Last Thursday afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set at 4:30 p.m., the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) held a gallery talk entitled “In Conversation with Duchamp,” where community members could gather to hear professors speak about the various intellectual and artistic aspects of the artist Marcel Duchamp, specifically in relation to his work Boite-en-valise, or “box in a suitcase,” made from 1935-1968. Charles W. Haxthausen, professor of art history, Ed Epping, professor of art, and Steven Gerrard, chair and professor of philosophy, were the three professors who spoke (each for about 10 minutes) about Duchamp’s legacy and work in relation to their specialized fields of study.
The Boite-en-valise, which is currently on display at WCMA, is a peculiar piece of art, in that while it is itself an art object, it is also an art gallery curated by Duchamp himself. The portable suitcase contains boxes that house 69 reproductions of the artist’s own work spanning from 1900-1913. “He spent 33 years reproducing works that took him 13 years to produce, making an album of his work like a miniature gallery installation,” Haxthausen said. As a professor of art history, Haxthausen focused on both Duchamp’s curatorial abilities and the strength of the work as its own singular piece of art. “Duchamp is the curator of his own production,” Haxthausen said. He also talked about the painstaking attention to detail that Duchamp gave to each monograph, using 19th century forms of reproduction and then having them hand-colored. “These panels represent a conversation Duchamp has set up between these works,” Haxthausen said in reference to the boxes within the suitcase.
Epping spoke next and talked about Duchamp’s years as a professional chess player. “It was not the winning or losing that mattered but the possibility of the infinite,” Epping said. He also spoke about some of Duchamp’s original pieces, none of which are in existence any longer, that were recreated in Boite-en-valise, including the urinal that Duchamp signed and exhibited as art. “In choosing an article from the category of the multitude, the article becomes an original,” Epping said of Duchamp’s fixation on industrially produced items. Epping talked about the urinal’s journey from the hardware store to the gallery, saying, “The significance of that piece is in the moment of transition from where it had been to where it ended up. It was most authentic in its transformational stage.” Duchamp made a name for himself by questioning what it means to be art and to apply meaning to something, even something as banal as a urinal. “The art is in the idea that is applied to it,” Epping said.
The concept of meaning was really hit home by Gerrard, who spoke about art as an applied meaning to objects that would have otherwise been meaningless. “How can meaning be created of chrome and plaster and glass?” Gerrard asked of the urinal. This is the very question Duchamp asked himself in making such a commonplace object into a piece of art. Gerrard also talked about Duchamp’s chess-playing years by quoting a friend of Duchamp: “The great privilege of our game is that nothing is hidden … all one needs to do is be able to see.”
Duchamp applied to his art the things he loved best about chess: the fact that there was no metaphor or hidden meaning, and all he had to do was look. Even the simplest things in life, like scratches on a wall or sounds waves, are given meaning because they represent something else, like language. Gerrard spoke about his favorite Duchamp work, saying that it was not his infamous picture of the Mona Lisa (he drew a mustache and a goatee on her), but instead a postcard with a regular picture of the Mona Lisa on it entitled, “Mona Lisa, shaved.” This satirical view on one of the most important pieces of Western art really sums up Duchamp’s views on art as a whole: His works are “vibrating with meaning,” Gerrard said.