NEW HAVEN — In 1918, after painting the work you see here, Marcel Duchamp, one of the three most influential artists of the 20th century — the others being Matisse and Picasso — never painted again.
What a thing to contemplate!
The picture, which is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, was commissioned from Duchamp by his wealthy patron, Katherine Dreier. It is titled "Tu m', " which is believed to be an abbreviation of "Tu m'embetes ("You bore me") or perhaps even "tu m'emmerdes" ("You give me the [expletive]."
The painting presents, in shadow form, a corkscrew, a hat rack, and a small inventory of Duchamp's so-called readymades, which he had been producing (if that is the right word — perhaps simply "signing"?) since 1913.
There are also three safety pins stuck through a painted tear, a long bottle brush protruding from the picture at right angles, a bolt, a human hand with a pointing finger that was painted by a professional sign painter, and a staggered series of paint color swatches.
The title hints at Duchamp's mood as he was laboriously executing the work, a work that seems to foreshadow so much contemporary art, from the color chart paintings of Gerhard Richter and the shadowplay of Andy Warhol and Kara Walker to the combining of painting with objects by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the hiring out of artistic labor by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Francis Alys.
Amazing that such ennui (Duchamp was fed up with painting) could produce so much creative energy!
If the title was a jab at Dreier, it didn't prevent them banding together, with Man Ray, two years later to establish the Societe Anonyme, or from being lifelong friends. Nor did it prevent Duchamp from taking up his brushes again (you see, my first statement was a Duchampian red herring!) and painting the left side of the lift installed in Dreier's Connecticut home.
The British painter Lucian Freud, who — to the dismay of his more conservative fans — greatly admired Duchamp, once told me, "There are moments [in Duchamp] you just can't believe, the quality is so extraordinary and lively — and secretive!"
Duchamp wanted, Freud continued, "to be the last artist. He said, 'The least I can do is make it impossible to practice fine art' — that sort of thing. He was a lively figure, I think, and in a way you could say he was saying, 'I dare you to do something actually good, that lasts.' "
It's a dare thousands of painters have, to their credit, taken up since "Tu m'," the painting with which Duchamp signed off.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.