THE STANDARD STOPPAGES OF MARCEL DUCHAMP: THEIR BEGINNINGS TO THE LARGE GLASS




Standard Stoppages. The words sit well together, sounding when spoken like
some kind of old utensil. "Hand me those Standard Stoppages, Ethel," can be
imagined reverberating through any household in America on a Saturday
morning, in time for a ballgame over the crystal radio. "I can never find
them when I need them, Roy." "Then mosey on over Steinfeldt's an' pick us
up a couple. I'm trying to measure out this here piece of window glass, an I cain't
do it without m'Standard Stoppages. You know how I am, once I find
a perfect tool, it's a no use trying something else. Mosey." "Shut up,
Roy, they're a hangin' right over yor haid." "Why so they is. . ."


In fact, however, the Standard Stoppages are hardly a household word even in
the art world (which may be compared to a very small house, with a rather
large, dysfunctional family). When Duchamp got the idea to drop three
1-meter-long pieces of thread from one meter high and then glue them to
pieces of glass just as they fell, he was moving into areas of the mind and
phenomena which have not been approached by any other artist, before or
since. Rather, his "experiments" appear to have as much to do with Einstein
as with any artist. Duchamp first mentions "Standard Stoppages" in his
notes on The Large Glass, in 1913, one of the first inklings that he is
interested in "slightly distending the laws of physics and chemistry" using
"ironic causality".

The Standard Stoppages have an appearance similar to the "official" metric
measuring device stored in gas in a vault in Paris, of a one meter long
platinum ruler. It is this environmentally controlled rod, a "unique"
meter, from which all other meters are manufactured. It is in effect a
prototype for mass-produced measurement. Duchamp's Stoppages come in a box,
much like the official one, and they have a kind of authority due to the
care with which they were produced and are displayed. The difference is
that Duchamp made three of them, each quite different from the others, since
no two pieces of thread dropped on a surface will look quite the same. Thus
Duchamp destroys the idea of repeatability, or of permanence in the mind of
the viewer, as regards "measurement." The concept is repeated, the results
are not - quite. The viewer's and artist's mind are the measure of all
things, and one cannot count on molecules to "behave" in only one way, even
"simple" molecules such as those in a piece of thread. It is a neat, mute
and subtly corrosive conception of time and space which he gives us. Since
one is unique, and two is a pair, three Stoppages meant that there are
"many" to Duchamp. Extrapolating, this means there can be an infinitude of
"unique" measurements, but each is only unique like the others. Logic spins
like a centrifuge, the longer one ponders this work. It is along the lines
of: all humans are different, yet all are recognizably human.


Psychologically, one sees in the Standard Stoppages the permanent recording
of an otherwise transitory, trivial event (which the artist called "canned
chance"). The small thus becomes large, the wispy becomes substantial, the
passing becomes eternal. It is hard to take Duchamp entirely seriously, so
the absurd becomes monumental. His is not a vicious absurdity, it is
actually extremely gentle, if unromantic. It is just that it is a kind of
physics experiment for one person, one artist.


Artistically that means that the one person, in this case, is also us. We
are reflected in the scale of this work. It is on an eminently human scale,
from the physical events recorded, to their packaging, to our perceiving and
contemplating them. Yet, for all the triviality and uselessness of the
Standard Stoppages, they speculate on the deepest of mysteries. The
mysteries of us and the outside world, of our physical and mental
interaction with it, our distinctness and our oneness, simultaneously, or
perhaps, paradoxically. One and many, the sameness of change, the
indifference of "things" and our inability to accept such indifference.


The Stoppages next appear in Duchamp's large painting of 1914 entitled
"Network of Stoppages" (which was recently slashed, perhaps by a graduate
student in physics going to Columbia). Here he takes "templates" (slats of
wood cut along one side to conform to the different contours of the pieces
of thread glued to the glass) to act as a kind of guide in order to draw
lines radiating out from a beginning point across the canvas. These lines
look a lot like a subway map, with "points" where one line ends, and another
begins. If this sounds difficult to follow, it is because the visual effect
created does not appear complicated, but explaining the conceptual
motivation certainly is (see illustration on the right). The reason for the
"points" is that Duchamp meant to use them as a different kind of object in
his next, and greatest work.


The final incarnation of the stoppages is unheralded, but very interesting.
They turn up in The Large Glass as the "Capillary Tubes" which carry the
Bachelors' Illuminating Gas which is cut into Spangles, from the Malic Molds
to the Glider, through the Sieves, via the Butterfly-Pump, to the Toboggan,
rising and crashing three times and rising through the Oculist Charts to
form the Sculpture of Drops which is reflected mirrorically to meet and be
regulated by the 9 Holes in the Bride's Domain, and undergoing the
Wilson/Lincoln effect, to bring about her undressing. Note that in the
Large Glass the Capillary Tubes are in the exact same configuration that the
Network of Stoppages is in his painting of that name, because the Network of
Stoppages was created in order to be projected onto the Large Glass and then
traced on it. They are renamed in the Large Glass, however, as Capillary
Tubes to accord with their new (actually their original) use and thus to
Duchamp, their new poetic meaning (shades of Wittgenstein, before Wittgenstein).


In Duchamp's notes for the Large Glass, the mechanical forces explaining the
use of the Capillary Tubes, as the Stoppages are now called, are obscure,
and originless. If one thinks about any bodily secretion, one ultimately
comes to the same dead end as to its origins as well (the secretion comes
from a gland, the gland gets the raw materials which come from food from
outside, the outside which is made up of stardust, and the stars come from
who knows where). Instead, we are interested here as is Duchamp with their
"local" use and incarnation. Does one ask where someone's beautiful eyes
come from? No, one merely appreciates them. So Duchamp in effect is
asserting the mystical origin of his physical/artistic universe, is allowed
to posit it, construct it, make it run, and then leave all other speculation
to us. A generous man. Thank you Marcel. He creates a world, and, like
Atlas, we have to hold it up.


Duchamp's interests in language, geometry, optics, popular culture,
sexuality, chance, irony, humor, integrity, and in freeing himself from many
of the prejudices of his era are aspects of his wide-ranging intellect and
personality which make him so fascinating, and so difficult to pin down.
This contributes to his veneration, and to his misunderstanding and
obscurity. Even his major work remains obscure - it resides permanently in
the Philadelphia Museum of Art in an ill-designed gallery off the beaten
track. A recent visitor touched The Large Glass, which is the centerpiece
of the Duchamp Room, and one of the guards said angrily, "Don't you know
you're not supposed to touch that crap?" If his major work had instead been
housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he would be a revered as a
patron saint of art. As it is, he quietly informs almost everything being
done today in art, from collage, to the use of any pre-existing images,
alternative materials, or found objects, to performance art, to much of our
use of humor, to our interest in mechanical, perceptual and process-oriented
artwork. These are some of his legacies to recent art. That many people in
the art world still dislike his work is interesting. His gentle influence
still riles us.


He remains a pillar of twentieth century visual art, his desire to be "an
anartist" notwithstanding. Another pillar in my estimation is Piet
Mondrian, and his underappreciated experiments (to be explored in future
issues of this newsletter). Both of these artists lived extremely modest,
frugal, bohemian existences, using few resources, living precariously,
thinking and feeling much, doing little harm. Yet they lived in realms
which, if our culture persists (and who cares if it does), will serve as
beacons of inexhaustible, delightful and true insight to those few who are
prepared to undergo the transformation necessary to really experience the
things they embody in their art. I say few, because, going by the criteria
of the art of other people, it seems to me that no public artists since
(except for Bela Bartok and Jean-Luc Godard) really grasp the implications
and spirit of their work, a real pity for us all.


And art in the West remains transformational in nature. It is about the
transformation of the individual human spirit to a state in which the
concept of "culture" is freely chosen, unoppressively, leading the way away
from the lower forms of consciousness such as materialism, including
ideology, organized religion, philosophy, and politics. We all must live in
the world, but at what cost to our potential as semi-divine beings? Must we
strive against other people, as well as against the ravages of time and of
space? That I think is the most disappointing aspect of our society, that
competitiveness has won out over compassion, that selfishness has triumphed
over generosity, that ideology is a club to kill others with, that religion,
government, work, and consciousness cow and separate people more than they
liberate them or bring them together.


And unfortunately, to my undying amazement, the animalistic nature of our
proselytizing, hierarchical and hegemonistic way of life keeps those who
would lead a better life (not necessarily better in the worldly sense) from
each other, separated by legions of sports-obsessed, TV-obsessed, and
standard-of-living-obsessed people and their institutions. That is why it
is important not to succumb to the idea that one must at all costs obtain
that professional status, with that suburban house, that suburban spouse and
those suburban children. We aspire to this (with no guarantee that we will
even achieve it) at the expense of our serenity, and of the time we need to
really look at the world. Action is necessary, but with some perspective,
and with basic good will toward the world. We lack goodwill, as a society.
That is why we make so much dreadful art. Or, rather, that is why, among
all the bad art that we do (and are entitled to do) we do so little that is
of any lasting significance. We are so jaded that we probably wouldn't
realize it if a Mondrian or a Duchamp were living on our block. Their
living so close to us would automatically invalidate anything they did,
because we simply cannot conceive of anyone of that stature actually being a
living, breathing human being, existing in our time and our space. We have
become so stupefied by money and its power over us that we can't help but
look at people without it without thinking "Loser." And by that criteria
many artists, some of the greatest among them, would be losers. Thus, human
value is transparent unless it is clothed in official recognition, meaning
money. People who wouldn't know which way to hang a van Gogh now know
enough about his work to say, "Hmmm, that one's worth about $30 million!
Must be a nice painting (except for the brushstrokes, and the color)."


We no longer have to have witch hunts [I spoke too soon as the right-wing
attempts a palace coup d'etat on a sitting president]. TV and our own
relentless consumerism and conformity have just about destroyed anything
not that nothing good exists, it is that people are overwhelmed by the
oceans of triviality around them. So, tough break, my friends. One takes
what one can, and we must be grateful for the few Mozarts, Giottos, Homer's,
Duchamps, Schuberts and Godards of the world, and those of us who enjoy
them. Somehow they persist, which is a good sign. They are becoming
legends, when instead it would be better if they were correspondents in our
world. We should look upon their work as we would a conversation with a
good friend, a living friend. It is only when we become conversant with
that area of aesthetic expression that we will truly embody the best which
the West has to offer, so it seems to me. I know full well that my writing
all this down does little for anyone. It will either preach to the
converted, or it will be ignored. Still, I face the same thing in the
paintings I produce, which have no audience. They in fact have an audience,
an audience of one, and that is reason enough to take that road.


Now if I can only work them into a tennis shoe commercial. . .("Art: Just
do it.")

johnsheridanart@sbcglobal.net



Copyright © 2002 John Sheridan