mass-produced objects that Marcel Duchamp dubbed "readymades" are
of art history. Rhonda Roland Shearer's theories about how he altered
them have some scholars intrigued----and others skeptical By Leslie
During the fall of 1919, in one of the most
celebrated pranks ever played on an art-historical icon, Marcel
Duchamp scribbled a mustache and a goatee on a cheap reproduction
of the Mona Lisa he had purchased in a postcard shop on the rue
de Rivoli. Titling this "assisted readymade" L.H.O.O.Q. (the letters
read aloud in French as "Elle a chaud au cul," or "She's got a hot
ass"), Duchamp claimed that his copy revealed a truth about its
"The curious thing about that mustache and
goatee is that when you look at the Mona Lisa it becomes a man,"
he commented in a late interview. "It is not a woman disguised as
a man, it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing
it at the time."
Duchamp's sexually ambiguous creature is
now as familiar in certain circles as Leonardo's painting. What
if the mystery of its identity were taken one step further? The
sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer believes there's more to this Mona
Lisa's secret than her smile. L.H.O.O.Q., she contends, is a composite
image in which a 1912 photograph of the young Duchamp is layered
over Leonardo's original.
For the past two years, Shearer has been
marshaling support for a radical hypothesis concerning Duchamp's
readymades, among the most revolutionary (or anti-art) objects of
the 20th century. Most people think of the readymades as mass-produced
items transformed into art by Duchamp's choice and by their displacement
to museum and gallery settings. Shearer has set out to prove that
they are all unique creations, extensively manipulated by the artist's
Among her supporters are scholars and artists
who knew Duchamp or were otherwise touched by his achievement. Her
critics include some prominent Duchamp specialists. Sitting tin
the fence (if this debate are the curators of major Duchamp collections,
most of whom declined to comment for this article.
Shearer speaks rapidly, with a convert's
fervor. In dizzying succession, she rattles off references to roulette,
turn-of-the-century urinal manufacturers and fractal geometry. "Why
is it that I am finding different results from other people?" she
asks about her research on the readymades. "I think the explanation
is that I am using scientific method, as opposed to art-historical
method. That's what's yielding the difference."
"Intellectually, her research is a firecracker,"
says Charles Stuckey, senior curator at the Kimbell Art Museum in
Fort Worth and a specialist in modem art.
"If Rhonda Shearer's theories tire confirmed,"
says William Camfield, a scholar of Dada and Surrealism and the
author of a groundbreaking study of the readymade Fountain,
"that would not rest easily with all kinds of interpreters of Duchamp's
On a recent afternoon, Shearer's SoHo loft
is buzzing with activity. Assistants are compiling manuscripts.
A personal secretary keeps a continually ringing telephone at bay.
Scattered about a spacious paneled room is evidence of Shearer's
work as an artist: large interactive canvases based on the children's
classic Pat the Bunny and life-size figures sculpted from
brightly colored strips of dried fruit, to be peeled and nibbled.
Shearer motions a visitor past a dining-room
table surrounded by mismatched chairs arranged to display the evolution
of styles from slat-back to postmodern. (Her husband, the Harvard
paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had a hand in collecting them.)
At a bank of computers, an assistant is fiddling with digitalized
images of L.H.O.O.Q. and Leonardo's painting. Suddenly, he removes
the mustache and goatee front Duchamp's version; its difference
from the Mona Lisa and its likeness to the young Duchamp are startling.
Does this prove that Duchamp melded his own portrait with Leonardo's
masterpiece, or merely that in his youth the handsome Parisian master
of irony bore a striking resemblance to La Gioconda? a close examination
of the original--now in a private collection in Switzerland but
coming to New York's Museum of Modern Art in March for the "Museum
as Muse" exhibition--may help resolve this question.
collage or the fragmented picture was the dominant formal possibility
for art in the first part of the 20th century, the readymade is
for the second half," says David Joselit, professor of art history
at the University of California at Irvine and author of Infinite
Regress (MIT press, 1998), a study of Duchamp. "It's an unavoidable
touch point for what comes after."
(1917)--a porcelain urinal, rotated 90 degrees and signed "R.
Mutt"---was merely the most scandalous manifestation of a long
chain of thought.
one make works of art which are not art?" Duchamp had asked himself
in a 1913 note. Artists and critics have been mining this paradoxical
question for generations. The readymade's status as art, anti-art,
or non-art object has provided fodder for countless interpretations.
Duchamp, a man of few words. said contradictory
things about the readymades. Mostly, he claimed that they were visually
indifferent objects, and that their purpose was to escape both the
artist's hand ("la patte") and the idea of good or bad taste. Yet
he also compared the pleasure of watching the spinning Bicycle
Wheel (1913) to looking at a fire.
Duchamp produced fewer than 20 readymades
(the exact number varies depending on how they are classified).
The labels he gave them---"assisted readymades," "semi-readymades,"
"imitated rectified readymades," and so forth---testify to their
varying degrees of manipulation by the artist. Shearer's theory
adds one more layer to the complex brew of the readymades' identity:
unique artifacts masquerading as manufactured objects only to be
recuperated by the art world (the museum, the gallery) again.
Shearer settles down to talk in a small,
book-lined study dotted with objects that look oddly familiar: birdcages,
coat hooks, a French bottle dryer, a porcelain urinal, superannuated
snow shovels, old Sapolin paint signs. This extraordinary collection
represents two years of searching for close approximations of the
items Duchamp claimed he had purchased for his art.
The history of mundane, industrially produced
objects----plumbing fixtures, tools, and hardware----is largely
uncharted territory. "No scholar has ever been able to track the
industrial source of readymade exactly as Duchamp presents it to
us," Shearer notes, citing extensive research by William Camfield
and Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe into the industrial
origins of Fountain, in particular. "If they were truly
mass-produced objects, they'd turn up, either with collectors or
Adding to the mystery, the earliest readymades
were all lost but they lived on in multiple guises: in replacements
the artist created for lost, broken, or "forgotten" originals; in
photographs and miniatures he made for editions of Box-in-a-Valise
(1941-71), a portable museum of his work; in archival photographs;
in retroactively authorized reproductions by various people; and
in former Milanese dealer and catalogue raisonné author Arturo
Schwarz's 1964 reproductions of 13 readymades, which Duchamp supervised
and signed. (The Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired the bulk of
Duchamp's original works with the collection of his patrons, Louise
and Walter Arensberg. Most works in the collection of his patron
Katherine S. Dreier and the Société Anonyme went to
the Yale University Art Gallery.)
Shearer uses computer analysis to pin down
the differences between these various incarnations. Take Hat
Rack, for example. Shearer is sitting beneath a 1904 Thonet
bentwood model, which hangs from the ceiling of her study. Flipping
through turn-of-the-century Thonet catalogues, she says it's the
closest she could find to the hat rack that dangles from the rafters
of Duchamp West 65th Street studio in a 1917 photograph (retouched
and included in the Box-in-a-Valise). The photo shows an
ambiguous, sinuous creature--but with its five asymmetrical hooks,
it clearly differs from those in other studio photographs as well
as from the Thonet model and Schwarz's six-pronged, symmetrical,
"I'm just mapping the contradictions," Shearer
says, "so that it becomes impossible for him to claim in that he
just went into a store and bought a hat rack and hung it up. It's
certainly altered in some way if it's the same object. Where's the
For Shearer, a 1920 Man Ray photograph offers
a clue to the Hat Rack's mystery. In it, under the arm
of a wraithlike Duchamp a single hat rack hook is visible----cut
off from the original, Shearer speculates, and placed there to tease
the spectators of the future.
What would be the point of such an elaborate
game of hide and seek with history? "Duchamp said repeatedly that
he wasn't interested in 'retinal' art; all that interested him was
the beauty of the mind, or gray matter," Shearer insists. "'All
Chess players are artists, but not all artists are chess Players,'
he said. Well, just as Chess pieces make patterns, and you wouldn't
think of going to a chess master and admiring the pieces themselves,
so it's !he movement of these objects, the patterns they make, that
Creates mental beauty."Shearer came to many of her conclusions by
trying to imagine if the objectsDuchamp Presented as manufactured
items would actually function. She found that his snow shovel, titled
In Advance of the Broken Arm, would break for lack of its
patented triangular back supports, and that its square handle would
hurt the user's hand. She concludes that Duchamp bought and altered
it. She found that the birdcage in the "semi-readymade" Why
Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? at four and a half inches tall
is too small for even the most diminutive parakeet. She contends
that Duchamp cut the original cage in half. She has checked with
medical historians who say that the ampoule full of Paris air (50
cc of Paris Air) Duchamp brought to New York as a gift for
the Arensbergs is too large to ever have served for serum; she infers
that he had a pharmacist make the one he wanted.
"Many of the stories he tells just don't
line up," Shearer says. Consider Three Standard Stoppages,
in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a key early work.
Toward the end of 1913, Duchamp said, in his Paris studio, he cut
three lengths of thread, each just under one meter long, dropped
them from a height of one meter, and affixed the results on three
separate canvases---a new standard of measure, incorporating chance
and randomness, for the new art of this century.
"Why is it that John Cage and the artist
William Anastasi tried replicating this experiment many times and
couldn't come up with anything like it?" Shearer asks. "I tried
with every imaginable type of thread---silk, cotton, waxed, unwaxed.
I haven't been able to come close to what he presented. What I think
is that Duchamp did this over and over again. He gives us the notes,
the protocol, and the results don't match. When you put them together,
you have the opportunity to be the discoverer."\
Duchamp is not the first monumental figure
Shearer has tackled. In 1993, for a project with New York's Public
Art Fund, she surrounded an equestrian portrait of George Washington
in Union Square Park with eight larger-than-life, cast-bronze silhouettes
of women ironing, vacuuming, and cleaning toilets. The idea was
to give women's anonymous domestic labor as visible and historically
weighty a presence as the nation's Founding Fathers.
An autodidact, Shearer grew up in a Chicago
suburb. An eleven-page curriculum vitae supplied by Wildenstein
Gallery (which has represented her work in the past) lists numerous
exhibitions, catalogues, and lectures on subjects ranging from ecofeminism
to chaos theory.
Her interest in Duchamp evolved from her
research on the English cleric Edwin Abbott, author of a singular
novel, Flatland. Set in a two-dimensional world, it follows
the trials of a character who dares to imagine a third dimension.
Abbott wrote it at a time when non-euclidean geometry was shaking
the foundations of mathematics and science, and ideas of the fourth
dimension were circulating among artists, spiritualists, and theologians.
It was while reading an article by art historian
Craig Adcock that Shearer stumbled across the connection between
Duchamp and the turn-of-the-century French mathematician Henri Poincaré,
whose works the artist is known to have studied closely. Poincaré's
ideas about probability anticipate contemporary chaos theory, a
science that studies the complicated and irregular behavior of natural
systems such as weather patterns. The connection between Poincaré
and Duchamp is at the heart of Shearer's project. She believes that
the readymades' changing morphology over the course of their history
is part of a complex mathematical system devised by the artist under
Poincaré's influence. Working with a mathematical physicist,
Richard Brandt of New York University, Shearer is mapping the perspectival
contradictions embedded in The Large Glass to create a
computer model of a four-dimensional space. Her plans include a
symposium on Duchamp and Poincaré, to take place at Harvard
in November, a museum exhibition on Duchamp and science, and a four-volume
publication of her research, complete with CD-ROM.
Throughout his life, Duchamp exercised an
extraordinary fascination on a host of powerful admirers. His patrons,
the Arensbergs and Katherine S. Dreier, and his colleagues, such
as André Breton, the notoriously mercurial "pope" of Surrealism,
were both foiled and captivated by his gracious and conciliatory,
yet remote and slippery, personality.
The artist's reticence in the face of explication
was legendary. In Duchamp: A Biography, Calvin Tomkins
recounts Duchamp's reaction to a lecture Arturo Schwarz gave in
London in 1967, in which Schwarz unveiled the theory behind the
two-volume monograph he had labored over for some 12 years--that
the key to Duchamp's work and personality lay in his incestuous
childhood passion for his sister Suzanne. "Capital!" Duchamp exclaimed
to Schwarz at a dinner party after the lecture. "I couldn't hear
a word, but I enjoyed it very much." Whether sublime or calculated,
this seeming indifference has invited endless interpretation.
Francis Naumann, an independent scholar and
a Duchamp specialist, credits Shearer with some interesting observations
concerning the objects Duchamp selected as readymades but remains
unconvinced that he altered them. "Anyone who develops a theory
in anticipation of the facts," he cautions, "invariably causes those
facts to conform to the theory." He brings up the example of Walter
Arensberg, who founded and single-handedly funded the Francis Bacon
Foundation to prove that Bacon was the author of the writings customarily
attributed to Shakespeare. "Arensberg was driven and obsessive,
he had vast quantities of money to hire people, and he could prove
whatever he wanted," Naumann says. "He found 500 signatures of Bacon's
name encoded in Shakespeare's plays. It would have been more convincing
to me if he had found only one or two. As with any research, you
have to ask, What is the motive?
Other scholars find Shearer's research unconfirmed
but intriguing. "For many people, especially those who focus on
the readymades as critiques of art and commodity culture, it's important
that they were not manipulated at all," says William Camfield. "Her
ideas raise new questions about Duchamp's intentions. Certain changes
she suggests may be plausible----Duchamp's melding of his identity
with the Mona Lisa, for example, would be consistent with his assumption
of a feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. But the historical
record clearly indicates that some readymades were purchased. I
need to see the visual evidence for her thesis."
Still others find her work convincing. "Certainly,
if she were presenting a case to a grand jury, I would say we need
a jury trial here," says Charles Stuckey. "I bought one of the Schwarz
reproductions of the Hat Rack for the Art Institute of
Chicago when I was a curator there. It's a very exciting object
to install, like a spider on a string. And yet, for all the attention
I paid to the piece, I missed the transformations she points out
that have taken place over the course of its history." Stuckey is
entirely persuaded that certain readymades, such as Paris Air,
were fabricated; he finds that Shearer's observations about L.H.O.O.Q.
and numerous other readymades help him make sense of the works,
and he points to recent revelations by scholar Ecke Bonk, William
Anastasi, and others that he says are still revolutionizing our
understanding of Duchamp. Ulf Linde, director of the Thielska Galleriet
in Stockholm, who has spent years contemplating the complex geometry
of The Large Glass and whose copies of key works have entered
the Duchamp canon, says he's examined Shearer's documentation of
L.H.O.O.Q. closely. and he believes she's right about it.
So does Timothy Baum, a New York private art dealer who assisted
Shearer in the acquisition of works by Duchamp. For Baum, a scholar
specializing in Dada and Surrealism,. Shearer has "single-handedly
and very diligently broken a lot of the frozen spaces in Duchamp
research," and he decries a coterie of scholars with a proprietary
interest in the artist. "Duchamp was such a cryptic being, perhaps
his greatest artwork was his daily existence," Baum explains. "One
of the pleasures of being human is one's own uniqueness, and for
him it was a lifelong pleasure being Marcel Duchamp. A lot of his
idolaters must simply envy that."
Leslie Camhi is a cultural critic whose
work appears in the Village Voice, the New York Times
and other publications.
1-3 ©2003 Succession, Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.