Monday, December 13, 2010

Henry McBride, Marcel Duchamp, the Arensbergs, and Private Museums

Marcel Duchamp, Air de Paris, 1919 (1964 version). Glass and wood, 14.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. Photo: Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris

Sure, we have Inhotim, the Jumex Collection, the Rubell Family Collection, the Daimler Art Collection, the Sammlung Boros, the Brant Foundation, and a number of other private museums today, but, back in 1920 (nine years before MoMA opened), the estimable poet-critic Henry McBride, on the hunt for contemporary art, got to stop by the Upper West East Side home of the adventurous art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg.

In 1920, for one of his first articles as art critic for The Dial (the magazine founded by the Transcendentalists exactly eight decades earlier), McBride described a visit to the Arensberg collection, during which he and a friend were introduced to Marcel Duchamp's newly produced Air de Paris (also known as 50cc air de Paris, though the glass container reportedly did not hold that amount of air until later versions):
"Do you want to see Marcel's latest work of art?" Walter Arensberg asked me, upon the occasion of my first visit to the studio and after we had had a long and easy conversation without a word of reference to the Matisse, the Brancusi, and the other marvels, all of which I had seen perfectly without looking at them. From the grin upon his face I knew Marcel's latest was something larky. When Arensberg lifted a glass bulb with a curious tail to it from the protecting cottons of a wooden box I saw that my premonitions had not played me false.

"It's air from Paris," said my host, "hermetically sealed at a particular street corner in that city."

I'm not bourgeois, so I didn't have a fit. I didn't even inquire the name of the street on which the air had been caught. Like Arensberg, I laughed. As a work of art "Marcel's latest" seemed pleasant and droll. Perhaps I instantly saw that the joke did not apply to me so much as to my educated friend. That's the advantage in not being a bourgeois yourself. And sure enough when I asked my friend if he had seen the Air from Paris by the famous Monsieur Duchamp, he replied drily:

"Do you suppose it's still air from Paris? Science tells us that air tightly sealed in that fashion quickly rots and changes its character," and before I could interpose an objection he wound me up with his contention of the day before.

The only drawback to épaté-ing the bourgeois is that half the time they don't know when they are being épaté-ed. If my friend chances to read these lines he'll know. I'll squander a copy on him.
I just wish that McBride had asked for that Paris intersection.

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