In August 1959, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton invited artists, poets and writers to take part in the eighth Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme (EROS). The theme of eroticism was chosen as both a reminder of the place it has always occupied in surrealism, and as an antidote to what was felt to be an increasingly oppressive period culturally and politically in the Fifth Republic. Acting as a deluxe catalogue for the exhibition, the Boîte alerte was designed by Canadian artist, Mimi Parent, with Duchamp adding the title Missives lascives (lascivious letters). The missives themselves were the contributions of other artists and writers involved in EROS including Joan Miró, Toyen, Hans Bellmer, Adrien Dax, Robert Benayoun, Joyce Mansour and many others. Parent's green box is filled with envelopes containing objects, letters, pictures and booklets, many of which incorporate provocative word and image-play and tie into the over-arching theme of eroticism that ran through the show. Acting almost as an exhibition in miniature, the Boîte alerte – translated literally as ‘emergency box,’ a pun on the name for a letterbox (boîte à lettres) – recalls Marcel Duchamp’s ‘portable museum’ La Boîte-en-Valise, though here it showcases the spirit of collaboration that lay at the heart of EROS.
Two hundred and fifty box ‘catalogues’ were made in total, but only the first twenty deluxe examples (numbered I to XX - including the present lot, no. XIV) were to include Duchamp’s rectified readymades Couple de tabliers (Couple of Laundress' Aprons), inspired by a pair of tartan oven-gloves the artist had found by chance in a shop in New York. ‘I’m sending you two little aprons destined to protect the hands from the excessive heat of pots and casseroles on the fire,’ Duchamp wrote to Breton, a month before the exhibition was due to open. ‘One is male, the other female. They could be executed in Paris in a few days, for not much money, if the idea pleases you’ (letter to André Breton, New York, 9 November 1959, quoted in A. Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, vol. II, London, 1997, p. 822). Provocatively, the artist added male and female attributes made of stitched cloth and fake fur to the oven gloves, which could be hidden or revealed by openings in the fabric, lending the everyday objects a highly erotic, sexual character.