Seeing Duchamps Coffee Mill at the Tate: First Encounter of a Lasting Kind
The first work by Marcel Duchamp that I saw in person was his 1911 painting Coffee Mill at the old Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in London. This encounter would have been in the early 1980s, shortly after the work was acquired by the museum. I stumbled across the painting as a teenager and had no prior knowledge of the artist’s work and ideas. According to Duchamp, the painting depicted an “old-fashioned coffee mill” that “shows the different facets of the coffee grinding operation, and the handle on top is seen simultaneously as it revolves. You can see the ground coffee in a heap under the cog wheels of the central shaft which turns in the direction of the arrow on top.” Coffee Mill was of talismanic importance for Duchamp as it initiated his career-long interest in machine imagery and movement, which is seen in later works such as Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2; Bicycle Wheel; and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass).
What struck me at the time, however, was the similarity between this small, vertical painting on cardboard and the technical drawings made by my father, a structural engineer, who often worked at home on a large drafting table. I was thus familiar with plan, section, and elevation drawings and how they graphically represented a building’s design and construction. But before then I had never considered them as fine art (or “Art with a capital A,” as Duchamp liked to say). I was therefore intrigued to see this painting on view at the Tate Gallery, since it dismantled the coffee grinder and revealed its inner workings in the dry, precise, and impersonal manner of architectural drafting. Its inclusion in a museum display thus felt at once transgressive and humorous. I also remember that the museum label vaguely alluded to the sexual connotations of the grinding action of the coffee mill, and this delicious combination of eroticism, humor, and radical innovation hooked me on Duchamp for life.
What I did not know at the time was that the painting’s initial purpose was as interior decoration. Coffee Mill was made as a gift for Duchamp’s older brother, the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon. According to Duchamp’s account, “towards the end of 1911, my brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon had the idea of decorating his kitchen with oil paintings. He asked about six or seven of his friends—[Albert] Gleizes, [Jean] Metzinger, [Roger] de La Fresnaye and others—to give him a small painting.” Hung together, they formed a decorative frieze-like arrangement above the sink in Duchamp-Villon’s kitchen in Puteaux, a suburb west of Paris. As a museum curator, it has long been a dream of mine to recreate this installation and place Coffee Mill alongside these other works, which also included paintings by Fernand Léger and Duchamp’s eldest brother Jacques Villon. Sadly, this Cubist kitchen display was short-lived: Duchamp-Villon died in a military hospital in Cannes in 1918 after contracting typhoid fever during World War I.
The painting remained in the possession of the sculptor’s widow, Yvonne Lignières (née Bon), for the next three decades until Duchamp brokered a deal for Coffee Mill to be acquired by the Brazilian surrealist sculptor Maria Martins for 120,000 francs in August 1948. Duchamp and Martins pursued a passionate love affair between 1943 and 1950, which had to be conducted in secrecy since Maria was the wife of the Brazilian ambassador to the United States (and later France) through this period. During their time together in New York and Paris, Duchamp created drawings, photocollages, and plaster casts of Maria’s curvaceous body that provided points of departure for Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage . . . [Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ], his elaborate three-dimensional assemblage of a recumbent female nude in a bucolic landscape setting that was permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1969. That Duchamp ensured that Coffee Mill was owned by Maria Martins underscores its personal significance for the artist, and it remained in her possession until her death in 1973. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery in 1981 from Martins’s daughter, Anna Maria Jones.
I recently had the opportunity to see Coffee Mill again in the Duchamp retrospective exhibition at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany. I was delighted to discover that it has lost none of its subversive intent and wall power. My appreciation for the work has certainly grown in the forty years since I first encountered it, during which time I also developed a taste for fine coffee, which I now consume in formidable quantities and prefer to the Earl Grey tea that I drank as a teenager. Another aspect of this story is the transformative power of art museums—their capability to change people’s lives. For me, Coffee Mill opened up a world of art and ideas that previously had seemed closed off and unattainable, and it was the formative experience of seeing this diminutive painting at the Tate Gallery that encouraged me to study Duchamp at university and to pursue a career in the museum field.