Interview to Jorge Helft, Co-director of the project
Jorge Helft is an art collector. He founded and directed Fundación Antorchas, and is a founding member of Fundación Teatro Colón. He has participated as organizer, curator or counselor in many art exhibitions in Argentina and other countries. The following extracts belong to an interview held in Buenos Aires.
How did the idea of a Marcel Duchamp exhibition in Buenos Aires originate?
JORGE HELFT: Adriana Rosenberg, president of Fundación Proa, accepted to do the exhibition Marcel Duchamp: a work that is not a work ‘of art’ on January 2, 2006. Since then two and half years have passed, my project was a lot more modest, but Adriana pushed and pushed, and now Proa’s exhibition will be very important, very big.
When Adriana Rosenberg agrees to do the show at Proa –after going about for years with an idea, with my presentation folder, that no one paid attention to– I thought we would need an ally. Jackie Matisse Monnier coincided that this was a pending debt with Duchamp’s memory. ‘Everything I have is at your disposition,’ she said to me. She is the daughter of Teeny Matisse and Pierre Matisse, and granddaughter of Henri Matisse. She grew up with Duchamp, whom her mother had married. Duchamp was the ideal stepfather and had an extremely warm relationship with Jackie and her brothers.
Jackie, who is also an artist, together with Paul Matisse and another brother are the owners of the Duchamp’s archive and estate, and also of Duchamp’s private art collection, inherited from their mother. Paul Matisse has translated many of Duchamp’s notes and done a lot of work on his papers. Jackie adored Duchamp, and he trusted her. She made the last of the Boite-en-valise series and, also, was one of the actresses in Hans Richter’s movie (1947), inspired in the drawings of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs.
Can one make works that are not ‘of art’?
J.H.: In the beginning, Duchamp didn’t want these objects to be seen as art; he realized that art depends as much on the eye of the beholder as on the artist. How did such an incredible thing like that occur to him? No, it is really not incredible, because according to André Breton he was the most intelligent man he had ever met. Duchamp was a thinker, reflecting with his pipe, with his cigar. He said that there were thousands of masterpieces that never saw the light of day because no one ever understood them; sometimes they are rediscovered, such as the concrete case of Vermeer (in 1870 nobody knew who Vermeer was).
Duchamp realized that the viewer had a power, a colossal importance in determining what is and what is not art, which fascinated me because it is similar as the thought Borges had when he said that a book is made by the reader, not the writer. “I am a reader”, said Borges. What counts is the reader, because we know that a lot of people write and nothing happens. Likewise, Duchamp said that the viewer, the spectator, makes the work of art.
With such a clear thought, Duchamp takes the bicycle wheel. The first object he incorporated is the bicycle wheel (Bicycle Wheel), he buys it because he finds it visually amusing, he liked the movement; he said that since he did not have a chimney, spinning the wheel created the same peaceful effect as a burning fire’s oscillation. When he goes to the United States he builds another bicycle wheel. Once again he is not thinking of ‘what is art’. The idea of the readymade begins with the objects he looks for –without any aesthetic intention– and buys there. This makes for an evolution; there are 15 or 20 different readymades –the assisted readymade, rectified readymade, soft readymade– and each one is a defining moment in his thinking process. These are not objects that Duchamp bought at hardware stores or shops and accumulated randomly, each one had the clear purpose of adding something to his way of thinking.
What is the importance of Duchamp for the art of the 20th century?
J.H.: Starting in the 60’s, and little by little in the 70’s, in the 80’s, and entering the end of the century, important and prestigious museum directors and art historians with certain authority, began to say that the 20th century produced three super geniuses: Matisse-Picasso-Duchamp; and some maintain that, to put things in the right place, the trilogy should be Duchamp-Picasso-Matisse. With 60 years of delay, suddenly, Duchamp enters this select club of the great three. Before he was barely named and in the 60’s, the 70’s, we would have said Picasso-Matisse-Duchamp, people would have thought it was crazy. Through Fundación Proa’s exhibition, I want people to realize why with such delay Duchamp is considered a super genius par of Picasso and Matisse.
It’s true that in the name Duchamp and conceptual art for many in the art world anything goes. However, the sole responsibility of the artist’s having being relatively unknown is the artist himself, who only showed his readymades to his friends; the two that he did send to exhibitions were never properly shown, having remained hidden. I think he is a genius for having developed several strong thoughts that already existed, but that he was able to crystallize, explain, and demonstrate.
Marcel Duchamp wrote, in 1955, that those that were going to understand his work were those that ‘will live in 50 or 100 years time’, those were the viewers that interested him; today’s viewers.
What was the relationship between Duchamp and the Pop Generation?
J.H.: A few years before his death, Duchamp became a leader and idol for the entire Pop generation. Not only did he awake the admiration of creators in the visual arts, but also that of John Cage and of a generation of writers such as Allen Ginsberg.
Duchamp knew how to develop in a more complete way, in a much more categorical way, ideas that had always existed in the arts field. He consolidated them in 1913, for many reasons a fundamental year for his production. I thought it was brilliant that these ideas are invading the world so much later on, 50 years after having elaborated them mentally and putting them into practice, which goes to show that everything done after 1963 is ‘Duchampian’. Nobody, not even Rembrandt or Picasso by far, have had the influence that Duchamp has.