Marcel Duchamp and Theresa Stern

Okay, so we visited the Norton Simon today, and to be honest, the Duchamp exhibit was a bit small.  All the stuff was from the museum’s permanent collection, and though his twirling paintings-in-motion that had not been exhibited since 1963 were pretty incredible (perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, actually), I think the leeches at the Tate Modern probably stole all the good Duchamp stuff for their Duchamp/Man Ray/Picabia exhibit going on in London right now.

However, the lecture we went to was illuminating, as it touched upon Duchamp’s personal life and his ability to predate many of the concepts of Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism without officially joining any of those movements (apparently he even told Tristan Tzara to “fuck off”).  In particular, I was intrigued by the female persona he had created in the twenties, Rrose Sélavy, whose name appeared along with his own on the program of his 1963 retrospective.

Adopting a feminine persona in such a stark, non-comedic way was hardly normal back in those days, and I love how Man Ray’s photograph here really glams it up and makes him look so womanly.  Like everything Duchamp did, it’s visionary and revolutionary.  It seems to hint at the gender-bending so common in art of the past few decades, it hints at the glam rock look adopted by Bolan and Bowie in the seventies, and it even hints at the “artist as art” phenomenon that Gilbert and George (and to a lesser extent, Warhol) have milked for decades.

And the fact that Duchamp wrote from the perspective of Sélavy and attributed sculptures to her reminds me quite a bit of one of my favorite seventies rock icons and his alter-ego:

Actually, to be fair, this is not one but two icons: Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine.  It’s a composite of their two faces, and taken before they formed the Neon Boys who became Television.

But it was Hell who wrote a book of poetry in the guise of their creation Theresa Stern.  From the point of view of this fictitious Jewish and Puerto Rican prostitute, Hell as Stern did interviews, wrote reviews and poetry, and served in a way as Hell’s own inspiration in times of strife when he needed to make decisions about his own life.  Until this exhibit, I assumed Hell stole the idea from the drag queens he was surrounded by in New York, but the adoption of a completely new female persona that exists outside of one’s self without merely completing or superceding it seems to be pure Duchamp.  Hell certainly was hip to Duchamp’s use of chance in creating art, and Rrose must have must have must have been his inspiration for Theresa.

2 thoughts on “Marcel Duchamp and Theresa Stern

  1. I love that Man Ray pic of Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy and will always think Perry Farrell copped a lot of his early Janes Addiction look/vibe from this Duchamp persona. And Duchamp using two r’s in the spelling of the name is so punk and ahead of its time, it’s not even funny…

    I didn’t know Hell created the Theresa Stern persona! I’d never heard of Theresa Stern until this post (thank you). Another reason for me to love Richard Hell and wish I was married to him. I’d love to read the book he wrote as Theresa Stern. I’ve read two of Hell’s books, and they’re quite good. Especially “Godlike.”

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