The artists of the 1913 Armory Show gave an unprecedented shock to American viewers (an impact perhaps impossible in today’s hyper-connected world). In particular, Marcel Duchamp’s stateside debut of his iconic Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) left the American public scratching their heads and shaking their fists—but also, undoubtedly, remembering his name. In celebration of this anniversary, scholar and dealer Francis Naumann organized an exhibition of historical ephemera related to Duchamp’s work, along with a selection of artwork by artists inspired by Duchamp and his Nude in the years since. Artsy caught up with Naumann to discuss Duchamp’s impact, the Armory Show 1913 versus 2013, and the role of the spectator.
Artsy: We’re really excited about the show “Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase, An Homage” on view now at your gallery, as well as the iteration of it that will appear in your booth at The Armory Show (TAS) this year. To whet our palates, can you talk about one or two highlights from the exhibition?
Francis M. Naumann: The highlight of the show is a unique neon piece made by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth called An Elementary Parallelism. Because it is a highly complex and fragile installation, it unfortunately cannot be transported and re-installed at the Armory Show.
Artsy: Why do you feel the public was so reactive to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase?
FMN: If you asked me this same question six months ago, my answer would have been different from how I would respond today, and that is due to the recent discovery of an installation photograph of the Nude in the Cubist room by the art historian Laurette McCarthy. From the context of the photograph, I have speculated that Duchamp’s picture probably threatened the family values of the day, for Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s [Duchamp’s brother] massive Maison Cubiste appears to the left of the Nude and Archipenko’s Family Group cubist sculpture is to the right (showing two Cubified nude figures engaged), probably suggesting to the uninitiated American public that if they are not careful and vigilant, these modern French artists are going to turn everything into little cubes, even them! It might be for this reason that the press dubbed this gallery “The Chamber of Horrors.” (I have written about this very subject for the forthcoming catalogue of the 1913 Armory Show centennial at the New-York Historical Society; a portion of the essay is published in my new book on Duchamp.)
Artsy: Duchamp’s pioneering efforts challenged the context in which art was created while disregarding public opinion; which homage do you think is most in line with the original work?
FMN: What I can say is that Pamela Joseph probably came closest, since her painting deals with issues of censorship, and since Duchamp’s Nude was censored by his brothers and friends in 1912 (when it was submitted to the Salon des Indépendants), I suppose you could say that her approach most closely reflected the history of the painting. If you take a look at her picture, you will see that a select portion of the painting was digitized, eliminating from it any details that might be considered “offensive”. She discovered that a few years ago, the Iranian government began to censor images in this fashion, getting peasants, called ‘dahatis’, to obliterate with markers reproductions of nudes and the like that existed in already published books, and digitizing the portions of western pictures that they themselves print that might be considered offensive by the deeply religious populace. I shall be devoting a show to this series at the gallery next year.
Artsy: In what ways does the current Armory Show carry on the mission of its namesake exhibition?
FMN: The goal of the original Armory Show as to place the most current manifestations of advanced European Art with examples of contemporary American art. The current Armory Show accomplishes this very task on an international scale.
Artsy: Duchamp once said, “A work of art exists only when the spectator has looked at it.” Do you think this theory is more or less relevant today, when a 'spectator' can experience art both in person and/or via the Internet?
FMN: When you look at something on the Internet, you still “see” it, so you are thus still a spectator, and everything Duchamp said still applies.
“Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase, An Homage” is on view at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, through March 29, and in the Solo Projects Section of The Armory Show, March 7-10.
Francis M. Naumann is an independent scholar, curator, and art dealer, specializing in the art of the Dada and Surrealist periods. He is author of numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, including New York Dada 1915-25 (Harry N. Abrams, 1994), considered to be the definitive history of the movement, and Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Harry N. Abrams, 1999). In 1996, he organized Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1997, Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Tribute for the American Craft Museum in New York, and, in 2003, he curated Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray for the Montclair Art Museum. His most recent book is The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp (Readymade Press 2012). He lives with his wife and family in Northern Westchester, and operates his own gallery in New York City, one that specializes in art from the Dada and Surrealist periods as well as the work of contemporary artists of related aesthetic sensibilities.