Haunted by Duchamp

A dealer reflects on a lifelong obsession

Marcel Duchamp in 1917 (above).


After a lifetime of studying Marcel Duchamp, art dealer and Dada expert Francis M. Naumann has produced his final opus on the enigmatic 20th-century artist, calling it “the end of an obsession.” The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost (Readymade Press) is a 560-page compilation of Naumann’s numerous essays on Duchamp, copiously footnoted and generously illustrated. (The title comes from a remark the late MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe made to Robin Cembalest for a 1993 story in this magazine.)

Naumann’s fascination with his subject began as a teenager, when he received a volume from the Time-Life Library of Art with a reproduction of Bicycle Wheel (1913) on the cover. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Holy shit! This is art?’” Naumann recalls. “I was stunned. That thing on the cover hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’ve been reeling ever since.”
Over the course of 35 years, Naumann made several discoveries about Duchamp, all addressed in his lively book. One was the subject of Étant donnés (1945–66), Duchamp’s ambitious erotic assemblage, glimpsed through peepholes. The figure in that piece was Maria Martins, a beautiful dark-haired sculptor and the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to the United States. Duchamp “flipped head over heels for this woman, whom he couldn’t have,” Naumann says. When the author first revealed Martins’s identity, “I was hauled over the coals for having disclosed it, and I would never have put such a thing into print were it not for the fact that I had seen letters” exchanged between the lovers.

Naumann also devotes a lengthy chapter to Duchamp’s long-running interest in the science of optics. “He uses optics as a means for the bachelors to attain union with the bride” in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23, Naumann says. “This whole obsession with optics is really a metaphor for lovemaking.” Other essays delve into the affinities between Duchamp and Andy Warhol and take aim at the many virulent attacks on Duchamp from critics like Hilton Kramer, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and former ARTnews editor Thomas Hess.

The impetus behind compiling his essays came when Naumann discovered he couldn’t find his review of a show at the Walker Art Center in the early 1980s. “I realized I couldn’t even read my own writings if I wanted to,” he says. “It took ten years to pull this book together. I went back and revised every single essay I had written. Every time I had a free moment, I would go down to my study and work on this book.”

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