Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The flag: Michael Taylor picks Marcel Duchamp

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Michael Taylor is the curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Introduction to the series here.

DuchampAllegory.jpgMichael Taylor: The biting satire of this portrait of George Washington reflects the artist’s nihilistic mood during the Second World War, which had brought back painful memories of the jingoistic patriotism that had led to the senseless loss of so many of his friends and even family members, including his oldest brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon, during the First World War.

When Alexander Liberman asked Duchamp to make a portrait of the first President of the United States for the cover of the February 15, 1943 issue of Vogue magazine, Duchamp produced a mocking collage image based on the profile portraits of Washington made popular by the English painter James Sharples in the 1790s. This inflammatory ‘stain’ portrait consists of a double image, featuring Washington’s right profile and trademark wigged coiffure when seen head on, and a map of the United States, with part of Mexico and Canada in black on either side, when the work is turned on its side. This visual trick alludes to the artist’s interest in the ‘Wilson-Lincoln’ effect, an optical illusion where the interchangeable portraits of Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln were made to appear simultaneously through a two-way mechanism, such as a lenticular photograph or an accordian-fold system, which had so intrigued the artist when he first lived in New York in the 1910s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Duchamp’s entry was rejected by Liberman and other members of the editorial staff at Vogue, who deemed the shoddy and highly suggestive materials used in the assemblage, which is made from padded material covered in surgical gauze that had been soaked in iodine and then fixed to the cardboard support by thirteen gold-colored stars, to be inappropriate for a portrait of the father of the country. Although the red-streaked gauze, redolent of bloodstained bandages or a used sanitary towel, was intended to represent the red and white stripes of the American flag, there can be no doubt that the disturbing associations with violence and death perceived by the Vogue editor reflect Duchamp’s anti-nationalistic attitudes at a time of flag-waving, patriotic fervor induced by wartime propaganda. The artist perhaps wanted to remind the magazine’s readers that the first President of the United States was a slave-owning war-monger, with not just blood on his hands, but saturated over his entire profile.

When Duchamp called Liberman to find out why AllĂ©gorie de genre did not appear on the cover of the February 15 issue, the embarrassed editor told the artist that the offending work was ‘not right for Vogue’ and returned it to him, along with a check for fifty dollars for ‘expenses.’ Duchamp immediately sold the work to his close friend AndrĂ© Breton, who published a reproduction of it on the cover of the Surrealist magazine VVV later that year, thus highlighting the narrow-mindedness of Vogue’s censorious editorial board. [The piece is now in the collection of the Pompidou.]

Also: David Rubin picked Sam Wiener. Anthony Huberman picked Lutz Bacher. Connie Butler picked David Hammons. Rita Gonzalez picked Juan Capistran. Lawrence Rinder picks Eduardo Paolozzi. A BuzzFeed page where you can contribute your own favorite examples of the American flag in contemporary art. (So far: Twenty-one contributions and counting…)

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