Marcel Duchamp's X-ray Specs

Linda Dalrymple Henderson
Linda Dalrymple Henderson in her home office surrounded by her father’s inventions.
photograph by Crawford Morgan

My first encounter with Universityof Texas art history professor Linda Henderson occurred in the late Eighties when I attended a lecture put on by the Quark Club, a loose-knit organization of intellectuals from various disciplines who attempted to find a common ground between the sciences and metaphysics. I recall being riveted as she explained how the Theory of Relativity had demolished the concept of a fourth spatial dimension in the early part of the century. She mentioned that she had written a book on the topic (The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art), and I immediately got my hands on a copy. I noticed that a contemporary artist who specializes in four-dimensional hypercubes, Tony Robbin, was featured prominently in it. About that time I went to the McNay Museum in San Antonio, where Robbin's massive Fourfield covered an entire wall. Perhaps if, at that time, I had an inkling of four-dimensional vision, I would have been able to peek into the future: More than a decade later, I would be sitting across from this handsome woman with a pixie haircut in her Tarrytown living room interviewing her about her new book Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works (Princeton University Press, $85 hard) under the multicolored hypercubes of a 56" x 70" Tony Robbin composition.

Duchamp in Context is a coffeetable-sized book that's not a coffeetable book. It's more apropos for a deserted island than a living room -- a deserted island for which the rescue ship is still a year or two away, in order to provide plenty of time to hunker down and seriously contemplate this "Sears Roebuck catalog" of Duchampiana. Henderson's thesis is an elegant gossamer web that touches on and melds together a wide variety of disparate topics and obscure incidents that chip away the shards that envelope the Duchampian enigma. She focuses on the discovery of invisible reality revealed by the X-ray and radioactivity as major influences not only on Duchamp's thought processes, but on a slew of other early 20th-century artists as well. It seems that Duchamp wanted to don a pair of X-ray Specs in order to see the reality behind reality and thereby plunge into the depths of a new realm of artistic expression. Shortly after completing Nude Descending a Staircase -- believed to have been at least partially influenced by X-rays -- Duchamp gave up painting altogether. And yet his obsession with breaking through to the other side seems more like a shaman's quest -- a shaman who has little use for the trappings of art and instead uses the whiz-bang language of scientific gadgetry to get his point across. "My aim was turning inward rather than toward externals," Duchamp once said.

Henderson's erudition seems to encompass every nook and crevice of hard science, fringe science, and even the fringes of fringe science, and is able to extract the kernels of reason from some of these so-called pseudosciences. While charting Duchamp's passages through these often exotic realms of technological endeavor, Henderson is also careful to emphasize Duchamp's own ironically whimsical view of the science world, echoing his spiritual mentor Alfred Jarry's tongue-in-cheek "Pataphysics -- the science of imaginary solutions." And Henderson makes it abundantly clear that science, while it may have temporarily blinded Duchamp enough to compel him to reach for his X-ray Specs, was also a playground of sorts, containing a superabundance of Etch-a-Sketches and Slinkys for this arch-trickster to fool around with.

Duchamp: In ContextAfter providing the backdrop for the influences that inspired Duchamp, Henderson then gets down to business with her theories that offer everything you always wanted to know about the Large Glass but didn't know whom to ask. Her theories are in large part buttressed by her examination of Duchamp's various writings, such as the Box of 1914, the Green Box, A l'infinitif (also known as the White Box), and most significantly, the 289 posthumously published notes found in Duchamp's home after his passing and published in 1980 as Marcel Duchamp's Notes. Henderson latches onto the most seemingly obscure aspect of the Large Glass, and then analyzes it from every conceivable angle, using the various notes as reference points. But at the same time she admits a strong element of ambiguity in the Large Glass as Duchamp kept changing his ideas during construction of the work, and even, according to his notes, afterward.

There's something eerily seductive about the Large Glass. This Rube-Goldberg-on-Special-K-and-orbiting-Planet-Claire contraption is like a window to another realm, the fourth dimension, perhaps, and many other dimensions to boot. To put it bluntly, the Large Glass does weird stuff to one's brain. To read Duchamp in Context is to reconstruct this conjunction of opposites known as the Bride machine and the Bachelor Apparatus inside one's noggin, simulating direct thought transference from Duchamp's own imagination. It's enough to tempt one into having a Marcel Duchamp tattoo stamped on one's forehead.

Henderson had just gotten back into town the day before our interview, after attending her son's college graduation, and she admitted to feeling slightly disoriented. But to listen to her talk about her evolution into a world-class Duchampologist is to feel a slight sense of disorientation oneself, with no particular need to return to mundane reality. Featured prominently on the coffeetable was a humongous hardback volume of Marcel Duchamp's Notes, which she referred to several times during the course of the interview. There's an ethereal tinge in her voice as it rises and falls with rapid cadences -- often punctuated by a childlike laugh. It is a marvel to witness an off-the-beaten-path intellect like hers operate with such force and precision.

Austin Chronicle:Is your interest in Duchamp an outgrowth of your investigations of the fourth dimension?

Linda Dalrymple Henderson: I should go back and tell you how I got into the fourth dimension in the first place -- a sequence of serendipitous events. When I arrived at Yale for graduate school in the fall of 1969, I signed up for a seminar on art, science, and technology. So I began this work and discovered the presence of the term "the fourth dimension" in the early part of the century and all the way through to the 1940s. And that's how I got into this project in which I tried to clarify where the term the fourth dimension had come from and produced my book The Fourth Dimension. And I discovered that there was this whole tradition that pre-dated Einstein and the emergence of Relativity Theory and particularly its popularization after 1919. As I researched the literature of higher dimensional space, Duchamp emerged as one of the artists who had been most interested in the idea. So I did write a chapter on him in the fourth dimension book. Then I went back to Duchamp's Notes and thought: This man wanted to be a chemist! There was indeed a lot of science in Duchamp that I never noticed before. I talked to Princeton Press and got a contract for a 150-page book on science and the Large Glass. Nine years later that book was done.

AC:Why did it take nine years?

LDH: To be an academic and teach during the year means that you're not getting much of your own research and writing done. It's such a big project and required a kind of cosmic thinking to keep it all in one's head and sort through this. And summers were the main time when I could actually devote myself full time to it. So we're really talking about bits and pieces garnered on weekends, holidays, summers. But not nine years steadily working on it, simply because teaching and working with graduate students, etc., absorbs you during the school year. And then, secondly, it was really two projects in one in that I had to become a historian of science in order to illuminate the Duchamp Notes. I had to get the grounding in that culture myself before I could interpret the Notes in any meaningful way. It took a couple of years of just reading and thinking and getting into them to be able to make the kind of connections among the Notes and then with science itself.

AC:Were there administrative pressures -- the publish-or-perish syndrome -- while you were working on Duchamp in Context?

LDH: We're all in that situation and I think that the department was wonderfully patient in waiting for this book. In fact, I was promoted to full professor when the book was half done -- six chapters -- which was the length of a normal book. The later expansion ... came as a result of looking at those Notes and realizing that if I don't deal with thermodynamics in these Notes, or physical chemistry, or mechanics, no one's ever going to. The book doubled in size.

AC:Your father was an inventor. Would you care to comment on your father's influence on your work?

LDH: My father died a number of years ago, but I was well into this project before his death. And I think it really pleased him that his old physics books from the 1920s at Penn State had been so useful to me -- opening the door to that era and getting beyond that common notion of the Theory of Relativity representing early 20th-century science. It was wonderful for me, and, I think, for him, to feel that this background had, in fact, come to fruition in some way. I grew up in a house with a fabulous workshop in the basement full of all kinds of mechanical contraptions. So that world of technology that can seem so foreign has a domestic side for me. ...

My father worked for a steel company in northwestern Pennsylvania that did very high-quality, specialized work. In 1957 he took a trip to Germany -- his first trip to Europe -- touring all these plants; they were doing some new procedure. He loved it, of course, and he brought home a guidebook, which I still have. And so I had gone there in 1968, but also in 1992, I went to the Duetsches Museum again. And it was wonderful to see, especially, now in the midst of my Duchamp project. So this love of science museums that Duchamp felt kind of echoed for me. And something else I mentioned in the last chapter of my book about the shock that people had when Paul Matisse -- Duchamp's stepson -- when they went in to Duchamp's apartment and saw the Etant donnés assemblage, all set up secretly in that apartment in New York. And the jumble of extension cords and weird electrical connections that had been made reminded me exactly of the kind of inventions I'd find in the basement where aesthetics were not the issue, but making something work.

AC:Have you been blinded by science?

LDH: (laughs) Hopefully not blinded, but, attracted to.

AC: It's been said that if you were in a scenario where eight video cameras were focused on you from various angles and that all eight cameras recorded you stepping out of the frame at the same time then you have tesseracted into the fourth dimension. How would you describe the fourth dimension?

LDH:The fourth dimension signifies a higher spatial reality that's inaccessible to our current perceptual capabilities. The human eye is a rather limited instrument for perception. X-rays and other discoveries at the turn of the century remind us that it's very hard to deny completely the possibility of invisible reality. The idea that there might be a higher reality that may hold the answer to all sorts of mysteries and questions is certainly appealing and really only comes to an end with the popularity of Relativity Theory and the redefinition of the fourth dimension as time.

AC:You have written that Large Glass is an allegory. What is it allegorizing?

LDH: It's a marvelous example, I think, of taking the new science and technology to make a commentary on the age-old theme of romantic and sexual quest -- or philosophical quest -- for the beyond. Rather than artists at the end of the 19th century, who use traditional allegorical themes of females representing electricity and magnetism -- Duchamp takes a new language for an old theme and uses four-dimensional geometry to make the Bride unreachable by placing her in another dimension. And then uses a different kind of scientific model, one that has to do with electromagnetic waves and freedom from gravity versus gravity and all the old laws of mechanics which dominate the Bachelors who are in the end kind of comical and emotional and jerky, etc. So you have continuity and smoothness and infinity above and this very finite three-dimensional perspective below. In a very clever way he uses these elements to express incommensurable realms as models for this unrealizable quest.

AC:What does Duchamp mean when he says that eroticism is the only "ism" he believes in?

LDH: Duchamp believed very firmly that one should not be a member of a group. He decided that very early on when his Nude Descending a Staircase was rejected from the Independent Salon by the Cubists. Even his relationship with Dada -- he is usually classified as a Dadaist -- was quite elusive, and rightly so given the fact that he began many of his revolutionary deeds and acts before there was a Dada movement in 1916. So later in life, when interviewers would ask him about his relationship to various movements, I think this became his way of responding. And as you looked back over his work, eroticism was a clearly a theme that ran through it, and to me this was his way of putting interviewers in his or her place, in a sense, of evading a question and coming back with a very clever answer.

AC:It's been said that Duchamp's work by its very nature asks for a response. What kind of response do you think it's asking?

LDH: I think that the idea of making at this very early date, pre-World War I, a work that would be an image-text-system that would have a body of notes that would go with it -- a kind of Sears Roebuck catalog that would explain every part of it -- already puts a primacy on the viewer's ability to take words and images and put them together and come up with some kind of meaning. And in the end he doesn't ever produce that Sears Roebuck catalog. One of the discoveries of his later notes are notes about how he was going to make that book without a beginning or end, as he says, it was going to be a kind of round book, you start at the same place you finish. So in the end he doesn't produce what would be for him the simple solution, but rather leaves us with these boxes of notes, the Green Box, for example, in which these notes exist on pieces of paper that every reader encounters in a different way, opening up all kinds of possibilities for meaning. And I think the surprising part is now to think about our access to notes that he chose not to release during his lifetime, but which now add a whole another level of complexity and meaning and just give us much more to meditate on as we think about Duchamp's work. So it's a big response. I think that people would say that Duchamp probably, if you looked at the whole 20th century, has surpassed Picasso as the most important artist, certainly in the second half of the 20th century.

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