As I have said repeatedly, I have been thinking about art a lot as of late. Most recently I have posed myself the entirely arbitrary question: “What piece of art has influenced you, Thomas Knauer, the most?” Not surprisingly – if you know me and my history with art – it did not take me very long to come up with an answer: Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled
 by Marcel Duchamp
At this point I assume half of you, dear readers, are running off to Google, the other half simply don’t care, and perhaps a few others are running to their good old Janson’s History of Art
. Well… You are not going to find much out there on this piece, largely because most still don’t consider it a piece of art – perhaps step one toward becoming my favorite piece, especially since I also rank The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
as the piece of design that has most significantly influenced me.
So… What is Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled
? It is a booklet Duchamp co-authored with Vitaly Halberstadt and published in 1932. It deals with endgame theory in chess – this is the period of Duchamp’s purported departure from art – specifically analyzing positions in which only kings and pawns remain, including the incredibly rare and even more obscure Lasker-Reichelm position from the Chicago Tribune in 1901.
Since I have never seen a copy of this booklet – perhaps step number two along the way toward being my favorite piece, I have never seen it – I am working from partial translations and synopses, but I do not see any problem here. Anyway… The Lasker-Reichelm position – as I understand it – is a position in which both kings are still free to move and white has 4 pawns all blocked – unable to move – by black’s three pawns. Those are all the pieces on the board and – from what I have been able to carefully gather – black can only hope for a draw and, given competent play, can produce one all the time.
Assuming the players Duchamp is dealing with are competent – which one assumedly can at the competitive level, and since Duchamp himself was a chess Master – these analyses are purely mind games, intellectual play, flights of fancy. No player worth their salt should end up in these positions, but sometimes they occur. These are situations that need to be played out to reach a conclusion as a draw, but everyone already knows the inevitable result – unless someone takes up a ludicrous position. These are not analyses devoted to winning in chess, or even to solving a particular problem. Duchamp is playing with the game, with a subset that opens itself out to a new realm of investigation – not of the solution, but of the playing itself. Herein lies the influence of this piece, its importance, and its brilliance. This is precisely where Duchamp fundamentally and inalterably changes the basis for discussion in art – even if the field still hasn’t fully understood what has happened.
But in the end, this booklet really is just an essay on chess, an analysis of improbably obscure possibilities played out because they can be. So why do I confer such high status upon this piece, or even call it art. Well… Let’s step back one more time and look at Duchamp’s supposed departure from art, abdicating his role as one of the leaders of his generation to play chess – very well by the way.
Dear old Marcel was part of an artistic family – for whatever it means his three brothers were also artists. He was actually one heck of a painter in a traditional sense. Then, between about 1910 and 1912 he did decided to run the gauntlet of contemporary art, to try it all on for size. This was not so much because he wanted to emulate these other artists – in this period he ran through Cezanne, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, and by 1912 was already recognized to be mocking Cubism with his Nude Descending a Staircase
(1912). Already at the age of 25 Duchamp was bored by what he called “retinal art,” art that was simply there to be looked at. Dearest Marcel wanted, demanded that art must be more than that, must engage the mind, that art – and artists – should be smart. [Can you guess why I love Duchamp?]
By 1915 Duchamp is making his famous Ready-mades
– finally we reach what may perhaps be familiar territory. 1916, Dada [French for "hobby-horse"] is formed, and by 1923 it is already being accepted, in fact supported by a larger art community. This is renegade stuff of course, but it was smart and good, and a growing intelligentsia was accepting of it. Remember, Surrealism was fast on Dada’s heels and we are closing in on the headlong dash to solving the problem of art – paraphrasing the dreaded Clement Greenberg.
In 1923 we see the dissolution of Dada, Duchamp is growingly dissatisfied with the art world’s ability to recoup and aesthetisize pretty much anything, to revert even the most non-visual of things to “retinal art.” Duchamp most probably sees the writing on the wall as well, that the quintessentially modern premise of “solving” art was unavoidable. Those silly painters wanted to perfect the form – thus killing it – just as governments had been working to perfect the killing of people in World War I – one of the great influential horrors that brought Dada about.
Thus having completed The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
[also known as The Large Glass] in 1923, by 1926 Duchamp stopped making art. People did not want him to stop – fellow artists, friends, and collectors urged him to come back. But no, Marcel played chess. I find it difficult to see this move as a completely guileless maneuver. Duchamp was perpetually working to reject “retinal art,” was looking for what further questions needed to be posed within art, and chess had already contributed a significant metaphor set for his work. Chess was not a retreat from art for Duchamp, it was a fundamental part of his art, if not art itself. Chess offered a nearly infinite array of solutions but was in and of itself unsolvable; there was always someone better, more challenging positions, more elegant approaches. And it was in endgame theory that Duchamp found his ultimate metaphor, not for a particular expression, but for art and it future, its way out of the modernist solution-trap.
The positions Duchamp is dealing with in Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled
are about unsolvability, they resist domination, they virtually require stalemate, a solution without defeat [dispelling in advance the heroic conqueror that the artist would become in Clement Greenberg’s hands as he brought forth Pollock]. Two kings and blocked pawns should always lead to stalemate unless one player can trick the other into making a mistake, accepting a false premise which will lead to defeat. This trick was exactly what Duchamp would consider “retinal art,” a cheap substitute for art that we leap at unknowingly.
So, what did Marcel see in these positions. At the point of inevitable stalemate the purpose of chess breaks down, it no longer becomes about winning and losing – both are rendered impossible – but the game still remains a game, the rules are in place, moves are still available, it is just the purpose that has shifted. Not the game is truly being played, not won or lost. The game becomes play, but not random or meaningless. The definition of a good move is essentially altered for the players involved: a good move is not one that helps you win – already impossible – but one that is interesting, that produces a potentially new position, that furthers the dialogue that is occurring on the board toward new and innovative directions, or perhaps arcane and unrecognized possibilities. In these positions chess is no longer about solution, but interest. And this was perpetually Duchamp’s question about art. And this is still the question that faces art.
Art is not solvable, nor is it necessarily the next logical move – as so much of the modernist project focused upon. I certainly do not know what art is, but I do believe that art has posed some of the most interesting questions, postulated some remarkable ideas, issued some of the most insistent challenges I have ever encountered. Within Duchamp’s work I don’t know where the lines between art, design, literature, music, theatre, and life lie. I don’t know if such lines existed as other than vague, blurry spaces [in fact, Duchamp problematized measurement itself early in his career with 3 Standard Stoppages
. I do not see the differentiation of form as relevant.
If I, as an artist, write a short story – or even this essay – is it no longer art. Perhaps, perhaps not, but really I don’t care whether it is or isn’t. My concern – and hopefully the concern of all artists – is whether what I do is interesting. Not just for a minute as in “My, isn’t that an interesting bit of sting on the floor.” Rather, does what I do hold some significant interest, first of all for me the maker, but that is not enough. Is this work interesting within the larger cultural context in which it exists? Just as Duchamp did not go around to artists and show them his interesting chess positions, he took them to the cultural context in which they existed, the world of chess masters and crafted his understanding, yet he also knew that his actions were being watched – he was in no way averse to performance. So to should each work of art find its place. Yes, it ought function within the space and history of art – I suppose – but its real concern should be how does it fit within the world. Not in a pandering sort of way – i.e. will people like it – but as a vital concern, as a challenge, as an elegant next move.
Duchamp eventually returned to the official art world, though I do not think he ever left. He did a few more pieces of art, but I do not believe his heart was in it. I believe that in Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled
he learned what he needed to learn. He found the way of expressing that beautiful challenge; he conquered his fear of the modernist solution-machine [a concept which would be made all the more horrible by World War II]. In Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled my beloved Marcel asked his invocation, “Here is my move, interest me.” And that is why Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled
is the piece of art that inspires me every day, at times compels me to make nothing, and at others forces me to spend sleepless nights working and reworking perhaps only to gain a single images, a meager sentence or word, one line of code, the endeavor to do something interesting.