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Man Ray, <em>Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, </em>c. 1920-1921. Gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 6 13/16 inches. The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1957.
Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, c. 1920-1921. Gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 6 13/16 inches. The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1957.

In summer 1985, I decamped from rural Michigan to Manhattan to attend Columbia College. Harboring ambitions of becoming a physician, I matriculated as a pre-med biophysics major. As a queer teen, however, I also was desperate to find others who walked, talked, and yearned like me. During my sophomore year, as I tiptoed out of the closet, I took Art Humanities, one of several required courses comprising Columbia’s storied Core Curriculum. While an abecedarian in art matters, I was dazzled by the vast, exotic universe that unfurled before my eager eyes to the syncopated cadence of the slide projector. It was here that I first heard the name Marcel Duchamp.

After spending my junior year abroad at University College London, where I exclusively pursued the history of art, I scrapped my medical aspirations, declared myself an art history major, hastily applied to graduate school, and accepted a fellowship in the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard. I intended to specialize in modern art, but the course offerings were rather paltry. Over and above that, I was a bit of a misfit, openly gay and interested in gender and feminist theory in a decidedly buttoned-down, tweedy department. Fortunately, it was permissible to cross-register at MIT. In spring 1991, my second year in Cambridge, I enrolled in a seminar on Duchamp that Benjamin Buchloh taught. Under his tutelage, I immersed myself in the work of this singular artist whom Willem de Kooning had declared a “one-man movement.”1 Fountain, L.H.O.O.Q., Man Ray’s photographic portraits of Duchamp in drag as Rrose Sélavy… The provocatively queer resonances of these incomparable creations beguiled me. I was bitten!

My enthusiasm for Duchamp’s art quickly begot a concomitant curiosity about him as an individual. Who was this man so comfortable in his skin and so tolerant? Although I did not realize it at the time, others like me previously had posed the same question. John Cage, for instance, had proffered: “I can’t get along without Duchamp! I literally believe that Duchamp made it possible for us to live as we do.”2 Similarly, for Jasper Johns, Duchamp had “changed the condition of being here.”3 In my personal quest for knowledge about the Frenchman, I sought out individuals who had known him. With Benjamin Buchloh’s assistance, I tracked down Beatrice Wood in Ojai, California, on the eve of her centenary. We struck up a lively correspondence, and I visited her on various occasions. For nearly six years, she never tired of my queries about Duchamp. This formative experience spurred numerous others, as I undertook research for my doctoral thesis exploring the role of masculinity in Duchamp’s oeuvre, as well as in that of Charlie Chaplin and Vaslav Nijinsky. Such encounters brought my dissertation to life, just as others—with the likes of Jacqueline Matisse Monnier, Paul Matisse, Monique Fong, Gianfranco Baruchello, Ulf Linde, Alfred Levitt, Michel Waldberg, Michel Sanouillet, Jean Suquet, George Heard Hamilton, Édouard Jaguer, Carroll Janis, Charles Henri Ford, Merce Cunningham, and Jasper Johns—would greatly enliven and enrich the pages of Étant donné Marcel Duchamp, the bilingual scholarly journal devoted to the artist’s life and work that I edited from 2000 to 2016.

The classic academic training that I received at Harvard, with its emphasis on connoisseurship and primary sources, may seem anachronistic, even antithetical, to Duchamp’s aesthetic project. In my scholarly work, I have strived to demonstrate the contrary. Due to both the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of Duchamp’s output, countless exegetes succumb to an insidious temptation when confronted with his production; they feel obliged to offer a hermeneutic key—there is always only one—that unlocks the hidden meaning of his entire oeuvre. Duchamp, however, exists in the details, in the murmurings of minutiae. One can only fully appreciate the scope and originality of his contribution to art history when one examines the specificity of each artwork. To this end, I always endeavor to delve deeply into the archives, ferreting out documents that “speak” to a particular object. Such meticulous contextualization and attentive visual scrutiny generate new avenues of inquiry, not to mention new discoveries, all of which thicken and oftentimes rectify the historical record.

During my tenure as editor in chief of Étant donné Marcel Duchamp, aficionados and dabblers alike regularly inquired: “Are there still things to say about Duchamp?” In each instance, I emphatically replied in the affirmative. The nearly 2,500 pages that encompass the eleven volumes of Étant donné Marcel Duchamp attest to this. And the work continues.

  1. Willem de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 18, no. 3 (Spring 1951): 7.
  2. John Cage, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music, ed. Joan Retallack (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1996), 110.
  3. Jasper Johns, “Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968),” Artforum 7, no. 3 (November 1968): 6.


Paul B. Franklin

Paul B. Franklin is a Paris-based art historian. He was the editor in chief of the scholarly journal Étant donné Marcel Duchamp (2000–16) and worked with Duchamp’s heirs for many years managing the artist’s estate.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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