Marcel Duchamp is widely considered to be one of the most important European artists of the twentieth century. He is known primarily for his invention of the “readymade” in 1915, in which an everyday object is proposed as a work of art. Duchamp notoriously withdrew from exhibiting and selling his artworks in the traditional circuits of the art world, and studiously avoided making a profit through his art. However, paradoxically, throughout his life he was involved directly in the art market as a dealer and adviser to collectors.
Duchamp’s father was a notary public who encouraged his children’s artistic ambitions: Suzanne Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon were all painters or sculptors. Rather than offer his children an inheritance, their father provided a modest allowance to support their art. Growing disillusioned by the Cubist milieu which he and his siblings frequented, in the early 1910s, Duchamp decided to support himself through work as a librarian and, later, an English teacher. At the same time he pursued artistic experiments known only to a small circle of supporters, including fellow artists from the European and American avant-gardes and certain trusted patrons such as the fashion designer Jacques Doucet and Americans including Walter and Louise Arensberg.
Duchamp left Paris in 1915, partly due to his pacifism during World War I and partly due to the fact that his art was repeatedly suppressed by the Section d’Or cubists, including his brothers, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. When he arrived in New York, however, he discovered that he had become famous due to his painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art), which had caused a scandal when exhibited at New York City’s Armory Show of 1913. In 1915, Duchamp moved in with the Arensbergs, who were important patrons of modern art and hosted a legendary literary and artistic salon. Duchamp became their art advisor, and in this capacity, he helped the Arensbergs to build what was undoubtedly one of the preeminent American collections of European modernism, including works by Picasso, Georges Braque, Matisse, and Duchamp himself, among others. In 1950, with Duchamp’s help in negotiations, the Arensbergs donated their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making Philadelphia the site of the most important collection of works by Duchamp in the world.
In 1916, while living in New York, Duchamp founded the Society of Independent Artists with Walter Arensberg, Katherine Dreier, Walter Pach, and others. Membership in this society, which could be purchased for $6, entitled artists to participate in society exhibitions, which had “no jury, no prizes.” On the occasion of the “First Annual Exhibition,” held in April–May 1917, Duchamp submitted, under the pseudonym Richard Mutt, his Fountain, 1917: an industrially-produced urinal that Duchamp had bought from a supplier, signed, and designed a work of art, as a means to test the limits of his own supposedly democratic art institution. After the predictable censorship of the Fountain, Duchamp resigned from his directorship in protest, closing an act that not only has gone down in history as one of the most important events of twentieth-century art history, but epitomized his ambivalent role within the institutions of art.
When Duchamp’s father passed away in 1925, he discovered that, against expectations, he had inherited a small sum, which he used to purchase John Quinn’s collection of sculptures by Constantin Brancusi. Like other members of the avant-garde such as André Breton, Duchamp began to earn a modest living by making buying and selling modern art, all the while maintaining a strict separation between his speculative investments and his own artistic experiments. Perhaps Duchamp’s most important activity in the art world was his work for the Société Anonyme, founded with Dreier and Man Ray in 1920. For thirty years, the Société sponsored events and exhibitions and built a collection dedicated to expanding knowledge of modern art in America. While maintaining his critical stance with respect to the commodification of art, Duchamp was one of the most effective proselytizers for the cause of modern art and acted as an advisor to Peggy Guggenheim, Alfred H. Barr, and James Johnson Sweeney.