October 22, 2017


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Lot 160: Marcel Duchamp

Lot 160: Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

Pochoir-colored collotype and postage stamp on paper
Signed and dated in ink over stamp lower center sheet
Image: 12.625" x 7.75"; Sheet: 13.75" x 7.875"; Frame: 22.5" x 16.5"; (Image: 32 x 20 cm)
Provenance: The estate of Julien Levy, New York, New York; Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York, New York; Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the above, 2012)
Literature: The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. 2nd ed. A. Schwarz. 2000. #458.
Estimate: $100,000 - $150,000
Price Realized: $131,250
Inventory Id: 26160

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When revolutionary French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) debuted his transgressive 1912 Cubo-Futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 at the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as The Armory Show) in New York, its reputation preceded it. News had already crossed the Atlantic heralding the semi-abstract painting, with its dynamic Cubist forms cast in a rich, monochromatic palette of brown-ocher hues and muted blue-green undertones, though it had been derided when it was submitted to the avant-garde Salon des Indépendants in 1912. The exhibition’s jury immediately lambasted the work as an abomination to the sensuous genre it purported to engage: "A nude never descends the stairs," they declared. "A nude reclines."

In response to the intense criticism the painting received, Duchamp subsequently withdrew the painting from the exhibition. Although it made an appearance at the Salon de la Section d'Or in Paris later that year, even the boundary-pushing members of the avant-garde Section d'Or (also known as the Groupe de Puteaux) that organized the exhibition — and with whom Duchamp was closely associated — snubbed the painting's unusual, serial treatment of a curiously multiplying, kaleidoscopic nude in motion, while casting suspicion on Duchamp for satirizing both the tenets of Cubism and the generic conventions of the nude. "What contributed to the interest provoked by the canvas was its title," Duchamp reflected later in his career. Although Edouard Manet had previously challenged the traditional conventions of the nude with his Olympia (1863) and Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1862–63), he barely rocked the boat in comparison to Duchamp’s take on the genre. "One just doesn't do a nude woman coming down the stairs, that's ridiculous," Duchamp later said in response to the cold shoulder the painting received in Paris. "It doesn't seem ridiculous now, because it has been talked about so much, but when it was new, it seemed scandalous. A nude should be respected."

Nude was born from Duchamp's aggregate of interests, including the fractured forms of Cubism and Futurism's preoccupation with velocity and motion, the genesis of cinema, and philosophies of time and space, including the prospect of a fourth dimension. He also found inspiration for his Nude in the time-lapse motion studies of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge’s blurred chronographs. "The idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me," Duchamp later said. "The fact that I had seen chronophotographs of fencers in action and horse galloping gave me the idea for the Nude."

Although formally trained as a painter and closely associated with the movements of Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, Duchamp was in a league of his own, rigorously subverting and sharply challenging conventional notions pertaining to the sanctity of the art object and the agency of the artist's hand with a radical approach to artmaking and display. As the artist Jasper Johns put it, Duchamp created a space for creating art "where language, thought and vision act on one another." The scandal caused by Nude stoked Duchamp's defiance of conventional standards of art and shortly thereafter he unveiled his radically experimental "readymades," striking objets trouvés such as a bottle rack, a bicycle wheel, and his now legendary urinal titled Fountain.

Rejecting what he termed the "retinal art" of his contemporaries, which only charmed the eye, Duchamp set out "to put art back in the service of the mind" and after 1912 he rarely produced paintings. Some two decades later Duchamp began to fashion a Lilliputian retrospective of his oeuvre in the form of pochoir reproductions of his work to be exhibited in a Boîte-en-Valise (literally "box in a suitcase"), a portable monograph containing labor-intensive copies of the artist's own work in miniature. Among these was a small work reproducing the artist's notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. With the market materials at hand, the artist chose to produce small, unnumbered edition of the print, which bears Duchamp's presence on three counts: it is signed and dated in his hand over a postage stamp, which he affixed beneath the reproduction, and bears an image of a work he himself painted. The fact that Duchamp deliberately chose to use the arduous, pochoir process, a stencil technique using gouache, to make wholly new works from earlier pieces he had created, further substantiates his investment in questioning and redefining the status of originality in regard to works of art.

This example comes from the estate of famed Manhattan gallerist and collector Julien Levy (1906-1981), who met Duchamp in 1927 aboard Paris, a transatlantic steamer bound for Le Havre, and the two immediately became friends. Through Duchamp, Levy was introduced to many artists in the Parisian avant-garde, in particular those associated with the Surrealist movement. Levy would go on to become one of the chief proponents of Surrealist art in America, showcasing the work of such heavyweight artists as Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Alberto Giacometti.

In more ways than one Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 is the perfect embodiment of the revolutionary ideas that made Duchamp the bona fide father of modern art. In it we find distilled Duchamp's pioneering inquiry into the nature of authenticity, originality, and taste, as well as his captivation with alternate dimensions, the debate over what may or may not be considered a work of art, and the respects in which movement can be represented by way of a work that by all other counts is itself static.

Bonk, Ecke. The Box in a Valise, De Ou Par Marcel Duchamp Ou Rrose Sélavy. Rizzoli, 1989.
Folland, Dr. Tom. "Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2." Smart History, 9 Jan. 2017, Web.
Judovitz, Dalia. Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995.
Naumann, Francis M. The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Harry N. Adams, 1999.
Schwarz, Arturo. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. 3rd ed., Delano Greenridge Editions, 1997.