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Friendship in a Box

Following Cornell's death in 1972, Walter Hopps discovered the Duchamp Dossier at Cornell's home. "I happened to know that Cornell sometimes made collages inside books," Hopps writes in the exhibition catalog. "I looked in each of the books to see what was there, and I found two extraordinary things. One was Volume XXII of a set of French agricultural journals: There were innumerable cutouts and collages integrated into it. In one of its pages was a collage portrait of Duchamp, and the book as a whole had become an extended symbolic portrait of him. The other unique object I found was the Duchamp Dossier, which was filed upright among the books."

Shortly thereafter Hopps conceived of an exhibition that would explore associative underpinnings as well as offer profound insights into the thought processes of both the cataloger, Cornell, and his subject, Duchamp. Significantly, the unearthed notes and receipts confirmed a long-rumored collaboration between the two. Before leaving Paris in 1942 to settle in New York, Duchamp shipped over his Box-in-a-Valise, a miniature "museum" in the form of a carrying case containing 69 reproductions and facsimiles of his principal works. The Box was conceived of as a multiple, but Duchamp needed assistance to assemble the portable units. At the end of July, he visited Cornell's house for the first time, taking Box-in-a-Valise to him and his brother, Robert, for close examination. Just a few weeks later, Cornell began working on a number of specific components and may also have helped produce some of the complete ensembles.

Handy valises for traveling art. Portable ideas. "Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase," wrote Duchamp. Essentially he employed Cornell as a craftsman. Duchamp gave him at least four receipts, their playful spirit mimicking commercial ventures: "Dear Cornell, / Here's the $3.75 that I'm sorry has taken so long to send you." If anything, the Duchamp Dossier contains much evidence of Cornell's efforts to recapture a relationship based on mutual admiration and affection. Certainly the Dossier complemented Cornell's "spare parts department" -- files stored in his basement studio in every manner of container: shoe boxes, cookie tins, stationery boxes and packing cartons.

In the show's catalog, Don Quaintance notes that serious consideration of the Duchamp Dossier may be hindered since much of its contents were acquired from the trash baskets of Duchamp's residence or studio. But Cornell felt justified in collecting even Duchamp's castoffs. Quaintance explains that it fit an established pattern, given that Cornell believed all artifacts, no matter how lowly, possess a talismanic quality. Co-curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan writes that Cornell "juggled the multiple pursuits of artist, collector and resident archivist responsible for sorting and maintaining it all." "This was an artist for whom browsing, collecting and sifting were, at heart, experiences to be savored and lingered over for equal measures of stimulation and reverie," she adds.

In a similar manner, viewers must visually pick through the valise, the box or file to form their own relationships. Co-curator Ecke Bonk maintains that the objects represent both the "meandering of an aimless stroll" and the "deterministic result of a careful, selective filtering process."

Throughout the show, connections between Cornell and Duchamp are only implied or suggested. Connections unfold slowly, in bits and pieces. The Duchamp Dossier is installed in flat vitrines down the center of the gallery; Duchamp's works are to the left, Cornell's to the right. Contemplating the ephemera then moving back and forth between the principal works is tiring and requires patience. But in doing so, viewers are compelled to question traditional categories that have defined the notion of the art object, the creative act and the position of the artist. Viewers complete the creative process, not as passive consumers but as active interpreters.

Certain selections will stop you in your tracks. Duchamp's With Hidden Noise (1916), an "assisted" readymade, is the famous ball of twine compressed between two metal plates with four long screws. As its title suggests, a small object has been hidden inside the package so that it makes a noise when shaken. Another kind of readymade is Apolinere Enameled (1916-17), a cardboard-and-painted-tin advertisement for the Sapolin brand of enamels. Duchamp alters it by covering some letters in black paint and inserting new letters. He also draws a reflection of the girl's hair in the mirror above the chest of drawers, thereby adding new visual details to the original image.

Included among these early works are Fresh Window (1920), a verbal and visual pun in the form of a carpenter's scale model of a window frame with its eight panes neatly covered by black leather. An obvious parallel is Cornell's gridded white Window Facade with its cracked glass panes. It's followed by Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy?, a birdcage filled with marble cubes that look like lumps of sugar. Nearby Cornell plays the Duchampian game of chance with the free movement of the glass "ice cubes" he has placed in the construction Hommage to the Romantic Ballet.

There are four versions of Duchamp's Box-in-a-Valise, which incorporate reproductions of such early works as the notorious Nude Descending a Staircase and the Fountain urinal. Pristinely delicate and neat, they are objects of personal grooming and civility, objects of a gentleman on the move, traveling light. More important, Box-in-a-Valise opens up a new way of approaching Duchamp's work: as a language where meaning is not guaranteed by the artist's intention or by history. Rather, it is there to be newly created each time by the viewer, generated by the interplay and positioning of the valise's elements.

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