Abstract Critical

Seeing Duchamp as Sculpture

From William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture, Thames and Hudson, 1974:

“Duchamp, Tatlin, Rietvald and others, whatever their own beliefs as to the significance of what they were doing, produced objects which can now be seen to belong to modern sculpture, just as they themselves were embedded in and formed by the traditions they variously repudiated. The process of reclaiming their work for sculpture has been protracted; and, as the career of Giacometti shows, the premature exploitation of their discoveries resulted in an ingenious but essentially sterile academicism. It is only in the last few years, when the proscription of all materials except wood, stone and bronze has finally been relaxed and sculpture has recovered a natural scale relationship with the human figure, that the potential of gestalt, scale, structure and material implicit in the work of these artists could be appreciated and used.

Duchamp’s Readymades are elements of Cubist still-life released from the medium of painting. There are inevitable difficulties with these pieces, such as the problem of being unable to see them except in photographs or in the inferior multiple copies that Duchamp released at the end of his life. Certainly, Duchamp’s proclaimed attitude toward these works, the uninspired character of most of his subsequent work, and the use to which the Readymades have been put, justifying a flood of feeble imitations, must all add up to a pretty strong case against taking the originals seriously.

Yet I was enormously affected by the image of the Bottle Rack when I first saw it as sculpture, however it came into existence and whatever its history and exploitation, and find that I still am. The same holds true for the urinal, the snow shovel, the hat rack. By comparison, the rest of Duchamp’s work, before and after, seems contrived, over-elaborate, clever, whimsical, mechanical and boring. The Bottle Rack and the other pieces I mentioned are inspired: they do not work simply on their incongruity, as useful objects in an art context; in fact their detachment from the original context, except the snow shovel, makes them virtually unrecognizable except as sculpture, i.e in terms of their abstract properties – image, proportion, structure and use of material. This is the inversion of Duchamp’s professed intention to make art unnecessary by substituting common mass-produced objects for art objects. However, the whole enterprise depended on the general cultural structure built around the making and appreciation of art, the needs it satisfies and the expectations it creates. Duchamp could not escape being part of this structure, and while in the short term his betrayal of his own talent may have diminished art, I am convinced that the effect of his best work will in the end be seen to have enlarged it. The Readymades witness how Duchamp, his taste and sensibility sharpened by the competitiveness of Cubist Paris, where he had arrive too late for his contribution to be anything but academic, found in exile in New York mechanically fabricated objects whose completeness, simplicity and order must have seemed but a step from the stripped and dismembered bottle, glasses and guitars of Braque and Picasso’s collage of 1912-15. The formal integrity which these objects possess is typical of a great number of useful objects in general circulation in the nineteenth century where function, economy and efficiency had been the only determinants of design. It was Duchamp’s achievement, in spite of himself, to bring this whole area of form and use of materials into sculpture, where subsequently it has been untapped, except in the work of David Smith, who was the first to incorporate tools and machine parts into sculpture for their abstract rather than image quality. However the abstract formal power of the Bottle Rack as a total configuration is still unequaled in sculpture.”


  1. glyn thomposn said…

    Hi Sam, and thanks for that. To take the second part first, I guess I was speculating as to whether Tucker was responding to a climate in which a distancing from Hamilton’s assumed authority had developed as Duchamp’s legacy became increasingly contested after the Tate retrospective in 1966 (which I am venerable enough to have visited, as student)-Hamilton being a Duchamp insider, a member of the lect privileged to burnish the halo of the Saint Marcel of the popular imagination, etc, provoking an inevitable reaction. Perhaps there is anecdotal evidence of the politics of the period reported somewhere (or has the ‘living archive’ passed on to that great artschool in the sky?) Provincials such as myself were oblivious to any shenanigans in the hothouse of the London artworld at the time,and only learnt second or third hand much later.( Iam of coiurse happy to note that the words ‘metaphysical’ and ‘sacral’ were no mine, but Kenedy’s, whose antagonism towards Hamilton is evident throughout the essay)
    And to take the first part second, the ‘conversion’ appeared to be so rapid that I presumed either that some unforseen personal or social convulsion had provoked it; a Caro provoked change of guard at St Martins, etc, perhaps; or that its origins had a deep, but at the time invisible, cause.

  2. glyn thomposn said…

    Tucker’s eulogy of Duchamp is all the more remarkable given his complete reversal of opinion within twelve months: see What Sculpture Is, Pt 4. Studio International Jan/Feb 1975 – and I quote (p. 18): ” The ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, which inaugurated the reduction of sculpture to mere objects of mass production, can be compared with the work of his friend and contemporary Brancusi, to illustrate the clear distinction within sculpture between object ang thing…… – the Bottle Rack, for example, betrays its nature not by its form, or its material, or its size, in specific: but by the combination of these elements which completely divests it of physical presence. Now that the impact of surprise has been eroded by fifty years of art history, the object is revealed for what it is – wholly commonplace, completely lacking in uniqeness that is the essence of the individual thing.”

    So why the damascene conversion ?; perhaps Tucker head read the following,from R C Kenedy’s ‘Wortgebilder Durch Spiel Und Kombinatorik’ in Art International, October 1974, which reads: ” Unfortunatley Richard Hamilton’s very comprehensive notes in the Tate Gallery catalogue were not meant to probe intellectual implications. They were designed to evidence the rather academic presence of aesthetic values in works meant to deny them. Hamilton tends to think that ‘indifference provides a beauty unintended by Duchamp. His search for an object without aesthetic merit, one with the least virtue that he could find to allege that his conviction that that taste is the enemy of art, has proved futile. For the Duchamp personality, his essential artistic gebius, has defeated him.’ This, of course, is criticism of the metaphysical kind which ignores every tangible and demosntrable quality of the work itself in ordet to entrench its claims behind the unassailable concet of sheer genius. Even journalists are expected to do better than that but the exhorcising bent of his argument is not surprising in a man of Hamiton’s outlook; he is an image maker in the grand tradition and his sympathies are utterly heritage committed. He is certainly ill-equipped to show intellective sympathies with Duchamp’s ‘enigma’…He has tried to discover in Duchamp’s Readymades ‘a halloed aspect that welds them into a vision of implausible unity’ and the sacral requirements of Hamilton’s ideals kept him from recognising a unity which was neither implausible , nor indeed related to the faculty of vision.”

    • Sam said…

      Hi Glyn, Thanks for that…

      Firstly, the art history: I think the Damascene conversion may have been slightly more drawn out than the publication date of the Language of Sculpture suggests. Though annoyingly the bibliography in the monograph on Tucker doesn’t list the precise date, a note at the beginning of the Lang of Sculp states that some of the chapters, including the on on ‘Object’, were published in Studio International from Oct 1972. The ‘conversion’ also fits in with the move in Tucker’s work away from blankness (indifference), control, restraint etc of his work of the sixties and early seventies,toward the more emotive, messy and vaguely-symbolic work that develops in the mid-seventies and results in his turd like sculptures of the 80s onwards.

      Secondly, and more importantly, though I don’t know about Hamilton, I’m not sure that words such as ‘metaphysical’, ‘sacral requirements’ ‘sheer genius’ fit Tucker’s original statement. Or if you think they do, could you explain how they do? Of course Tucker’s understanding of Duchamp may be absurd or wrongheaded, but isn’t being wrong a prerogative of the artist, as opposed to the academic? By which I mean that artists can – and frequently have – put things to uses for which they were not intended; for Tucker, Duchamp opened a way to bring certain qualities found in industrial objects into the realm and protocols of sculpture, something which, at least in the early 70s, he saw as justification for the work he had been involved in since the early 60s. In which blankness was certainly an aesthetic quality.

      Or are we stuck with Duchamp’s intentions? (I’m vaguely aware that maybe a false opposition…)

    • Holly said…

      if you get this comment today a reply will be much appreciated. I cannot seem to find the book you are referencing too, perhaps you could give a link to it?