A Constructive Reading of Duchamp’s Tu m’

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A primary concern of the literature on Marcel Duchamp’s Tu m’ concerns its status as the last of Duchamp’s paintings, the final thing he put on canvas before moving toward entirely three dimensional and sculptural art. This is accentuated by his evident distaste for painting toward the end of that period of his career, considering it to be somehow outdated. The general response from the literature has been to read this forward, toward the readymades that would make him even more prominent and become his defining intellectual tradition. They use the painting of Tu m’, and its sculptural components, to make a claim about the nature of the readymades and the purpose of Tu m’. What seems to be lacking in the discussion, however, is an understanding of the way we can see Tu m’ as a culmination of the paintings that came prior; not just the last in the sense of marking the beginning of a new style, but also because it is the end of the previous one. This will be an attempt to read the themes of Tu m’ into its predecessors and to create an interpretation of Tu m’ as a painting, in and of itself, not as some sort of mechanism to move past painting entirely. Scholars usually read Tu m’ as a breakdown, critique, or analysis of painting – conceptualize it as primarily destructive and critical in quality—but the thesis of this paper will be that we can understand Tu m’ as a way of conceptualizing painting, of providing a bridge such that the virtues of oil on canvas are comprehensible in the contemporary moment. This thesis has some similarities to Thierry de Duve’s book, Kant after Duchamp, but it seems to me that he doesn’t go far enough in unpacking the explicitly painterly reading of sculpture that Tu m’ presents.

One frequent argument for conceptualizing Tu m’ primarily as the predecessor to more sculptural work, as opposed to a piece in and of itself, is the three dimensional elements embedded in the work. There is a prominent trompe l’oeil (or deception of the eye), which is a painted tear in the canvas, giving the work the perception of physical space. Additionally, there are sculptural elements like the brush stuck through the work itself, and the safety pins holding together the fake tear. The entire piece is covered in shadows, some being shadows of the readymades themselves. Additionally, perhaps the most visually striking element is the large string of swatches of paint, referring to the commercial ability to buy and sell color itself, in the same way that one must purchase the bottle brush. The argument is that this makes the painting sculptural; in contrast, it seems to me that what this is doing is bringing these elements of sculpture, in some ways so obviously distinct from the creation of a two-dimensional visual art, and bringing them back; demonstrating how the effects and function of sculpture cannot escape the pictorial, visual past of painting. Traditions such as the trompe l’oeil and the generalized use of naturalistic perspective have been in use for centuries, but they were often conceptualized differently than sculpture.

Tu m’ took elements from contemporary art and life and demonstrated that they were contiguous with the tradition of painting. Another good example are the commercial paint swatches, particularly when paired with the very commercial looking hand, painted by a sign painter.


Adcock, Craig. "Duchamp's Eroticism: A Mathematical Analysis." Dada/Surrealism 16, no. 1 (1987): 149-167.

This article focuses on the importance of sexual innuendo and implication in Duchamp’s work. He makes this argument through using a form of mathematical analysis that strikes me as fundamentally unpersuasive. He is making the claim that the particular geometrical implications of the distribution of tetrahedrons has implications for Duchamp’s sensuality. In the author’s words, the mathematics gives “Duchamp a way of underlying his surface changes, his humorous Dada superficiality, with deeper significance” (Adcock 1987: 151). The idea is that through the mathematics and the implied mathematical and mechanical perfection, Duchamp is attempting to move from creating art, to commenting on art. Specifically for Tu m’, this painting is understood as being primarily geometrical; the three dimensional objects of the readymade become two-dimensional shadows. The name he used to sign it is a left-right reversal of a name he had previously used. It is unclear to me, in the author’s discussion of the painting, what makes this erotic precisely.

Cook, Albert. "The" Meta-Irony" of Marcel Duchamp." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 44, no. 3 (1986): 263-270.

The title of the painting Tu m’ serves to control the interpretation by absence – the lack of the full title of the possible sentence, tu m’emmerdes, functions as an aside that allows the artist to elevate himself such that the viewer isn’t relating to the work in itself but instead the author. The effect of this irony is to contextualize his work and also to “suspend it from context” (Cook 1986: 268). The author is arguing that humor for Duchamp creates distance, allowing for an intellectualization of the art. The idea seems to be that there is an artifice which creates an appearance which is also true; the author argues that Duchamp’s work that through it’s distancing of seriousness, is able to create some “ritualistic transcendence” (Cook, 1986: 269). This source is a piece of art criticism more than art history, dating from the mid-eighties, in an academic journal. It evaluates several paintings and pieces of art from Duchamp in a general theoretical context, not particularly clearly outlining a definitive theory of what irony is or what he is doing.

De Duve, Thierry, and Thierry De Duve. Kant after Duchamp. Cambridge, MA: Mit Press, 1996.

This book makes the general argument that Duchamp has a particular approach toward the concept of aesthetics that demands a rereading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Specifically, Duchamp has shifted the paradigm. Prior to this era of art, the defining question or purpose of art was to be beautiful; Duchamp changed the judgment made while looking at a work of art from, this is beautiful, to this is art. There was a separation between beauty and art at work in the piece. Further, in terms of specifically Duchamp’s painting, the author argues that his famous tradition of the readymade is contiguous with the approach to painting; one should not interpret painting as totally new, but rather, as a further development of what has previously been called painting. De Duve cites the invention of the abstract painting as critical in this, writing “the birth of abstract painting… revolves around the issue of specificity—or purity—attached to the word painting” (1996: 151). The author also spends a lot of time talking about the specific painting Tu m’, insofar as it still ahs the critical status as the last of Duchamp’s paintings. The author argues that Tu m’ collapses the way that the audience of painting has usually been conceptualized (De Duve 1996: 408) Instead of asking the audience to gaze at the painting and to look at it, it asks the audience to read it. When they get too close, they’d be poked in the eye with a bottle; instead of the gaze [regard], Duchamp substitutes the “delay [retard].” In a lot of ways, this book feels more like a work of philosophy than art history, or even art criticism. The author spends a lot of time articulating and arguing for a particular reading of The Critique of Judgment. It is a work of aesthetics, classically understood, in that is primarily focused on determining what is or is not art, not specific to Duchamp, but using Duchamp as a tool or an avenue for this discussion.

Kuspit, Donald. "Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade." In A Critical History of 20th Century Art, edited by Walter Robinson artnet, 2006. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit3-17-06.asp.

This piece discusses Tu m’ as a dissection, “a kind of anatomy lesson performed on the corpse of painting.” This is understood as a form of modernist distortion – in the line of Cubism – taken to a huge and ironical extreme. The foundational element of the painting for Kuspit is the trompe l’oeil illusion of a hand, pointing – this was not painting by Duchamp, but instad a sign painter named A. Klang. This image emerges from the real shadow of the actual, two foot long, bottle brush which sticks shortly out of the painting behind it. In this, Duchamp has turned these normal elements of painting into a language and a form of communication: “he has verbalized the visual… creating a cryptographic calligramme.” Duchamp is using painting and “pataphysics” to render painting absurd; it is a parody. Kuspit argues that it is intentionally anti-esthetic, being already ripped and torn, therefore unsalable from a bourgeois perspective on two counts. Kuspit seems to think the painting is heavy handed and excessive, although it is unclear whether or not he admires the purposiveness of that overkill.

Stafford, Andrew . “Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp.” Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp. http://www.understandingduchamp.com/index.html (accessed November 20, 2013).

This is essentially an online exhibition catalogue of Marcel Duchamp’s work, sponsored by his estate. It is arranged temporally, so the interpretation of Tu m’ is deeply influenced by its status as the last of Duchamp’s paintings. It describes the importance of the name – you [blank] me – and suggests that the missing verb, which must be supplied by the audience, is “to bore.” Stafford understands Tu m’ as fundamentally about panting; in his words, it is a “catalogue of ideas” about painting, focusing on the intersection between painted and real elements. He refers to qualities of the piece like the painted rip “repaired” with the real safety pin and the hand drawn by another artists, pointing a hovering rectangle below a two foot long brush perpendicular to the rest of the panting. The author argues that Duchamp saw this work as “a painting about the end of painting,” making claims about the future of painting involving abstraction and assemblage. For Stafford, the work is almost entirely understood as being the last, and the end, of Duchamp’s painting career. There is no element of his reading separate from this temporal status.