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Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life originated as a companion text for an exhibition held in 1993 at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The book is double-faced. From one direction, it provides a catalogue of Duchamp's work; from the other, it offers a detailed biography of his life. Aside from a short but insightful introduction by Pontus Hulten," 'The Blind Lottery of Reputation' or the Duchamp Effect," and a brief text by Luciano Berio, "Duchamp's Presence," there is no analytical writing in the book. Thus, Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life is not really a book that one reads; rather it is, like the "Large Glass" that in many ways inspired it, a compilation that one returns to again and again to look through.(1)
The catalogue section of the book is divided into nine interrelated categories:
1. metres etalon
((3. les "readymades" (((4. Rrose Selavy ((((5. le "Grand Verre". 5))))
mariee. 6))) boite-en-valise. 7)) etant donnes. 8) maitres etalon. 9
The layout of these nine thematic groupings with their parentheses marks and mirror arrangement suggests a kind of Chinese box or a "hinge picture." The first and last entries, "metres etalon" and "maitres etalon" ("standard meters" and "standard rulers"), are obviously meant to be related puns and point to the book's circular organization. In his notes for the "Large Glass," Duchamp spoke of making a "tableau de charniere" (a "hinge picture") and said that it should operate like a "book or a folding yardstick" (a "metre pliant").(2) Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life has something of this quality; it folds back upon itself. You can begin the book at almost any point, flip through the catalogue backwards or frontwards, turn it over and begin again with the chronology. This design is not such a bad approach to Duchamp's oeuvre, and it suggests the way his work is conflated with the day-to-day events of his life and how so many aspects of his work and life fold back upon themselves.
Looked at as a "hinge picture," the book rotates around Duchamp's masterpiece, the "Large Glass," or Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23. The nested pairings of categories--Rrose Selavy: mariee; les "readymades": boite-en-valise; celibataires: etant donnes; metres etalon: maitres etalon--are symmetrically arranged on either side of the central category, le "Grand Verre," and suggest ways of looking at the work that are nonlinear. Perhaps one should start at both ends of the catalogue and read toward the middle, or begin with the "Large Glass" and expand outward. The organization of the catalogue reflects that of the exhibition. Both were apparently intended to hint at the intricacies of Duchamp's working method--the way he liked to contradict himself in order to avoid conforming to his own taste, his love of chance, and most of all, the way he returned to his central themes over and over again throughout his lifetime.
The quality of reproductions in the catalogue is quite high (150 are in color). The …