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In the fateful year of 1913, events in New York and Paris launched a great public rivalry between the two most consequential artists of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The New York Armory Show art exhibition unveiled Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a “sensation of sensations” that prompted Americans to declare Duchamp the leader of cubism, the voice of modern art. In Paris, however, the cubist revolution was reaching its peak around Picasso. In retrospect, these events form a crossroads in art history, a moment when two young bohemians adopted entirely opposite views of the artist, giving birth to the two opposing agendas that would shape all of modern art. Today, the museum-going public views Pablo Picasso as the greatest figure in modern art. Over his long lifetime, Picasso pioneered several new styles as the last great painter in the Western tradition. In the rarefied world of artists, critics, and collectors, however, the most influential artist of the last century was not Picasso, but Marcel Duchamp: chess player, prankster, and a forefather of idea-driven dada, surrealism, and pop art. Picasso and the Chess Player is the story of how Picasso and Duchamp came to define the epochal debate between modern and conceptual art—a drama that features a who’s who of twentieth-century art and culture, including Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol. In telling the story, Larry Witham weaves two great art biographies into one tumultuous century.
The brief meeting between Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp in Paris in 1913 was not particularly memorable or friendly: Picasso's French was poor and Duchamp did not consider Picasso a great painter. As journalist Larry Witham (Art Schooled) deftly argues, the two artists' distinct differences represent a central philosophical and aesthetic fissure in the history and development of modern art. While Picasso viewed modern art as a "visual experiment," Duchamp came to believe that art was about ideas and attitudes, "not about paintings or sculptures." Witham places his subjects in the context of both their own work and the aesthetic debates and movements of the early to late 20th century, with the aim of revealing how Picasso and Duchamp became "monuments and myths," after their deaths. While Picasso "democratized art" for the masses to appreciate, it is Duchamp who set the "intellectual horizon" for "postmodern" art professionals. A convincing and highly readable study whose juxtapositions create its originality. 21 illus.