In a 1964 interview, Marcel Duchamp lamented the frenetic tempo of modern artistic production. “I feel that things of great importance have to be slowly produced,” he contended. “When you do a thing, you don’t do it in five minutes or in five hours, but in five years. I think there’s an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression, that will be considered important five centuries later” (quoted in C. Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, Brooklyn, 2013, pp. 26, 44–45). No other artwork more compellingly demonstrates the degree to which Duchamp valued deliberateness over rapidity than his celebrated De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (Boîte-en-valise) (From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy [Box in a Valise]). Conceived between 1935 and 1941 and issued in seven different editions between 1941 and 1971, this carefully choreographed assemblage of miniature replicas and reproductions of his work took longer to execute than anything else in the artist’s oeuvre, including his two masterworks, the Large Glass (1915–1923) and Étant donnés (1946–1966). Eighty years after the completion of the first example from the deluxe edition (Series A), the Boîte-en-valise remains a pioneering object in the history of art.
The Past As PrologueBy Paul B. Franklin
For Duchamp, the 1930s was a decade of retrospection. “I don’t feel like the people who don’t dare touch a past for fear of regretting,” he admitted in 1936 (K.S. Dreier and M. Duchamp, “Dear Dee, Dear Miss Dreier: The Selected Correspondence of Katherine S. Dreier and Marcel Duchamp,” Étant donné Marcel Duchamp, no. 9, 2009, p. 122). As he took stock of his artistic trajectory since first picking up a paintbrush in 1905, his previous accomplishments prompted the Boîte-en-valise. While Duchamp described the imaginative project as “a wonderful vacation in my past life,” it also was decidedly subversive (ibid.). Instead of churning out new work to gratify the voracious appetites of dealers and collectors, he curated a private retrospective in the form of reproductions and diminutive replicas of his cherished early work gathered together in the confines of a portable suitcase. With remarkable fortitude, patience, and precision, Duchamp labored in tandem with numerous printers and artisans to fabricate the sixty-nine items that comprise this curatorial journey into his artistic past.
I don’t feel like the people who don’t dare touch a past for fear of regretting.”
As Duchamp directed and surveyed the different stages of production of these elements, he returned to painting, a medium that he had chastised for years as outmoded. Twenty-five components earmarked for the Boîte-en-valise were paintings on canvas or glass, among them the Large Glass. These early creations, in fact, had motivated the edition. “They are a new form of expression for me,” Duchamp said of his valises in 1955. “I wanted a reproduction of the paintings that I loved so much in a small reduced form” (quoted in J.J. Sweeney, “Marcel Duchamp,” in J. Nelson, ed., Wisdom: Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of Our Day, New York, 1958, p. 98).
Rather than exploiting modern, speedy, and inexpensive replication processes, like offset lithography, to fashion the items for the Boîte-en-valise, Duchamp preferred the antiquated, time-consuming, and costlier techniques of collotype printing and pochoir coloring. The latter process, in which craftsmen applied pigments individually by hand using stencils, was a kind of painting by proxy that confounded the differences between a unique, handcrafted artwork and its mechanical replication. To amplify this ambiguity, Duchamp had certain reproductions varnished and framed in faux-wood strips of cardboard, like traditional canvases. Blurring the boundaries between original and copy, he undermined the autonomy and sanctity of the art object and demonstrated that its duplication and display were artworks in their own right. As a stage set for the components of his compact museum, Duchamp devised a cardboard box with compartments and a wooden armature that featured two retractable wings. He also nested nearly all of the twenty-four examples in the deluxe edition—twenty copies numbered I–XX and four hors-série examples, each numbered 0—inside specially designed plywood containers covered in brown leather. Finally, Duchamp individualized each copy with an original artwork customarily placed on the inside lid.
Neither the onset of the Second World War nor the impediments and perils that it engendered derailed Duchamp’s determination to realize the Boîte-en-valise. In spring 1941, after deciding to leave war-torn France, the artist masqueraded as a wholesale cheese merchant and smuggled enough items to compile fifty boxes from Nazi-controlled Paris across the demarcation line to the unoccupied zone in the south of France. Peggy Guggenheim had done the same with her art collection, including no. I/XX of the deluxe edition of the Boîte-en-valise, and had offered to ship the artist’s materials to New York in summer 1941 along with her own treasured belongings. Duchamp followed suit, disembarking in New York on 25 June 1942.
Despite his slothful nature, Duchamp had completed five copies of the deluxe Boîte-en-valise in France. In New York, however, he sought assistance and enlisted the expertise of Joseph Cornell. The two artists had met in late 1933, and Duchamp admired the meticulousness and dexterity with which Cornell constructed his own ethereal boxes. From July 1942 to January 1946, Cornell aided Duchamp in putting together eleven deluxe copies (nos. V–XII and three hors-série) and some thirty examples from the second edition (Series B) (S. Davidson, “Marcel Duchamp/Joseph Cornell Chronology including Duchamp Dossier Citations,” in Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp …in Resonance, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 289). The present example of the Boîte-en-valise, no. XIII/XX from the deluxe edition, is the first that Duchamp assembled alone following his collaboration with Cornell. He completed it in summer 1946 for the Chilean-born surrealist artist Roberto Matta Echaurren, known as Matta, and his American wife, the former Patricia Kane O’Connell. Matta’s name and the edition number are gilt-stamped on tiny strips of brown leather that Duchamp glued to the lining (of the same brown leather) inside the lower half of the valise.
Matta had arrived in New York from Paris on 27 October 1939, weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday. Over the next few years, other European artists and writers joined him, among them André Breton, Nicolas Calas, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, André Masson, Piet Mondrian, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, and, of course, Duchamp. In late 1936, while studying architecture under Le Corbusier, Matta had discovered Duchamp’s work, becoming particularly enamored of the Large Glass and The Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912). Concerning the latter artwork, he recalled: “I saw at once that Duchamp had attacked a whole new problem in art with this picture, and solved it—to paint the moment of change” (quoted in C. Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography, New York, 1996, p. 362). Clever, confident, and charismatic, Matta sought out Duchamp, and a friendship blossomed. The inimitable synthesis of science and eroticism that Duchamp achieved in works like the Large Glass proved pivotal to Matta when he started painting in 1938. During this same period, Matta saw Duchamp frequently and commenced collecting the Frenchman’s work, later confessing: “I became a fetishist for Duchamp’s work, acquiring everything he produced” (quoted in Matta, exh. cat., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1985, p. 268). Such enthusiasm spurred the acquisition of no. XIII/XX of the Boîte-en-valise, as well as one of the first copies from Series B, both of which Duchamp noted on a running list from the 1940s.
I feel that things of great importance have to be slowly produced….When you do a thing, you don’t do it in five minutes or in five hours, but in five years. I think there’s an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression, that will be considered important five centuries later.”
After Duchamp arrived in New York, he and Matta quickly reconnected, spending significant time together and in the company of other American and expatriate artists and writers. Matta also initiated a dialogue with Duchamp in several paintings from the early 1940s. The Bachelors Twenty Years Later (1943), for example, is an unabashed homage to the lower half of the Large Glass, an exclusively male domain known as the Bachelor Apparatus. For his part, in a 1946 text, Duchamp singled out Matta’s “discovery of regions of space hitherto unexplored in the realm of art” and proclaimed him “the most profound painter of his generation” (“Matta,” in Collection of the Société Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art 1920, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1950, p. 91).
Matta married Patricia Kane O’Connell, his second wife, in Beverly Hills on 20 June 1945. Born and raised in New York, the young bride came from an affluent, patrician family that spent summers in Newport. Her father, John Harlin O’Connell, was a successful lawyer and bibliophile, who gifted his prized book collection to Princeton University (his alma mater), where he had helped found the Friends of the Library in 1930. Patricia’s mother, the former Daphne Isobel Carson Kane, had Colonial ancestry and was a direct descendant of the storied Brevoort family, major Manhattan landowners. The couple divorced in 1934. Patricia attended Chapin and Château Brillantmont, a finishing school in Lausanne, before graduating from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. She made her official debut in society at a dinner dance at the Pierre in December 1941.
With her fair Irish complexion and dark piercing eyes, Patricia cut a striking figure and exuded flair. Independent, even obstinate, she was “a fiery particle,” as art critic John Russell characterized her (Matisse: Father and Son, New York, 1999, pp. 156 and 315).
Patricia also was deeply discerning and, like her father, she collected. In addition to purchasing works by Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy in the 1940s, she developed a penchant for Duchamp, acquiring in 1947 at the mere age of twenty-four both the iconic readymade L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) and the painting Network of Stoppages (1914) (E. Bonk, Marcel Duchamp, the Box in a Valise: de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy, Inventory of an Edition, trans. David Britt, New York, 1989, p. 170). She also owned Duchamp’s drawing Sieves/Parasols (1914), Tzanck Check (1919), and a miniature collage study of 9 Malic Molds (1938) made in preparation for the Boîte-en-valise. Patricia adopted a more public stance regarding Duchamp and his work beginning in 1947, when she oversaw the distribution of the Boîte-en-valise, a responsibility that endured until 1954. Throughout these years and with Duchamp’s approbation, she employed the artist Xenia Cage, former wife of composer John Cage, to assemble about fifteen examples from Series B (Davidson, op. cit., pp. 289–90).
Between 1942 and 1948, Pierre Matisse, son of the eminent French artist and a powerful New York dealer since 1931, frequently presented Matta’s work at his gallery in both group exhibitions and solo shows. It was probably while planning one or more of these events that he succumbed to Patricia’s charms. Their social circles also overlapped during the period. Patricia, Matta, and Duchamp, for instance, all attended a reception in November 1945 that Pierre and his wife, Alexina (Teeny), hosted at their apartment for the Martinican writer and newly elected French deputy Aimé Césaire when he passed through New York in transit to Paris. Soon after falling in love, Patricia and Pierre decided to build a life together. They divorced their spouses within months of one another in late 1948 and spring 1949, respectively, and wed on 28 October 1949 in Jersey City. (Teeny Matisse went on to marry Duchamp in 1954.) After separating from Matta, Patricia retained possession of their deluxe edition of the Boîte-en-valise. Not only Pierre’s third wife, she became his business partner and trusted collaborator, contributing financial resources to the gallery, corresponding with artists, photographing artworks for catalogues, and assuming other essential responsibilities. Following Patricia’s untimely death in 1972 at forty-nine, the Boîte-en-valise went to Pierre and has remained in the family ever since, which accounts for its remarkable state of conservation.
In the Mattas’ Boîte-en-valise, Duchamp mounted a provocative 1946 work on paper, consisting of four tufts of brown and reddish-brown head, axillary, and pubic hair that he had clipped, probably from his person, and taped to a delicate graphite rendering of a partial nude male torso in profile. He strategically positioned the clumps of hair on the sheet so that they signaled the same anatomical regions from which they had been harvested, whether visible in the drawing, like the genital area with its noticeably tumescent penis, or absent, like the head and underarms. This highly intimate artwork evinced Duchamp’s longstanding interest in body hair, from his readymade Comb (1916), L.H.O.O.Q., and Tonsure (1921) to the glaringly glabrous vulva of the nude female mannequin in Étant donnés. Such an aesthetic fascination appears to have mirrored his personal preferences. Lydie Sarazin-Levassor, who was married to Duchamp for several months in 1927–1928, remembered “the watchful eye he kept over his body for any down” and disclosed with candor: “His body was permanently shorn of all unwanted hair. He had an almost pathological horror of anything that resembled hair. Apart from finding it ugly and dirty, he said it was an unbearably gross reminder that man is but an animal, after all, in an ever so slightly more evolved form….He liked the fact that my hair had been cut extremely short and ended up asking me if I would not like to follow his example and remove all my body hair. Well, why not, if it made him happy” (A Marriage in Check: The Heart of the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor, Even, trans. Paul Edwards, Dijon, 2007, p. 74).
In April 1952, Duchamp proudly announced to Life magazine: “Everything important that I have done can be put into a small suitcase” (quoted in W. Sargeant, “Dada’s Daddy: A New Tribute Is Paid to Duchamp, Pioneer of Nonsense and Nihilism,” Life 32, 28 April 1952, no. 17, p. 102). Throughout his life, he had strived to keep his oeuvre together, convinced that his singular contribution to art history could be fully grasped only when his creative output was viewed as an ensemble. “I always felt that showing one painting in one place and another in another place is just like amputating one finger each time, or a leg,” he confided (quoted in Sweeney, op. cit., pp. 90–91). With the Boîte-en-valise, Duchamp ingeniously avoided such an unsatisfactory and potentially painful scenario. In so doing, he also ensured his artistic legacy, one that continues to inspire innumerable contemporary artists.
Lot Essay Header Image: Marcel Duchamp seen behind his major work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923), 1965. Photograph by Mark Kauffman. Photo: Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images. Artwork: © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2021.