Timothy Buckwalter

Giveaway: A project by Timothy Buckwalter

In December 2010 Tim and I had an e-mail conversation about his selection of images relating to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas), which is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Nina Zurier: Where did you start in putting together this collection of images?

Tim Buckwalter: The first time I encountered Étant donnés, I was 17 and had gone to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) with my girlfriend to see a show of Dutch tiles... and as Jasper Johns said, it is one of the weirdest pieces of art to enter a museum collection. The thing is it really sorta opened my eyes to what art could be... something strange. Something foreign. Something unknowable. And something you on which project your own ideas. At least, at that time, that's what it seemed to me.
A few years later, I began working at the museum and would visit the piece frequently. It began to become something more knowable to me. And something with which I could connect other experiences. Like the first time I saw Blue Velvet, obviously I thought about it. The first time I looked at photos from The Black Dahlia. And so on.
When you asked me to do a project I contacted my friend Michael Zahn, thinking we would do a sort of correspondence of images. He and I both sift frequently through the vast database of images on the internet. But for different purposes: he looks for colors and I look for narrative. So I emailed him the image from American Psycho where Bale is talking about Phil Collins, one of my all-time favorite movie moments. And he emailed a truckload of images back. And we began connecting some dots. What emerged was a discussion of the Times Square bomber, which was in the headlines at the time. As we continued, the piece seemed less like a project and more like a continuation of a conversation we have been having for years... and something that was gonna be nearly impossible for any viewers to comprehend. So I dumped the idea. But during the back and forth I began to think of the "Givens." Probably because of the brutality and silliness of American Psycho.
So over time, as I was sorting through internet images, if something got me thinking again about "Given," I would just snatch it and toss it in a folder. I didn't include anything from Blue Velvet (though Jeffrey in the closet spying would be perfect), American Psycho or The Black Dahlia because they all seemed too obvious.
And I'm grateful to film critic/scholar Chuck Stephens for reminding me of a few important visual connections, like Vertigo and Basic Instinct...

NZ: Tell me more about the Vertigo connections— the film came out in 1958, when Duchamp had been working on Étant donnés for about 10 years and I am sure he must have seen it. The more obvious connection would be Rear Window (1955), because of the voyeurism aspect, especially, as Juhani Pallasmaa has pointed out, “the fixed eye central perspective, the interaction of intimate privacy and voyeurist gaze, and the intertwining of eroticism and violence.” A less obvious connection would be a comparison of the intricate set construction done for Rear Window and the “set” for Étant donnés. PMA published a facsimile notebook of the assembly instructions, which I have. Did you ever manage to see the backside of Étant donnés when you were working at PMA?

TB: I was never fortunate enough to see how the piece was installed at PMA. Were you? Do you know if Mark Rosenthal was a fan? He was head of 20th Century Art when I was there.

I have only seen the workings of "Given" from photos in a Duchamp leaflet. We might be talking about the same PMA brochure... it was penned by Anne D'Harnoncourt for a symposium they were hosting. It has shots of the piece in Duchamp's studio, it has a great photo of the door across the hall from his place (the headquarters for the NY Union of Poultry Workers), and some excellent images of Duchamp's source material -- the door in Spain, a postcard of a waterfall from some place like Switzerland etc.

I don't think there is any direct connection between Vertigo and "Given." It was really that shot of Kim Novak at the door of the Mission. The Hitchcock door is so similar to "Given's" door, I'm sure they are both related to some Old World aesthetic.

Yeah, on Rear Window. I'm sure there are numerous and dense connections between the film and the sculpture and the accepted phoniness of the sets. But I chose Vertigo instead. I was hoping the Vertigo image would reference Hitchcock and Freud enough that people could make the connection to Rear Window themselves. It's kinda like the Dahlia. I mean, the connection is there, but I wanted to look at some other dots and try to connect them.

NZ: During the Jonathan Borofsky show at Berkeley, which Mark Rosenthal had organized before he left for the PMA, I got to know the head preparator from PMA who was traveling with the show, and he described it to me and offered to give me a tour the next time I was in Philadelphia, but he was gone before I managed to get there. I know Mark was in awe of the whole Arensberg collection, especially the Duchamps and Brancusis.

The book I am talking about is the facsimile of the 3-ring binder Duchamp made for the assembly of Étant donnés [Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés, Manual of Instructions] which is different from the brochure you describe. It is mostly black-and-white photos and hand-written instructions—some on separate sheets and some on top of the photos— and the photos that include the nude are really pretty creepy. I have never found the experience of looking at the work disturbing, maybe because I had read so much about it before I ever saw it, but it also has seemed like some weirdly wonderful transcendent moment rather than the aftermath of rape or whatever. But the assembly photos for the nude give off a strong feeling of violence, because the body is in pieces, you can see where the pigskin has been stitched up, and Duchamp used a brushy red paint that looks like blood to make crude numbers on some of the pieces. 

I just found a quote from Teeny Duchamp in which she says that they weren’t the kind of people who go out to movies and restaurants, they went to the chess club instead…so maybe they didn’t go to Hitchcock films. Are all of the images in Giveaway film stills?

TB: Well, I think Teeny was probably talking about their time in France. Marcel does say in a 1966 interview with Pierre Cabanne that he has not seen many films of the New Wave, and that going to movies in France involves too much planning. He then goes on to say that he see a lot of films in New York City. And that he does not enjoy the big roadshow pictures (which hit their zenith in '66) but loves the lighter fare. So I would guess he had seen Hitchcock and company. The other interesting moment in that interview is when Duchamp qualifies movies by saying that they are a mechanical way of seeing something, similar to photography. And they will never compete with art....

About a third of the found images are from movies. The rest are fashion, snapshots, art.

NZ: I have always wondered why Duchamp did not do more with photography and film. Since the 1920s other artists were using photography and film in ways that were not literal or strictly documentary, and Duchamp's close friend and sometimes collaborator Man Ray did quite a bit of manipulation in his photographic prints. Do you think he had a problem with the narrative? Although there is a strong narrative structure in the Large Glass...

TB: Well, I wonder too. I would guess it had to do with a kind of specialization. I think he considered himself a sculptor and went about thinking of ways to expand or break the rules that were related to the conventions of his chosen field, in the way that Man Ray worked in photography. Also in the early days of film, I think the art world considered it something of a novelty. I mean, sure, a few people ventured into it, but most stayed in their chosen areas. The idea of cross-disciplines is kinda new, right? I guess it comes from that late '60s idea of believing in the ability to do anything you set your mind to. Honestly, I'm not even sure it works for very many artists, I was never hep to that belief. Kerouac's poetry bites. Newman's sculpture is so-so. Julian Opie's huge wall pieces are blah. Schanbel's films are trite.

The narrative question is really interesting to me though. The part of Duchamp's work that is the most interesting to me (well, outside of his cold sexiness which was super interesting to me in my youth) is his ability to grab a moment from a narrative. From the Large Glass to Given, his larger pieces seem to be a snippet from a larger tale. And they seem to be created for me, the viewer, to use when trying to unravel the encompassing tale. It's what I've learned from Duchamp and applied to my paintings... using images from a specific moment, that allude to a bigger story.