by Helen Harrison
A hundred years ago today, New Yorkers were flocking to the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue to gawk, giggle and gasp at the International Exhibition of Modern Art. Of the roughly 1,300 works by more than 300 European and American artists, one painting seemed to epitomize all that was aberrant in modernism: Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier No. 2. Ridiculed by the press as “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway)” and “Explosion in a Shingle Factory,” Duchamp’s 1912 canvas quickly became the symbol of how the European “fakers” and “madmen” were trying to corrupt sane and sensible America. But the harder the critics knocked it the more the public clamored to see it, with as many as 12,000 piling in on March 15, the show’s closing day.
Today another Armory Show opens in New York, and although this international art fair did occupy the actual armory for two years, it’s now housed in piers on the Hudson. Unlike its predecessor, this update is a showcase for commercial dealers, one of whom, Francis M. Naumann, has mounted a tribute to Duchamp’s masterpiece. Naumann, a respected scholar and author of books on Duchamp and Dada, assembled a selection of responses, several of them created especially for the occasion. They range from direct quotes, including a couple by Duchamp himself, to flights of fancy (pun intended). “Nude Descending a Staircase: An Homage,” opened at Naumann’s 57th Street gallery on February 15. It will be on view at Pier 94 through Sunday, after which it will move back to the gallery through the end of the month.
Two multiple-exposure motion studies by Muybridge—although not his 1887 woman walking down stairs, which you can see animated on YouTube—introduce the concept of capturing movement in a static medium. The photographer Gjon Mili made a time-lapse version in 1942, and Duchamp was similarly photographed, albeit fully clothed, by Eliot Elisofon for a 1952 Life magazine article. A 21st century variant by D. James Dee uses a spiral staircase and a corpulent model who is billed as naked instead of nude, shifting the focus from the world of art to the real world. Similarly, Mel Ramos’ 1987 canvas is literally a painting of a naked young woman coming downstairs, looking directly and somewhat seductively at the viewer as if to say I’m here, I’m real, and I’m yours. In 75 Years Later Revisited, his reprise of a theme he first explored in 1988, Larry Rivers set his real-life lover, Daria Deshuk, in a cubistically fragmented space, making her the calm center of a gyrating environment.
The staircase rather than the nude gets top billing in Thomas Shannon’s Slinky Descendant un Escalier, where, as the title suggests, the toy substitutes for the figure, and Tetsuya Yamada’s Endless Staircase (Double Helix version), which channels both Duchamp and Brancusi. In Sophie Matisse’s canvas, the staircase seems to climb down itself, and Wim Delvoye re-imagines it as a cross between a twisted dump truck and a spiral of Gothic architecture.
Among the direct quotes, Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine bring their appropriationist sensibilities to bear on Duchamp’s icon. Bidlo’s handmade versions are meant to simulate studies by the master, while Levine’s group of identical postcards of the painting illustrates how a unique work of art becomes a “readymade” through mechanical reproduction. Examples of Duchamp’s own manipulated reproductions, in the form of pochoir multiples, indicate that he was equally capable of capitalizing on the painting’s fame.
Indeed, on the Armory Show’s 50th anniversary in 1963, Duchamp collaborated with the graphic designer Herbert Matter on a poster for a reincarnation of the exhibition, which was held at the original venue. An example, signed by the artist, is included in the current show. At the time Duchamp was criticized for hogging the limelight, but the painting had by then become such a talisman of the Armory Show phenomenon that it’s hardly surprising the organizers chose to use it as the literal poster child. As a college art major I visited the anniversary exhibition a few times—I still have the 1913 button replicas they gave away—and could have bought one of those posters for $25. I almost did, but in those days that was a lot of money for a student to shell out, so I passed it up. A copy in good condition now sells for as much as $7,500.
Caption: Larry Rivers, 75 Years Later Revisited, 1996. Oil on canvas mounted on sculpted foamboard, 38 1/2 x 24 x 5 inches.