Those visiting the Art Institute of Chicago this morning are in for a special treat. At 10:30 a.m., Central Standard Time, when the museum swings open its doors, a cornerstone of 20th-century art will be on view in its galleries for the first time: a Marcel Duchamp Bottle Rack (1914/59), a version of the artist’s first readymade, which the museum recently acquired. Its provenance is astounding, having been first bought by Robert Rauschenberg, whose foundation sold it to the Chicago museum through dealer Thaddaeus Ropac in order to build an endowment.
“A work like this is of course enhancing our holdings of Duchamp, and it’s also enhancing our collection of the stories we can tell in terms of the history of modernism,” the museum’s deputy director, Ann Goldstein, said in an interview. “This work in particular is a crux in that history. It’s a pivotal point, it’s a rupture, and it’s an icon, and it’s something that we have longed to have.”
“We always are making these kind of transformative acquisitions a priority,” the Art Institute’s president and director, James Rondeau, said, adding that “there are documents going back to the late ’80s and early ’90s expressing a desire for an object like this.”
The Art Institute’s current Duchamp holdings include a 1910 painting, Nude Seated in a Bathtub, as well as another readymade, Hat Rack (1916/64), which is from a series of editions of the sculptures (numbering eight plus two artist’s proofs) put out by Milanese dealer Arturo Schwarz in 1964. The museum’s new Bottle Rack predates that edition, however, making it, in a sense, an original (always a tricky word in the world of Duchamp).
As is often the case with the inscrutable French artist, explaining the history of the piece requires going down a bit of an art-historical rabbit hole. He purchased the first Bottle Rack (or Porte-bouteilles) from the Grand Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville in Paris in 1914. In 1916, while he was living in New York, he wrote a letter to his sister, Suzanne (also an accomplished vanguard artist whose work is in the Art Institute’s holdings), asking her to go to his studio, where he had left the item, and sign it “(d’après) Marcel Duchamp” along with an inscription that is missing from his known correspondence.
But there was a problem: Suzanne had already thrown out the bottle rack. (Marcel had earlier asked her to clean out his studio, so this was very much his fault.) Depending on how you look at it, then, the first readymade never actually existed, was only partially completed, or was discarded shortly after its creation (after existing pretty much only in Marcel’s head).
Duchamp would go on create a few more Bottle Rack readymades over the years. As Kristina Seekamp has recounted in the indispensable Tout Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, he gave one to his sister around 1921; it later entered the collection of artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, and around 1935–36 he gave one to his fellow traveler Man Ray. In 1959, on the occasion of the exhibition “Art and the Found Object” at the Time-Life Reception Centre in New York, Duchamp reached out to Man Ray to borrow that piece, but it had gone missing. And so Duchamp obtained a new bottle rack, the one acquired by Rauschenberg. (Three more Bottle Rack works, separate from the edition and later than the Art Institute’s, also exist, held by the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
In 1960, Duchamp paid a visit to Rauschenberg’s studio in New York and agreed to sign the younger artist’s Bottle Rack. Alluding to the now-lost line that he had asked his sister to pen on the piece some 35 years earlier, he wrote, “Impossible de me rappeler la phrase originale M.D./Marcel Duchamp/1960,” or “Impossible for me to recall the original phrase.”
Duchamp’s extensive history with Chicago and the Art Institute makes the acquisition especially notable, Goldstein said. The artist organized Brancusi and Picabia shows at the Arts Club of Chicago, and, after its debut at the Armory Show in New York, the Armory Show, which included his hotly debated Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), traveled to the Art Institute after its debut in New York. (The museum was the lone institution to take on the exhibition.) In addition, Duchamp was close with the museum’s pioneering curator Katharine Kuh, and helped her secure Brancusi’s work Leda (ca. 1920) from Katherine S. Dreier, the artist and patron who formed the Société Anonyme art organization with Duchamp and Man Ray.
At the Art Institute, Bottle Rack now resides near Leda, as well as a seminal work by Duchamp’s brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon, The Horse, which Goldstein noted is also dated 1914. “We’re also honoring Duchamp as an ongoing and enduring part of the DNA of our institution,” she said.