Every Revolution Is a Roll of the Dice
On the occasion of Hauser & Wirth Publishers’ new English edition of ‘Marcel Duchamp,’ the definitive monograph on the artist’s work, Bob Nickas revisits a classic Duchampian gamble.
‘Take a chance on the artist—maybe you can realize a profit.’
While this advice, spoken matter-of-factly or with polite disdain, may resonate with the clamorous art market of the 1980s or that of today’s well-oiled machine, we can situate it precisely on a Saturday, the 1st of November, 1924. This is the date inscribed on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Monte Carlo Bonds,’ thirty of which were issued ‘For the Exploitation of a System to Break the Bank in Monte Carlo,’ priced at 500 francs each with the promise, the ‘Obligation,’ of a 20% return on investment. Such a return today, when collectors who buy and sell proliferate, might be met dismissively, 2,000% being more to the taste. Duchamp was, as we say, ahead of his time, though of course speculation on art and artists predated the freewheeling 1920s, les Années folles—‘the crazy years,’ the French term for the hedonistic Jazz Age, the American ‘roaring ’20s.’ Capital, much of which was fictitious, was abundant in France in those post-war years.
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Obligation pour la Roulette de Monte-Carlo, 1924 © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2021
‘I would like to force the roulette to become a game of chess.’—Marcel Duchamp. Photo: INTERFOTO / Alamy
This is the milieu in which Duchamp placed himself, at the center of a scheme to gamble monies raised on a game of chance. A player’s prospects, however, were greatly eclipsed by the odds, always tilted in favor of the casino. As the saying goes: The house always wins. And this can be understood in terms of art and its markets—the gallery, the museum, the auction house. For Duchamp, whose system was based on mathematical calculation, luck was irrelevant, and in fact he saw the system as a game in which one ‘neither wins nor loses.’ Can the same be said for the game of art? Hardly. And would his investors have been satisfied with simply breaking even? Doubtful. Of course they must have had no illusions in the bargain, no hope of profiting on this artist. There he was, prominently on the bond, covered in shaving cream from head to chin, the lather forming two horns at the top. Often described as devilish, the image is more mischievous: a child playing in his bath. The photo was taken by Duchamp’s lifelong friend and co-conspirator Man Ray, who later recalled that it was made ‘during a shave and shampoo.’ This is not someone who appears at all likely to beat the casino. Although Duchamp’s expression is impassive, as the face of this scheme how can he possibly be taken seriously?
‘We see Duchamp at the table, concentrated, seemingly detached, revealing no emotion as those around him flutter with excitement, possibly sexual, whether losing or winning.’
Duchamp’s portrait, staged as always, dominates a roulette wheel at the end of a table seen from above, reminding us of the surveillance cameras now standard above gaming tables. (The artist’s soapy visage would have frustrated today’s facial recognition software, should he have been able to enter a casino in such a ridiculous state.) One can imagine the ball tossed into the spinning wheel, its hypnotic revolving, a third eye, disembodied. The object blurred with velocity as it circles the wheel, its sound that of a hyper-buzzing bee, then losing speed, bouncing and hopping with staccato percussion. We see Duchamp at the table, concentrated, seemingly detached, revealing no emotion as those around him flutter with excitement, possibly sexual, whether losing or winning. He may have thought of the turret at the wheel’s top as resembling a castle in chess, a game he played competitively. He had participated in the World Amateur Championship in Paris the same year he was gaming in Monte Carlo and had written to his friend Jacques Doucet at the time: ‘I would like to force the roulette to become a game of chess.’ Duchamp had also portrayed himself in a work the year prior, with a rectified readymade similarly offering a price on his head, appropriated from a wanted poster offering a $2,000 Reward. As with the ‘Monte Carlo Bond,’ it is cosigned by his feminine alias Rrose Sélavy, a play on ‘Eros c’est la vie,’ translated into English as: Eros is life.
In a letter to Francis Picabia, who had initially worked on the system with Duchamp to win at roulette and who was more intimately familiar with the many diversions among the French Riviera’s idle rich—equally fascinated and repelled by what he described as the ‘empty and sick atmosphere of the casinos’—Duchamp reveled in a reversal of the supposed excitement of the gaming tables. He referred to a ‘delicious monotony without the least emotion.’ Money, then as now, could be entwined in a visceral, libidinal charge. But not for Duchamp. The bond was a legal document, the guarantor of a financial agreement. Each was priced at 500 francs, about $280 in 1924, almost $4,500 today. Had the artist sold all thirty he would have raised $8,400, nearly $135,000 at present. Although Duchamp did not in the end deliver on the 20% return, those who held on to an original bond and passed it down within their family would have, with exquisite irony, profited very neatly indeed: in 2015, a No. 30 version sold for $2.4 million at auction. Bonds subsequently issued in 1938 in an edition of 2,000 copies have sold, coincidentally enough, in the $2,000 range, equal to the bounty on the wanted poster of 1923. Between ‘Bond’ and ‘Wanted,’ works created closely in time and surely reciprocal, Duchamp engaged with the subject of money as it related to speculation on an artist, the value of their activity, the ways in which a signature alone is valued, and financial schemes (which may be scams). He even engaged with the artist as criminal, with aliases, with attempting to evade capture. Doesn’t every artist need to be wanted?
‘Those artists who critique the institution, often the museum, need it as much as or more than any others. Duchamp, for his part, could take it or leave it.’
In the 1980s and 1990s, Duchamp’s gambit would have been seen as a precedent for institutional critique, exemplary of how an artwork can lay bare the opportunistic maneuvers of the system as it strengthens and confirms itself, exploits its power over human capital. Although he may have ‘sought to penetrate ‘the mysteries of roulette’’(1) the workings of the market would not at all have been mysterious to Duchamp, but seen rather as advantageous for him and others. In 1920, four years before the Monte Carlo experiment, partnered with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray, he formed the Société Anonyme, Inc., the beginnings of his dealing in art. In 1926, he contrived to stage an auction of Picabia’s paintings—for Picabia’s benefit—‘a fictitious sale,’ ostensibly from Duchamp’s own collection. He also freely gave away works rather than present them in commercial situations to which he was indifferent. In this he was consistent. Indifference, we admit, must be mindful and thoroughgoing or not at all. Those artists who critique the institution, often the museum, need it as much as or more than any others. Duchamp, for his part, could take it or leave it. The well-instructed, professionalized artist, one to whom Duchamp would have been certainly allergic (Why not sneeze, Rrose Sélavy?), is not unaware that an institution’s antagonists inevitably become its darlings, if only proving that the system is that much more resistant, stronger despite its weakness, its passive dominance.
Duchamp had, in devising his strategy, intended to exploit a weakness in the system of wagering at roulette, increasing his bets steadily. This may seem reckless, a playing into the hands of the casino, but Duchamp’s position foreshadows that of Lee Lozano’s in the late 1960s: ‘Win first don’t last, win last don’t care.’ An epitaph to be sure. Duchamp wanted to test his system in Monte Carlo, and, needing to finance the endeavor, had to raise his capital, or at least appear to do so. In a 1999 sales offering of an original stamped edition of the ‘Monte Carlo Bond,’ the catalog made note that ‘only a handful were actually issued,’ and that the bond on offer was ‘once owned by Daniel Tzanck, Duchamp’s dentist in Paris.’ Tzanck was probably one of fewer than half a dozen people who purchased the ‘Bond.’ Another money-related work of Duchamp’s, a wink to his criminality, here appears: what seems to be a valid check written to Dr. Tzanck in the amount of $115 on December 3, 1919. The check was to be drawn on The Teeth’s Loan & Trust Company, Consolidated, 2 Wall Street, New York—a forgery, though clearly obvious. Tzanck, who was also an art collector, would have been a fool to try to cash the check, which he knew to be in reality a drawing, a work of art, written entirely by hand. It would later be bought back by Duchamp for a larger sum, and eventually donated to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by the great Duchamp scholar Arturo Schwarz. With ‘Tzanck Check,’ nothing is critiqued, not even trading on the stock market. (The check recalls a much later conceptual piece closely related to Duchamp’s bonds, Dan Graham’s 1969 issuing of stock in himself, Dan Graham Inc., for which 1500 shares were issued at $10 each, none apparently sold.) The Wall Street reference in ‘Tzanck Check’ must have amused Duchamp. It might have impressed and fooled a Parisian banker, though not for long. Duchamp was simply engaging in a common practice that continues to this day, something artists have long done: exchanging art for dental work, at times later discovered to have been entirely unnecessary.
The north facade of the Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco. Photo: Gainew Gallery / Alamy
Souvenir from Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco, ca. 1930. Photo: Chris Hellier / Alamy
In addition to its relation to ‘Wanted,’ the bonds find correspondence with key works of Duchamp’s, especially when we picture him in the casino playing roulette in the course of his experiments, the wheel spinning round and round, the ball turning with centrifugal force. Those watching intently, waiting for it to land, hoping on their number, are absorbed in the moment, transfixed. Gaming in the casino casts its spell, a calculated operation meant to lead the players into increasingly involuntary acts: placing their bets, raising the stakes, willing themselves to risk everything. Among the Duchamp works that come immediately to mind are, first of all, his ‘Bicycle Wheel’ (1913), which he had not intended as art but as something made for his own enjoyment in the studio, spun from time to time to observe, and also ‘Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics)’ (1920). In parallel there is ‘Stereoscopic Film’ of the same year, ‘Discs Bearing Spirals’ (1923), ‘Rotary Demisphere’ (1925), and the ‘Rotoreliefs,’ which appeared ten years later.
For an artist who had disavowed retinal art, or standard picture-making, Duchamp was deeply involved with opticality for three decades. His earliest fascination with mechanical motion may, in fact, be found in his ‘Coffee Mill’ of 1911, two years prior to the ‘Bicycle Wheel,’ and immediately proximal to his ‘bodies in motion’—‘Sad Young Man In a Train’ and ‘Nude Descending a Staircase,’ from that year. With these paintings we understand that he animates and disrupts the picture plane. There is the illusion of movement. With the kinetic works he activates our field of vision. An object is set in motion. All of the kineticism leading up to Monte Carlo—in contrast to the figure of Duchamp at the gaming table, relatively immobile—is visually synchronous with the revolutions of the roulette wheel itself. Spun around and around, drawing all eyes to the blur of the ball, the wheel, as with the ‘Rotary Glass Plates,’ the ‘Demisphere,’ and the other kinetic pieces, can be thought of as optically hypnotic. If Duchamp’s system initially proved ineffective (and if he found his weeks in Monte Carlo developing it interminable), it still might well have yielded favorable results in the longer term. Was he ahead of his time after all?
From left: Teeny Duchamp, Richard Hamilton, Betty Factor, William Copley, Monte Factor, Walter Hopps, Betty Asher, and Marcel Duchamp, Stardust Hotel, Las Vegas, 1963
Forty years after enduring those endless sessions at the roulette table, he and his wife Teeny came to America to attend the opening of his 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, organized by Walter Hopps. Duchamp’s friend William Copley came up with the idea for a trip to Las Vegas, knowing that Duchamp would be greatly amused by its casinos, shows, and extravagance, all improbably in the middle of a desert. A widely reproduced photo of their party, including Hopps, artist Richard Hamilton, and collectors Betty and Monte Factor and Betty Asher, commemorates the occasion. Hopps, in the early ’80s, recalled that Duchamp had not himself gambled, but had encouraged him to play. The high-spirited young curator may not have needed much convincing. These are his memories of Duchamp’s instructions:
‘His suggested opening seemed random. ‘Place some chips on that table and let’s see what happens.’ After spins of the wheel—all chips lost—what followed would be the first of, from time to time, repeated patterns of ‘let’s relax and chat.’ I found things to talk about. He would nod and smile and watch the table. Then came the first move of a repeating play, alternating with the rests. ‘Why don’t you try seven chips on corners of the high numbers?’ ‘Make diagonal patterns.’ ‘Set them out diagonally.’ He indicated that the arrangements should make diagonals to the grid of the numbers. After the better part of an hour, during which time he became more specific in his suggesting of each number to play, of what I remember as nine chips at a time, what I realized was that I was indeed winning. Winning numbers were coming up with increasing regularity. His moods seemed to change not at all, whether I won or lost . . . . as the croupiers changed, one may have interested him, as in terms of when to play . . . One of the three tables seemed to interest him more than the rest, but I can’t be sure. One way or another there was no doubt in my mind about it being his game. I did nothing but what he suggested and we stopped when he said it was a nice time to stop. The chips I had purchased—I recall $20 worth—were of the small denomination, and my winning was more than 100-fold. The next day he gave me in an envelope a signed casino reproduction of a roulette table, saying ‘I thought you should have something for your trouble last night.’’(2)
Returning to the title of this essay, ‘Every Revolution Is a Roll of the Dice,’ we conclude with a direct reference to the 1977 film of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, based on a reading of Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem ‘A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.’ This is suggestive in many respects, not least of all for the ongoing speculation visited upon artists, which we would be remiss in not equating with Mallarmé’s ‘eternal circumstances from the bottom of a shipwreck.’
With thanks to Dagny Corcoran and Douglas Cordell, Serials Electronic Resources Librarian at LACMA, for their help with the 1963 photograph of Duchamp in Las Vegas.
1) Bernard Marcadé, ‘The Unholy Trinity: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia,’ ‘Tate Etc.’, issue 12, Spring 2008.
2) Walter Hopps, as quoted in Yves Arman, ‘Marcel Duchamp: Plays and Wins. Joue et Gagne,’ Marval, Paris, 1984.