Galleries 181–183, first floor
Marcel Duchamp's enigmatic assemblage Étant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) has been described by the artist Jasper Johns as "the strangest work of art in any museum." Permanently installed at the Museum since 1969, this three-dimensional environmental tableau offers an unforgettable and untranslatable experience to those who peer through the two small holes in the solid wooden door. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of its public unveiling, Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés situates the extraordinary assemblage within the context of almost 100 related works of art, including all of its known studies and related materials, including books, photographs, and works on paper. Duchamp also made a number of "erotic objects," small-scale sculptures that directly relate to the casting process of the female nude in Étant donnés. This exhibition brings these known works together with more than twenty previously unknown sculptures and studies. These unpublished works include erotic objects, body casts, prints, and notes, as well as over seventy Polaroid photographs taken by Duchamp of Étant donnés in his New York studio that provide the missing link in our understanding of the origins and evolution of Duchamp's final masterwork. These Polaroids are shown alongside a series of photographs of the artist's final studio at 80 East 11th Street, taken by a friend, Denise Brown Hare, following Duchamp's death in 1968, which document Étant donnés before it was disassembled and moved to Philadelphia. The exhibition is drawn largely from the collections and archives of the Museum, and supplemented by loans from public and private collections in the United States, France, Germany, Sweden, and Israel. The accompanying 448-page catalogue explores the history and reception of Duchamp's final masterpiece, as well as its legacy for contemporary artists such as Ray Johnson, Hannah Wilke, Robert Gober, and Marcel Dzama. View more objects in the exhibition >> This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of the late Anne d'Harnoncourt, the Museum's George D. Widener Director and C.E.O., who passed away on June 1, 2008. D'Harnoncourt was a respected Duchamp scholar who, as a 25-year old curatorial assistant, oversaw the painstaking installation of Étant donnés... at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with the artist's widow Alexina "Teeny" Duchamp and his step-son Paul Matisse. In 1973 she co-organized, with Kynaston McShine, the Marcel Duchamp Retrospective exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Throughout her career, d'Harnoncourt sought to shed new light on Duchamp's enigmatic final masterwork and offered early enthusiasm and steadfast support for this exhibition project and its related catalogue, both of which she was looking forward to seeing and reading with eager anticipation.
During the two decades between 1946 and 1966, when the world at large had long since considered that he had given up "art," Marcel Duchamp worked quietly in his New York studio, on the top floor of a building at 210 West 14th Street, on the fabrication of a large and complex tableau to which he gave the title: Étant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). When his work was completed, he inscribed its title, the dates, and his signature on the right arm of the nude female figure that constitutes the central element of the tableau, and proceeded to prepare an illustrated manual of instructions for the use of anyone needing to take the assemblage apart or to reassemble it. The manual of instructions, contained in a looseleaf binder, is dated by Duchamp to 1966. Before Duchamp's peaceful, unexpected death in Paris on October 2, 1968, at the age of eighty-one, Étant donnés… was acquired by the Cassandra Foundation. Later that year, in accordance with his wish, the Foundation presented it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it joined the largest collection of Duchamp's work in the world. Duchamp's instruction manual proved essential to the task of moving the assemblage, which had been previously transferred by Duchamp himself to a small room in a commercial building at 80 East 11th Street when the lease on his 14th Street studio expired. Following his instructions, Étant donnés… was dismantled in New York, carefully packed, moved to Philadelphia, and reinstalled in the Museum gallery prepared for it. By July 7, 1969, the reassembly and installation were complete, and the public entering the gallery with Duchamp's paintings and centered around The Large Glass could now continue to the little room beyond it and (one by one) contemplate the artist's last major work through a pair of holes in a weathered, wooden Spanish door, framed by a brick archway set in a plaster wall. In his title page for the manual, Duchamp refers to Étant donnés… as an "approximation démontable" (an approximation that can be taken apart, or disassembled), adding that in using the word "approximation" he intends to convey a margin of ad libitum in the assembly and disassembly of his construction. Those who scrutinize this [manual] will find that the position of the cotton clouds in the sky is "ad lib," and that the degree of brilliance of the little waterfall can be adjusted by slight shifts in the position of the wooden bar that supports a biscuit box containing a round fluorescent light. Such niceties lend characteristic charm and an air of enigma to this matter-of-fact guide, which makes no attempt to explain or elaborate upon the meaning of Étant donnés…, but simply leads step by step through the process of putting the assemblage together. Duchamp illustrates his manual liberally with his own photographs, plans, and drawings, all, insofar as it is possible to judge, created specifically for the purpose of making his instructions as clear as possible, and in no way constituting preliminary studies and sketches. In fact, it seems evident that the probable order in which Duchamp himself worked upon elements of the tableau over two decades—first the landscape background and the nude figure, then the overall construction and the lighting—is not particularly reflected in the order of the fifteen "operations" that Duchamp set down for its reassembly. This text is taken from Anne d'Harnoncourt's introduction to the 1987 printing of the Manual of Instructions for the Assembly of "Étant donnés…"
No photograph can communicate the intensity of the unique visual experience of seeing Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), which the artist constructed in total secrecy over a twenty-year period, from 1946 to 1966. The unsuspecting viewer encounters a spectacular sight: a realistically constructed simulacrum of a naked woman lying spread-eagle on a bed of dead twigs and fallen leaves. In her left hand, this life-size mannequin holds aloft an old-fashioned illuminated gas lamp of the Bec Auer type, while behind her, in the far distance, a lush wooded landscape rises toward the horizon. This brightly illuminated backdrop consists of a retouched collotype collage of a hilly landscape with a dense cluster of trees outlined against a hazy turquoise sky, replete with fluffy cotton clouds. The only movement in the otherwise eerily still grotto is a sparkling waterfall, powered by an unseen motor, which pours into a mist-laden lake on the right. Duchamp began work on his diorama-like assemblage when he was actively involved in Surrealist exhibition design and closely aligned with the aims and ideals of the international Surrealist movement. Indeed, a close examination of the history of the work and its construction reveals that Duchamp was responding to the changing conditions of Surrealism both during and after World War II, when group members embraced tarot cards, black magic, pagan rituals, arcane imagery, and, above all, a new conception of Eros. As Surrealism recast itself in the 1940s in reaction to the rise of fascism and the carnage of World War II, its protagonists increasingly turned to an interior world, such as the one seen behind the massive Spanish wooden door in Étant donnés, which separates the viewer from an unexpected and unimaginable landscape, visible only by looking through the peepholes.
This exhibition and publication are generously supported by The Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with additional funding from Mr. and Mrs. Aaron M. Levine and The John and Lisa Pritzker Family Fund. The catalogue was also made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Scholarly Publications.
Michael R. Taylor • The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art