Thursday, December 20, 2018

Donald Shambroom's"Duchamp's Last Day" and some musings on art and technology

Donald Shambroom has added to the long list of exotica on Duchamp with the publication of “Duchamp’s Last Day” by the David Zwirner Gallery. Exotic in that everything about Duchamp is strange at first although the more one understands his oeuvre the more one realizes his notion of the visual image would be exoteric to its unfolding in the 20th and the 21st century. With Marcel we are always playing catch-up. He is central to understanding the shift of the image from the individual-made to the proliferation of machine-made imagery. Not that anything he created bespoke of the assembly line as did the silkscreens of his follower Andy Warhol. The “Large Glass” remains gnarly and difficult in its homemade construction, oddly metamorphic in its subsequent history and prescient in its anticipation of the glass TV screen as the platform for mass-produced imagery. Nietzsche’s death of God quickly translates into the death of man but we would be better served to think that Duchampia presages not the death of man but just presents another concoction of man, a man whose boundaries are physically dissolved so as to function more as an object among objects in mass culture. Another epithet of Nietzsche comes to mind: ”There was one Christ and he died on the cross.”  You can see Duchamp’s destruction of the flat reflecting image all over Rauschenberg but Duchamp himself left traditional painting far behind. He makes it nigh impossible to go back to the image reflected off the flat canvas, unless like the Zombie Formalists you drain it of any residual power.
The large glass

The book describes the movements of the characters, who were present before and after Duchamp’s death. Crucial to Shambroom’s telling of the story is Duchamp’s visit earlier in the day to a bookstore to buy a book that came with 3D glasses to create Geometric anaglyphs. He had used it in the past as it allowed him to playfully dally at what he thought to be the edge of the 3D and the unimaginable fourth dimension. Shambroom cites Gertrude Stein’s statement that Duchamp was a young man who “talks very urgently about the fourth dimension.”  This strangeness will be featured at the end of the book in a playful Duchampian act of the imagination by Shambroom, which I will not relate so as not to spoil a very fanciful summation to the story.

In the interim after Duchamp’s purchase of the “Geometric Anaglyphs” we find him in conversation with the poet Georges Herbiet whose wife has recently passed away. In the evening he dines at his apartment with his close friends Man Ray, Robert Lebel, who had published the first monograph on Duchamp and their respective wives.  The topic of death keeps cropping up. The transition from life to death seems to haunt him. a phrase keeps recurring, which would become the epitaph on his tombstone: “Besides, it is always the others who die.” In other words very simply we witness the death of others but not our own.  At one point while walking Lebel outside to his car after dinner, Man Ray slipped and fell. He blurted out:” You’d thought I dropped dead.” Another premonition.

Duchamp and Man Ray taken by Cartier-Bresson
After all the guests had gone, at one in the morning, Teeny, Duchamp’s wife, found him collapsed and moribund in the bathroom. As though Man Ray was ready for this eventuality, when informed of the death, he returned camera in hand to take a deathbed photo. This photo was only made known to the public in 2011, suggesting some sort of intentional act on the part of the Duchamp estate to withhold it from the public realm. This delay provided Shambroom with ample opportunity to discuss notions of the artist deciding what is art and what isn’t and in this case something controlled conceivably from the grave. Its reproduction in the book is apparently its first appearance in the public realm.

At the very end of the story some very intriguing words are cited apropos Duchamp that were written by the artist collective: Lu Cafausu:

“Perhaps art demands that one play with death. Perhaps it introduces a game, a bit of play in the situation that no longer allows for tactics or mastery.”

“To die well is to die in one’s own life, turned towards one’s own life and away from death…the good death shows more consideration for the world than regard for the depth of the abyss.”

These words express the sine qua non of Duchamps's work that looks away from  mastery, fear and trembling before the abyss that underlie so much of Western and Eastern art for that matter. It brought to mind an essay I wrote on the sculptor Billy Lee whose early work embodied that sort of seriousness, that I always found appealing. Sculpted out of granite and shaped like the helmets of hoplites, it conveyed a notion of power and conflict embedded in the very substance of life. His new work done in China has jumped out of conflict and is all about play and fabricated in glossy material that is produced in Chinese factories.  It is also done to be part of the urban fabric not an aestheticized sculpture garden. In its use of industrial car finish it is reminiscent of the work of Anish Kapoor. In one instance of playfulness it makes fun of the imagery of his early work. It got me thinking about the energy that can be liberated when you break the barriers of art and technology and the global media.

Billy Lee Sculpture

The media of mass culture lifts the individual out of its locality and lets she/he vibrate in a global holism, especially now as globalism has reached its apogee and maybe subcomeing to populism. Duchamp made that merger allowable in his destruction of the flat canvas. It has since split the art world irreparably into several camps: Those who still believe in the canvas and the power of its language to affect the viewer, those who want to use that language but as something absent of any power like the Zombie Formalists, those who still try to deconstruct it in the ongoing tradition of Duchamp and finally those who take advantage of the split to merge art and technology.

Billy Lee Sculpture in the urban landscape

Don Shambroom has achieved the latter merger in his new work, taking his paintings online to merge with moving images and sound. He does not cool down the story with irony but heats it up with a kind of global and even cosmic power. If Duchamp according to Lu Cafausu turns toward his own life  and away from death Shambroom turns his work toward the depth of the abyss. His creations start out from his paintings and are augmented with news imagery and sound to take their place on the global scene.
Painting by Shambroom that leads into video manipulation