Duchampian Science




Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works, by Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998; 374 pages.

Linda Dalrymple Henderson, a professor of art history at the University of Texas in Austin, has long worked in the lonely and unpopular field of modern art and geometry, publishing a version of her Ph.D. thesis on the topic in 1983.(1) Recently, she has devoted 10 years to investigating Marcel Duchamp’s use of science and technology. The results, impressive in their range of historical reference, are presented in her new book, Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works. Her choice of subject is inspired. By selecting Duchamp, Henderson wisely took aim at the most promising case for interaction between esthetics and technics, one that might finally answer the often neglected but important question “Is there a real link between modern art and science?”

Duchamp had earlier been recognized both by Henderson and by Craig Adcock for a depth of mathematical understanding that made him unique among his modern-artist peers.(2) But did Duchamp’s expertise also include science?

In her introduction, Henderson lays out an ambiguous brief. Duchamp consistently emphasized that his central work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), a.k.a, the Large Glass, was intended to be studied with what he called his “Sears Roebuck catalogue” of notes, most written between 1912 and 1915. Duchamp published three boxes of notes in his lifetime: the Box of 1914 (16 notes and one drawing), the Green Box (or La Mariee Mise a Nu par ses Celibataires, Meme) in 1934 (94 notes and images) and the White Box (or A l’Infinitif) in 1967 (79 notes).(3) However, 289 notes, which Duchamp had apparently carefully organized into folders, were discovered after his death in 1968 but not published until 1980. Within this last set of jottings, Henderson has found an “overtly scientific orientation.”

Such an interest was scarcely exclusive to Duchamp. Public fascination with science ran high in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period of dazzling technological advances. The theme was clearly shared by many artists, among them the Futurists, Picabia (Duchamp’s boon companion for a time) and the Delaunays. Henderson understands scientific connections to popular culture very well and has searched assiduously for possible links with Duchamp’s themes and images. Indeed, Duchamp in Context offers an abundance of potential Duchampian source material–from thumbnail accounts of famous scientists (e.g., William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, Nikola Tesla) to summaries of scientific concepts and devices (X rays, electromagnetism, radioactivity, the atomic model, human-machine analogies, meteorology, Hertzian waves, dynamos, etc.). The book’s period illustrations alone–culled from technical journals, newspapers, magazines, posters, product catalogues and Conservatoire National des Arts and Metiers exhibition brochures–suggest that Duchamp’s historical milieu was awash in scientific imagery and ideas.

Yet this wide-ranging research also contributes to Duchamp in Context’s greatest flaw. In deciding how she will interpret Duchamp’s use of science, Henderson follows the most conventional form of current Duchamp scholarship. She adopts the credo that the artist was known for his “rejection of single readings and his delight in multiplicity” of meanings(5)–a belief that is open to serious question, since Duchamp made fun of multiple interpretations by scholars and clearly recognized that not every reading could be equally valid, because different views often stand in logical contradiction.(6)

Nevertheless, taking a commitment to multiple meaning as her central hypothesis, Henderson randomly compiles reference after scientific reference that she believes Duchamp may have included as “playful” and “ironic” layers in his Large Glass “collage”:

there is no single scientific theme that dominates the Glass: it is a complex and witty overlay of visual and verbal ideas, often based on analogies of appearance or function as well as wordplays. Thus, in addition to electromagnetism and chemistry, it addresses such scientific issues as atomic theory, radioactivity, electric discharges in gas-filled tubes, changing states of matter, the liquefaction of gases, the kinetic-molecular theory of gases, Brownian movement, thermodynamics, classical mechanics, systems of measurement, meteorology, and biology, as well as the technology of the automobile, wireless telegraphy, incandescent and neon lightbulbs, power generation (old and new), and contemporary agriculture.(7)

Is it really true that there is no dominant scientific theme in Duchamp’s work? I can address this question only by offering an alternative reading. According to the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare (1854-1912), whose writings are acknowledged by Henderson as a well-known influence on Duchamp, there is great difference between scientific fact-collecting (Tolstoy called it “lady bug counting”) and the process of discovery whereby intuitive leaps bring us to new generalizations.(8) “Scientists believe there is a hierarchy of facts,” Poincare wrote, “and that among them may be made a judicious choice.”(9) As we lack an eternity of time to make endless possible combinations (facts combined, he said, are analogous to chess moves), the scientist must choose parts which allow us to see the whole. In Poincare’s words: “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built, of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”(10)

Since Henderson has given equal weight to all of her data, as evidenced by the lack of any stated hierarchy in her various lists, how can the reader discern if one item meant more to Duchamp than any other? Is Duchamp’s body of work only a random grab bag of ideas from science (“scientific and technological meanderings,” as Henderson calls them)?(11) Is his Large Glass just a Rube Goldberg assembly of Victorian and early 20th-century science references, as the author’s description implies? Given that Duchamp was a brilliant chess master who sought his goal of mental beauty in the game’s intricate strategic combinations, I do not believe that he would operate so haphazardly in his art.

To see the weakness in Henderson’s method, consider her treatment of X rays. As she correctly states, Duchamp wrote two 1920 notes that each use the word “X-ray” once. Duchamp’s brother Raymond was a medical intern in the 1890s at a hospital where Albert Londe pioneered X-ray photography in France. Duchamp’s artist friend Frantisek Kupka used X rays directly in his work, and X rays were an exciting scientific innovation that, being “in the air,” often turned up in popular literature available to Duchamp, his brothers and others in their circle.

Essentially, these observations constitute Henderson’s case for Duchamp’s use of X-ray-like images– that is, the evidence beyond what she calls “iconographic recovery” through examination of his individual images. Unfortunately, the works Henderson then cites–the Cubistic Sonata (1911), Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters (1911) and Portrait, or Dulcinea (1911)–look nothing like X rays. The author points to the “darkened noses” on several of the figures and notes how the paintings “employ transparent, partly dematerialized forms overlapping one another.”(12) She claims that the subject’s body in Dulcinea is “depicted in successive stages of movement” and is “partially transparent and dematerialized, in the manner of the X-ray.”(13) But, in fact, X rays are quite unlike these pictures: they yield isolated (not overlapping or sequential) views and show bone structure as prominently white against gray-toned shadows that correspond to varying densities of soft tissue.

Mixed in with these unconvincing speculations about X rays are what Poincare designated “beautiful facts”–those which occur frequently, allow prediction and unify seemingly disparate data. But Henderson fails to identify which of her myriad biographical and historical tidbits are truly significant, just as she fails to give proper attention to Poincare himself. Had she done so, she would have found in the Large Glass an ironic but highly systematic representation of the creative process, whether artistic or scientific.

Early in her book, Henderson notes that Poincare was an “important source” for Duchamp. But she quickly flies away from the then-popular theorist after this brief mention, only to put him back into the roll call of researchers having no direct link to Duchamp, even though Poincare is the only scientist referred to twice by name in the artist’s notes. Henderson does cite Duchamp’s use of Poincare’s mathematics of chance, but never defines or correctly explains this idea. (Poincare laid the foundation for modern chaos theory.)

Henderson also quotes Cleve Gray, an artist who worked closely with Duchamp to translate the mathematical notes that mention the French physicist. If she had asked Gray about these citations, she and the reader would have received some important, previously unknown information. Duchamp told Gray “many times” that “Poincare was at the bottom of everything” the artist was doing.(14) To Gray’s recollections we can add the observation of Francois Le Lionnais, a mathematician and scholar who, for 50 years, knew Duchamp as a fellow chess player and person interested in science discussions. In a published interview, he stated that Duchamp was “stuck at Poincare until the end of his life.”(15) These two testimonies, when combined, provide further impetus for choosing Poincare’s ideas as an interpretive key to the science in Duchamp’s oeuvre.

Moreover, once Poincare is singled out, we can apply the important organizing methods specified above for testing any fact or hypothesis: Are Poincare’s concepts reflected frequently in Duchamp’s words and works? Do we meet with continual success when we apply our theory that Duchamp used Poincare as a primary source? Finally, do seemingly disparate ideas in Duchamp’s oeuvre become unified when we understand them as representating Poincare’s ideas? If we answer yes to all three questions, then we have not only provided a direct demonstration of mental beauty in Duchamp’s work, but have also shown, in part, how science is actually done.

According to Poincare, we inhabit a dynamic, constantly changing universe. Nature is essentially a mechanism of chance (probability) that operates in a similar manner from large scale to small (from “the Milky Way” to “gaseous molecules colliding” and sometimes “randomly combining,” in his favorite example), while also including, at the scale of ordinary experience, the weather, dust in fluids, roulette and the human discovery process.(16)

The “greatest act of chance,” Poincare says, is “the birth of a genius.” This occurs when the right “genital cells,” sperm and ovum, meet to produce the rarest of all combinations.(17) Poincare believed that only geniuses are born with extraordinary “unconscious sieves” that choose efficiently from an enormous set of random ideas formed and reformed by colliding molecules in the subconscious.

The best, most useful mental choice will center on the simplest (and therefore most “beautiful”) part or fact that allows us to comprehend the whole. Such a choice, Poincare tells us, brings “sudden illumination”–and is experienced as a surprise, since we cannot witness the causative gaslike molecular collisions within the mind. We therefore apprehend our choice as if it arrived ready-made (Poincare’s emphasis), even though much activity and effort actually occurred in the unconscious during a prior period of seeming rest and delay. However, Poincare warns, these choices are not yet complete as “ready-made” (tout-fait) but must be tested and “verified by measure and experiment” before being declared a discovery.(18)

Poincare states that a kind of “parallelism” (affecting gas, dust and stars, for example) is “elementary” in nature.(19) He specifically mentions pendulums as a prime indicator of these analogous relations. As distinct from the transient beliefs which we arrogantly call the laws of science, such relations never change, despite the various names that we give them. In contrast, the laws with which we “garb” nature’s female “body” are imperfect but useful generalizations, which, due to a loss of efficacy, must be altered “every 50 years,” when we re-dress nature in two ways–with new laws and with new beliefs based on these fresh “vestments.”(20)

This theory of chance mechanisms clearly unifies Duchamp’s Large Glass into a conceptual whole, as can be seen, Poincare-fashion, by examining the principal parts and their interrelationships. For example, Duchamp described his Bride as a pendu femelle (female hanged body) that “swings to and fro,” is “extremely sensitive to differences” and, by “meterological extension,” affects “the storms and the fine weathers.”(21) Indeed, from Duchamp’s earliest drawing (1913) onward, the Bride looks like a double pendulum–a classic implement used in teaching chaos theory today. With its two degrees of freedom (i.e., pivot points), this device demonstrates the change from Newton’s worldview, in which cause equals predictable effect, to Poincare’s notion of the cosmos as a mixture of randomness and order.

Like Poincare, Duchamp frequently used the term “elementary parallelism,” and stated repeatedly that “chance,” “change,” “unconscious choice” and “invention” were the things that concerned him most in his work.(22) The artist was famous, of course, for his preoccupation with chess and roulette.(23) He also said many times, echoing Poincare, that changes in art occur every 50 years.

The Large Glass sieves, in the Bachelor half of the piece, sift “illuminating gas” that is represented by dust in lacquer fluid. The Milky Way, as Duchamp himself called one portion of the work, appears in the Bride half as the cloudlike Top Inscription. Thus the work interrelates gas, dust and the Milky Way– exactly as Poincare did.

I believe that, similarly, Duchamp’s life work has been waiting for us–standing unrecognized right before our eyes–until the moment when we, eventually and by chance, correctly choose the interpretation he intended. As Duchamp always said, the spectator is part of the eternal creative process of change and chance.(25) He has given us the greatest gift: the opportunity to experience the creative act for ourselves–ready-made but in need of personal verification by test and measure. Now on to further experimentation and the next 50 years.


(1.) Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983.

(2.) Craig E. Adcock, Marcel Duchamp’s Notes for the Large Glass: An N-Dimensional Analysis, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1981-83.

(3.) For English translations of the notes, see Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Da Capo Press, 1973.

(4.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. xix. Also see Paul Matisse, Marcel Duchamp Notes, Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, 1980.

(5.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. xxi.

(6.) “The Iconoclastic Opinions of M. Marcel Duchamp Concerning Art and America,” Current Opinion, November 1915, New York, Current Literature Publishing Co., p. 347.

(7.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. xxi.

(8.) Some aspects of Poincare’s impact on Duchamp am discussed in Herbert Molderings, “Objects of Modern Skepticism,” in Thierry de Duve, ed., The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1991, pp. 243-65.

(9.) Henri Poincare, The Value of Science, New York, Science Press, 1907, p. 4.

(10.) Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis, New York, Dover Publications, 1952, p. 141.

(11.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. 132.

(12.) Ibid., p. 9.

(13.) Ibid., p. 10.

(14.) Unpublished interview with Cleve Gray, fall 1997.

(15.) Cited by Molderings, p. 262, fn. 1. See also Anthony Hill, ed., Duchamp: Passim; A Marcel Duchamp Anthology, Amsterdam, G + B Arts International, 1994, p. 127. Henderson cites Le Lionnais but does not mention the 50-year relationship.

(16.) Henri Poincare, The Foundations of Science: Science and Method, New York, Science Press, 1921. See especially the chapters on mathematical discovery and chance.

(17.) Ibid, pp. 383-46.

(18.) Henri Poincare, Science and Method, New York, Dover, 1952, pp. 60-62.

19.) Poincare, Science and Hypothesis, pp. 254-62, and Science and Method, p. 132.

(20.) For remarks on nature’s “garb,” see Science and Method, p. 162, and The Value of Science, p. 95. For discussion of the 50-year cycle, see Science and Hypothesis, pp. 174, 182, 206; Science and Method, pp. 123, 125; and Value of Science, pp. 35, 95.

(21.) See Sanouillet and Peterson, pp. 45-48.

(22.) See Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, New York, Da Capo Press, 1973, pp. 34- 35; Laurence Stephen Gold, “A Discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s Views on the Nature of Reality and Their Relation to the Course of His Artistic Career,” undergraduate thesis, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, May 1958, appendix; and Sanouillet and Peterson, p. 138.

(23.) Duchamp created a roulette system in 1924 based on 100,000 turns of the roulette wheel. Also see Sanouillet and Peterson, pp. 9, 137.

(24.) Space restrictions allow me to discuss only the broadest resemblances between the Large Glass and Poincare’s science. My fuller analysis is contained in “Marcel Duchamp’s Impossible Bed and Other `Not’ Readymade Objects: A Possible Route of Influence from Art to Science,” Art & Academe, Part I, vol. 10, no. 1, fall 1997, pp. 26-62, and Part II, vol. 10, no. 2, fall 1998, pp. 76-95.

(25.) See Cabanne, pp. 69-71, 76; Gold, appendix; and Duchamp’s essay “The Creative Act” in Sanouillet and Peterson, pp. 138-40. The reviewer organized a three-day symposium, “Methods of Understanding in Art and Science: The Case of Duchamp and Poincare, ” that took place Nov. 5-7, 1999, at Harvard University. Rhonda Roland Shearer is a New York-based artist who is also an associate of the Harvard University department of psychology and a visiting scholar at New York University’s physics department.