Ready-made art for the mind

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 05:00 11/09/2012
Marcel Duchamp
CRAIG SIMCOX/Dominion Post

ABSTRACT PIONEER: Adam Art Gallery curator Marcus Moore stands by the work Boite-en-valise which features in Peripheral Relations: Marcel Duchamp and New ZealandArt 1960-2011

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In the Adam Art Gallery Michael Parekowhai's life-size sleek black  seal endlessly balances a stool and a bicycle wheel on its nose. Nearby an intricate little Len Lye kinetic  sculpture is given stature on a plinth. So different,  but both hark back to the work of the famous, infuriating, influential French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp? Know the name, but wouldn't put it in the same famous class as, say,  Picasso? In the art world he's up there,  credited with introducing conceptual art. Abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning described him as a ''one-man art movement''.

Duchamp (1887-1968) was the artist who put a goatee on a postcard image  of the Mona Lisa and a bicycle wheel on top of a stool, part of his ''readymade'' series of work that revolutionised the art world and outraged the ordinary world.
The  Adam exhibition explores how Duchamp's revolutionary abstraction of art influenced three generations of New Zealand artists. Peripheral Relations: Marcel Duchamp and New Zealand Art 1960-2011 draws on the PhD thesis of guest curator Marcus Moore.

Moore, and Adam Gallery director Christina Barton, both believe Duchamp has been more influential on art than Picasso, here or anywhere.

''I definitely think he was,'' says Moore. He recalls that in 2009 the BBC asked professionals in the art area, curators and academics who rated highest  ''and Duchamp's upturned urinal came out as the most influential work of the 20th century''.

That urinal. There's a tiny replica in the Adam exhibition, in  Duchamp's Boite-en-Valise. Duchamp called his  1917  urinal work Fountain, bought its components from a plumbing store and signed it ''R Mutt''.  It was rejected from the New York exhibition for which he submitted it. Decades later a replica caused outrage in New Zealand. It was shown here in 1967,  the year before Duchamp died but just as his artistic star was burning brightest.

It was part of  the Sisler collection of 78 Duchamp works, which, after being shown at the Tate in London,  toured to Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland, a tour initiated by the then director of the Auckland Art Gallery, Gil Docking.

Docking had corresponded with Mary Sisler and the New York-based curator Alan Solomon and Moore traced the letters from archives in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Wellington's newspaper found the exhibition  ''the rudest, crudest show ever held''. In Christchurch, the key works were withdrawn on the direction of the chairman of the council's parks and reserves committee. The works, he said, were merely ''crude exhibitionism.  To display a male public convenience in the McDougall Art Gallery would not add to its standing.''

''And it was a scandal in Wellington,'' says Moore,  though artist Don Peebles and dealer Peter McLeavey each wrote to the paper supporting it.  In the 1980s,  when Jim and Mary Barr brought a urinal replica back again to Shed 11, there was another fuss.

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But from the 1967  exhibition came influence on the next three generations of artists, says Moore, in New Zealand as elsewhere.

Artists who echoed his ideas, a lot or a little,  include Billy Apple, Bill Culbert, Don Driver, Julia Morrison, Michael Parekowhai, Malcolm Ross, Julian Dashper, Len Lye and Et Al - creator of the work dubbed ''donkey in a dunny'' shown in Venice. Some contemporary artists, such as Boyd Webb, Christine Hellyer, and Darcy Lange,  saw the 1967 exhibition.

In 1982 the National Art Gallery in Wellington was given  several Duchamp works from the estate of an American collector who had married a Wellington woman and the works, which include a waistcoat and Boite-en-Valise, a collection of his pre-1930 oeuvre in miniature, are in the show.

Moore says  Boite-en-Valise with its tiny ''dunny'' and its miniature of his famous work  The Large Glass, is like a ''portable museum which is unpacked and displayed in a large vitrine and holds vital clues for the rest of the exhibition.

The show that we wanted to do was looking at his influence on New Zealand art.''

The term ''readymades'', he says, is often misunderstood. People might think it means any object  can suffice as a work of art, but Duchamp was a complex artist who invokes different levels of understanding.

New Zealand artists, Moore says,  have, over the years ''quoted or interpreted'' Duchamp's three main themes - ''the readymade, pseudo science - a playful physics - and the role of the spectator''.

Barton says Duchamp produced his first ''readymade'', and a breakthrough in art, in 1913. The perceived implication was that an artist could select something available off the shelf  and by declaring it art ''think it into art''.

''He transformed what we thought art was. It had been thought art was carefully invented and made by hand. His first work was a store-bought bicycle wheel and a stool he set up in his studio. It was never exhibited  but it was thoroughly documented.

''Philosophically his work has changed the nature of art.''

A work like Fountain was designed to offend and challenge but appreciated in the high-art circles in which he was well known.  It is, she says, the sort of artwork that can still cause outrage more than a century later.

Duchamp travelled restlessly between France and America in his later years, not wanting to be ''roped into a national art history like Monet to France and Michelangelo to Italy''.

''He was an intriguing character known by his fellow artists in his lifetime and rediscovered by younger artists in the 1960s through books and exhibitions, and he became a heroic  figures and a household name.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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