In Detroit’s historic Scarab Club is Marcel Duchamp’s signature—thirteen small cryptic letters on a wooden ceiling beam. This talismanic autograph stirred my interest in finding out why and when Duchamp added his name to the collection of signatures in the club’s lounge. I was aware that Duchamp came to Detroit in November 1961 to speak at the Detroit Institute of Arts and receive an honorary degree from Wayne State University. This being the only information about Duchamp having visited Detroit of which I knew, I set out to find a link between the Scarab Club signature and his coming to Detroit in 1961. We may never know why Duchamp--who never spoke fondly of history, especially its art movements and isms and rejected all facets of aesthetic commercialism--accepted an honorary degree from an urban university so far from the powerful centers of the art world. But for an artist fascinated by the machine and mechanical drawings, Detroit may have been a fitting place for such an honor.
At the time of Duchamp’s visit, the seventy-four-year-old artist had emerged from a relatively isolated life in New York City to appear on television and at museum and gallery events. After nearly a half century of bachelorhood (he was married briefly in 1927), Duchamp married again in 1955 and became an American citizen. Unlike many other influential artists, he avoided a self-destructive path. Not experiencing the embitterment that plagues artists living beyond their fame and influence, the elder Duchamp stated: “I “missed nothing” in life, pleasantly boasting that he “had even more luck at the end of . . . life than at the beginning.”
Duchamp receiving an honorary Wayne State doctorate in 1961 occurred nearly a half a century since his Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) outraged visitors and critics at New City’s 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art--the famous Armory Show. That same year Detroit produced the world’s first moving automobile assembly line that helped transform the modern age. As important to the development of artistic modernism and its subsequent developments as Detroit was to the automobile industry, Duchamp inspired successive generations of leading artists.
One of anti-art’s founders and interested in no isms except eroticism, Duchamp savored contradiction, enigma, and rebellion against traditional aesthetics that coincided with a search for a fourth dimension, illuminated, he believed, only by randomness. Father of conceptual art, Duchamp insisted as most paramount the idea responsible for a creation—the artist’s intent--and not the object itself. Considering art as a form of play that undermined its supposed heroic status, he interjected humor that devalued some iconic objects—a moustache on the Mona Lisa--and raised others—a hardware store snow shovel--to the level of art.
Having lived three years in America, Duchamp completed his last painting on canvass in 1918, finally freeing himself from what he saw as his enslavement to this traditional format. He studied mechanical drawings and applied their craftsmanship to the preparation and making of his work. Painted and prepared materials on glass resulted in several works leading up to the Large Glass in 1923, formally entitled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, a work that marked Duchamp’s supposed retirement from art to pursue the mastering of chess.
By the late 1950s, after decades of feigned artistic retirement, Duchamp increasingly appeared at public events, often organizing art shows and giving talks. In 1961 the Art Journal took notice of Duchamp’s resurgence by stating that he was “currently undergoing a reassessment of status as master of modern art.”
Duchamp’s 1957 Houston lecture “The Creative Act” offered an explanation of the creative process by reducing the artist’s role, making him a creative co-equal with the viewer. Not long afterward, Duchamp accepted invitations to appear on American television. His first taped dialogue in America aired on Mike Wallace’s Hot Seat program in January 1961. Wallace’s confrontational style that frustrated or outraged many of his guests failed to rile a relaxed Duchamp who laughed intermittently when responding to his host.
That same year in March, Duchamp delivered a brief lecture in a panel symposium at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” In this lecture, carefully prepared and typed by his wife Teeny, Duchamp expressed his disillusionment with the nascent elements soon to be known as pop art. He reiterated his aversion to artistic “isms” and summed up his anti-commercial stance by stating, “The great artist of tomorrow will have to go underground.”
From October 16 to December 10, the Detroit Institute of Arts hosted an exhibition of futurist art— Futurism--which included Duchamp’s third series of Nude Descending the Staircase. This three-city exhibition debuted that summer at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Futurism’s New York organizer, Peter Selz, German-born art historian and MOMA’s curator of the department of painting and sculpture exhibitions, saw this as America’s first comprehensive introduction to futurism. Years later, Selz recalled the exhibit as a “beautiful show!” a landmark event at time when few people “had really been looking at Italian Futurism.”
Of the more than 125 works that made up MOMA’s exhibition, twenty four were on loan from the collection of a Detroit-area couple: Mr. Harry Lewis Winston, a prominent local attorney with the firm Butzel, Levin, and Mrs. Lydia Khan Winston, the Detroit-born daughter of world-renowned architect Albert Kahn. On loan from the Winstons were works by Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla, and Umberto Boccioni. So reputed was their modern art collection that art historian Douglas Cooper included it in his book Great Private Collections (1963). The Winstons’ stucco country-style home in Birmingham outside Detroit housed a vast array of paintings, sculpture, prints, and art books, ranging in subject from the Renaissance to cubism, futurism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism. In a letter to Mrs. Winston, Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr Jr., expressed admiration for her collection, “I think you have one of the freshest and most un-hackneyed collections of modern art in the country.”
A graduate of Vassar and the Cranbrook Art Academy, Lydia was a long-time subject of Detroit’s society pages and local art news. A Detroit Times reporter described Mrs. Winston as a gracious woman, “her golden brown hair in a neatly curled pompadour sweep” with “eyes that change color from vivid green to sapphire blue.” Lydia grew up among her father’s art collection, including works by Courbet, Manet, Degas, Monet, and Urtrillo. In later years while in New York, she sought the advice of photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz and in 1938 purchased two John Marin watercolors from his An American Place gallery, a haven for modern American art. She purchased Jackson Pollack’s, Moon Vessel, the first of his paintings to sell at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1945. During the next decade, she collected futurist works and art by Duchamp’s close friend, Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi. At her Aspen Street home Mrs. Winston organized seminars connected with surrounding universities and became a vital force in the fund-raising and promotion of Futurism.
Hilton Kramer--always ready to express his dissatisfactions with many aspects of modern art--had mixed reactions about MOMA’s Futurism. Kramer’s Arts Magazine review said much about many of the loaned works from the Winston collection, voicing what he found disturbing in futurism, a movement he believed had few talented members. Led by poet Fillipo Tomasso Marinetti, the Italian futurists had advocated, since their first manifesto in 1909, using violence as a cleansing process for a new civilization. Kramer was offended by the exhibition’s apologist approach—a “rehabilitation” that softened the futurists’ vicious attacks in a way that excused them as sounding more like an attitude than an actual call for violence and destruction. Duchamp considered Italian futurism an urban form of impressionism and its paintings as too retinal. After briefly adopting futurism’s method of capturing objects in motion, Duchamp never accepted its call for violent destruction as a new weapon of war to wipe out the vestiges of the past. For Duchamp, art’s destruction was a private act, his purging from his creative sensibility all time-worn academic methods and elements of realism that had gained dominance since Gustave Courbet’s realism in the mid-nineteenth century. In the end, Duchamp did not oppose his work being grouped among futurists, just as he did not reject being included in dada and surrealist exhibitions.
Of the DIA’s 1961 exhibitions, Futurism was one of the museum’s most expensive. Ticket prices and other fund-raising events helped offset costs. Futurism represented the current trend of American museums in hosting blockbuster events, grand gatherings of art, which over time proved costly in their shipping, and especially in insuring the various works. In tandem with Futurism the DIA coordinated, in cooperation with the Friends of Modern Art and the University Center for Education, a series “A Key to Abstract Art,” consisting of fourteen lectures that included several film showings and exhibition visits. This series included the showing of Duchamp’s 1926 experimental short film, Anemic Cinema.
The DIA’s Futurism exhibition opened on October 16, 1961. This black-tie event, organized by the DIA’s Friends of Modern Art, was attended by Mrs. John D Rockefeller III and the Museum of Modern Art’s director Alfred Barr Jr. The DIA’s esteemed director, Edgar P. Richardson, had long served as an art advisor to Barr, who helped found MOMA in 1929. By the end of the Futurism exhibition, Richardson announced his leaving the DIA after thirty-one years. An author of a number of prominent books on American art, Richardson, was an expert on traditional art and a champion of modernism. As the DIA’s assistant director, he helped calm visitors who attended the debut of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals in 1933, when--standing in an empty pool fountain in the middle of the garden court—he delivered a lecture that helped avoid any trouble. Two years later he launched a DIA lecture series on modern art.
In coordination with Futurism, Mrs. Winston and Duchamp were selected to receive honorary degrees from Wayne State University. Learning of Duchamp’s Detroit visit, Mrs. Winston, a DIA trustee, offered him to stay at her Birmingham home. But the Arts Commission of the City of Detroit, which included Vice President Robert H. Tannahill and Mrs. Edsel Ford, made arrangements for Duchamp to stay at the Park Shelton Hotel next to the DIA.
In late November 1961, fund-raising efforts were underway to assure Furturism’s success. That same month the Detroit Free Press noted that the forthcoming DIA Bal Moderne, showcasing elegantly gowned women, would be held in support of the exhibition and made possible largely by Mrs. Lydia Kahn Winston, “whose art works and personal efforts have made the Futurist show and attendant seminars such a success.” In the fall of 1961 Mrs. Winston was the subject of a Detroit News article “How Detroit Inspired Futurists,” in which she connected with the Futursts and her native city of machines, emphasizing that their art “came about as a reaction to the automobile and the aesthetics of industry.”
At 8 P.M. on November 28 Duchamp gave his DIA talk, “An Evening with Marcel Duchamp.” Several hours earlier he appeared, sitting in front of Nu de Descending the Staircase (No. 3), at a press conference held at the DIA; the Detroit News ran the article, “Duchamp at 74 Is Descending Life’s Staircase in Leisure.” When asked at the DIA press conference what occupied his time besides playing chess and smoking cigars, he answered that one pastime he didn’t partake in was visiting “art exhibits.”
That evening before an audience of nearly four hundred, Duchamp answered a series of pre-prepared questions. Much of what he said was not new or revelatory to those familiar with his life and work. More willing to express strong opinions late in life, he again once took up the subject of commercialism’s ruinous effects on the art world. Building upon the statement he delivered at the Philadelphia Museum, that the artists of tomorrow “will go underground,” his Detroit talk addressed this matter more somberly. “I have always believed in the esoteric character of great art in opposition to the facile means and satisfaction of a general public,” opined Duchamp. “The great artist of tomorrow will have to hide and die before he is recognized.”
The next day at 4 P.M., Duchamp and Mrs. Winston, accepted their honorary Wayne State degrees of Doctors of Humanities at a special convocation held in the Community Arts Auditorium. After the ceremony a reception was held in the alumni lounge. Assisted in the donning of his robe by Wayne State President Clarence Hillberry, Duchamp, pleasantly expressed in the Daily Collegian: “I am moved and happy to see learning and art being brought together once more. I’ll be a doctor for the rest of my life.” His citation read:
Marcel Duchamp, native of France, resident of the United States since 1915, internationally renowned as an artist, to the dramatic conceptual change in the arts of our time has made contributions which are beyond measure.
Severely critical of the sterile traditions of the academies, he has remained revolutionary in spirit, his perceptive wit and insight often serving as catalysts for renewed evaluations of aesthetic philosophies. His experiments with various devices and materials have increased significantly the range of our expressive vocabulary while his intimate knowledge of psychology of perception has, through the years, provided the matrix in which are set the many facets of his creative energies.
His pioneering efforts on behalf of the now recognized freedom of artistic expression have placed the world-wide community of the present day artists deeply in his debt.
In recognition of the significant role of Marcel Duchamp in shaping our heritage in the arts, Wayne State University is proud to add its accolade to his many honors.
In a less formal ceremony, Duchamp added his signature to a beam in the Scarab Club’s second-floor lounge. Since the club’s completing this structure in 1928, the lounge, with its wood-paneled interior and large fireplace, served its all-male membership as a place for relaxation. Duchamp’s beam-signing was described by the Scarab Club’s president and DIA Administrator and Secretary William A. Bostick, who in an interview recalled: “I remember [well the day] he ascended the ladder and put his signature on there . . . . He was here to get an honorary degree from Wayne State University.”
On November 29 the Scarab Club honored retiring DIA director E. P. Richardson. During the celebration, when Richardson received an engraved brass plate noting his honorary life membership and distinguished promotion of the arts, one reporter described it as a worthy of the Scarab Club’s “salad days” when its members reveled in all-night high jinks. When Duchamp may have signed the beam, whether on the afternoon of the 28 th or on the following day, remains a mystery. But his name appears with artistic luminaries such as John Sloan, Rockwell Kent, Diego Rivera, George Grosz, and Reginald Marsh.
During their stay, Lydia Kahn Winston may have welcomed Marcel and Teeny to her Birmingham home. Evidence of this visit has been left in a print of Duchamp”s Self Portrait in Profile, which he signed to the Winstons in November 1961—its inscription mentioning Birmingham (“en passant a Birmingham”). In later years, Mrs. Lydia Winston Malbin (remarried after her first husband died in 1965), donated to the DIA several works by Duchamp, including twelve Rotoreliefs, circular cardboard discs on which are printed designs that when placed on a moving phonograph turntable produce the illusion of three-dimensional images.
Two years before his death in 1968, Marcel Duchamp assisted in the casting of his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villion’s sculpture, The Large Horse that was completed a year before Raymond died from disease during the First World War. This ground-breaking work, now on the campus of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, is located just a few blocks away from the Scarab Club, where on an aged beam his brother’s signature has made richer the legacy of Detroit’s art and learning.
Noted for her modern art collection and contributions Mrs. Winston, later Lydia W. Malbin, became an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum, and upon her death in 1989 the New York Times honored her with a lengthy obituary.
Quoted in Inside Wayne (Detroit, December 20, 1961) 63, 65.
Anthony Ripley, “ Richardson Gets Artful Goodby” Detroit News (November 29, 1961); James S. Pooler. “An Artistic Adieu: Scarab Club Bids Richardson Farewell” Detroit Free Press (November 29, 1961).
Lydia Khan Winston died in 1989 at the age of 91. The New York Times took notice of her contributions to the art world in an October 18, 1989 obituary. After Mrs. Winston Malbin’s death her children donated her extensive archival material to the Yale University. A Sotheby’s hardbound auction catalogue, The Collection of Lydia Khan Winston (New York, May 1990) lists Duchamp’s works among the many of her vast collection.