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Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess

Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, LLC
September 10 – October 30, 2009

Marcel Duchamp had a long and intense interest in chess. As early as 1911, he traced patterns of chess pieces in his drawings, on his studio walls (at the rue Larrey, Paris), or on vertically-mounted boards. Several years later it was rumored that he had largely abandoned art in favor of studying the “endgame scenarios” of chess; while he did enter into regular tournament play, he never abandoned making art (although he made no effort to refute the rumor). Ostensibly “retiring from art” again in 1923, he devoted the next 10 years to professional tournaments.

Marcel Duchamp,
Marcel Duchamp, "Pocket Chess Set" (1943). Courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Arts.

By 1925 he had attained the rating of Master from the French Chess Federation, and by 1933 he had competed in 24 international tournaments, winning the trophy in 1928 and placing second several times. He was also a member of the French National Team in four Chess Olympiads.

This exhibit, which includes works by Duchamp and many others, begins with 20 works that show the influence of chess on Duchamp’s art. The first drawing on display, “Study for Portraits of Chess Players” (charcoal on paper, 1911), is the most important in the show, a sketch of the artist’s brothers, who taught him how to play: Jacques Villon (1875-1963), painter and printmaker, and the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918)—an integration of gamesmanship and visual art. Another work, titled “Trebuchet” or “Trap” (assisted readymade, 1917/1964), an allusion to a devious chess move, is an old coat-rack sitting on a pedestal. It was originally nailed to the floor by the front door of Duchamp’s West 14th Street studio, deliberately placed to cause a visitor to trip.

Marcel Duchamp,
Marcel Duchamp, "Study for Portrait of Chess Players" (1911). Courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Arts.

Max Ernst and Man Ray also had a passion for the game, engaging in blindfolded chess sessions performed like a séance in front of an audience as a pretext for chance-operations. They also created unusual chess sets and drawings and photographs of the game, all on display here. Included in the show are works by a slew of other famous chess-mates: George de Zayas, Salvador Dalí, Beatrice Wood, Arman and Sarah Austin. The late American surrealist Leon Kelly (1901-1982), whose works were the subject of a recent exhibit at Naumann, reappears here with “The Plateau of Chess” (oil on canvas, 1944), a striking landscape of black and red squares and surreal figurines. Yoko Ono dominates the gallery’s third room with a huge installation entitled “Play It by Trust” (1966/1999), featuring two giant white chairs guarding all-white chessmen and a white chess table.

Chess and surrealism have been paired at least as far back as 1944-45, when Julien Levy asked Duchamp to curate a show called The Imagery of Chess. The show, in which 32 surrealists designed their own chess sets, was updated in 2005 at the Noguchi Museum under the banner The Imagery of Chess Revisited, curated by Larry List, who also contributed an essay called “Chess as Art” to the Tate’s catalogue for Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia in 2005.

Duchamp’s premise was that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists” and that “art and chess are inseparable.” Indeed, in his new book The Art of Chess (Readymade Press, 2009), co-authored with Bradley Bailey (who recently organized Marcel Duchamp: Chess Master, a smaller version of this show, at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art), Francis Naumann confirms Walter Arensberg’s idea that Duchamp’s entire artistic production had a pattern of development that “resembles the move–by-move sequence of a chess game.” As Duchamp responded to Arensberg, “Your comparison between the chronological order of the paintings and a game of chess is absolutely right…but when will I administer checkmate or will I be mated?”

In real life, Naumann writes, Duchamp rarely checkmated in tournament play, but “in the game of art, with whom exactly was Duchamp playing?” Probably his brothers, because they objected to “Nude Descending the Staircase,” but Naumann also suggests that Picasso and perhaps the entire “art world” were Duchamp’s opponents. As for the “Nude Descending the Staircase,” Naumann suggests that the artist intentionally kept to wood-like colors, so that tracing its origins to a chess piece is plausible. In any event, the criticism of “Nude” caused Duchamp to quickly withdraw the painting from the Salon des Indépendants, and he never participated in it again.

Naumann divides the artist’s evolution into four parts, mirroring the progression of a chess match: “Learning the Rules: 1902-1912;” “The Opening: 1912-1918;” “The Midgame: 1918-1940;” and “The Endgame: 1940-1968.” “Nude” constituted the beginning of The Opening; the next painting Duchamp completed in this sequence was “The King and the Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes” (oil on canvas, 1912) and, later, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915-23, known under the abbreviated title “The Large Glass”), where the figures can be compared to chess pieces.

The Midgame starts in Buenos Aires, where Duchamp designed and produced a chess set carved by hand, including “a horse’s head out of a stylized Art Nouveau violin scroll.” According to Naumann, at the end of his stay in Argentina, in June 1919, the artist declared he liked painting less and less and was ready “to become a chess maniac.” For the next 20, his routine was to play the game by night and sleep by day, and he participated in tournaments in Belgium and France while occasionally appearing in films such as in Entr’acte (1924) by Rene Clair, playing chess with Man Ray atop a Parisian building.

By the time “The Endgame” arrived in New York in 1942, Duchamp was 55, and his “tournament plays were behind him.” He sketched the design for his portable “Pocket Chess Set” and then produced 150 of them. By now he played only for enjoyment, and he also fell in love with the artist Maria Martin, a discovery of Andre Breton’s, who was the wife of the ambassador from Brazil. Duchamp drew her nude and later used it in his secret last work, Étant donnés (which is now the centerpiece of a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

“In the last decade of life,” writes Naumann, “Duchamp succeeded in fusing his identity as artist with that of chess player.” He accepted an invitation from Hans Richter to appear in 8 × 8 (1957), subtitled A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements, in which Duchamp played the Black King. His personal war, concludes Naumann, was with those who regarded art as a purely visual (retinal) experience rather than a “cerebral experience akin to playing chess.” In 1968, the Parisian paper Le Figaro ran his obituary in the chess section.

Through this show and its accompanying publication, the public can newly experience the 64-square universe populated by an incomparable artist’s passions and obsessions.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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