NEW YORK — The scandal surrounding Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” is by now a familiar tale, particularly this year, as the Armory Show commemorates the centennial of the painting's American debut. But there are probably few people left in the world who know “Nude” better than Francis Naumann, a leading Duchamp expert who has been planning his recent centennial celebration for years.
In February, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art at last realized “Nude Descending a Staircase: An Homage,” an exhibition of Duchamp-inspired works by a star-studded roster of 31 contemporary artists. The exhibition remains open through March 29, but most of the works have been transported to the Armory Show for the duration of the fair.
“I thought of it years ago,” said Naumann. “But I was being very secretive at first because I knew that everyone would want to be in this show and I didn’t want to hurt any feelings. I don’t know how to say ‘no.’”
Most of the artists prepared a new work for the exhibition. The only stipulations were that it could not exceed the 58-by-35-inch proportions of the original “Nude” and it had to in some way invoke Duchamp, which, given the artist’s influence on contemporary art, wasn’t much of a stretch. “Everybody I show here already does that in some way,” Naumann said.
Duchampian appropriation is much in evidence at the booth. Sherrie Levine mounted a series of 18 matted postcards of Duchamp’s painting, on sale as a set for $125,000. Marcel Dzama drew a scene of carnivalesque figures carousing on staircases (actually, he did two, but the first was lost during Hurricane Sandy). And Sophie Matisse continued her tradition of removing the people from famous artworks with a painting of a spiral staircase from Duchamp’s childhood home, sans the nude.
A few loaned works are on view at the gallery only — Yoko Ono’s 1966 silent film and a Larry Rivers painting done for the 75th anniversary of “Nude,” for instance. Pamela Joseph’s blurry “Censored Nude Descending a Staircase” has already sold, while Joseph Kosuth’s neons twisted into replicas of Duchamp’s handwriting and notebook sketches didn’t make it to the Armory because of installation constraints (however, as of press time, the work was still available for $175,000).
Several historical artifacts are also not for sale, including Sidney Janis’s old valise mounted with a 1937 print of the “Nude.” The picture is a copy of the copy that collector Walter Arensberg commissioned from Duchamp upon learning that the original “Nude” that he’d seen at the 1913 Armory Show had already been purchased by a dealer in San Francisco.
“I love that work more than the original,” said Naumann of "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2).” “If Duchamp had only done ‘Nude,’ he’d be a second-tier Cubist. But to my mind the replica is a readymade,” predating the artist's seminal bicycle wheel or urinal.
For those who share Naumann’s enthusiasm, the booth also has on hand the dealer's new, obsessively detailed book, “The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost,” a hefty, limited-edition tome compiling years of fully-illustrated essays by the dealer. It’s published by the gallery’s own Readymade Press, and is on sale at the fair and on Amazon for $135.