Open any account of the history of 20th century exhibitions and you will see this image.
It is an installation view of the First Papers of Surrealism, an exhibition that opened seventy years ago at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in midtown Manhattan. It was, at the time, the biggest surrealist show ever seen in the United States, and included works by Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, amongst others.
The exhibition’s organizer, Andre Breton, asked Marcel Duchamp to propose a design for the installation. Duchamp had previously designed the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition, in Paris, lining the ceiling of the main hall of the Gallerie des Beaux-Arts with 1,200 empty coal bags, lighting the room with a single light bulb. Visitors were handed flashlights to navigate the space, which was filled with art objects that took the form of mannequins, plants, and even a taxi cab.
This time Breton had warned Duchamp to err on the side of economy. In response Duchamp purchased what was rumored to have been 16 miles of ordinary white string and used several hundred feet of it to festoon the mansion’s gilded moldings, ornate ceilings, and crystal chandeliers with a tangled mesh of webbing, stretching what came to be known as “his twine” across entrances and around the temporary walls which heaved with artworks. There were no mannequins this time, just lots and lots of paintings. The string criss-crossed the canvases, concealing the mansion’s opulent interior but also acting as what seems to be a literal barrier to the works on view.
Accounts of the experience of viewing the exhibition vary. Some said the twine was like a guide, directing them toward paintings. Others saw it as a metaphor for the complexities of contemporary art, saying that its presence “symbolized literally the difficulties to be circumvented by the unititiate in order to see, to perceive and understand, the exhibitions.” [i] Many of the participating artists were upset, insistent that visitors to the show would be unable to actually see the paintings that they had struggled to get out of war-torn Europe.
The exhibition’s legacy exists in the form of a handful of photographs. The one above, by John Schiff, is by far the most cited. Invariably, it will be accompanied by an emphasis on the string’s obfuscating qualities, a description of how Duchamp, when asked to display paintings, had actually made them impossible to see. The image has come to stand in for the irretrievable experience of the exhibition itself. In it, there is no imaginative entry point to the room, no space that allows us to occupy the same area as the paintings themselves. The string stands in the way. It is difficult to visualize walking up to the Mondrian on the right, or even to the Klee directly in front of us, let alone proceeding through the rooms of the exhibition. We can only feel our ankles getting tangled in the web.
Duchamp himself posited the string as more transparent than opaque. “It was nothing,” he said. “You can always see through a window, through a curtain, thick or not thick, you can see always through if you want to, same thing there.” [ii] If you go to archives, if you look at other images of the exhibition, you can see that Duchamp’s intervention was in fact more permeable than the dominance of this one image has led us to believe. You could walk around in the space, you could approach the paintings. It must not have been so treacherous – during the opening, children ran through the rooms playing ball and tag. When asked what they were doing, they only said “Mr. Duchamp said we could.”
It cannot be denied that the presence of the string must have highlighted a series of confrontations: between the works and their installation, the installation and its viewers, the viewers and the work. It would have been an active force in any experience of the show, necessitating side-stepping and ducking and leaning and bending to get around. But rather than preventing us from seeing, it seems to have been Duchamp’s attempt to encourage a new awareness of the processes of vision. To this day, when we enter spaces lined with art, we fall into a set of prescribed choreography – we know that we should keep a certain distance from the objects, that we should look from afar. In the First Papers of Surrealism, these rules must be broken, if only out of necessity. Here, Duchamp reminds us that vision is corporeal – that it is made possible through the approach of the body. He questions what and how we see, and also, how art institutions themselves dictate both the subjects and the processes of our vision.
In the absence of being able to attend an exhibition that took place nearly a century ago, I think instead of an experience I have had many times, of the immediate approach to Duchamps’s Étant donnés. The terms of Duchamp’s gift of the work to the museum explicitly forbade any reproduction of the image through the peepholes for 15 years after his death. To this day, in order to properly experience it, we all must take the same steps into its dark room before leaning forward and pressing our faces on the grease-stained wooden door. I’m reminded also of the longer approach to it, of the idea that one cannot, and will not, ever see it without first passing through the shadow of The Large Glass. Here, Duchamp forces us into a new choreography, one that reveals his preoccupation with visuality. He famously shunned the retinal, embracing instead the whole body as eye.
It is funny, then, that our experience of the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition and Duchamp’s intervention in it is necessarily reduced to a two-dimensional photograph. We come up against the limits of an exhibition history, confronting the fact that as crucial as an understanding of individual exhibitions is for our conception of the trajectory of 20th century art, the shows that make up this trajectory are in fact unknowable, tied specifically to time, place, and lived experience. Looking at his twine, our vision becomes flat again, disembodied and autonomous. Separated from a physical experience, we once again are shut out.
Dancing Around the Bride, an exhibition exploring the interwoven lives of Marcel Duchamp and four major American artists—John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg—opens tomorrow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Contemporary artist Phillipe Parreno collaborated on the exhibition design, choreographing encounters within the galleries which invite visitors to “dance” with the artists and objects on view. The exhibition runs through January 21, 2013.
Grace Ambrose is ICA’s Spiegel Programming Fellow. She recently received her Masters in Curatorial Studies from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, writing her thesis on the practice of restaging seminal exhibitions.
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