Saturday, March 16, 2013

He Might Not Have Been Amused IX...

..or, What Made Lowell Cross? another post on the (mis)fortunes of chess in the art world, and a double dose of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), prompted by the current exhibition of his work, The Bride and the Bachelors, at the Barbican (on until the 9th June). The exhibition's title reprises that of Duchamp's game-changing construction aka the Large Glass of 1915-1923, and playfully alludes to the other artists featured in the exhibition: John Cage (composer, d. 1992), Merce Cunningham (choreographer, d. 2009), Robert Rauschenberg (d. 2008) and Jasper Johns (b. 1930, both visual artists).

The exhibition is a chance to see some of both Duchamp's great chess-themed, and his non-chess works. This includes a full-size (it stands 9 feet high) remake of the Large Glass itself, which we discussed in an earlier post.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) 
©Philadelphia Museum of Art   
On the face of it, this is in the "non-chess" category, though as we saw previously it has been argued otherwise. The version at the Barbican, a copy authorised by Duchamp's wife Teeny in 1991-2, doesn't reproduce the hairline fractures suffered by the panels of the original (seen above). Duchamp reckoned the damage to be a fortuitous enhancement, and didn't have it repaired; perhaps he liked the idea that the glass was crazed. Virgo intacta or not, the bride lurks in predatory pomp in the upper section, while the bachelors wet themselves, so to speak, down below. The Barbican has illuminated the cranky drama with judicious spotlighting overhead and an explanatory key on the wall adjacent.

In one section of the exhibition, headed chessically "Exchanges", you can see some Duchampian chess miscellania not often on public view over here, in the main on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's considerable Duchamp collection. For example, there's a pared-back etching (dating from 1965) preparatory to the well-known quasi-cubist Chess Players painting of 1911.

The painting of 1911  (courtesy: The etching of 1965 (in the Jasper Johns Collection, among others)    
On the right the stripped-down pair (his brothers) is a study of concentration, and a preliminary for the full composition where the flux of their mental engagement appears as if exposed to view. Copies of the 1965 etching, made from a 1911 drawing, were put to good use by Duchamp to help raise money for the American Chess Federation: an admirable gesture.
From the chesser's angle it is especially interesting to see the contents of the Box of 1932, evidence of the depth of Duchamp's commitment to the game. It is a collection of chess items: draft pages for, and a copy of, Opposition et les cases conjugées sont réconcilées on King and pawn endings produced with Vasily Halberstadt that year; a translation of a page of Nimzowitch's My System on isolated pawns; a position from a Duchamp game to illustrate "floating pawns"; a tournament cross-table from the 10th French Championship at La Baule in 1932 where he finished 4th equal with three others on 7.5/13, and so on; all with their cardboard container from the "Old England" department store in Paris. For another work, the Green Box of 1934, Duchamp also collected a miscellany of notes and drawings to explicate the Large Glass. So perhaps the chess Box is, by analogy, a homage to chess as art, a familiar Duchampian theme.

Maybe the essentiality of K & P endgames appealed to Duchamp: the way in which maximal outcome turns on minimal means, like one of his "ready-mades" - of which there are several in the show. But his Pocket Chess Set (1943) seems hardly to merit a case all of its own (even if you were to rate the incidental chess-pun on "pins") as it is pretty much just what it says on the tin, and lacks the queasy pink rubber glove that transformed the functional into the phantasmal in the version of 1944 (the original of which is said to be "lost").

Left from here.                    Right from here.
The gallery note about this part of the exhibition says that "here, chess is a metaphor for exchange, both personal and artistic" and Lowell Cross's Chess Set of 1968 is a case in point. Cage took chess coaching from the Duchamps, and he himself composed the chess pieces played in the aural dimension to this exhibition-with-performance-attached. Lowell Cross's construction generated sounds, and light, as the pieces were "played" (in the picture below by Cage, and Marcel just six months before his death; Teeny looks on) at a "performance" in Toronto 1968. "Oh, yes - there was a tremendous noise" as Duchamp said (quoted by Francis M. Naumann - see Acknowledgements), not noted for his musical ear.

From here
You can see the Lowell Cross Chess Set in the exhibition, sadly without any players. Happily the Barbican has now re-oriented the board to put the white square bottom right following a tip-off from your blogger on day two of the exhibition. Marcel might have been amused, and you might smile knowingly to yourself at this minor piece of hidden history if you visit. I wonder, though, whether the Barbican was right to ignore the additional observation that at Knight-odds the usual convention is to remove the Queen's knight (and not the King's knight). QN was surely the handicap that Duchamp conceded to his weaker opponents, as you can see in the above photo where the QN is off the board while he plays 2.Nf3. Marcel might not have been amused after all, nor Lowell Cross.

One element of the Duchampian mystique is that he gave up art for chess in his last decades, but Naumann casts doubt on this saying that Duchamp "was compelled to defend himself against the allegation that he had given up art in order to play chess, a claim that he either dismissed or vigorously denied..." and footnotes a quote from Marcel in 1963 "It is not true that I retired from painting to concentrate on chess...". The art world posthumously discovered that, indeed, in private he had still been at it, artistically speaking, in his latter years. The artwork that he had secretly created, the Étant donnés, emerged only after his death.

Perhaps the correct construction to put on his words is that he had always concentrated on chess, for which retiring from art (even if he had ever done so) wouldn't have been a necessary precondition. The Barbican note says, "his chess playing seems less a disavowal [of art - MS] and more of an expansion of the traditional conception of making art." If so, then, it seems to me, that famous line of his from 1952, "all chess players are artists", applies not only to you and me metaphorically, but also to himself at that time, literally. In the light of the post-mortem revelations it sounds as if, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, he was dropping a heavy hint about what he was up to behind the scenes.

For anyone interested in the founding fathers of conceptual art the exhibition is well worth a detour, and while down that way why not pop into the nearby WW Gallery in Hatton Garden and catch up (until 23 March) with fellow Duchamp enthusiast Tom Hackney who we featured last year. He has a couple of chess paintings on show, including this work, in his now familiar style.

Tom Hackney (2012)
Chess Painting No 26. Duchamp v Znosko-Borovsky, Nice, 1931
You can follow the game here. The painting, with that exclamation at e7/f8, captures Marcel's domination of the encounter. But it ended in a draw, a fate we have all experienced. Here, too, he might not have been amused.

If you have not seen Tom Hackney's work before here is an explanatory extract from an interview with Aesthetica blog:
"I was also interested in Marcel Duchamp’s abandonment of art for chess – a ‘move’ in itself and something viewed as a direct challenge to the whole enterprise of painting. These elements combined, paradoxically, opened up a space for painting. Both activities (chess & painting) share an oscillation between the arenas of the eye and of the mind. The paintings are based on transcriptions of games played by Duchamp, the path of each move painted in sequence in white or black gesso." 
I like "oscillation between the arenas of the eye and of the mind" - it's a theme that plays out in another work in the exhibition (though a step away from Duchamp and chess), this time following a time-honoured tradition-cum-practice of re-producing, and interpreting, the works of great artists who have gone that way before. Here is Tom again (in a personal email) helpfully explaining what he is about:
"As for the colour piece, it's a small work on paper, that takes an existing colour chart painting by Gerhard Richter 1024 Farben (1974) as its basis. I'm working with pre-existing forms at the moment, so as to enable my input to be manifested more in terms of facture. In this case, Richter's original uses 1024 'randomly' generated and placed colours, and I have taken a printed reproduction of the work and overpainted it in colours to match those of the original as closely as I can. It's a very simple piece (hopefully not too simple) and I'm interested in how this method has the effect of looking at the original image though an irregular 'lens' that emphasises the body of the paint and how it's been applied. I think it relates to the chess paintings quite well as it perhaps uses Richter's painting like a gameboard, and plays with the logic of the original..." 
This is his 2013 Colour Chart no 5 (left) alongside the Richter's 1974 work:

You have to make allowances for the poor reproduction of Tom's piece into this blog, which has degraded its colour; also Richter's source work is oil on canvas, 96cms square, while Tom's is acrylic on paper at 20cm by 20cm. But you can still enjoy the subtle shape-shifting deformations on the left, and wonder how much the technical difficulty of the task defeated the intention, so that happy accident finds a place - not surprising if you've got 32 times 32 of them to get through. Standing up close in the gallery much of the overpainting of the underlying small-scale reproduction of 1024 Farben is apparent. Elsewhere it's difficult to tell, the optical distance between model and copy is "ultra thin" (as Duchamp might have said), and there is another game to play: are all the squares really overpainted?

Looking at the two grids you just have to ask: is each of the 1024 squares within each actually a different colour? Can the eye distinguish that many "just noticeable differences"? As between the two works you may, or you may not, prefer Richter's rectilinear rigour to Tom's informal dabbing. You could do a bit of oscillation, and ponder instead why your brain insists on seeking pattern in the randomness. I'm still looking, hoping for a white square bottom right.

Thanks to Tom Hackney for sharing his thoughts, and for letting us show his pictures (Chess Painting no 26 has sold already). His website is here.  
For a thorough analysis of chess in Duchamp's art see: Francis M. Naumann (2009). Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess. readymade Press. New York. It was discussed in We Are Not Amused III (linked in the second para. above). Pages 49-88 in Naumann is Bradley Bailey's essay on chess in the Large Glass, and he also writes about it and chess here
Thanks also to Aesthetica blog. 

Chess in Art Index


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