The mass-produced objects that Marcel Duchamp dubbed "readymades" are icons of art history. Rhonda Roland Shearer's theories about how he altered them have some scholars intrigued----and others skeptical By Leslie Camhi.

 

During the fall of 1919, in one of the most celebrated pranks ever played on an art-historical icon, Marcel Duchamp scribbled a mustache and a goatee on a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa he had purchased in a postcard shop on the rue de Rivoli. Titling this "assisted readymade" L.H.O.O.Q. (the letters read aloud in French as "Elle a chaud au cul," or "She's got a hot ass"), Duchamp claimed that his copy revealed a truth about its illustrious precursor.

"The curious thing about that mustache and goatee is that when you look at the Mona Lisa it becomes a man," he commented in a late interview. "It is not a woman disguised as a man, it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing it at the time."

Duchamp's sexually ambiguous creature is now as familiar in certain circles as Leonardo's painting. What if the mystery of its identity were taken one step further? The sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer believes there's more to this Mona Lisa's secret than her smile. L.H.O.O.Q., she contends, is a composite image in which a 1912 photograph of the young Duchamp is layered over Leonardo's original.

For the past two years, Shearer has been marshaling support for a radical hypothesis concerning Duchamp's readymades, among the most revolutionary (or anti-art) objects of the 20th century. Most people think of the readymades as mass-produced items transformed into art by Duchamp's choice and by their displacement to museum and gallery settings. Shearer has set out to prove that they are all unique creations, extensively manipulated by the artist's hand.

Among her supporters are scholars and artists who knew Duchamp or were otherwise touched by his achievement. Her critics include some prominent Duchamp specialists. Sitting tin the fence (if this debate are the curators of major Duchamp collections, most of whom declined to comment for this article.

Shearer speaks rapidly, with a convert's fervor. In dizzying succession, she rattles off references to roulette, turn-of-the-century urinal manufacturers and fractal geometry. "Why is it that I am finding different results from other people?" she asks about her research on the readymades. "I think the explanation is that I am using scientific method, as opposed to art-historical method. That's what's yielding the difference."

"Intellectually, her research is a firecracker," says Charles Stuckey, senior curator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and a specialist in modem art.

"If Rhonda Shearer's theories tire confirmed," says William Camfield, a scholar of Dada and Surrealism and the author of a groundbreaking study of the readymade Fountain, "that would not rest easily with all kinds of interpreters of Duchamp's readymades."

On a recent afternoon, Shearer's SoHo loft is buzzing with activity. Assistants are compiling manuscripts. A personal secretary keeps a continually ringing telephone at bay. Scattered about a spacious paneled room is evidence of Shearer's work as an artist: large interactive canvases based on the children's classic Pat the Bunny and life-size figures sculpted from brightly colored strips of dried fruit, to be peeled and nibbled.

Shearer motions a visitor past a dining-room table surrounded by mismatched chairs arranged to display the evolution of styles from slat-back to postmodern. (Her husband, the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had a hand in collecting them.) At a bank of computers, an assistant is fiddling with digitalized images of L.H.O.O.Q. and Leonardo's painting. Suddenly, he removes the mustache and goatee front Duchamp's version; its difference from the Mona Lisa and its likeness to the young Duchamp are startling. Does this prove that Duchamp melded his own portrait with Leonardo's masterpiece, or merely that in his youth the handsome Parisian master of irony bore a striking resemblance to La Gioconda? a close examination of the original--now in a private collection in Switzerland but coming to New York's Museum of Modern Art in March for the "Museum as Muse" exhibition--may help resolve this question.

"If collage or the fragmented picture was the dominant formal possibility for art in the first part of the 20th century, the readymade is for the second half," says David Joselit, professor of art history at the University of California at Irvine and author of Infinite Regress (MIT press, 1998), a study of Duchamp. "It's an unavoidable touch point for what comes after."

Fountain (1917)--a porcelain urinal, rotated 90 degrees and signed "R. Mutt"---was merely the most scandalous manifestation of a long chain of thought.

"Can one make works of art which are not art?" Duchamp had asked himself in a 1913 note. Artists and critics have been mining this paradoxical question for generations. The readymade's status as art, anti-art, or non-art object has provided fodder for countless interpretations.

Duchamp, a man of few words. said contradictory things about the readymades. Mostly, he claimed that they were visually indifferent objects, and that their purpose was to escape both the artist's hand ("la patte") and the idea of good or bad taste. Yet he also compared the pleasure of watching the spinning Bicycle Wheel (1913) to looking at a fire.

Duchamp produced fewer than 20 readymades (the exact number varies depending on how they are classified). The labels he gave them---"assisted readymades," "semi-readymades," "imitated rectified readymades," and so forth---testify to their varying degrees of manipulation by the artist. Shearer's theory adds one more layer to the complex brew of the readymades' identity: unique artifacts masquerading as manufactured objects only to be recuperated by the art world (the museum, the gallery) again.

Shearer settles down to talk in a small, book-lined study dotted with objects that look oddly familiar: birdcages, coat hooks, a French bottle dryer, a porcelain urinal, superannuated snow shovels, old Sapolin paint signs. This extraordinary collection represents two years of searching for close approximations of the items Duchamp claimed he had purchased for his art.

The history of mundane, industrially produced objects----plumbing fixtures, tools, and hardware----is largely uncharted territory. "No scholar has ever been able to track the industrial source of readymade exactly as Duchamp presents it to us," Shearer notes, citing extensive research by William Camfield and Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe into the industrial origins of Fountain, in particular. "If they were truly mass-produced objects, they'd turn up, either with collectors or in catalogues."

Adding to the mystery, the earliest readymades were all lost but they lived on in multiple guises: in replacements the artist created for lost, broken, or "forgotten" originals; in photographs and miniatures he made for editions of Box-in-a-Valise (1941-71), a portable museum of his work; in archival photographs; in retroactively authorized reproductions by various people; and in former Milanese dealer and catalogue raisonné author Arturo Schwarz's 1964 reproductions of 13 readymades, which Duchamp supervised and signed. (The Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired the bulk of Duchamp's original works with the collection of his patrons, Louise and Walter Arensberg. Most works in the collection of his patron Katherine S. Dreier and the Société Anonyme went to the Yale University Art Gallery.)

Shearer uses computer analysis to pin down the differences between these various incarnations. Take Hat Rack, for example. Shearer is sitting beneath a 1904 Thonet bentwood model, which hangs from the ceiling of her study. Flipping through turn-of-the-century Thonet catalogues, she says it's the closest she could find to the hat rack that dangles from the rafters of Duchamp West 65th Street studio in a 1917 photograph (retouched and included in the Box-in-a-Valise). The photo shows an ambiguous, sinuous creature--but with its five asymmetrical hooks, it clearly differs from those in other studio photographs as well as from the Thonet model and Schwarz's six-pronged, symmetrical, octopus-like reproduction.

"I'm just mapping the contradictions," Shearer says, "so that it becomes impossible for him to claim in that he just went into a store and bought a hat rack and hung it up. It's certainly altered in some way if it's the same object. Where's the original?"

For Shearer, a 1920 Man Ray photograph offers a clue to the Hat Rack's mystery. In it, under the arm of a wraithlike Duchamp a single hat rack hook is visible----cut off from the original, Shearer speculates, and placed there to tease the spectators of the future.

What would be the point of such an elaborate game of hide and seek with history? "Duchamp said repeatedly that he wasn't interested in 'retinal' art; all that interested him was the beauty of the mind, or gray matter," Shearer insists. "'All Chess players are artists, but not all artists are chess Players,' he said. Well, just as Chess pieces make patterns, and you wouldn't think of going to a chess master and admiring the pieces themselves, so it's !he movement of these objects, the patterns they make, that Creates mental beauty."Shearer came to many of her conclusions by trying to imagine if the objectsDuchamp Presented as manufactured items would actually function. She found that his snow shovel, titled In Advance of the Broken Arm, would break for lack of its patented triangular back supports, and that its square handle would hurt the user's hand. She concludes that Duchamp bought and altered it. She found that the birdcage in the "semi-readymade" Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? at four and a half inches tall is too small for even the most diminutive parakeet. She contends that Duchamp cut the original cage in half. She has checked with medical historians who say that the ampoule full of Paris air (50 cc of Paris Air) Duchamp brought to New York as a gift for the Arensbergs is too large to ever have served for serum; she infers that he had a pharmacist make the one he wanted.

"Many of the stories he tells just don't line up," Shearer says. Consider Three Standard Stoppages, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a key early work. Toward the end of 1913, Duchamp said, in his Paris studio, he cut three lengths of thread, each just under one meter long, dropped them from a height of one meter, and affixed the results on three separate canvases---a new standard of measure, incorporating chance and randomness, for the new art of this century.

"Why is it that John Cage and the artist William Anastasi tried replicating this experiment many times and couldn't come up with anything like it?" Shearer asks. "I tried with every imaginable type of thread---silk, cotton, waxed, unwaxed. I haven't been able to come close to what he presented. What I think is that Duchamp did this over and over again. He gives us the notes, the protocol, and the results don't match. When you put them together, you have the opportunity to be the discoverer."\

Duchamp is not the first monumental figure Shearer has tackled. In 1993, for a project with New York's Public Art Fund, she surrounded an equestrian portrait of George Washington in Union Square Park with eight larger-than-life, cast-bronze silhouettes of women ironing, vacuuming, and cleaning toilets. The idea was to give women's anonymous domestic labor as visible and historically weighty a presence as the nation's Founding Fathers.

An autodidact, Shearer grew up in a Chicago suburb. An eleven-page curriculum vitae supplied by Wildenstein Gallery (which has represented her work in the past) lists numerous exhibitions, catalogues, and lectures on subjects ranging from ecofeminism to chaos theory.

Her interest in Duchamp evolved from her research on the English cleric Edwin Abbott, author of a singular novel, Flatland. Set in a two-dimensional world, it follows the trials of a character who dares to imagine a third dimension. Abbott wrote it at a time when non-euclidean geometry was shaking the foundations of mathematics and science, and ideas of the fourth dimension were circulating among artists, spiritualists, and theologians.

It was while reading an article by art historian Craig Adcock that Shearer stumbled across the connection between Duchamp and the turn-of-the-century French mathematician Henri Poincaré, whose works the artist is known to have studied closely. Poincaré's ideas about probability anticipate contemporary chaos theory, a science that studies the complicated and irregular behavior of natural systems such as weather patterns. The connection between Poincaré and Duchamp is at the heart of Shearer's project. She believes that the readymades' changing morphology over the course of their history is part of a complex mathematical system devised by the artist under Poincaré's influence. Working with a mathematical physicist, Richard Brandt of New York University, Shearer is mapping the perspectival contradictions embedded in The Large Glass to create a computer model of a four-dimensional space. Her plans include a symposium on Duchamp and Poincaré, to take place at Harvard in November, a museum exhibition on Duchamp and science, and a four-volume publication of her research, complete with CD-ROM.

Throughout his life, Duchamp exercised an extraordinary fascination on a host of powerful admirers. His patrons, the Arensbergs and Katherine S. Dreier, and his colleagues, such as André Breton, the notoriously mercurial "pope" of Surrealism, were both foiled and captivated by his gracious and conciliatory, yet remote and slippery, personality.

The artist's reticence in the face of explication was legendary. In Duchamp: A Biography, Calvin Tomkins recounts Duchamp's reaction to a lecture Arturo Schwarz gave in London in 1967, in which Schwarz unveiled the theory behind the two-volume monograph he had labored over for some 12 years--that the key to Duchamp's work and personality lay in his incestuous childhood passion for his sister Suzanne. "Capital!" Duchamp exclaimed to Schwarz at a dinner party after the lecture. "I couldn't hear a word, but I enjoyed it very much." Whether sublime or calculated, this seeming indifference has invited endless interpretation.

Francis Naumann, an independent scholar and a Duchamp specialist, credits Shearer with some interesting observations concerning the objects Duchamp selected as readymades but remains unconvinced that he altered them. "Anyone who develops a theory in anticipation of the facts," he cautions, "invariably causes those facts to conform to the theory." He brings up the example of Walter Arensberg, who founded and single-handedly funded the Francis Bacon Foundation to prove that Bacon was the author of the writings customarily attributed to Shakespeare. "Arensberg was driven and obsessive, he had vast quantities of money to hire people, and he could prove whatever he wanted," Naumann says. "He found 500 signatures of Bacon's name encoded in Shakespeare's plays. It would have been more convincing to me if he had found only one or two. As with any research, you have to ask, What is the motive?

Other scholars find Shearer's research unconfirmed but intriguing. "For many people, especially those who focus on the readymades as critiques of art and commodity culture, it's important that they were not manipulated at all," says William Camfield. "Her ideas raise new questions about Duchamp's intentions. Certain changes she suggests may be plausible----Duchamp's melding of his identity with the Mona Lisa, for example, would be consistent with his assumption of a feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. But the historical record clearly indicates that some readymades were purchased. I need to see the visual evidence for her thesis."

Still others find her work convincing. "Certainly, if she were presenting a case to a grand jury, I would say we need a jury trial here," says Charles Stuckey. "I bought one of the Schwarz reproductions of the Hat Rack for the Art Institute of Chicago when I was a curator there. It's a very exciting object to install, like a spider on a string. And yet, for all the attention I paid to the piece, I missed the transformations she points out that have taken place over the course of its history." Stuckey is entirely persuaded that certain readymades, such as Paris Air, were fabricated; he finds that Shearer's observations about L.H.O.O.Q. and numerous other readymades help him make sense of the works, and he points to recent revelations by scholar Ecke Bonk, William Anastasi, and others that he says are still revolutionizing our understanding of Duchamp. Ulf Linde, director of the Thielska Galleriet in Stockholm, who has spent years contemplating the complex geometry of The Large Glass and whose copies of key works have entered the Duchamp canon, says he's examined Shearer's documentation of L.H.O.O.Q. closely. and he believes she's right about it.

So does Timothy Baum, a New York private art dealer who assisted Shearer in the acquisition of works by Duchamp. For Baum, a scholar specializing in Dada and Surrealism,. Shearer has "single-handedly and very diligently broken a lot of the frozen spaces in Duchamp research," and he decries a coterie of scholars with a proprietary interest in the artist. "Duchamp was such a cryptic being, perhaps his greatest artwork was his daily existence," Baum explains. "One of the pleasures of being human is one's own uniqueness, and for him it was a lifelong pleasure being Marcel Duchamp. A lot of his idolaters must simply envy that."

 

Leslie Camhi is a cultural critic whose work appears in the Village Voice, the New York Times and other publications.

 

*Fig. 1-3 ©2003 Succession, Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.