Glass (shown above) stands for--is reduced to the contents of a compact brief-case, which anyone might carry. Portability, indeed, is one of the characteristics of the emancipation of the artifact, its freedom from the museum, the gallery, the wall. Its substantiality, unlike a book, has also a child-like aspect. It is a sort of adult toy, a collection of precious, private objects, the code to which is not supplied. What would a person, opening such a box, say, 150 years from now, make of these images and objects, without explanatory notes, or perhaps a guidebook?
As a joke Duchamp agreed to allow himself to be photographed with a nude lady in Los Angeles, in 1963, against a gallery backdrop which included the Large Glass. Years ago, I discovered the work of a contemporary lady novelist, Eve Babitz, Sex & Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time [New York: Knopf, 1979]. I was unaware that Babitz had been the person in the photograph above. Sex & Rage is a hip, breezy LA presumed roman a clef, which was certainly already dated by the time it was published. How quickly things change!
Old Marcel had something up his sleeve. His last work, the Etant donnés: 1 la chute d'eau / 2 le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), which he worked on for 20 years [1946-1966] is a kind of quaint model concealed behind a Spanish commode door. Its meaning will perhaps never be completely understood, as indeed it seems not to have been intended as a fully comprehensible object, but a mysterious paradoxical installation. However, one thing is certain: Our attention and curiosity are mocked in our act of participation, our desire, peering into it, to penetrate into the obscurity of the maker's intention, dramatized. The chess-game of move and countermove, feinting and dodging, eluding our gaze, confounding our regard.