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September 2, 2008
Duchamp note

Let’s look at two rather arbitrary quotes which fool-heartedly venture to summarize what art is. First, a modernist credo:

One must make an optic, one must see nature as no one has seen it before.

On the surface these words by Paul Cézanne would seem to echo my own sentiment of humility and wonder as an alternative to violence. However before we debate that apparently simple notion – the ramifications of such being anything but simple – must we not first resolve not only what comprises “an optic,” but also, and more fundamentally, how one “sees” or “perceives” at all? Which leads us to our second quote:

The subject of art is the human potential for an aesthetic awareness (perspective).

Here the American artist Robert Irwin not only concisely summarizes his own practice but brings to light an even more fundamental and elusive question, namely who or what is this that perceives? The line to be investigated is short and direct:


Yet “art,” if one may so generalize, is not subject to such literal linearity, nor is it a triad; but rather the undivided whole from which we, under intellectual duress, extract such distinctions whether valid, actual or arbitrary. This becomes especially apparent when this simple ingression from art object through the perceptual act to the perceiving self leads not to any discovery but rather a (non?)experience that the Tibetans are fond of describing with the phrase “not seeing is the supreme sight.” Or in a word: wonder, which from this perspective would now appear to be not only the very root of art but its result as well. And so it is that modernism has opened the door through which all later movements and aesthetic theories must pass.

Such a collapse of all concrete division between subject and object, gave birth not only to post-modernism in all its variants, but would also seem to be a fine example of what Marcel Duchamp so subtly and eloquently called the inframince[1] and the leap from the second to the third dimension towards which it leads. In terms of plastic reality, or more specifically spatiality, the inframince would indeed appear to be the ideal field on which to play the game of art; however we must still concern ourselves with that “sentimental human” realm with which Duchamp was so careful to frame his discourse. And here do we not find ourselves face-to-face with that “beautiful daughter,” Humility?[2]

[1]I have decided to use the word “mince” or “thin” which is a sentimental human term and not a precise laboratory measurement. The sound or music made by corduroy pants rubbing when you walk is related to the concept of infra mince (ultrathin). The gap between the two sides of a sheet of paper… To be studied!… This topic has preoccupied me for the past ten years. I believe that through the inframince it is possible to leap from the second to the third dimension.”

“J’ai choisi exprès le mot mince qui est un mot humain et affectif et non une mesure précise de laboratoire. Le bruit ou la musique faits par un pantalon de velours côtelé comme celui ci quand on le fait bouger est lié au concept d’inframince. Le creux dans le papier entre le recto et le verso d’une fine feuille… A étudier !…C’est une catégorie dont je me suis beaucoup occupé pendant ces dix dernières années. Je pense qu’au travers de l’inframince, il est possible d’aller de la seconde à la troisième dimension”

(from Duchamp’s notes published posthumously by Pierre Matisse. The translation is my own.)

[2] I can see humility
Delicate and white
It is satisfying
Just by itself

And Trust
absolute trust
a gift
a precious gift

I would rather think of humility than anything else.

Humility, the beautiful daughter
She cannot do either right or wrong
She does not do anything
All of her ways are empty
Infinitely light and delicate
She treads an even path
Sweet, smiling, uninterrupted, free

Writings by Agnes Martin)

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