Jean-Jacques Lebel talks to Randy Kennedy about Marcel Duchamp
In the spring of 1936, a young French art historian named Robert Lebel walked into the Madison Avenue gallery of Alfred Stieglitz in New York, not far from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and saw a fellow Frenchman he had been hoping to meet for years, Marcel Duchamp. ‘I was struck by his radiance and his capacity for contempt,’ Lebel recalled later of their initial acquaintance, which grew into a deep friendship. ‘Every time someone would mention the name of a famous artist in front of him, he sadly whispered: ‘Poor man…’’
Duchamp’s strategy for eluding this ignominious fate himself—falling pawn to a philistine public and a crass marketplace—was to disappear from the art world almost entirely, feigning retirement. By the 1950s, when he and Lebel began work on what was to become Duchamp’s first comprehensive monograph—‘Sur Marcel Duchamp’, published first in French by Trianon Press—Duchamp’s work and reputation were little more than myth, and even the myth was hearsay. ‘It’s very hard to grasp now,’ said the artist and curator Jean-Jacques Lebel, Robert’s son, in a recent interview, ‘but maybe 10 people in New York knew about him. In France, not many more. When he came to our Happenings in Paris in the 1960s, smoking his cigar, nobody had any idea who he was. He wanted to have nothing to do with the narrow-minded superficial freaks of the art world, and they paid him back in kind by ignoring him completely.’
But in 1954, his masterwork, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’, known as ‘The Large Glass’, had been installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And in 1959, the monograph had appeared, beginning a gradual process of introduction to a new generation of artists and thinkers. Grove Press’ English edition of the book, for example, published that same year, led a young writer for Newsweek magazine, Calvin Tomkins, to an interview with Duchamp in the King Cole Bar in New York, a meeting that resulted many years later in Tomkins’ acclaimed biography. In 1966, two years before Duchamp’s death, the Tate organized his first retrospective.
The book was conceived by Duchamp, as was virtually everything else in his life, as a work, an assemblage sculpture masquerading as a book.
That the monograph materialized at all is something of a miracle, as recounted in ‘The Artist and His Critic Stripped Bare: The Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp and Robert Lebel’, published in 2016 by the Getty Research Institute. In the late 1950s in Paris, the publisher of Trianon, Arnold Fawcus, had little interest in Duchamp or the project and repeatedly postponed publication. Duchamp devoted himself to the endeavor mostly because he was intellectually intrigued by Lebel. ‘Marcel was an extreme author of puns in conversation—double or triple entendre, many of them quite obscene, filthy in fact. And my father was also a maniac of puns. So that’s how they began to connect. The book corresponded to something very deep in their thinking together about the meaning of language and about gestures in art. It was really a collaborative work. I think Marcel was happy to share his thoughts with someone as long as they were listened to carefully and not misconstrued.’
The book was conceived by Duchamp, as was virtually everything else in his life, as a work, an assemblage sculpture masquerading as a book. ‘He did the layout,’ Lebel said, ‘and there was not one comma in it that was not overseen by him.’
While the book has been reissued several times in French, the English edition has—unbelievably, almost as if Duchamp himself were impishly preventing it—never been republished. ‘I looked for an American or English publisher for more than a decade, and they all said it would be too expensive, not enough of a market,’ Lebel said. ‘There are so many books on Duchamp, dozens and dozens in every language, and yet the most important one ever done, by the artist himself and his most perceptive interpreter, has been out of circulation in English for more than 50 years. But, you know, that’s the history of culture. It’s unjust like that, and often ridiculous. It happens all the time. You have to wait and watch and hope, and sometimes you get lucky.’
Hauser & Wirth Publishers’ two-volume reissue of the English-language edition of ‘Marcel Duchamp’—a faithful facsimile reprint of the Grove Press 1959 monograph, along with an extensive historical supplement edited by Jean-Jacques Lebel and Association Marcel Duchamp, featuring contributions by Michael R. Taylor and Harald Falckenberg—will be published in Fall 2020. The book will also include the first publication in English of Robert Lebel’s essay ‘Last Evening With Marcel Duchamp.’