Love Note #61: Alison loves the hidden badassery of Duchamp’s Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Alison Dell
Favorite Spot: Duchamp’s Étant donnés (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, French: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Neighborhood: Art Museum
Address: 2600 Ben Franklin Parkway

I am: Scientist, Artist, Sometimes writer about science and art, Distractable Weirdo, SlowSee-er
Years in Philly: Seven(!)
Current Home: Northern Liberties

My love note: Probably what I love about this piece is its hidden badassery. Duchamp, obviously was a complete badass, and he gave up the art world (somehow convincing everyone he had devoted his life to chess), to work on Étant donnés. He worked on it in semi-secret, maintaining the chess charade, for decades, (1946-66), and it wasn’t unveiled until after his death.

So it is a secret piece and he made it for itself, and never had to confront a critical reception to it, though he did make it to be on display at the PMA. And obviously, looking at it — you realize that it’s the work of someone completely obsessed. There is something weirdly tangible about that kind of stalkery intense love produced in making something while obsessed by it and this piece, which I just called ” fucking-crazy-secret-naked-dead-waterfall” when I first saw it — well Étant donnés totally has it. 

I stumbled on it in 2005. I knew about it, but somehow didn’t realize it was at the PMA till my mom (my mom! of all people!) took me into this secret back room in the Duchamp section (thanks to Anne d’Harnoncourt the museum has one of the best Duchamp collections in the world) and pointed me to this mysterious door with strange peepholes…and…well, just total weirdness. One person at a time has to peep through the door, and of course you are instantly trapped in this bonkers voyeuristic scene. Okay, so there’s the mysterious Laura Palmer-y nude (there is a rip near her belly btw, check it out, poor thing), but the whole tableau is so weirdly composed and unbent at the same time: the landscape, the perfect, glitttery waterfall, the upraised lantern. It’s so still, but it just seems like it’s going to degenerate into chaos at any minute. The whole scene is full of untold stories. I don’t know what to say. It’s strange and brilliant, and secret, and it was made for here. This thing is a fucking treasure! I love you, Étant donnés

p.s. the world should know that the PMA’s upcoming Dancing Around the Bride, celebrating Duchamp’s influence on John Cage, Merce Cunnungham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg is going to be pretty great. It opens October 30th.
Posted on by Emma Fried-Cassorla in Art Museum 2 Comments

2 Responses to Love Note #61: Alison loves the hidden badassery of Duchamp’s Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

  1. Aaron Bauman

    The first time I was there, I was really amazed at all the people that saw the door from the other side of the room and weren’t curious enough to look through the peephole.

    Like, seriously? You think there’s just some random ancient door that’s completely out of place in the PMA and there’s NOT something behind it? You’re really that incurious? F’ing people, man.

  2. namirha

    Truly. As Duchamp once noted the only ism that actually mattered was eroticism


Reply to namirha