Pseud ascending

James Hall traces the rise and rise of Marcel Duchamp, modern art's poker-faced court jester
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The Independent Culture
Duchamp by Calvin Tomkins, Chatto, pounds 25

The irresistible rise of Marcel Duchamp is a story of almost Forrest Gump proportions. A minor Cubist painter in Paris, Duchamp enjoyed fleeting notoriety in America with a painting called "Nude Descending a Staircase No 2" and, after he had given up painting, with a mass-produced urinal called "Fountain" (1917). Then he seemed to give up art altogether to play chess. He claimed he had run out of ideas. By the 1940s his name was forgotten by all but a small circle of admirers. During the 1960s, however, Duchamp was rediscovered by a new generation of artists and critics, and is now routinely regarded as the most important 20th-century artist.

Tom Hanks is unlikely to be queueing up to star in a biopic. As Calvin Tomkins shows in this first full-scale biography, Duchamp believed in the "beauty of indifference". He had many lovers, and two wives, but he seems to have been neutral about relationships. His insouciant charm - and his fascination with chess - were bulwarks against intimacy.

An Italian critic has claimed that Duchamp had an incestuous passion for his sister Suzanne, but Tomkins gives a remarkably clean bill of health to his family relationships. His mother's deafness helped make her "placid and indifferent", but in general the family was mutually supportive. Duchamp's father was a well-to-do provincial notary. Even though four of his six children decided to become artists, he gave them all allowances which he scrupulously deducted from their future inheritance. There were no obvious Oedipal struggles here; Duchamp pere even came to Paris once a month to settle one son's restaurant bills.

The major turning-point in Marcel's career came with the New York Armoury Show of 1913. This was the first big showing of avant-garde French art in America, and his Cubo-Futurist "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2" was the major succes de scandale. It is a lugubrious painting in which the movements of a naked figure down a flight of stairs are reduced to diagrammatic form. Nobody quite knows why it caused such a stir in America (in Europe it had been barely noticed) but the madly professorial title is presumably what hit home. Nudes were meant to be docile and user-friendly, not marauding sex-machines.

When Duchamp went to New York in 1915, he was already a celebrity. Tomkins gives a good account of how he enchanted the local media with his wry appreciation of America and ability to deliver urbane sound-bites. New York, he said, is itself "a complete work of art"; the only works of art America has created "are her plumbing and her bridges"; the American woman "is the most intelligent woman in the world today - the only one that always knows what she wants". He was the most penetrating and amusing European observer of the New World since Oscar Wilde.

Duchamp's most revolutionary works are his "ready-mades" - manufactured objects chosen seemingly at random and exhibited as art. He had already devised a couple of ready-mades before leaving France ("Bicycle Wheel" and "Bottle-Rack"), but they are now regarded as homages to America. The snow shovel and the urinal were bought from hardware stores in New York and suggest a delight in industrial commodities - and a corresponding disdain for anything hand-made.

Yet Duchamp did not revel in the modern to the exclusion of the old or archetypal. His early machine images never looked as modern as those of his Futurist-inspired contemporaries. His first machine image was a small painting of an old fashioned coffee-mill: the kind of object that Chardin or William Morris might have appreciated. It is a device that satisfies all five senses - touch, sight, sound, smell, and eventually taste. Indeed, in the 1930s he even made a miniature replica of the urinal in terracotta.

This refusal to renounce a primal physical engagement with the world is what makes Duchamp's art so beguiling and enigmatic. In his best work, the sensual always vies with the clinical. This is the ethos behind his outrageous contention that he wanted to grasp things with the mind "the way the penis is grasped by the vagina". He speaks both as a lover and as a scientist.

Tomkins writes for the New Yorker, and he has done a very professional job. He has written about Duchamp since they became friends in the 1960s: not only is this book well researched, it is very readable. Readability is a rare commodity in Duchamp studies, so this is no mean feat. Nonetheless, in his determination not to be included in the "international tribe" of Duchampologists, Tomkins can sometimes seem a little superficial. He believes Duchamp has to be approached with a "light heart"; everywhere he sees lyricism and "epic joy", rather than the usual pessimism. His determination to be upbeat leads him to some naive pronouncements. In the 1930s, he observes, the "buoyant optimism" of France "had been undermined by the worldwide Depression and also by the internal hatreds and conflicts that occasionally boil over and disrupt the surface bonheur of French life". Oh la la! This is the language of the package-tour guide.

Duchamp's own political views are dispensed with in a single sentence: "The conflicts between right- and left-wing zealots meant little to Duchamp, whose political attitudes were governed by the same beauty of indifference that he applied to life and art". Duchamp's "indifference" was subsequently criticised by the German artist Joseph Beuys in a televised performance called The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated (1964). When Duchamp celebrates the end of the war by dining in a German restaurant in New York, Tomkins feels no need to comment. It is scarcely credible that Duchamp ate his meal with utter equanimity: if he did, we might have to think about the beast of indifference.