Image by Caroline Minasian
By Caroline Minasian
Last Thursday evening, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art was lit up like a bright star in the middle of UC Davis’ otherwise darkened campus. This was an appropriate guise for Professor James Housefield, who was on hand to speak about his recently published book, Playing with Earth and Sky: Astronomy, Geography and the Art of Marcel Duchamp.
Upon entering, a projector transported visitors to Paris’ 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life. James graced the podium with his jovial smile and took roughly 120 attendees through Marcel Duchamp’s career in under two hours—from when Duchamp dipped his toe in Cubism to when he completely submerged into Dadaism.
James spoke with a hard-to-miss enthusiasm, linking Duchamp’s shift away from 2-D paintings to the 1912 Aerial Locomotion Exhibition in Paris. Duchamp sought art that was more cerebral and, as James put it, “went beyond the retinal.” He began to create new propeller-inspired events and objects—performance art, urinal fountains, head-shaved comets and an exhibit with 1,200 suspended sacks of coal, to name a few.
“Duchamp is a designer of experiences,” James said. “[He] opens up conversations rather than closes them off and encourages us to think broadly.”
Then, James brought our attention to the Palais de la Découverte—Paris’ science museum created for the 1937 expo, built to encourage artists and scientists to work side by side.
“It inspired young French people to become scientists to lead their country into the modern world,” James said. (Fun fact: it also inspired San Francisco’s Exploratorium, which encourages hands-on learning and exploration.)
James’ talk was thought-provoking. He showed how Duchamp stepped outside of the box and allowed other artists to follow, creating a completely new and experimental understanding of what fine art could be. The current exhibits at the Manetti Shrem Museum are essentially an ode to Duchamp, filled with artists who have challenged traditional art, cultural norms and the “quintessential” toilet.
“I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night as if I’ve been sleeping [at the museum], because so many artists here are so much a part of my thinking [with this book],” James said.
If you haven’t read James’ book, don’t worry—even he joked that you don’t need to. “Just know the most important thing about Duchamp is that he continues to inspires artists today.”
Sacramento’s art scene is certainly boarding the Duchamp inspiration train, most recently with February’s interactive Art Street exhibit, which definitely pushed art past the retinal. Perhaps the city’s next out-of-the-box inspiration will take a page from Paris’ 1937 expo to inspire scientists, artists and inventors to work together, as James said, to “lead our country into the modern world.”