Acquisitions in Focus: Marcel Duchamp's Box in a Valise

Posted on March 01, 2012 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring 2012
Michael Taylor, Director

The Hood Museum of Art is delighted to announce the acquisition of Marcel Duchamp's Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), one of the most important and influential works of art of the twentieth century. Arguably modern art's greatest iconoclast, Marcel Duchamp (American, born France, 1887–1968) devoted his entire career to debunking pre-existing ideas about art, which he believed should appeal to the intellect rather than the senses. This can be seen in the Box in a Valise, which the artist described as a "portable museum" that would allow him to carry around his life's work in a traveling box. The artist spent five years, between 1935 and 1940, recreating his oeuvre in miniature through photographs, hand-colored reproductions, and diminutive models. These facsimiles of his major paintings, drawings, and sculptures provided the source material for an edition of 320 boxes, which he would spend the rest of his life assembling. The first edition of the work, which was issued in 1941 in a series of twenty deluxe valises, consisted of a wooden box fitted inside a leather-covered suitcase with a carrying handle. Each valise contained an original work of art, usually mounted on the inside of the lid, in addition to the sixty-eight standard reproductions of Duchamp's most significant works.

Duchamp produced six further editions, each slightly different from the other, which make up the standard edition of three hundred boxes that the artist periodically distributed in small batches during the last three decades of his life. Eventually Duchamp grew tired of the repetitive and time-consuming nature of the project and hired assistants to help him complete the set. Among them was the young American artist Joseph Cornell, who would later become famous for his own dreamlike box constructions. For the Hood version, which was completed in 1966, Duchamp added twelve new items to what would be the final edition of the Box in a Valise. These additional reproductions were printed in Paris between 1963 and 1965 and mounted on loose black folders. Housed in a red linen–lined box the size of an attaché case, this edition is the most sought after by museums because it represents Duchamp's final statement on the theme of the portable museum.

In a television interview with James Johnson Sweeney that aired on NBC in 1956, Duchamp explained his reasons for making a comprehensive anthology of his own works: "It was a new form of expression for me. Instead of painting something the idea was to reproduce the paintings that I loved so much in miniature. I didn't know how to do it. I thought of a book, but I didn't like that idea. Then I thought of the idea of the box in which all my works would be mounted like in a small museum . . . and here it is in this valise." At a time when no museum would honor Duchamp with a retrospective, the artist decided in effect to be his own curator, organizing a self-contained traveling exhibition of his life's work that could be changed at will, simply by rearranging the contents of the box. The obsessive attention to detail that one finds in the production of the boxes also suggests a concern to preserve the past, while simultaneously keeping his ideas alive for new generations of artists. In the Box in a Valise, Duchamp's works are cleverly arranged inside the box like a traveling salesman's wares. Open the lid and you find a treasure trove of art objects all reproduced on a Lilliputian scale. The centerpiece of the display, once the lid is opened, is the artist's magnum opus The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, otherwise known as The Large Glass. Duchamp used transparent celluloid to recreate this huge painting on glass, which is flanked to the left by three tiny replicas of his readymades, which hang one above the other in a narrow vertical space. These items—the notorious urinal he christened Fountain, an Underwood typewriter cover, and a chemist's glass ampoule filled with Air de Paris—were selected by Duchamp as "readymade" works of art in a gesture that would redefine art-making in his era. Below them, mounted on the lid, is an early painting entitled Sonata, which depicted his three sisters playing music under the attentive gaze of their mother, who was tone deaf yet claimed to hear the vibrations of the music.

Why the artist should want to faithfully reproduce the highlights of his artistic career in miniature and pack them into a small suitcase has been the subject of great discussion since the first valise appeared in 1941. One hypothesis is that Duchamp was humorously commenting on his meager artistic output. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Henri Matisse, who by this time had all created a prodigious number of paintings, Duchamp had deliberately limited his artistic production to a handful of key works, believing that he could thus avoid repeating himself, which he argued had been the sad fate of many successful painters in the modern era. The Box in a Valise can thus be seen as a self-deprecating joke, with an undertone of criticism for the excesses of his fellow artists, which allowed Duchamp to proudly claim that his own oeuvre was so modest that he could fit all of his art objects in a small suitcase. Duchamp's willingness to reproduce his works in miniature may also have stemmed from his belief that there was nothing inherently sacred about a work of art and that the idea behind an art object was more important than the object itself. Duchamp's use of replication and appropriation to under-cut accepted notions of originality and authenticity was hugely important to subsequent generations of artists, including the Fluxus group, which responded enthusiastically to the ideas behind the Box in a Valise in their Fluxkits, many of which are in the collection of the Hood Museum of Art as well.

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Written March 01, 2012 by Kristin Swan