As a result of the book "West Coast Duchamp," the Grassfield Press, it was brought to my attention that the seminal modernist painting Nude Descending a Staircase came directly from the famous Armory Show of 1913 to Berkeley, California. Will wonders never cease. Duchamp - in Berkeley??? This was too much of an event not to investigate, especially as I also lived there.

A friend of mine who was curious to see the former site of this phenomenon, called up the owner of the house, Mrs. Jean Stock, who is also the granddaughter of Frederic C. Torrey, a mover, shaker and advocate for modern art in an era and in a place which still has problems with the concept, and who had traveled to New York and actually saw the Nude Descending a Staircase at the Armory Show. He was intrigued, and, on his way back West, he cabled from
New Mexico to his contact Walter Pach, to reserve the work. He then
wired $324 to Pach to purchase The Nude for him, and it was shipped to his home in
Berkeley, California. Mr. Torrey was a dealer in antiques and Japanese prints in San
Francisco, and around 1906 had built a large house in the Berkeley hills,
overlooking the campus of the University of California, on 1 Canyon Road.

Torrey hung The Nude, appropriately enough, at the bottom of his staircase.
His wife hated it, but he included it in several exhibitions of modern art
in San Francisco and in Portland. This in 1914! He was an indefatigable
upholder of the modernist idiom, although he did not really understand it
well. People still don't. That will perhaps never change. He did,
however, know that something was up. And he knew enough to believe that a
good controversy could be good business. Thus he hoped, through lectures
and exhibitions, to use the Nude Descending a Staircase to help promote his
gallery, as well as his notion that modern art was a new idiom, and needed
to be described with new ideas.

Mr. Torrey, in 1919, sold The Nude (citing the high price of gasoline) to
Duchamp's longtime friend and patron (and the original owner of The Large
Glass) Walter Arensberg, for $1,000. His wife was relieved, and the
painting remained in Arensberg's collection until his death, whereupon it
was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it resides to this day.
Torrey had a photographic copy of the work hung exactly in the place where
the original Nude had been, and it hangs there now. This is a fascinating
early example of the phenomenon of "copying" Duchamp's work, ranging from
the copies made of his lost readymades, to the copies Richard Hamilton and
others have made of the Large Glass. Duchamp himself even copied The Nude
for Arensberg at some point, perhaps prior to his acquiring the real thing.

Mrs. Stock, the heir of the house, very graciously let my friends and me see
the interior of the house and to take photographs. It is her memorial to
Frederic Torrey, and looks much as it did in 1913 when he purchased The
Nude. Torrey also had a large number of Matisse nudes, which unfortunately
had to be sold during the depression, for a pittance no doubt. They would
probably be worth more than $50 million in today's market. The Torrey House
has that early 20th Century Arts and Crafts aura about it that makes The
Nude more comprehensible, giving it a context it can't have in a museum,
where it looks as though it was beamed down from the planet Zontar.

Thus, even Berkeley, California, not known for anything as subtle as art,
has its place in the history of modern art, and is connected to one of the
great artists of all time, all because one person acted, in the face of
almost universal incomprehension, and brought the 20th Century to the West
Coast. Too bad the 20th Century didn't remain, as far as that goes.
Perhaps it will come again. Nonetheless, I'm certain that this painting is
having some subterranean kind of influence on the area. Didn't the flower
children, who loved their nude bodies so much (which also seems an eon ago)
develop here? And hasn't society "descended" since then? Well, I won't
speculate further, but we in this part of the world can never have enough
signposts and cultural landmarks to differentiate the passing of eras, since
we don't have seasons. We do have one artistic flowering, thanks to Mr.
Torrey. And thank you again, Marcel.

John Sheridan Descending a Staircase - Torrey House


Copyright © 2002 John Sheridan