The artist who famously gave the Mona Lisa a mustache and called an overturned urinal his Fountain is getting a rare treatment at the National Portrait Gallery.
The new exhibit "Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture" focuses on the lasting legacy of the French-American artist. The extensive presentation, drawing on Duchamp's self-portraits as well as portrayals of him by Richard Avedon, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and others, opened last month and will remain on view through Aug. 2.
"One of the things we discovered is that while Duchamp is still a giant in the art world . . . he still is not terribly well known to the American public," said Anne Collins Goodyear, co-curator of the exhibition. "We had the opportunity to pull Duchamp out of the shadows."
Duchamp was no stranger, though, to the American limelight in the early part of his career.
When he first arrived in New York in 1915, he already had a reputation. His abstract painting, Nude Descending the Staircase, had drawn outrage in 1913 at the first major exhibition of modern art in the United States, known as the Armory Show.
"In that scandalous show, Duchamp's piece was the most scandalous," Goodyear said. Newspaper reporters wanted to interview this outrageous artist when he arrived from France.
Duchamp saw the chance to invent himself anew in a country free of heavy traditions. He could be a "self-made man" in America, giving him the opportunity to step outside artistic boundaries and explore the identity of his subjects (including himself) beyond a one-dimensional view.
"Duchamp recognized early in his career that identity is not so simple as had previously been imagined," Goodyear said. "Covertly, I think he was always upsetting our traditional ways of doing things . . . to get people to think."
Along with co-curator James W. McManus of California State University at Chico, Goodyear thinks Duchamp's lasting legacy is the idea that identity is "movable and elastic, not fixed" — that an artist can portray the same person in wildly different ways to capture different parts of identity.
At the center of the Dada movement in New York, Duchamp playfully broke all the rules.
There was his gender-bending desecration of a copy of Mona Lisa in 1919 with the naughty message beneath the picture — L.H.O.O.Q. The letters, pronounced in French, translate politely as "she has a hot bottom" or "there is fire down below."
Then came Duchamp's female alter ego, Rrose Selavy, one of many aliases, who appeared three times before the camera and again twisted the idea of identity. Duchamp dressed in drag to be photographed by Man Ray and cited his Selavy alter ego as a collaborator in various works.
His famous 1923 piece, Wanted: $2,000 Reward, was a riff on criminal photography and the wanted poster. He pasted two mug shots of himself on the poster and had a printer add his alias to other names listed under the face.
Duchamp returned to France from 1923 to 1942. He created the unique Boite-en-valise, a portable museum with miniature versions of his works contained in a leather suitcase, in part to transport his work across German-occupied territory during World War II. Versions of the Boite included miniatures of Fountain and The Large Glass.
"You have invented a new kind of autobiography," friend and patron Walter Arensberg said upon receiving the gift of a completed Boite-en-valise in 1943.
By the time Duchamp returned to the United States, he was an elder statesman "with enough of a sense of humor and irreverence that he's still very appealing to young artists," Goodyear said.
In his Self-Portrait in Profil from 1957, Duchamp created a silhouette to portray himself. In 1964, Jasper Johns paid tribute for the first time to Duchamp by doing his own take on that silhouette portrait, with collaged paper and graphite. Other artists played with Duchamp's likeness as well. More than one artist did Duchamp the honor of drawing a mustache and goatee onto his image, just as he had tweaked the Mona Lisa.
The exhibit, developed over five years, is essentially the first to look at Duchamp as an American, curators said. It's also the first to compile Duchamp's self-representations with portraits of him by other artists. Curators found more than 800 works with Duchamp as the subject and narrowed their findings from various collections down to about 100 portraits and self-portraits.
Their findings included the discovery of a lost 1937 portrait of Duchamp in front of his Nude Descending the Staircase by Daniel MacMorris. The painting is being publicly exhibited for the first time in more than 70 years.
"For generations of artists over the last five decades, he has served as an important place from which to draw ideas," said McManus, who co-edited a 320-page catalog on Duchamp with Goodyear.