Bas Jan Ader
The Comic God
Sketching on Chance
Drawing Distance
Observing the Wrong Bodies
Sketching on chance
Duchamp and drawing

“Não fez Deus o céu em xadrez de estrelas, como os pregadores fazem o sermão em xadrez de palavras” 1
“God didn’t place the stars of heaven in a chessboard pattern, whereas preachers do their sermons in a chess of words”

Before he devoted himself to the beauty of chess, but already when his interest in painting was starting to dwindle, Marcel Duchamp spent a season in Monte Carlo, trying to outwit the roulette. He was convinced it was possible to devise a method to predict its whims, a system to enter chaos. ‘You see’ he said, ‘I have not ceased to be a painter; I am now drawing on chance’2. A gambler is a creature that is overtaken by a drive, and possessed by it; Duchamp, on the contrary, observed the spinning with perfect detachment. His posture was a purely modern one, with what Roberto Calasso called the ‘godless gaze of which only mystics are capable’, in which the eyes ‘are not unduly alarmed’ by chaos, but are instead ‘thrilled by the prospect of inventing some strategic move within that chaos, a new game that makes all previous ones seem Ciceronian’3.
It is clear that Duchamp begun to abandon painting through drawing – on his way to ‘The Large Glass’, and that drawing continued to be for him a site of experimentation throughout his life. The reasons for his abandonment of painting were sensorial and historical – he confessed feeling revulsion for its sensuous features (as well as for the filling-in of painting4 and for the function of ‘la patte’ in the whole process) but he also questioned the ability of painting to speak directly to the ‘grey matter’ like the masters of old. ‘Mechanical drawing was the saving clause’5, he later explained. By resting outside the available codes of painting, technical drawing provided a means to escape both the families of modern painting and the ‘danger of the hand’. By stressing that he wanted ‘to unlearn how to draw’ while drawing, Duchamp was also acknowledging the wealth of drawing – its capacity to dodge habit, regenerate, be faithful to thought and, later, to appeal to the mind alone.
It can be argued that drawing had an exceptional role in Duchamp’s practice and conceptual maturing – to a point where we can find no rupture, no abandonment of its logic, but a progressive shift in the values and qualities attributed to investigation.  In this sense, through Duchamp, drawing was displaced as strategy into the spheres of action, prospective gesture and critical distance embedded in the artwork.
We can continue our argument while going through some of Duchamp’s more important steps, beginning with the Grand Verre. It would be inappropriate to list here all the families of art-historical interpretations for the ‘Large Glass’ – Duchamp’s first major work outside painting – but I would prefer to suggest the hypotheses that it can be read as a drawing. More precisely, that it is suspended between drawing and screen – a drawing delayed6 in glass by the absence of ground. It also shares with drawing the fact that it is a confrontation of a strategy with the world – except that, in this case, we can actually see the world on the other side of the sheet. It is a drawing stripped to an imagined essence – a thought of drawing – it is bared even of the virgin white7 of paper, rendered problematic as image. The ‘Large Glass’ is a phantom of drawing. There we can see how the screen of the ancient perspectivists is put to another use, and how it tries to capture projections that emanate from an imaginary dimension (the ambitions of the anamorphosis are radicalised).
We can also see in Duchamp’s meticulous collection of every study for the ‘Large Glass’ (which were later collected in the ‘Green Box’) as a re-enactment of Da Vinci’s dream – drawing as the pursuit of total knowledge, encapsulating the universe through the magic of reduction. But drawing is now condemned to be fragmented, infinitely more ‘undecipherable’ than Da Vinci’s inverted text. Drawing appears in the most disparate scraps of paper, as something disposable and sacred, obsolete and determinant. It is said that he was acting as a Leonardo, but ‘a Leonardo who was sick and tired of glue’8. Here we can follow a sort of disseverment of drawing into its constituents – a process that opened a multitude of trap doors that we sometimes identify with collage, appropriation, and the distance from object to artwork. Hence it seems possible to connect the central role that Duchamp gave to the gap between the Large Glass and the Green Box (interpretation derived from reflecting procedural issues rather than objective features) to the uses of the readymade. In the Green Box’s relation to the Large Glass, drawing is used as a place of departure and investigation, relating to an oppositional work. Duchamp’s main driving force and interest lay in the distance between the two – in potency or reflection. In this sense, critical relevance is what is gained in the translation between the two poles of reference. Drawing becomes part of the artwork, inasmuch as it leads to a critical engagement outside its immediate constraints as a medium. Therefore it is used as probe and reflective surface. Drawing draws its strength from its imbalance, from a perpetual state of enquiry, and its tendency to reiterate the artwork as a site of procedure or interval.
We can connect this emphasis on procedure or interval with the birth of the readymade. After moving to New York, Marcel Duchamp slowly became aware of the potential of these found, signed objects – the readymades. For our purposes it is especially significant that he classified the work ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ as a readymade – a work that recorded both the distance between drawing and sculpture and a chance event, a found phenomenon. Being his favourite readymade ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ comprised three drawings and three ‘profiles’ in wood, and was intended to be a capturing of chance – it documented the distortions of three threads fallen from a height of one meter. Most of the other readymades consisted, more simply, of found and signed objects, with minor interventions or additions. The act of signing, which invested the thing made with the aura of the artist, was radically displaced. Art could no longer claim a position of truth; the ‘magic’ was ‘delivered from the lie’9. Art had been ‘thought through to the end’10. The way to free this magic from the lie of being truth had something to do with making it face its very construction and origin. Here begins the rise of a certain mood, which implies vigilance not against tricks or theatricality, but against the instrumentality of tricks and the recuperations of theatre as image. There is a shift that puts drawing in the central point of a spinning process, a point where it is no longer recognizable as such. Rather than being irrelevant to contemporary issues in art, drawing has become simply barely visible, like a blind spot. Drawing’s attributes as a site of departure and open confrontation of a strategy with the world became independent and loose from their originally strict, post-vasarian determinations.
We can follow a constant return to drawing throughout Duchamp’s life – producing attractive etchings, studies for ‘Etant Donées…’, relics, sketches. Maybe because he ‘dreamt of rarity’11, and drawing is one of the fields for the thoughtful search. Even if rarity has to be performed, and is no longer an immanent quality, drawing adapts to this instability, this make-belief. Drawing's failings, its open-ended and incomplete character echoed Duchamp's own sensitivity. The game of chess came to be one of Duchamp's favorite drawing sessions, once he retired from the art-world's chess of words. He too used disegno as a «floating signifier»12, but in a passive way. The habits of production that regulated most of the artists' days were aberrations to Duchamp. He performed the improbable – not unlike an Adam before the Fall (before work), he waited for drawings to come to him, to be picked.

Drawing is now best defined in conjunction with what it no longer is, instead of by purely medium-specific historicity and focus. That medium-specificity tends to betray drawing’s openness and strategic place in artistic processes, in favour of a certain fetishizing of elegance and a forced sense of belonging to an artistic family. What drawing no longer is can help to reflect on strategies and displacements in contemporary practices, as well as to recover from an appreciation of cloistered elegance that is a problematic feature of many reflections around drawing.
Drawing used to have a central role as a figure and tool of both instability and recuperation. Having lost this role as a producer of imbalances and collections, drawing shifted elsewhere, while leaving its main features to be transmuted into multiple strategic and procedural approaches of art production. To reflect on how this shift begun, Duchamp’s example is especially important, as we can begin to identify it at its inception, as a shift that surpassed the bounds of the historical avant-garde and is still active today. It is active and visible in the relational questions posed to the artwork as it reverts to its origins and processes of coming into being. In the sense that drawing is one of the archetypical, purest forms of appropriation, it gives a privileged perspective and clarity to the ways in which artworks relate to multiple pre-existing dimensions. In this sense, a dual proposition can be inferred.

  1. Drawing is best viewed and perceived outside its former constraints (questions of medium and objecthood), and its pertinence coincides with its fragmented condition and relational qualities.
  2. The disappearance of drawing as a structuring tool of investigation and determination of the artwork can be connected to the emergence of multiple strategies of enquiry, but nevertheless can illuminate our reflection upon these strategies.

In spite of common perceptions, drawing didn’t disappear through the invalidation of obsolete qualities such as preparation and demonstration – instead, its shift was determinant in the creation of major spaces of reflection in contemporary practices. There was an overflow of drawing’s constitutive procedures back into the centre of art production, parallel to a scattering of drawing’s identifiable manifestations into unpredictable, ever negotiable settings.


1 Vieira, Padre António, Sermão da sexagésima in Sermões, p.185
2 Tomkins, Calvin, Duchamp: a biography, Chatto & Windus, 1997, p.259
3 Calasso, Roberto, The Ruin of Kasch, Cambridge Massachussetts, Belknap Press - Harvard University Press, 1996, p.40: “The Modern is born when the eyes observing the world discern in it ‘this chaos, this monstrous confusion’, but are not unduly alarmed. On the contrary, they are thrilled by the prospect of inventing some strategic move within that chaos, a new game that makes all the previous ones seem Ciceronian. It is a godless gaze of which only mystics are capable […]”
4 Cabanne, Pierre, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson, 1971, p.18: “When you make a painting, even abstract, there is a sort of necessary filling-in. I wondered why.”; “I think painting dies, you understand. After forty or fifty years its freshness disappears. […] Men are mortal, pictures too”
5 Tomkins, Calvin, Duchamp: a biography, Chatto & Windus, 1997, p.126-7: “Mechanical drawing was the saving clause. A straight line done with the ruler, not with the hand. Forgetting the hand completely, that is the idea […]. I unlearned to draw…I actually had to forget with the hand”.
6 Duchamp, Marcel, The essential writings of Marcel Duchamp salt seller, marchand du sel, London, Thames and Hudson, 1975, p.26: “[…] A delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or spittoon in silver”.
7 Duve, Thierry De, Pictorial nominalism on Marcel Duchamp's passage from painting to the readymade, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p.35: “Virgin: the virgin canvas, the point of departure for the painter and the initial site in which his desire and his anguish are invested. How to become a painter, how to begin the painting? This was a crucial question for Duchamp, much more important than the completion of the painting”.
8 Lyotard, Jean Francois, Duchamp's TRANS/formers, The Lapis Press, 1990, p.10: “[…] Scribblings on bits of paper in the Boxes, ingenious projects in the style of Leonardo; but maybe a Leonardo who is sick and tired of glue”.
9 Adorno, Theodor W., Minima moralia Reflections from damaged life, Verso, 1974, p.143: “Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth”.
10 Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Muses, Stanford University Press, 1996, p.3: “Art has been thought through to the end” (Quoting Marcel Duchamp).
11 Cabanne, Pierre, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson, 1971, p.69: “In the production of any genius, great painter or great artist, there are really only four or five things that really count in this life. The rest is everyday filler. […] I dream of rarity, what otherwise could be known as a superior aesthetic”.
12 Didi-Huberman, Georges, Confronting Images – Questioning the Ends of a certain History of Art, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005, p.80: “Disegno was effectively a magic word for him, first because it is polysemic, antithetical, infinitely manipulatable. It is almost a floating signifier – and Vasari did not hesitate to use it as such”


Francisco Sousa Lobo                                                                  London, 30th March 2009