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Infamy and Influence

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) The painting was known, but I wasn’t.—Marcel Duchamp in 1966,
Indra K. Lacis, Curatorial Research Assistant
February 23, 2016

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968). Oil on canvas; 147 x 89.2 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950-134-59. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Estate of Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp’s iconic masterpiece Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) played a crucial role in spreading European modernism across the United States. A clear view of the painting was nearly impossible during its debut at the New York Armory Show of 1913 as crowds constantly surrounded this peculiar “abstraction.” Boldly breaking with tradition, Duchamp depicted a nude, mechanical-looking figure descending the stairs instead of reclining or lying down as convention dictated. Rendered in brown, black, and beige tones, the skeletal, insect-like figure of ambiguous gender barely resembled typical human contours, an artistic transgression that at the time was considered not just visually confusing, but also an 
affront to American morals and rules of social decorum.

Although the notoriety of this mechanical nude would precede Duchamp’s personal reputation throughout the early decades of his career, its initial reception was one of bewilderment and outrage. Ridiculed by critics and the public alike, the painting was skewered in the press as “an explosion in a shingle factory” and Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway). (2) Deftly mixing artistic styles, Duchamp’s painting summarized many of modern art’s concerns: the monochromatic tonalities of splintered Cubist forms, the Futurists’ portrayal of bodies in motion, cinematic freeze frames, growing interest in the space-time continuum, and experiments with time-lapse photography by Étienne-Jules Marey, Eadweard Muybridge, and Thomas Eakins. The difficulty of classifying this enigmatic work only increased its infamy, with some critics comparing its je ne sais quoi with the mysterious intrigue of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. (3)

Nude Descending a Staircase had a troubled history even before it arrived in New York. In the spring of 1912 it was rejected from the Paris Salon des Indépendants by a jury that included the artist’s two brothers and their friends—a painful blow for Duchamp, then only 25 years old. When the painting was exhibited at the Armory a year later, the magazine Art News offered a $10 prize to anyone who could “find the lady,” claiming it would be nearly impossible to discern either a figure or staircase. (4) Readers’ responses published the following week ran the gamut. Some suggested the figure might be male or that the painting should be turned upside down; others accused Duchamp of having defective eyesight or an inability to record accurate impressions, or of simply seeking notoriety. 

Portrait multiple de Marcel Duchamp (Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp), 1917. Unidentified photographer. Gelatin silver print. Private collection. Image courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York

Such suspicions about Duchamp’s iconoclastic leanings were not entirely incorrect. Nude Descending a Staircase was, in fact, the artist’s first attempt at liberating art from the realm of the purely retinal or visual and returning it to the conceptual and cerebral faculties of the mind. The same year the painting was exhibited in New York, Duchamp created his first “readymade” by mounting a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool. In the following decades, such works as Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack—sculptures that are exactly what their titles describe—altered the course of 20th-century art by calling into question time-honored qualities of originality and craftsmanship. By selecting everyday objects and altering them only minimally, Duchamp rejected the preciousness of individually hand-crafted art in exchange for reproducible works that represented a novel, one-of-a-kind idea.

Known to reproduce his own originals, Duchamp is widely credited with introducing three-dimensional multiples into the art market. Three years after Nude Descending a Staircase was purchased by San Francisco art dealer Frederic Torrey for $324 at the close of the Armory exhibition, Duchamp made an exact, full-scale reproduction of the work, which he titled Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 3). (5) Created by superimposing ink, colored pencil, and paint onto a large photograph of the original, Duchamp’s copy was acquired by the artist’s most important patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg.

This opportunity for the Cleveland Museum of Art to display Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) dovetails dynamically with the museum’s relationship to both the painting and the artist. In August 1936, Duchamp was returning home after visiting the Arensbergs in Hollywood when he stopped by the Cleveland Museum of Art to view Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), his most important and best known oil painting (which he had not seen in 13 years), at the time on loan to the museum for an exhibition commemorating its 20th anniversary. To Duchamp’s delight, a misreading of the abbreviation “ex” as “expired” instead of “exhibition” led to the listing of Duchamp as dead by 1933 in the catalogue; according to the Plain Dealer, however, Duchamp was “immensely entertained” by the misprint. (6) During his daylong visit to the museum, Duchamp made a series of notes about the painting, descriptions that helped guide the hundreds of small replicas he would subsequently produce not only of this painting but of many of his most important works—faithful miniature replicas that he would ultimately assemble to create his portable “museum in a box.” (7) Titled From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise contains small watercolors, scale models, cutouts, and prints cataloguing his life’s work, including Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired a box from this series in 2007, which—along with other works by Duchamp’s colleagues in the Dada and Surrealist movements—will be on display alongside this notorious painting when it returns to Cleveland on April 9 for the museum’s centennial celebration.

CMA 20th

Once referred to as “the only painter to awaken an entire continent to a new art,” Duchamp’s succès de scandale in New York continues to remain a key aspect of his artistic identity more than 100 years later. (8) Contemporary artists, including Joseph Kosuth, Sherri Levine, Mike Bidlo, Larry Rivers, and Kira O’Reilly, have produced paintings, sculptures, and performances that appropriate and reinterpret this famous painting. (9) During O’Reilly’s 2009 performance Stair Falling at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, for example, the artist painstakingly tumbled down a set of stairs completely nude and in slow motion over the course of several hours, creating an entirely new work while also abstracting and reconfiguring Duchamp’s desire to depict movement. While many artists might consider such gestures an affront to the legacy of their work, Duchamp, whohas been described as a “one-man movement,” would surely have been thrilled to know that the reputation of his infamous painting encompasses not just one but many incarnations. (10)   

From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy, 1935–40, 1963–66 (series F). Marcel Duchamp. Red leather box containing 80 objects (collotypes; letterpress, pochoir, and lithographic prints); gouache, green lacquer, varnish, celluloid, wood; objects of glass, oilcloth, and ceramic; 41.5 x 38.5 x 9.9 cm overall. Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 2007.157. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Cleveland Art, March/April 2016

1. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 45.

2. The phrase “an explosion in a shingle factory” is attributed to both Julian Street and Joel E. Spingarm; see Street, “Why I Became a Cubist,” Everybody’s Magazine 28 (June 1913): 816, and Milton W. Brown, “Rude Descending a Staircase,” The Story of the Armory (New York: Abbeville Press and Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1988): 137. J. F. Griswold’s cartoon, The Rude Descending the Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway), appeared in the New York Evening Sun on March 20, 1913.

3. “The ‘Nude Descending the Stairway’ [sic] rivaled in fame the Mona Lisa,” wrote Mary Roberts, cautioning that the painting was “equally hard to find.” See Roberts, “Science in Art, as Shown in the International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture,” Craftsman 24 (May 1913): 216.

4. American Art News 11, no. 21 (March 1, 1913): 3.

5. In December 1911, Duchamp also made an earlier oil study on cardboard, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1); the third version was executed in late 1916. The fourth version was produced in 1918 in miniature form as a birthday gift for Carrie Stettheimer’s dollhouse. By 1919, the Arensbergs purchased Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) from Torrey for $1,000. See Francis Nauman, The Recurrent Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp (New York: ADAGP; Paris: Readymade Press, 2012): 24–25; and Scott Homolka, Beth A. Price, and Ken Sutherland, “Marcel Duchamp’s FILS: Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 3),” in aka Marcel Duchamp: Meditations on the Identities of an Artist, ed. Anne Collins Goodyear and James W. McManus (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2014): 107–22.

6. Grace V. Kelly, “Artist, Listed as Dead, to Fly Here; Milliken Puzzled by Error in Catalog as Painter of ‘Nude Sets’ [sic] Visits,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 25, 1936; see also Kelly’s article “Artist Finds ‘City Chicken’ Illusion; Painter of ‘Nude Descending the Staircase’ [sic] Visits Museum and Learns New Art,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 27, 1936.

7. Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp, The Portable Museum. The Making of Boîte-en-valise de ou par Marcel Duchmap ou Rose Selvay, trans. David Britt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989): 212.

8. Discussing Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) with Duchamp, Pierre Cabanne noted, “It’s been said that you were the only painter to awaken an entire continent to a new art,” to which Duchamp modestly replied, “The continent couldn’t have cared less! Our milieu was very restricted, even in the United States.” See Cabanne, Dialogues, 45.

9. In 2013, Francis Nauman staged an exhibition at his New York City gallery titled Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase, An Homage, which included all of the artists named here except for O’Reilly.

10. On February 5, 1951, the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning referred to Marcel Duchamp as a “one-man movement” during a talk delivered at the “What Is Abstract Art?” symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.