Marcel Duchamp the Curator and MAM-SP, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

“But Your Excellency already understands: as we said before, there is fashion, which is an idea that moves quickly through many spaces but does not progress in time. And there are other ideas…” – Gonçalo M. Tavares

It is these other ideas that I wish to speak of here. Two stories in one: Marcel Duchamp’s work as a curator as of the 1930s and his abortive participation in the curatorial team for the debut exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM-SP), in 1949. This second point is more curious as it has to do with Brazil, but what I want to do is discuss the apparently marginal role of Duchamp’s work as a curator compared with his work as an artist. But this relative importance is deceptive, because, as we read in the remarkable book by the researcher and curator Elena Filipovic, published in 2016 by MIT Press under the title The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp, this facet was actually fundamental. It could be said that it was intrinsically linked to his poetics and has proved pivotal for the development of curatorship in the contemporary world. 

This is the same artist who apparently broke away from the traditional conventions of art to cause some commotion among the members of the Society of Independent Artists, in New York, when in 1917, under a pseudonym, he submitted a urinal, thereby heralding a kind of curatorial gesture which would be followed years later. It is precisely because his “work” was so out of step with traditional standards that Marcel Duchamp was forced to invent new forms and modes of exhibition that gave some visibility to things that could not, it seemed, be viewed as art. It was not enough to create works; an artistic situation also had to be created for them. 

This curatorial concern should not be seen in this case as something external to the making of the work, but as a strategic corollary that spawned other meanings which gradually permeated the way we see art. It was not untimely, but slowly matured into a singular poetic becoming that went on to enable experiences which were until then unthinkable. For example, when was it that we could begin associating a urinal in an exhibition with irony and not outrage? This takes time; these are conditions that are not created overnight. There are precursors and there are ramifications which grew forth from an idea of art which was already gaining shape historically and which Duchamp was able to make germinate. Almost 100 years elapsed between the first Salon des Indépendants in Paris, in 1884, and the historical legitimization of the readymades, in the 1960s. Duchamp perceived a radical flexibilization of the concept of art when, in 1913, in a note that would later be published in his Green Box, he writes, “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?”. 

This already suggests a revision of an argument – much voiced after surrealism –that it was the artist who made the artwork; it was his or her intended creative gesture which had the power to turn an everyday object like a urinal into an artwork. The “artist-genius’s” purposeful act may even be necessary, but it is not enough. The right conditions must be created for something ordinary to be perceived and exhibited as art. It is a complex question and one that is not resolved merely by saying that art is what an artist says it is.

Another recurring argument which stems from Duchamp’s urinal is that there is always some scandal or controversy sparked in the friction between “anti-art” and museums or institutions. In the case of Duchamp’s Fountain (as he called his urinal), there was no scandal whatsoever. The work was withdrawn from the 1917 exhibition of independent artists in New York before it opened; nobody saw it apart from four or five members of the organizing committee; it was not even spoken of as an important subject of criticism. All that remained was one photograph, taken by Alfred Stieglitz in his gallery 291, an important refuge for US modern artists, at Duchamp’s request. Thenceforth, the object simply disappeared. Once the exhibition was over, Duchamp himself wrote an article in the alternative magazine Blind Man in May 1917 in which he reproduced the photograph and defended the artistic act made by his pseudonym, Richard Mutt. What merits note in the submission, withdrawal and critical defence of Fountain is the fact that Duchamp managed to turn something commonplace, in this case a urinal, into a possibility for art. The leap had been taken and instability ensued. 

Another key point in that short article championing the action of Richard Mutt is the parallel Duchamp draws between producing and selecting. In other words, it is not so much the doing, the making, that determines the singularity of art, but the capacity to choose something, to remove it from its ordinary functions and thereby create new ways of perceiving and comprehending it. This makes art less associated with the production of objects and more with the choice that generates new forms of interaction and new possibilities for the circulation and comprehension of objects. What we see is always in a context, producing relationships, reinventing ways of being in the world. The creative gesture and the curatorial gesture do not overlap, but do nonetheless complement each other. The exhibition-worthiness of art is articulated in a new way and begins to correspond to an aesthetic regime where the line that separates art from non-art becomes very fluid. Further, the materiality of works acquires multiple layers and accoutrements. For instance, the artist’s text, which was always secondary, gains the power to take on a new poetic function, not just in reference to the work, but as part of it. After Duchamp, art is not dematerialized, but multi-materialized.

That said, there is one important caveat. The possibility for Duchamp’s readymades to exist and be determinant for contemporary art at the interface between the singular and the banal does not mean that traditional art forms would cease to exist. They introduce new potential for art without excluding already existing possibilities. Just go into a museum today: paintings, sculptures and their hybrid derivations continue to exist just as they ever did, some thought-provoking, others inconsequential. Even if the artist himself spoke of anti-retinal art, the idea is more to draw attention to how art is seen than actually dethrone sight itself. Also, we should not forget Duchamp’s role as an art dealer, selling works by Mondrian, Brancusi, Picabia and others to America collectors, as well as his early interest in the painting of Jackson Pollock. The Peggy Guggenheim collection is one which owes much to him. 

And since we have touched on Pollock, let us now turn our attention to the factious episode which was Duchamp’s participation in the inaugural exhibition at MAM-SP. As is well known, the Rio and São Paulo museums of modern art both came into being in 1948 as part of the US government’s Good Neighbour Policy in the years following the Second World War. Brazilian intellectuals and artists were keen for there to be an institutional space for modern art. Echoes of the friction sparked by the Anita Malfatti exhibition before the Week of 22, the difficulties in the subsequent decades to establish a modern repertoire in the visual arts, the success of Brazilian architecture, culminating in the exhibition Brazil Builds at MoMA in 1943, and the winds of redemocratization sweeping the western world following the defeat of the Nazis and fascists in 1945 all conspired in favour of the creation of these museums of modern art. 

MoMA-NY, founded in 1929, was the main reference and served as a model for the institutional design of its Brazilian counterparts. That is why they were not created as state-owned companies, but were to be funded by the large industrial players of the day as well as monthly membership fees. What worked in the USA, however, would not necessarily work here, as we have seen, but that is another story. In 1946, Nelson Rockefeller made an initial donation of ten works by modern artists to be shared between the Rio and São Paulo museums; and so began the collections, until in 1948 both museums were opened in Brazil’s two most important cities, Rio’s under the command of Castro Maya and São Paulo’s under Ciccillo Matarazzo. 

The first director of MAM-SP was Léon Degand, a Belgian critic who also curated the museum’s first exhibition, which was to tell the story of abstract art from Kandinsky to the late 1940s. It was initially going to be called Current Trends in Non-Figurative Art, but was ultimately given an even more banal title: From Figurative to Abstract Art. In view of the policy to maintain the association with MoMA, it was decided that there should be a curator for American artists who was au fait with the latest trends in abstract art. The job was to fall to Marcel Duchamp and Sidney Janis (then on the MoMA staff, going on to be an important gallery owner in the city). Alongside these two was another man who would shortly become a key player in the American scene, the gallery owner Leo Castelli, who ultimately took responsibility for shipping the works to Brazil.

The person responsible for liaison and logistics for the exhibition was the Paris-based gallery owner M. Drouin, who went on to take complete financial responsibility for it on the recommendation of Matarazzo. The exhibition was envisaged to have three sections. The first would contain just documents, with colour reproductions of modern artworks from impressionism to cubism. The second would be of artists who took inspiration from the natural world and deconstructed it in non-figurative compositions: Klee, Miró, Arp, Léger, Brancusi and others. The third and final section was to be for abstract artists, ranging from the pioneers – Kandinsky, Mondrian, Delaunay, Malevicth, Lissitzky, Kupka, Magnelli, etc. – to more contemporary figures like Deyrolle, Verzclay, De Stael, Piaubert and Lardera. Duchamp and Janis would contribute not just by obtaining works by the pioneers, but also, more substantially, by the new generation of abstract artists from the US. The list above demonstrates just how important this would be for the exhibition. 

Ultimately, the first section was scrapped; good colour reproductions could not be obtained in post-war Paris. Also, the works from the US had to be cancelled at the last minute because of a mix-up by the gallery owner Drouin, who failed to transfer US$ 1,800 for the shipment of the cases containing the works. The exchange of telegrams between Leo Castelli, Matarazzo’s representative in New York, and Ciccillo himself is intense. After everything was packed and ready to be shipped, the inclusion of the American works was cancelled. Degand wrote to Drouin, outraged at this turn of events, because not only had he not delivered the works from the US, but he had also withdrawn the sculptures from the Paris school, which would undermine his part in the exhibiti0n [1].

We can see from this complaint by Degand that what he really wanted was for Parisian art to be included and that he had no interest in the Americans. In a comment written to Ciccillo Matarazzo he went so far as to say that the absence of these young abstract artists from New York would not detract from the exhibition, because he had doubts as to the quality of their work. He was not alone, it should be noted, in this reticence: Mario Pedrosa himself, a far shrewder judge than the Belgian, had some reservations about Pollock and De Kooning, dubbed as informal and applying paint with a gesturality regarded as too subjective. 

In a letter to Matarazzo in which Duchamp writes of the selection of American artists, he observes that “for my part I should say that the 40 paintings we have brought together are very representative of the abstract movement in the United States. Indeed, we added some semi-abstract works to relieve the monotony of the theoretical rigor.” He then adds that these paintings were not well known outside the American circuit and stood on their own merit. The list of works compiled by Duchamp, Janis and Castelli was divided into three parts: 1 – American pioneers (Arthur Dove, Katherine Dreier, Lyonel Feininger, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella, Man Ray); 2 – new American abstract artists (a long list containing works by De Kooning, Pollock, Motherwell, Gorky, Hofmann, Tobey, Gottlieb, Reihardt and others); 3 – miscellaneous painters and sculptors (Miró, Tanguy, Ozenfant, Mondrian, Lissitzky, Malevich, Schwitters, VanDoesburg, Gabo, Maria Martins, Calder, Lippold, Pevsner, David Smith). 

To sum up, Duchamp’s selection would have been the best part of the exhibition and certainly the most surprising. The young American abstract artists were still little known; even MoMA had not acquired works by them; they ended only coming to the fore as of the early 1950s. For an artist who claimed to be anti-retinal, the selection was surprisingly visually impactful. A shame that this exhibition curated by Duchamp, Janis and Castelli did not make it to MAM-SP, and the visiting public had to wait until the 1957 São Paulo Biennial to view such a strong group of American artists. It would also have been a good opportunity to forge closer ties not only with Duchamp, who by this time had curated two important exhibitions of surrealists in Paris and New York, but also with Sidney Janis and Leo Castelli, both of whom became influential gallery owners in the following decades, responsible for much of the circulation and trade in the most radical experimental artworks in the post-war period. MAM-SP could have gained a similar standing to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet had it not been for Léon Degand’s insistence on going with the Paris school. He ended up staying less than a year as the museum’s director, and the inaugural show, which opened its doors in March 1949 under the title From Figurative to Abstract Art, proved very conservative compared to what it could have been had it incorporated the American works Duchamp had selected.

Returning to the discussion at the beginning of this article, it is curious how, thirty years after the first readymades, not even Duchamp himself considered including them in institutional exhibitions. In fact, the first time Fountain was exhibited after its non-appearance in 1917 was only in 1950, less than two years after this contretemps at MAM-SP, as part of an exhibition at Sidney Janis’s own gallery, with a urinal he had acquired at a Paris flea market, taken to New York and had Duchamp sign as Richard Mutt. Later, in the early 1960s, another copy of the urinal was made for an exhibition at Moderna Museet, and in 1964 an edition of eight was produced by the Italian art dealer Arturo Schwarz. Most of them were only included in institutional collections after Duchamp’s death, in 1968. The process of assimilation of this poetic idea was by no means straightforward. 

Duchamp’s curatorship was extremely creative and radical, starting with his “portable museum”, from 1936-1942, followed by several surrealist exhibitions and other experiments in exhibition design. Although little known, this work is of the utmost importance for thinking about different ways to exhibit a type of art (recurring after the 1960s) which calls for a bolder, less contemplative atmosphere. Today, at a time when the role of curators is very much on the agenda, it is an example worth discussing.

[1] The 2002 master’s thesis by Regina Teixeira de Barros, entitled “Revisão de uma história: criação do MAM-SP” (Revision of a History: the Creation of MAM-SP), at the University of São Paulo under the supervision of Tadeu Chiarelli, and the 2003 master’s thesis by Ana Paula Nascimento, “MAM: museu para a metrópole” (MAM, Museum for the Metropole) from the same university, with supervision from Maria Cecília França Lourenço, contain chapters on this first exhibition and detail several aspects of this incident.

Text by Luiz Camillo Osorio
Translated by Rebecca Atkinson

P.S. – I wish to thank Leia Carmen Cassoni, coordinator of the MAM-SP library, for her help with the documentation of the museum’s debut exhibition.


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