Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp


By Pierre Cabanne

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With an introduction by Robert Motherwell and an appreciation by Jasper Johns

“Marcel Duchamp, one of this century’s pioneer artists, moved his work through the retinal boundaries which had been established with Impressionism into a field where language, thought and vision act upon one another. There it changed form through a complex interplay of new mental and physical materials, heralding many of the technical, mental and visual details to be found in more recent art. . .

“In the 1920s Duchamp gave up, quit painting. He allowed, perhaps encouraged, the attendant mythology. One thought of his decision, his willing this stopping. Yet on one occasion, he said it was not like that. He spoke of breaking a leg. ‘You don’t mean to do it,’ he said.

“The Large Glass. A greenhouse for his intuition. Erotic machinery, the Bride, held in a see-through cage-‘a Hilarious Picture.’ Its cross references of sight and thought, the changing focus of the eyes and mind, give fresh sense to the time and space we occupy, negate any concern with art as transportation. No end is in view in this fragment of a new perspective. ‘In the end you lose interest, so I didn’t feel the necessity to finish it.’

“He declared that he wanted to kill art (‘for myself’) but his persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference altered our thinking, established new units of thought, ‘a new thought for that object.’

“The art community feels Duchamp’s presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here.”–Jasper Johns, from Marcel Duchamp: An Appreciation


Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp

Cover photo © 1987 by Arnold Newman

Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp

By Pierre Cabanne



Introduction by Robert Motherwell

In the original French edition of this book, Pierre Cabanne wrote, shortly before Duchamp’s death: “These interviews with Marcel Duchamp took place in his studio at Neuilly [near Paris], where he and his wife live during the six months they spend in France each year. It is the first time that the most fascinating and the most disconcerting inventor in contemporary art has agreed to talk about and explain, so profoundly and at such length, his actions, his reactions, his feelings, and the choices he made.” He adds that Duchamp gave these interviews with a “serenity from which he never departed, and which gave his theorems an undeniable grandeur; one divined a man not only detached, but ‘preserved.’ Through his creative acts, Marcel Duchamp did not want to impose a new revolutionary language, but to propose an attitude of mind; this is why these interviews constitute an astonishing moral lesson.... He speaks in a calm, steady, level voice; his memory is prodigious, the words that he employs are not automatic or stale, as though one is replying for the nth time to an interviewer, but carefully considered; it must not be forgotten that he wrote ‘Conditions of a Language: Research into First Words. ’Only one question provoked in him a marked reaction: near the end, when I asked him whether he believed in God. Notice that he very frequently utilizes the word ‘thing’ to designate his own creations, and ‘to make’ to evoke his creative acts. The terms ‘game,’ or ‘it is amusing,’ or ‘I wanted to amuse myself,’ recur often; they are ironic evidence of his nonactivity.

“Marcel Duchamp always wore a pink shirt, with fine green stripes; he smoked Havana cigars incessantly (about ten a day); went out little; saw few friends; and went neither to exhibitions nor to museums....”

The present translation into English contains the entire text of the interviews, but differs in several respects from the French edition. The latter was not illustrated, and while Duchamp’s work is not illustrated here (since there are several books containing illustrations of most of his work1), he is. When he was asked if he would like to write a preface to this English-language edition, he replied that he would not but would like his friend and summer neighbor in Cadaques, Spain, Salvador Dali, to do so. Dali’s preface appears here for the first time; so does a much more detailed chronology than in the French edition, and a more authoritative selected bibliography, by Bernard Karpel, Librarian of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

(Pierre Cabanne, who was born in 1921, has been for some years art critic of the Paris review Arts-Loisirs. He has written books on van Gogh, the Cubist epoch, Degas, and Picasso, and he contributes to many French and foreign art magazines.)

Marcel Duchamp’s own numerous writings (in the original French or in English) were published as “Marchand du Sel: Écrits de Marcel Duchamp,” in 1958.2

Duchamp died suddenly in his studio at Neuilly on October 1, 1968, at the age of eighty-one, a year and a half after the original French publication of these conversations.

These conversations are more than mere interviews. They are Marcel Duchamp’s “summing up,” and constitute as vivid a self-portrait as we possess of a major twentieth-century artist, thanks to Duchamp’s intelligence, scrupulousness, and disdain for the petty. Here, as throughout his life, he has rejected, as much as one can, that game of rivalry which makes so many modern artists uneasy and angry, or bitter, and sometimes false to themselves and to historical truth. In these pages, Duchamp’s effort to be “objective” is sustained with an intellectual strength and modesty (though he had his own arrogance) of which few celebrated artists approaching their eighties are capable. We are also fortunate in Pierre Cabanne’s intelligent choice of questions3 and his sheer tenacity as Duchamp’s questioner (he is obviously familiar with Duchamp’s remark, “There is no solution because there is no problem”). Cabanne intuitively knows when not to press too hard, and when to come back discreetly again and again to a dropped question, finally to receive the “answer.” On rereading these conversations, Duchamp said to Cabanne (in effect) that “this is from the horse’s mouth.” I, for one, shall always be grateful to Duchamp for his willingness to be so intensively recorded, just before he died.

I knew Duchamp casually, beginning in the early 1940s, in New York City, in the French Surrealist milieu. Later in the decade, we used to meet when I was working on vexing questions that arose while I was editing my Dada anthology.4 We met once or twice at the dusty New York studio that he had for years (on West Fourteenth Street, I think), but more often at a little downstairs Italian restaurant, where he invariably ordered a small plate of plain spaghetti with a pat of butter and grated Parmesan cheese over it, a small glass of red wine, and espresso afterward. In those days his lunch must have cost seventy-five cents, or less.5 He could not have been more pleasant, more open, more generous, or more “objective,” especially when I recall how few of my questions had to do with him.6 Most of my questions had to do with the clarification of various Dada mysteries (such as conflicting stories about the discovery of the name “Dada”) that had become clouded in legend so many years after the fact, often deliberately. Later, I enlisted his aid (which ultimately proved fruitless) in trying to reconcile Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara to having their recent writings appear together between the same covers. They detested each other, rivals long after the Dada period.

I had asked Duchamp to act as a mediator in regard to the book because of the sense one already had of him, seeing him among the Parisian Surrealists gathered in New York City during the Second World War. The Surrealists were the closest-knit group of artists, over the longest period of time, that I know of, with all the unavoidable frictions as well as the camaraderie implied by such intimacy. Often their various group projects produced violent disagreements. But their respect for Duchamp—who was not a Surrealist, but as he himself said, “borrowed” from the world—and, above all, for his fairness as a mediator, was great.7 It seemed to me that he gave a certain emotional stability to that group in exile during those anxiety-ridden years after the defeat of France in 1940, when the Nazis gained everywhere, for a time.

I remember once at a Surrealist gathering watching André Breton and Max Ernst standing mouth-to-mouth, in that curious French fashion, arguing with rage about something I do not remember—a personal matter, I think, but one which also raised the question of their professional indebtedness toward each other. At such moments as these, only Duchamp, with his detachment, his fairness (which, of course, is not the same thing), and his innate sensitivity, could try to bring calm.

It was with these same qualities that he tried to help me edit my Dada anthology, in the later 1940s.8 Over the years, he himself was co-editor of a surprising number of projects, and heaven knows how many people he helped, or in how many ways. One should keep this in mind when Duchamp tells Cabanne he doesn’t do much during the day, or when he so often gives his reason for having done something as that it “amused” him. It is true that he could not stand boredom. He rarely attended large gatherings, and when he did it was barely long enough to take off his hat.

An artist must be unusually intelligent in order to grasp simultaneously many structured relations. In fact, intelligence can be considered as the capacity to grasp complex relations; in this sense, Leonardo’s intelligence, for instance, is almost beyond belief. Duchamp’s intelligence contributed many things, of course, but for me its greatest accomplishment was to take him beyond the merely “aesthetic”9 concerns that face every “modern” artist—whose role is neither religious nor communal, but instead secular and individual. This problem has been called “the despair of the aesthetic:” if all colors or nudes are equally pleasing to the eye, why does the artist choose one color or figure rather than another? If he does not make a purely “aesthetic” choice, he must look for further criteria on which to base his value judgements. Kierkegaard held that artistic criteria were first the realm of the aesthetic, then the ethical, then the realm of the holy. Duchamp, as a nonbeliever, could not have accepted holiness as a criterion but, in setting up for himself complex technical problems or new ways of expressing erotic subject matter, for instance, he did find an ethic beyond the “aesthetic” for his ultimate choices.10 And his most successful works, paradoxically, take on that indirect beauty achieved only by those artists who have been concerned with more than the merely sensuous. In this way, Duchamp’s intelligence accomplished nearly everything possible within the reach of a modern artist, earning him the unlimited and fully justified respect of successive small groups of admirers throughout his life. But, as he often says in the following pages, it is posterity who will judge, and he, like Stendhal, had more faith in posterity than in his contemporaries. At the same time, one learns from his conversations of an extraordinary artistic adventure, filled with direction, discipline, and disdain for art as a trade and for the repetition of what has already been done.11

There is one “deception” of Duchamp’s here, however, in the form of a deliberate omission. He never mentions, even when questioned about his having given up art, that for twenty years (1946-1966) he had been constructing a major work: “Given: 1. the waterfall, 2. illuminating gas.”12 This last work of his is an environmental room, secretly “made,” with some assistance from his wife, Teeny, in a studio on West Eleventh Street in New York. It is now in the Philadelphia Museum in a gallery adjacent to the Arensberg Collection, as Duchamp had apparently intended.13 When its existence became known after his death, it was realized how literal Duchamp had been in insisting that the artist should go “underground.” In spite of all appearances, Duchamp had never ceased to work; moreover, he managed to keep his privacy inviolate in New York City—in a way that he thought would have been impossible for him in Paris. This extraordinary achievement, in addition to its place in Duchamp’s oeuvre as a completely new work, exemplifies another aspect of the artist’s character. I mean a theatricality and a brutality of effect wholly remote from the intellectualism and refinement of the earlier work. For, despite Duchamp’s urbanity, from another standpoint, Duchamp was the great saboteur, the relentless enemy of painterly painting (read Picasso and Matisse), the asp in the basket of fruit. His disdain for sensual painting was as intense as was his interest in erotic machines. Not to see this is not to take his testament seriously. No wonder he smiled at “art history,” while making sure his work ended up in museums. Picasso, in questioning himself about what art is, immediately thought, “What is not?” (1930s). Picasso, as a painter, wanted boundaries. Duchamp, as an anti-painter, did not. From the standpoint of each, the other was involved in a game. Taking one side or the other is the history of art since 1914, since the First World War.


1 Notably in Robert Lebel (1959; later edition without color); Calvin Tomkins (1966); and Arturo Schwarz (1969);

2 Edited by the great Dada authority Michel Sanouillet; see Bibliography, no. 6.

3 He obviously followed with care Robert Lebel’s Sur Marcel Duchamp (Paris: Trianon Press, 1959), design and layout by Marcel Duchamp and Arnold Fawcus. The English translation by George Heard Hamilton was published under the title Marcel Duchamp (New York: Grove Press, 1959). The American edition also contains André Breton’s beautiful and difficult tribute, Henri-PIERRE Rochéés impressions, and a brief lecture, “The Creative Act,” that Duchamp gave before -he American Federation of Arts, in Houston, Texas, in April, 1957. (See Bibliography, no. 37.)

4 The Dada Painters and Poets (See Bibliography, no. 40).

5 Lebel also remarks on the frugality of his eating habits.

6 • I also received his approval for a translation of his “Green Box” to appear in the Documents of Modern Art series, which it did, finally, more than a decade later: “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” a typographic version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp’s “Green Box,” translated by George Heard Hamilton. (See Bibliography, no. 3). Both brief essays by the two Hamiltons in this volume are excellent, as are the layout and the translation, approved by Duchamp himself

7 On the poster of the 1938 Paris Surrealist Exhibition, Duchamp is listed among the organizers as “General Mediator.”

8 I also spoke to him a bit about his distaste for the technical procedures involved in becoming an American citizen. When I asked him why he preferred to live here, he repeated several times that being in France was like being in a net full of lobsters clawing each other. But his heart remained there, I think—though in the U.S.A. he was better known, and at the same time allowed privacy and noncommitment to anything that did not interest him (as he says in this book).

9 • “Aesthetic” in this context refers to the perception of the world’s surface through the senses, primarily sight; felt visual discrimination (what Duchamp called “retinal”).

10 “To get away from the physical aspect of painting ... I was interested in ideas, not merely visual products. 1 wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.” [1945] “The final product ["Large Glass"] was to be a wedding of mental and visual relations.” [1959]

11 Duchamp often said in conversation that no book should be more than fifty pages long, that a skilled writer could say everything he had to say in that space. Though he seemed not to be a great reader, I suspected that he had read Paul Valeryés discourse on the method of Leonardo da Vinci; but when I suggested this once, he displayed a certain ambivalence and evasiveness, not unlike Vateryés own towards Dada—at least, this was my impression.

12 Étant Donnés: le la chute d’eau, 2e le gaz d’éclairage.

13 There is a superb essay, illustrated, by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Walter Hopps on the new work in the Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum (June 25, 1969). See also the July-August 1969.

Preface by Salvador Dali

L’échecs, c’est moi
      (“Chess, it’s me.”)

The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot. The ideas of Dada and Surrealism are currently in the process of being repeated monotonously: soft watches have produced innumerable soft objects. And “readymades” cover the globe! The loaf of bread fifteen yards long has become a loaf of fifteen miles! A monstrous, current specialization is the attraction to certain Happenings which Dadaists or Surrealists themselves would have had neither the time nor the desire to produce....


It is already forgotten that, during the Dada period, the then leader, Tristan Tzara, in a manifesto proclaimed:

Dada is this; Dada is that; Dada is this;
      Dada is that; Dada is nevertheless shit.

This type of humor, more or less black, is lacking in the newest generation, who believe, in good faith, that their neo-Dadaism is more sublime than the art of Praxiteles!


Marcel Duchamp spoke to me, during the course of the Second World War (traveling between Arcachon and Bordeaux), of a new interest in the preparation of shit, of which the small excretions from the navel are the “de luxe” editions. To this I replied that I wished to have genuine shit, from the navel of Raphael. Today a well-known Pop artist of Verona sells artists’ shit (in very sophisticated packaging) as a luxury item!


When Duchamp understood that he had generously sown the wind with his youthful ideas until he had no more, he aristocratically stopped his “game” and announced prophetically that other young men would specialize in the chess of contemporary art.
Then he played chess itself.


The “Chocolate Grinder”1 by Marcel Duchamp is sublime when one knows that it was in Rouen that he found it. It is necessary to know that the Municipal Museum of Art in Rouen owns “Les énervées de Jumièges”2 and that Joan of Arc was roasted at Rouen.

In Paris, in the early days, there were 17 persons who understood the “readymades”—the very rare readymades by Marcel Duchamp. Nowadays there are 17 million who understand them, and that one day, when all objects that exist are considered readymades, there will be no readymades at all. Then Originality will become the artistic Work, produced convulsively by the artist by hand.


Marcel Duchamp could have been a king if, instead of making the “Chocolate Grinder,” he had made the “Holy Ampulla,” the unique, divine readymade, to anoint himself as king. Duchamp then could have been crowned at Rheims. And Dali would have asked his permission to paint a picture of the “King and Queen Traversed by Nudes at High Speed.”


-Salvador Dali

New York City

January 1968

(Translated by Albert Field)

1 In France, many pastry shops serve ground hot chocolate. Their signs are often of colored glass, hanging in the window.[Ed.]

2 A picture of two young princes adrift in a boat with their tendons cut by the king, their father.

1. Eigth Years of Swimming Lessons

PIERRE CABANNE: Marcel Duchamp, it is now 1966; in a few months you’ll be eighty years old. In 1915, over half a century ago, you left for the United States. Looking back over your whole life, what satisfies you most?

MARCEL DUCHAMP: First, having been lucky. Because basically I’ve never worked for a living. I consider working for a living slightly imbecilic from an economic point of view. I hope that some day we’ll be able to live without being obliged to work. Thanks to my luck, I was able to manage without getting wet. I understood, at a certain moment, that it wasn’t necessary to encumber one’s life with too much weight, with too many things to do, with what is called a wife, children, a country house, an automobile. And I understood this, fortunately, rather early. This allowed me to live for a long time as a bachelor, more easily than if I had had to face the normal difficulties of life. Fundamentally, this is the main thing. So I consider myself very happy. I’ve never had a serious illness, or melancholy or neurasthenia. Also, I haven’t known the strain of producing, painting not having been an outlet for me, or having a pressing need to express myself. I’ve never had that kind of need—to draw morning, noon, and night, to make sketches, etc. I can’t tell you any more. I have no regrets.

CABANNE: And your greatest regret?

DUCHAMP: I don’t have any, I really don’t. I’ve missed nothing. I have had even more luck at the end of my life than at the beginning.

CABANNE: André Breton said that you were the most intelligent man of the twentieth century. To you, what is intelligence ?

DUCHAMP: That’s exactly what I was going to ask you! The word “intelligence” is the most elastic one can invent. There is a logical or Cartesian form of intelligence, but I think Breton meant to say something else. He envisaged, from the Surrealist point of view, a freer form of the problem; for him, intelligence was in some way the penetration of what the average normal man finds incomprehensible or difficult to understand. There is something like an explosion in the meaning of certain words: they have a greater value. than their meaning in the dictionary. Breton and I are men of the same order—we share a community of vision, which is why I think I understand his idea of intelligence: enlarged, drawn out, extended, inflated if you wish....

CABANNE: In the sense that you yourself have enlarged, inflated, and exploded the limits of creation, according to your own “intelligence.”

DUCHAMP: Perhaps. But I shy away from the word “creation.” In the ordinary, social meaning of the word—well, it’s very nice but, fundamentally, I don’t believe in the creative function of the artist. He’s a man like any other. It’s his job to do certain things, but the businessman does certain things also, you understand? On the other hand, the word “art” interests me very much. If it comes from Sanskrit, as I’ve heard, it signifies “making.” Now everyone makes something, and those who make things on a canvas, with a frame, they’re called artists. Formerly, they were called craftsmen, a term I prefer. We’re all craftsmen, in civilian or military or artistic life. When Rubens, or someone else, needed blue, he had to ask his guild for so many grams, and they discussed the question, to find out if he could have fifty or sixty grams, or more.

It was really craftsmen like that who appear in the old contracts. The word “artist” was invented when the painter became an individual, first in monarchical society, and then in contemporary society, where he is a gentleman. He doesn’t make things for people; it’s the people who come to choose things from among his production. The artist’s revenge is that he is much less subject to concessions than before, under the monarchy.

CABANNE: Breton not only said that you are one of the most intelligent men of the twentieth century, but, and I quote, “for many, the most irritating.”


On Sale
Aug 22, 1987
Page Count
152 pages
Da Capo Press

Pierre Cabanne

About the Author

Pierre Cabanne (1921-2007) was a French historian and art critic.

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