It All Leads Back to Duchamp

Francis Naumann and 'The Visible Vagina'.

Dealer Francis Naumann played Yoko Ono on her all–white chess board, Play It by Trust, 2002, during the exhibition "Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess" at his gallery last fall.

Dealer Francis Naumann played Yoko Ono on her all–white chess board, Play It by Trust, 2002, during the exhibition "Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess" at his gallery last fall.


Having put out the call for vagina–related works to include in an exhibition, New York art dealer Francis Naumann was unprepared for the response.

“I’ve got vaginas coming out of my wazoo,” he says. “We have so many, I’ve had to write letters to artists gently turning them down.”

He and the show’s co–organizer, dealer David Nolan, finally selected more than 100 of the submissions for the exhibition, “The Visible Vagina,” which will be on view at both Francis M. Naumann Fine Art uptown (from January 27 through March 20) and David Nolan in Chelsea (from January 28 through March 20). The show includes six of the 2,000 photographs Henri Maccheroni took of his wife in the 1960s and ’70s; a Sherrie Levine work consisting of framed postcards of Gustave Courbet‘s 1866 L’Origine du monde (Naumann procured the postcards himself at the Musée d’Orsay); and Allyson Mitchell‘s Hungry Purse: The Vagina Dentata in Late Capitalism (2006), a cavern of sorts made of carpets and knitted sweaters and hats.

At press time, Naumann was still deciding which gift to give each artist: a red vagina–shaped candle (he found them in the back of a store that sells Hispanic religious art—”They’re supposed to bring good sex,” he says), or a vagina coloring book made by San Francisco artist Tee Corinne in 1976.

Vaginas are Naumann’s current passion, after a year spent mounting an exhibition and publishing a book on Marcel Duchamp‘s preoccupation with chess, a subject he has been researching for 40 years.

Chess to vaginas? For Naumann, it’s not a great leap. “They are at opposite ends of the spectrum and, as it turns out, opposite ends of the body,” he says, “but I see a connection, through Duchamp.”

Naumann is thinking, of course, of Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66), which he saw when it was first installed, in 1969, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The famous assemblage reveals through two holes in a wooden door the figure of a female nude, her legs spread.

Étant donnés reminds Naumann of a sealed move in chess. He points out that Duchamp made the work in secret, only to be unveiled after his death. “The most sophisticated chess player has a plan that his opponent hasn’t figured out,” Naumann says. “Étant donnés allows Duchamp to keep playing the art game even after he’s dead.”

Naumann’s own game is the search for art. On a visit to the West Village brownstone of biographer and translator Louise Varíse, who with her husband, composer Edgard Varíse, was close to Duchamp, Naumann found “the most remarkable Duchamp depiction of chess” he ever encountered, he says. It was a study for the cubistic painting Portrait of Chess Players (1911), which, says Naumann, “captures the movement of pieces and the mental effort of the game.”

“Louise told me Duchamp gave it to her,” Naumann recalls. “It was hanging over his bed, and she admired it, and he plucked it off the wall.”

It took Naumann years to get the drawing. He asked repeatedly, but Varíse refused to sell it. When he heard in 1989 that she had died, he thought he’d lost his chance.

A few years later, he received a call from a couple who had taken care of Varíse. They said they had the drawing and wanted to sell it. “I asked, ‘How did you know to call me?'” Naumann recalls. “They told me, ‘There is a note on the back of the drawing that says: ‘If you ever need money, call this man.'”

Amanda Gordon is associate editor of ARTnews.

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