This work has been authenticated by Mme Jacqueline Matisse Monnier and the Association Marcel Duchamp.
On January 1, 1941, Marcel Duchamp - who had already established a reputation in the art world as a painter who stopped making art in order to play chess - surprised many by announcing the release of a new work. During the fall of 1940, he arranged for a firm in Paris to print an announcement where the name of the new work - de ou par MARCEL DUCHAMP ou RROSE SÉLAVY [from or by MARCEL DUCHAMP or RROSE SÉLAVY] - appeared in elegant thin silver letters on one side of a small folded sheet of lightweight, olive-colored paper. We are further informed that the work is issued in a deluxe edition of twenty numbered copies, each "accompanied by a signed original work." The lower half of the announcement could be detached and used as an order form, serving to reserve an example of the item being described, which, according to the form, would be sent to the subscriber within a month after the money is received (This Subscription Bulletin was first described by Yves Poupard-Lieussou, who compiled the bibliography for M. Sanouillet, ed., Marchand du sel, écrits de Marcel Duchamp, Le Terrain Vague, Paris, 1959, p. 223. The copy cited here is reproduced in fig. 5.30, F. M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1999, p. 142).
From the information provided on the announcement, there is little to indicate how intricate and complex the item being offered actually was; beyond a close circle of friends, few knew that Duchamp had been working on the assembly of material for this "box of pull-outs" (as he called them in the announcement) for nearly five years. What the description does tell us is that the reproductions it contains are representative of the artist's production over a span of 27 years: from things made in his youth to items made within the previous three years (another detail that would have come as unexpected news for those who were under the impression that Duchamp stopped making art). Moreover, for those interested in Duchamp's work, such a collection of images and models would have been considered an invaluable reference, for if the description was accurate, this box would contain the single most complete "published" inventory of the artist's production available to date: a virtual retrospective in miniature.
The idea to produce this work came to Duchamp at some point during the spring of 1935. At first, he described his new publication to friends as an "album," indicating that he originally envisioned it as little more than a portfolio of color reproductions. Eventually, the project grew into a far more elaborate production, resulting in a boxed enclosure that could be opened in a series of separate but sequential actions, so as to reveal its contents in a gradual, step-by-step fashion. It has been suggested that Duchamp might have based his design on that of a 17th or 18th century Flemish Kunstkabinet, a piece of furniture designed like a treasure box, with many interior compartments covered by painted panels (See, for example, Jennifer Gough-Cooper & Jacques Caumont, "Ephemerides", entry for 01/07/41, in P. Hulten, ed., Marcel Duchamp, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1993). But since Duchamp planned to build his container out of cardboard, sources closer to home are more likely, such as the display cases that were used to house a variety of household products - toiletries, sewing equipment, stationery, magic tricks, watercolors, toy dishes, etc. - which could be found in most any Parisian department store in the early years of the 20th century) (The Kunstkabinet was reproduced in Cooper & Caumont, "Ephemerides," 1/07/41. For images of the boxes from departments stores, see F. M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p. 141).
The announcement that he had printed informed prospective buyers that the deluxe editions of this work would be covered in leather. To this end, he had a plywood box made, which, in turn, he covered in brown leather and provided with a handle. As Ecke Bonk was the first to observe, it was only at this point that the work became known as the Bôite-en-valise [Box in a Valise], whereas - technically - the examples lacking this outer case should be called simply a bôite [box] (although the term valise is often used generically, even when referring to the subsequent boxed editions of this work) (E. Bonk, Marcel Duchamp, the Box in a Valise: de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy, Inventory of an Edition,, New York, 1989, p. 158).
Duchamp had gathered most of the reproductions for inclusion in his valise while still living in Europe, and although he managed to complete a few there, most were not assembled until after he arrived in New York in June of 1942. With the help of the American artist Joseph Cornell, he completed the construction of the deluxe edition, giving several to friends and collectors who had provided photographs of the works it contained, especially Katherine S. Dreier and Walter Arensberg, his most dedicated and loyal American patrons. After having received an example of the valise, Arensberg, who was then living in California, wrote to let Duchamp know how much he had appreciated the gesture. "It has been difficult to know exactly what to say of such an epitome of a life work," he wrote. "You have invented a new kind of autobiography. It is a kind of autobiography in a performance of marionettes. You have become the puppeteer of your past" (Arensberg to Duchamp, May 21, 1943, Duchamp Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives; gift of the Francis Bacon Library).
It would not be long before Duchamp established quite a reputation in New York for his "portable museum." In September 1942, Time magazine ran an article on the artist, which was illustrated with a photograph of Duchamp displaying the valise in the apartment of Peggy Guggenheim where he was staying temporarily as a house guest. In October, an example of the valise was placed on public display for the first time at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery (in a special showcase designed by the Austrian visionary architect, Frederick Kiesler). By December, Duchamp wrote to a friend in Chicago saying that he had managed to sell seven examples of the deluxe edition, leaving thirteen that were still available, adding, however: "They don't sell like hot cakes" (Marcel Duchamp to Alice Rouiller, December 4, 1942, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois, quoted in Cooper & Caumont, "Ephemerides", entry for 12/04/42).
According to the cataloguing system established by Ecke Bonk (the first to prepare a complete inventory of the valise and all its variations), only the first twenty--numbered from I through XXIV--were indended to have an outer leather case and contained an "original" item. Unlike the other examples in the deluxe series, this example of the valise does not contain 69 items, but rather 68, since Duchamp took the liberty of eliminating his pochoir on plastic of the Glissière (Glider), which was intended for placement next to the Large Glass (attached to one of the side panels). As early as 1936, Duchamp began experimenting with various techniques to print on transparent surfaces so that he could better achieve convincing simulations of the various works he had made on glass. He succeeded with his reproductions of the Large Glass and Nine Malic Molds, but shortly after the first sets were assembled, the Glider, which was printed on a heavier plastic material, began to warp, and created difficultly when closing the valise. As a result, Duchamp decided to remove it until the problem was solved (which it never was for the valise). Although this valise is enclosed in a leather case, it is in all other respects a "B" valise (according to Bonk, approximately 15 to 20 valises were prepared in this fashion in 1952) (E. Bonk, Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise, p. 299).
The present example of the valise was acquired from Duchamp by "The Lewins" (to whom it is inscribed) in 1952. Albert Lewin was a well-known Hollywood screenwriter and director. His best-known films are The Moon and Sixpence (1942), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). In the 1940s, Lewin befriended Man Ray, who had moved to Hollywood during the war years. He collected Man Ray's work, and the artist made several paintings that were used as props in his films (On Man Ray's work with Lewin, see S. Felleman, Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1997, pp. 86-89). Duchamp visited California in 1949, and it is likely that during this trip Man Ray introduced him to the Lewins.
In the years that have passed since the valise was completed, it has gradually acquired new meaning and significance within the Duchamp oeuvre; it is no longer considered a mere collection of reproductions having little more than documentary value, but, rather, a unique and important work of art in its own right. Moreover, as we advance into the years of a new century, it can be seen that the basic ideas it presents - appropriation and replication - are themes explored in the work of an ever-growing number of young contemporary artists. It is these artists who carry Duchamp's legacy into the future, for, in different ways and to varying degrees, they continue to build upon the conceptual strategies he so neatly - and brilliantly - packed into his portable museum.