De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy or the Boîte-en-valise [The Box in a Valise], 1935-41
Series F, 70 copies made in Milan by Arturo Schwarz under the supervision of Marcel Duchamp, assembled in Paris in 1966 by Jacqueline Matisse Monnier, stepdaughter of the artist
Red leather case containing miniature replicas, photographs and color reproductions of work by Marcel Duchamp, 68 items from the original edition, plus 12 additional reproductions which were printed between 1963 and 1965 and mounted on three loose black folders
16 5/16 x 15 1/8 x 3 9/16 in. (41.5 x 38.5 x 9.9 cm)
Signed Marcel Duchamp (to the left of pochoir of The Coffee Grinder)
On January 1, 1941, Marcel Duchamp — who had already established a reputation in the art world as a painter who stopped making art in order to play chess — surprised many by announcing the release of a new work. During the fall of 1940, he arranged for a firm in Paris to print an announcement where the name of the new work — de ou par MARCEL DUCHAMP ou RROSE SELAVY [from or by MARCEL DUCHAMP or RROSE SELAVY] — appeared in elegant thin silver letters on one side of a small folded sheet of lightweight, olive-colored paper. We are further informed that the work is issued in a deluxe edition of twenty numbered copies, each "accompanied by a signed original work." The lower half of the announcement could be detached and used as an order form, serving to reserve an example of the item being described, which, according to the form, will be sent to the subscriber within a month after the money is received.
From the information provided on the announcement, there is little to indicate how intricate and complex the item being offered actually was; beyond a close circle of friends, few knew that Duchamp had been working on the assembly of material for this "box of tirettes" (as he called them in the announcement) for nearly five years. What the description does tell us is that the reproductions it contains are representative of the artist's production over a span of twenty-seven years: from things made in his youth to items made within the previous three years (another detail that would have come as unexpected news for those who were under the impression that Duchamp stopped making art). Moreover, for those interested in Duchamp's work, such a collection of images and models would have been considered an invaluable reference, for if the description was accurate, this box would contain the single most complete "published" inventory of the artist's production available to date — a virtual retrospective in miniature.
The idea to produce this work came to Duchamp at some point during the spring of 1935, shortly after having recovered most of the printing costs for the Green Box — a cardboard box containing accurate facsimile reproductions of his notes for his most ambitious early work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, better know by it's abbreviated title, the Large Glass (Philadelphia Museum of Art; gift of Katherine S. Dreier). At first, Duchamp described his new publication as an "album," indicating that he originally envisioned it as little more than a portfolio of color reproductions. Eventually, the project grew into a far more elaborate production, resulting in a boxed enclosure that could be opened in a series of separate but sequential actions, so as to reveal its contents in a gradual, step-by-step fashion. It has been suggested that Duchamp might have based his design on that of a 17th or 18th-century Flemish Kunstcabinett, a piece of furniture designed like a treasure box, with many interior compartments covered by painted panels. But when we are informed that Duchamp planned to build his container out of cardboard, sources closer to home are more likely, such as the display cases that were used to house a variety of household products — toiletries, sewing equipment, stationery, magic tricks, watercolors, toy dishes, etc. — which could be found in most any Parisian department store in the early years of the twentieth century.
The announcement that he had printed informed prospective buyers that the deluxe editions of this work would be covered in leather. To this end, he had a plywood box made, which, in turn, he covered in brown leather and provided with a handle. As Ecke Bonk was the first to observe, it was only at this point that the work became known as the Boîte-en-valise [Box in a Valise], whereas -- technically -- the examples lacking this outer case should be called simply a boîte [box] (although the term valise is often used generically, even when referring to the subsequent boxed editions of this work).
Duchamp had gathered most of the reproductions for inclusion in his valise while still living in Europe, and although he managed to complete a few there, most were not assembled until after he arrived in New York in June of 1942. With the help of the American artist Joseph Cornell, he completed the construction of the deluxe edition, giving several to friends and collectors who had provided photographs of the works it contained, especially Katherine S. Dreier and Walter Arensberg, his most dedicated an loyal American patrons. After having received an example of the valise, Arensberg, who was then living in California, wrote to let Duchamp know how much he had appreciated the gesture. "It has been difficult to know exactly what to say of such an epitome of a life work," he wrote. "You have invented a new kind of autobiography. It is a kind of autobiography in a performance of marionettes. You have become the puppeteer of your past."
It would not be long before Duchamp established quite a reputation in New York for his "portable museum." In September 1942, Time magazine ran an article on the artist, which was illustrated with a photograph of Duchamp displaying the valise in the apartment of Peggy Guggenheim (where he was staying temporarily as a house guest). In October, an example of the valise was placed on public display for the first time at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of the Century Gallery (in a special showcase designed by the Viennese visionary architect, Frederick Kiesler). By December, Duchamp wrote to a friend in Chicago saying that he had managed to sell seven examples of the deluxe edition, leaving thirteen that were still available, adding, however: "They don't sell like hot cakes."
Eventually, the valises did begin to sell. After approximately 100 were gone, Duchamp decided that its presentation should be standardized. In 1958, he enlisted the assistance of Ilia Zdanevitch (Iliazd), a well-known typographer and book designer in Paris, who came up with a folding cardboard container with a double hinge at the back, allowing the box to open flatly for the display of its contents. Thirty boxes were constructed in this style, and essentially the same design was repeated throughout the production of the remaining valises in the edition (although the color and material would change with each new series).
In January of 1961, Jacqueline Matisse Monnier (Duchamp’s stepdaughter), informed Duchamp that she had completed 12 of the 30 boxes for a new edition, missing only a few items, which Duchamp volunteered to have printed in New York. The new box was virtually identical to the one designed by Iliazd, except that the container was covered with a light green linen and the interior was lined with a matching pale green paper. The most significant change to the appearance of the valise occurred in 1966, when Duchamp decided to include reproductions of additional works, for he felt that by that date the technology for color printing was finally adequate to his needs. He authorized Arturo Schwarz in Milan to fabricate 70 boxes in red leather, and the contents were assembled in Paris by Jacqueline Monnier. When completed, Duchamp signed all of the boxes individually, next to the reproduction of his Coffee Mill. This box is from that series (now identified as series “F”).
Since Duchamp’s death in 1968, the meaning and significance of the boîte or boîte-en-valise within the artist’s oeuvre has increased considerably; it is no longer regarded as a mere collection of reproductions having little more than documentary value, but, rather, a unique and important work of art in its own right. Moreover, as we advance into the years of a new century, it can be seen that the basic ideas it presents — appropriation and replication — are themes explored in the work of an ever-growing number of young contemporary artists. It is these artists who carry Duchamp's legacy into the future, for, in different ways and varying degrees, they continue to build upon the conceptual strategies he so neatly — and brilliantly — packed into his portable museum.
1 - This Subscription Bulletin was first described by Yves Poupard-Lieussou, who compiled the bibliography for Michel Sanouillet, ed., Marchand du sel, écrits de Marcel Duchamp (Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1959, p. 223). In his catalogue raisonné, Arturo Schwarz mentioned it again, probably deriving his information from this earlier publication (see Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969, 2nd rev. ed., 1970, p. 512). When Bonk prepared the manuscript for his book on the valise (Marcel Duchamp: The Box in a Valise [New York: Rizzoli, 1989]), no copies of this Subscription Bulletin could be located. The copy cited here is reproduced in Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), fig. 5.30, p. 142. .
2 - See, for example, Cooper & Caumont, "Ephemerides" in Pontus Hulten, ed., Marcel Duchamp, Palazzo Grassi, Venice / Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993, entry for 01/07/41. .
3 - The Kunstcabinett was reproduced in Cooper & Caumont, "Ephemerides," 1/07/41.
4 - Bonk, Box in a Valise, p. 158.
5 - Arensberg to Duchamp, May 21, 1943 (Duchamp Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art; gift of the Francis Bacon Library).
6 - Marcel Duchamp to Alice Rouiller," December 4, 1942, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois (quoted in Cooper & Caumont, "Ephemerides," entry for 12/04/42).