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Duchamp’s Large Glass

In Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” and “Duchamp and the Classical Perspectivists,” authors John Golding and Jean Clair, respectively, employ disparate methodologies in examining Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking work. Although Golding and Clair approach the work differently, it is important to see how one author has set a precedent for the other. Golding’s argument is rooted in an iconographical investigation, in which he scrutinizes the purported ambivalence and interchangeability of the Large Glass, successfully analyzing each element of the composition to determine how their individual roles contribute to the work as a whole. Golding’s methodology attempts to reconcile the work’s contradictory and ambiguous notions supported by Duchamp’s said “irony of indifference.”[1] Indeed, Duchamp’s indifference and the work’s overall detached formal quality, motivates the author (and most intrigued viewers) to dissect each component, from the preparatory drawings to the final execution, to formulate an iconographical read. Interestingly, Clair relies on these iconographical assumptions about the work as a basis for his argument, however, employs a scientific methodology to explore the anti-retinal quality of Duchamp’s work and practice. He specifically analyzes the Large Glass as a “consideration on perspective,”[2] treating the work as a mathematical diagram to explore how Duchamp, although proportioning the work according to the Golden Section, single-handedly complicated the issues of classical perspective and scientific phenomena of optics.[3]

John Golding’s argument explores Duchamp’s doctrine of paradox and his experimentation with the readymade as a vehicle for the creation of the Large Glass. Aesthetically and conceptually, the artist’s past modes of depiction influence the work: the Bride has retained visual links to Cubism and the Bachelors belong to the realm of the readymade.[4] Golding asserts that each arcane mechanism depicted on the Large Glass, specifically the machines of the Bachelor Apparatus (the lower half of the Large Glass), are executed as completely non-functional machines. Because these machines, such as the Chocolate Grinder, are divorced from their utilitarian function, they become symbolic, developing an icon-like quality, which is heightened by the precise linear way in which the machines are painted. Golding (as well as Clair, to be discussed later) understands the Chocolate Grinder as a mechanistic representation of human sexuality, a theme that acts “as a key to the symbolism of the work as a whole.”[5] The Large Glass then becomes overtly sexualized, represented as mechanomorphic: human forms, figures, and experiences are translated into mechanical terms. It is evident that each component of the work, from the Bride to the Nine Malic Moulds are informed by the above supposition.  

Indeed, viewer participation is compulsory due to the physicality of the glass, which allows the viewer to “see himself and his surroundings to a certain extent mirrored in the object of his contemplation.”[6] Moreover, it is important to take into consideration the Large Glass’ projection of the fourth dimension and the highly personalized mathematical approach from which Duchamp has organized his composition.[7] Although Duchamp claimed that the elements were interchangeable, the way each component is organized causes one machine to react to another, forming a string of interconnectivity within the work so that one machine could not necessarily function without the other. According to Golding, the viewer is in control of this said functioning or action of the total machine, as the mind reconciles the gap between the inherent non-functionality of the individual machines and the notion that action is found in the sum of its parts.

Golding’s conclusions are based on comprehensive analysis of each aspect of the painting. He supports his arguments with Duchamp’s Green Box, a collection of notes detailing the work and its proposed meaning. Moreover, utilizing mainly an iconographical methodology, Golding formulates convincing arguments for the meaning of each machine. He also notes the importance of Duchamp’s scientific approach to organizing the composition. Duchamp’s understanding of mathematical perspective plays an enormous role in forming meaning through the particular positioning of objects. This can be understood through the calculated placement of the Chocolate Grinder, which suggests the reintroduction of traditional one viewpoint perspective and, therefore, allows for hierarchical positioning of these objects.

As Golding determines that the individual elements contribute to the whole, Jean Clair also comes to this assertion. He writes, “In Duchamp’s eyes, an image virtually refers to a large number of single objects, the entire visible domain being simple an incessant flow of anamorphoses enmeshed one with another, to infinity.”[8] Rather than exploring this notion iconographically à la Golding, Clair employs a scientific methodology to arrive at this conclusion. It is important to note that Golding did minimally discuss the science behind the Large Glass; however, Clair’s argument is rooted purely in a scientific investigation. Clair agrees with Golding’s assessment of the Chocolate Grinder’s hierarchical positioning, and will continue to push the scientific element of the Large Glass even further.  

Clair commences his article with this Duchamp quotation: “Perspective was very important. The Large Glass is actually a rehabilitation of perspective, which had been completely neglected and decried. With me, perspective became absolutely scientific…”[9] In retaining the proportions of the Golden Section (1:1.60) and one viewpoint perspective, Duchamp reintroduces classical perspective and devises a ratio such that the Large Glass adheres to the laws of non-Euclidean geometry and is divided into the three dimensional and the four-dimensional. Like Golding, Clair argues that the three-dimensional realm consists of the Bachelor Machine, which aesthetically and conceptually belongs to the world of the readymade, whereas the domain of the Bride takes form in the four-dimensional area, retaining a visual link to Cubism.

According to Clair, the Large Glass takes the laws of perspective literally and it also seems to illustrate them.[10] The architecture of the glass is not only designed to demonstrate the classical laws of perspective, but also to forge a connection with human sexuality. For example, the “sex cylinder” is placed on a horizontal line at the same level as the horizontal line indicating the robes of the Bride.[11] Unlike Golding’s claim that the mathematical calculations in the perspectival projection of the Large Glass are highly personal, ambiguous and hard to analyze,[12] Clair argues that the science of the work can be interpreted when considering classical perspective and those classical perspectivists- the mathematicians and philosophers-who influenced Duchamp.

In that, Clair argues that Duchamp’s use of glass rather than canvas can be explained by application of the analyses of the classical perspectivists. “Their procedure was based on the definition of the picture plane as a plane intersecting the pyramid formed by the visual rays, whose apex is the eye of the observer, and whose base is the object to be represented.”[13] Here, Clair agrees with Golding’s claim that the role of the viewer is pertinent to the conception of the Large Glass. Although Clair’s scientific approach to the work is comprehensive and thoughtful, his argument relies heavily on outside influences, which may or may not have actually been essential to Duchamp during the creation of this work. Like Golding, Clair utilizes the Green Box for insight into the mind of the artist, however, often goes beyond Duchamp’s written word (and sometimes beyond reason), claiming that all contents of the glass are derived from mathematical calculations.

Whereas Clair attempts to illuminate the science behind the Large Glass, a more conclusive approach rests in the hands of Golding, who formulates a clear argument that relies purely on the work itself. Golding does not incorporate non-observational testimony into his argument; instead, he scrutinizes the object, employing Duchamp’s own statement about the Large Glass for insight. Moreover, Golding does not make any assumptions about the work. For instance, if the Large Glass’ mathematics seem too ambiguous, he will not make a conclusive remark.  Indeed, Clair’s argument is too reliant on mathematics, such that, at times, his claims seem inaccessible and, therefore, inconclusive. His mathematical approach is an interesting one and does shed light on the science of the Large Glass, however, would be more successful if he focused more on the work itself and less on external influences.


Work Cited

Clair, Jean. “Duchamp and the Classical Perspectivists.” Artforum 16, no. 7 (March 1978), pp. 40-49.

Golding, John. Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” New York: Viking Press, 1973, pp. 55-80.

[1] John Golding. Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” New York: Viking Press, 1973, pp. 55-80.

[2] Jean Clair. “Duchamp and the Classical Perspectivists.” Artforum 16, no.7 (March 1978), pp. 40-49.

[3] Clair, 40.

[4] Golding, 55.

[5] Golding, 65.

[6] Golding, 69.

[7] Golding, 70.

[8] Jean Clair. “Duchamp and the Classical Perspectivists.” Artforum 16, no. 7 (March 1978), pp. 40-49.

[9] Clair, 40.

[10] Clair, 41.

[11] Clair, ibid.

[12] Golding, 70.

[13] Clair, 40.

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