Friday, August 6, 2010

The Box in a Valise [1935-1945] the Membrane in Repose

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.      


Kirby Olson said...

I don't think the craftmanship of the boxes are due to his own craftmanship. He had them made for him.

Curtis Faville said...

"I don't think the craftmanship of the boxes [is] due to his own craftmanship. He had them made for him."

Yes, but he designed them. There are drawings, etc.

Reference: Marcel Duchamp. The Box in a Valise. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Ed Baker said...


what's behind the door?

peek through the tiny holes
and what do YOU see INSIDE?

while behind you is an impatient crowd looking at you looking [through].

"doors" were/are big with
the surrealists... check-out Magritte's doors or Tanning's doors.

I use doors as about dividing... a divisioning-ing of space, of sight, of the real and of the imagined... etc.

my latest "door" drawing:

"the door opens into the green"

email me and I will "zip" to you its scan...

Charles Shere said...

A number of people were involved in the production of items for various editions of the Boîte-en-valise, among them Joseph Cornell.

In the 1970s sometime I saw an exemplar of the Boîte on sale at La Hune, the Paris gallery. I couldn't afford it, alas; it was going for the equivalent of about $700.

Ian Keenan said...

Feel free to assign motives as you see fit, but everything Marcel made was a gift to us. The roulette bonds, a gift. Conceptual art that lives never leaves you, and he's the ultimate. The explanation to The Large Glass is conceptual poetry (in addition to his other poems) because it deeply penetrates the questions of life, rather than avoiding them as his imitators sometimes do. My 'gift' vibe is no doubt affected by seeing the Arensberg Collection often from an early age.

J said...

Marcel supposedly pushed a mean game of pawns.

(and btw be assured Marcel Duchamp would not appreciate your pro-8 rants, or, shall we say, yr willingness to break bread with fundamentalists. Neither would surrealists, even if they, like Breton mocked the ...more lavender of the gang at times).

Curtis Faville said...


Wow, Joseph Cornell! What an irony! Or a confirmation.

Kirby Olson said...

I have a box made by the guy who made boxes for Duchamp. It's immaculately made. Unfortunately, the art inside is a bit shaky. It's a surveyor's stake, and is meant to indicate something about Parmenides, being, and how man is the measure of all things.

The box is the best part. A French intellectual gave it to me once, as a gift. I think the ideas in it are ok.

I like to take my kids to see the Duchamp room in Philadelphia once or twice a year. We laugh a lot.

There is now also a good statue of Rocky Balboa at the foot of the Philly Art Museum. I love all of Stallone's movies. The later Rocky films are really terrific, but the first one is the best. I also like Cobra, and some of his others. There's even one set in Burma, but I can't remember its name.

I think Duchamp would have liked all of these.

Too bad the French lost all their world colonies or most of them. What's left? A few places in Africa still speak French. They lost out in India. No one much speaks French in Indochina any longer except a few lingering intellectuals.

They went the way of the Super 8.

To revive Dada, you have to connect it with a moral tradition like Lutheranism. Presbyterian Dada, too, might have worked: it's what Marianne moore was working on.

Kirby Olson said...

A key to any culture is in the quality of its soldiers. The French soldier hasn't won a war since 1812.

We had to bail them out in WWI, and in WWII, and we tried to bail them out again in Vietnam.

The Dadaists couldn't be called a true culture because they didn't have an army. They were effete intellectuals who believed in pacifism for the most part, but lived thanks to the strong cultures in which they were part. Many of the dadaists and surrealists decamped to America during the World War, and some remained here. Ernst married Guggenheim, and Duchamp's collectors were largely American.

They lived off our industrial might and the profits it once created.

Our soldiers still exist but in decreasing amounts. Jessica Simpson is supposedly an example of our soldier today.

You need a sniper that can take out a target at half a mile these days in order to win.

Rambo is a good example of a soldier. I forget the name of the film he was in about Burma -- he goes in to save some missionary woman with a fairly large nose. But I love what he says to the mercenaries he's with, because he's not a mercenary (a mercenary is to war what a prostitute is to love):

"You either live for nuttin' or you die for somethin'"

I think the dadaists in general chose to live for nuttin.'

Nothing can be considered something in certain philosophical circles beginning with the Sophists in ancient Greece.

But most people can't live on nothing. So the dadaism's central concept is that all that we see is ultimately nothing, and there is only some cheap laughs behind it.

My intuition says instead that there are moral laws, and that they are eternal, and that Rambo and his kind have a better sense of this than most of our avant-garde.

J said...

By Lutheran Dada, KO means like Hermann Goering dada. Luftwaffe dada. O Vati Goering! Machen zee kleine pissipatti.

Curtis Faville said...


You have great facility in creating ad hoc "logical" threads on the run, particularly when you don't have to take any responsibility for any of the stepping-stones you set up along the way.

I'm not sure what soldiering has to do with underground art movements, but I suppose the connection could be made--with some stretchers (as Mark Twain would say).

Can't we just talk about Duchamp without thinking about the French soldiers of the line?

Curtis Faville said...


Do you really wish this comment to be considered a kind of useful contribution to the post? Are we talking about Duchamp, or your antagonism with Kirby?

I'm very tolerant of extraneous comments, but please stay on point.

I'm more interested in what you think about Duchamp than what you think about Kirby. Got that?

J said...


Must say Miss Eve had some rather lovely Love-bumps. You think ol Duchamp rode her? I doubt it--he was a bit...lavender reportedly. Personally...Duchamp's conceptual jive doesn't do much for me. Then not much modern Ahht does (including that mega-overpriced hack Pollock). Some surrealizing impresses a bit, even Dali. I wager Dali thought Duchamp a bit of a phony...maricon (or phranch in bad sense)

There's not much online about Eve B., tho' she associated with Ellay rockers for a while, po' thang. From Marcel to Manson. Whoa.

Kirby Olson said...

Somehow the French avant-garde got the idea (from Freud) that desire is everything.

Actually, a lot of life is self-sacrifice.

When you look at Duchamp, you see the thread -- a nude descending a staircase, a nude playing chess, a nude being ravished in a field, and so on.

The idea for the French avant-garde coming out of Breton's misreading of Freud is that Eros, c'est la vie.

I don't think this is life!

Rambo's self-sacrificing was also life, and it saved the lives of millions of others in battle.

The French avant-garde had a very selfish viewpoint. You see it in their autobiographies. I'm not so sure they are as discerning as they present themselves, with pipe in hand (you know what Freud would have said about pipes in hand).

There is a world above the bodily functions of the toilet.

Stallone's films are rather crude, but they show us self-sacrifice, and I think this still makes a stronger instinct in humanity than the mindless, cheesy, French avant-garde's endless chasing of desire.

It's like a cur chasing its tail!

The curators love this, but the curates do not!

Call me incurable, but I don't think we are dogs or cats. We're human, and we should act like them, and think like them, not like animals!

The women should put clothes on.

It's disgraceful.

(I do think there's a lot of elegance in Duchamp's creations -- but I see nothing of a moral world, -- eros is not all of life, even if it is a beautiful part, but it has to be inside of larger and eternal moral laws.)


J said...

The e-philistine marches on.

And btw CF I'm not the only one who believes KO's un-informed, moralist remarks merit commentary (if not continual mockery), CF. Rambo. Hah. His pro-war GOP stance again.

Some of us actually read Breton's Manifestos once, at least the juicy parts (-- Duchamp's "work" probably does not really belong in the class of Sur-). A moralist will not likely understand Breton's programme, anymore than a logical positivist would, which was not just Freudian (but yes Freud's ego psychology, dream analysis part of it) but...a compendium of sorts.

Breton had read Hegel...and the greeks (Minotaur ring a bell?). He read Marx (tho the sur-ist marxism was not really orthodox). Breton praises Swift, and EA Poe, along with a...DeSade--perhaps a mistake...but...DeSade may be read as pathology...instead of mere porno.

Breton and the sur-ists in a sense coveted pathology. What was the Great War if not a massive display of eros and thanatos, not to say...confirmation that the monotheistic G*d was indeed dead (or never existed ...).

They may not have been "atheists" in the current sense but opposed to theocracy (including the catholic, tho' at times sur-ists make use of catholic imagery...). And while not luddites per se (there were some scientific sur-ists...Pauli, I believe. Breton was a medical student before psychologist...) they considered "le dérèglement de tous les sens" a path to a type of knowledge...gnostic nearly.

Duchamp's work seems more nihilist than surrealist--at any rate cold, and abstract. Hardly erotic. The imagery of Dali and Magritte while perhaps trite now (thanks to advertising pimps) often of a certain mysterious sort...a grand piano in a desert

Ed Baker said...

Rambo is a MOVIE character a FICTION
for Christ's sake!

movies, no, are More Real
than "reality"?

besides Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven ( a friend of MD's

the original urinal on the street
and took it over to Duchamp at his studio and hung it upside down on a nail/hook.

either in fell off of the nail or Duchamp smashed it (jealousy at Baroness Elsa's imagination? her "stroke of genius?)

so Duchamp liking it so much did a second upside-down urinal and (I think) wrote "MUTT" on it...

see Irene Gammel's bio Baronwaa Elsa

some neat 'stuff' also about Bill Williams AND
many of your Dadaist-Surrealist HEROS!

I am looking forward to Stallone's (Rambo's) forthcoming

Dada Takes Rambo on Hollywood and Vine


pee est.. Stallone livea about 7.332 miles from me in Potomac, Maryland

near Wonder Woman AND that prize-fighter ..
Sugar Ray Leonard

Sylvester IS NOT RAMBO Stallone is short.

Kirby Olson said...

PS I wanted to compliment you on your very well illustrated article. I also wanted to compliment J on writing what strikes me as one of his very few coherent posts, if not his first. I think your advice really worked. Thinking about me throws him way off his already weak game.

Curtis, have you been to the Philadelphia Art Museum to see the last piece? It's something else.

Kirby Olson said...

Walter Arensberg set up Duchamp with money and a studio so he could work on the Large Glass. Arensberg's father owned a steel company, that made something called crucible steel.

It's interesting to think about the financial connections, and collections. The Philadelphia Art Museum got Arensberg's Collection.

Here's some more on Arensberg:

"Walter Conrad Arensberg (April 4, 1878 – January 29, 1954) was an American art collector, critic and poet. His father was part owner and president of a crucible steel company. He majored in English and philosophy at Harvard University. With his wife Louise (1879-1953), he collected art and supported artistic endeavors.

Between 1913 and 1950 the couple collected the works of Modern artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Charles Sheeler, Walter Pach, Beatrice Wood, and Elmer Ernest Southard, as well as Pre-Columbian art. They donated their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art including correspondence, ephemera, clippings, writings, personal and art collection records, and photographs documenting the couple's art collecting activities as well as their friendship with many important artists, writers and scholars."

Elmer Ernest Southard? That's the first time I've heard that name. Shall google it.

Duchamp's father had also developed a small trust fund for Marcel and his brothers and sister which allowed them all to work in art without requiring them to do other work.

Ed Baker said...

try this:
(and, on one of these films is what you see through one of the holes in the door)

and some of the interviews

and this 1943 film by Maya Deren w MD

then go over to some experimental films by Man Ray:

lots of eyes, doors, hands, breaking glass, etc

Anonymous said...

Well, now we know where all of the lunatics from Silliman's comment boxes are flocking to now.....