Chess Painting No. 133 (Duchamp vs. Wittenberg, New York, 1950)
48 x 48 cm | gesso & primers on linen, oak frame | 2019

Chess Painting No. 133 (Duchamp vs. Wittenberg, New York, 1950)

48 x 48 cm | gesso & primers on linen, oak frame | 2019

Notes on Painting II

Notes on Duchamp, Chess and Painting

catalogue text by Tom Hackney

“The chess-board of Duchamp is a kinetic sculpture, ‘work in progress’ according to strict rules set down by a game code in which none of the partners are caught by surprise, but on the contrary, the time of the fight is circumscribed to the object, and resolved in a pure process with internal entropy: here is the delicacy of the chess-board. The movement stops and the sculpture destroys itself at the end of the game, which becomes the space-time of the work, the context within which there is the sureness of the gesture and of thought. The chess-board is thus the exemplary space wherein existence, knowledge, acknowledgement occur.”

Achille Bonita Oliva, The delicate chess-board 1

Marcel Duchamp was first introduced to chess by older brothers Raymond and Jacques at the turn of twentieth century, around the same time as he began to make his first committed attempts at painting and drawing. Art and chess were central elements of the Duchamp family milieu; activities practised with intellectual rigour and ambition. The game of chess was to accompany Duchamp for the rest of his life as a focus for his mental energy and as a glass through which he viewed art and life.

Of the relatively few paintings Duchamp went on to make, chess appears in several depictions of the game and its figures in motion, its influence detectable beyond what is visible in the mechanistic mode that characterises his approach to the medium. It was said that in 1923, having declared his Large Glass definitively unfinished, Duchamp abandoned art for chess, dedicating himself to the considerable theoretical study and preparation required for high-level tournament play.2 Though his artistic output reflects a change of emphasis from this period onward, Duchamp’s artistic output describes an unbroken line of varying thickness, extending through to the unveiling of Étant donnés in 1969, a year after his death.

Where the ‘art for chess’ paradigm sets out in false opposition, ‘painting for chess’ is a more productive juxtaposition. As Duchamp’s interest in chess developed, so his output as measured in paintings diminished,3 ceasing in earnest in 1918 with the final exasperatedly titled Tu m’.4

Painting’s preoccupation with what he termed the ‘retinal’ was problematic for Duchamp, who sought an art directed more towards the grey matter. He said of his paintings in a 1946 interview with James Johnson Sweeney “I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was much more interested in recreating ideas in painting… I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind”. Duchamp regarded much of the painting of his day as being limited by this physical address and as being characterised by a certain facility and recursive romanticism; describing a painters daily need for the whiff of turpentine akin to a form of “olfactory masturbation.”5

Like painting, chess invites the synthesis of hand, eye and mind, and for Duchamp the game involved a satisfying exchange between what is visible and non-visible. In chess, the physical material sits inertly as a solid shadow of the game unfolding in the minds of its players. This separation or de-merging of the piece and move can be characterised by applying the Duchampian idea of the inframince , described as “a concept that can only be defined by examples”. 6 Just as the warmth of a seat (which has just been left) records the trace of its previous occupant, so the physically inert pieces bear the charge of mental kineticism generated by the game in play.

Surrounded by several of the early readymades, the 1917-18 photograph of Duchamp’s West 67th Street studio shows a large chessboard marked directly onto the wall, pictured invitingly in prime position. Hand-made discs bearing the symbols of chess pieces are arranged mid-game; its own composition made available to the same deep-thinking that finds a means of moving grounded everyday objects onto their sister squares.

James Johnson Sweeney: Also for me, [leaving the Large Glass definitively unfinished] seems to indicate that you were never really dedicated to conventional painting in the ordinary sense of the word. You were happy enough to create this, you were happy enough to leave it. You were happy enough to use bottle racks as ready-mades, and to fill bird cages with marble to deceive those who thought it was sugar. I imagine that there is something broader in your concept of what art is than just painting. Is that what you feel yourself? I don’t like to put words in your mouth, but I have often thought about it.

Marcel Duchamp: I considered painting as a means of expression, not an aim.

James Johnson Sweeney: One means of expression?

Marcel Duchamp: One means of expression instead of a complete aim for life … the same as I consider that colour is only a means of expression in painting. It should not be the last aim of painting. In other words, painting should not be only retinal or visual; it should have to do with the grey matter of our understanding, not alone the purely visual. It is that way with my life in general. I didn’t want to pin myself down to one little circle. I have tried to be as general as I could. For example, that is what I did when I took up chess. Chess in itself is a hobby, is a game. Everybody can play chess. But I took it very seriously and enjoyed it because I found some common points between chess and painting. When you play a game of chess, it is like designing something or constructing some mechanism of some kind by which you win or lose. The competitive side of it has no importance. The thing itself is very very plastic. That is probably what attracted me in the game.

James Johnson Sweeney: Do you mean by that, chess for you is another form of expression?

Marcel Duchamp: At least it was another facet of the same kind of mental expression, intellectual expression—one small facet, if you want. But it had just enough difference from painting to make it another facet; and then to add to the body of my life. 7

Game & Model

For many chess is an archetypal game first encountered in childhood as a playful, cognitive structure encouraging logical, consequential thought. Like painting and drawing it emerges unburdened. As the stakes change from playing for play’s sake to playing to win, the game is either embraced or rejected: a mirror of consciousness to gaze into or to be broken into pieces. Though chess as an activity often falls away at this moment, the game leaves its trace as an operative mode of thinking. For Duchamp chess persisted as activity and model. While the physicality of painting fell away, its model remained as an illuminating essence and as an opponent to play with and against.

In chess, a good or bad position is determined by the relation between black and white pieces. The nature of this relationship generates an oppositional force that turns the wheel of the game; a wheel providing drive and direction. Modern, retinal painting was part of the oppositional force that energised the Readymade: defining the orthodoxy that occupied the centre of the board and in so doing leaving spaces on the flanks for those who looked to counter.

In Painting: The Task of Mourning Yve-Alain Bois considers the great historical moves in painting using the analogy of game theory, as introduced by Hubert Damisch. 8 Taking a reading of Duchamp’s work, among others, as a negation of painting, Bois explores how modern painting can respond or continue to be viable or relevant. Set against what he terms ‘the apocalyptic discourse’ Bois argues that in working through the endgame of modern painting, Duchamp is engaged in an ‘end’ that is part of a broader sequence of ‘games’ within the ‘match’ of painting, and crucially that the terminus of a game does not equate to its absolute end - to win a game of chess is not to win the game of chess. 9 To further develop the Damisch/Bois analogy, where a given ‘game’ can be said to be part of a wider sequence or ‘match’, within these matches certain games can prove more pivotal than others, and indeed an individual game is comprised of moments of variable significance. To make a decisive move in chess, the player must identify both the move and the moment.

Hand, Eye and Mind

“The only man in the past whom I really respect was Seurat… He didn’t let his hand interfere with his mind.” Marcel Duchamp 10

By reducing the painterly gesture to the point of zero, Seurat becomes a transmitter of painting. Dots become unitary carriers of information to be received optically and combined into pictures. Just as the dot is applied with neutrality, so it is seen: the picture appears as a painted apparition, hovering equidistantly between artist and viewer.

In his 1957 lecture The Creative Act Duchamp sets out a model describing the transmission and reception, between artist and spectator, necessary for the consummation of a work of art. What is transmitted and received can also be transubstantiated, where inert matter becomes charged through a connection to an historical matrix. In order for this sequence to take place, for Duchamp the transmission requires a state of autonomous neutrality which is neither limited by self-consciousness, nor designed to make a certain connection at a given time or place. In the process of making the task of the hand is cursory and executive, belonging on the other side of the Cartesian divide. From the moment of material transmission, this relationship is weighed entirely in the mind via the eye.

In chess, a player making only the most rudimentary moves is harshly termed a ‘woodpusher’, where matter dominates a mind unable to turn a pawn from a block of maple and lift it from its square. Duchamp could be equally disparaging about what he regarded as the futility of retinal painting: a trajectory of painting directed towards the eye, where what is seen is painted and what is painted is seen, with the hand acting as signatory to this bond. To be caught in this observational loop is to unplug painting from its historical address to the imagination and to render the retina a closed door onto which images are projected.


Geometry is the shadow of Ideas.

Octavio Paz, Appearance Stripped Bare 11

After the material task of gathering, selection and arrangement, the transmission of a work of art involves a process of dematerialisation, where matter becomes art by way of evaporation, fuelled by the connected psychic energies of the artist and spectator.

Chess begins with the pieces set in formation before being scattered by the entropic progression of the game. Material is shed and unknown configurations are formed. With each move the game ascends its material grounding. Rather than acting as agents of its activity, the pieces perform as markers of mental movement. As the game proceeds through its end, the pieces are regathered and reset to begin again. Like a musical composition, the memory of each game is encrypted in the strands of algebraic data left behind. Though hermetic in nature, each game is connected by its influence: its vapour rises, condenses and falls into the body of knowledge from which new games emerge and new theory and understanding can be drawn.

“‘Objectively, a game of chess looks very much like a pen-and-ink drawing, with the difference, however, that the chess player paints with black-and-white forms already prepared instead of inventing forms, as does the artist. The design thus formed on the chessboard has apparently no visual aesthetic value and is more like a score for music which can be played again and again.”

Marcel Duchamp, 1952 12

Colour-Coded Chess

Something else ⎯ I am about to launch on the market a new

form of chess sets, the main feature of which are as follows:

The Queen is a combination of a Rook and of a Bishop ⎯ the

Knight is the same as the one I had in South America. So is the

Pawn. The King too.

2nd They will be coloured like this.

The white Queen will be light green.

“ black “ “ “ dark “

The Rooks will be blue, light and dark.

The Bishops “ “ yellow, “ “ “

The Knights, red, light and dark.

White King and Black King

White and Black Pawns

Please notice that the Queen in her colour is a combination of

the Bishop and of the Rook (just as she is in her movements) ⎯ 13


1.Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.), The delicate chess-board. Marcel Duchamp 1902/1968, exhibition catalogue, Firenze: Centro Di / edizioni, 1978.

2. Duchamp was a strong chess Master, capable of holding his own against the best players players of his era. He represented the French national team in four Olympiads, from 1928-1933, and excelled in the correspondence form of the game, captaining the French side in the inaugural Correspondence Olympiad (1935-39) achieving the highest score of any individual player. Duchamp combined tournament play with serious theoretical study of the game, co-writing Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled, a detailed endgame study with Vitaly Halberstadt. Acknowledging he didn’t possess the game to scale the very highest heights, Duchamp stepped back from international chess, continuing to play club chess in New York and competing in regional tournaments until the late 1950s. In his later years Duchamp was a fixture at the chessboard in Bar Melitón in Cadaqués, where he and Teeny would spend the summer months.

3. In a letter dated 3rd May 1919 to New York’s Stettheimer sisters, Duchamp writes from Buenos Aires of his passion for chess and disinterest in painting ‘I have been wanting to write to you for some time, but never have time, so absorbed I am in playing chess. I play night and day and nothing in the whole world interests me more than finding the right move.. .Nothing transcendental going on here – strikes [in Buenos Aires, where chess competitions were organized that year for not professionals] a lot of strikes, the people are on the move. Painting interests me less and less.’ Quoted in Gavin Parkinson (ed.), The Duchamp Book, London: Tate Publishing, 2008, p. 159.

4. In French Tu m’, is a grammatical combination of the informal “you” followed by the direct or indirect object “me.” The presence of the apostrophe in the title indicates that whatever verb might follow would begin with a vowel. Though deliberately left open to interpretation numerous critics and historians have speculated on which verb might follow. Given that Tu ‘m is widely accepted as Duchamp’s final address to painting, Tu m’ennuies (you bore me) and Tu m’emmerdes (you piss me off) are often drawn into the titular space left empty.

5. Duchamp, on painting and repetition: ‘As it happens I have produced extremely little because I couldn’t repeat myself. The idea of repeating, for me, as an artist, is a form of masturbation. Besides, it’s very natural. It’s olfactory masturbation, dare I say. Each morning a painter, on waking, needs apart from his breakfast a whiff of turpentine… and if it’s not turpentine it’s oil, but it’s olfactory. A form of great pleasure alone, onanistic almost.’

Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, Work and Life: Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy, 1887–1968, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, Ephemerides, December 9, 1960.

6. Duchamp on the inframince or infra-slim: ‘The sound or the music which corduroy trousers make when one moves, is pertinent to the infra-slim. The hollow in the paper between the front and the back of a thin sheet of paper….To be studied!….it is a category which has occupied me a great deal over the last ten years. I believe that by means of the infra-slim one can pass from the second to the third dimension’

Michel Sanouillet, Elmer Peterson (eds.), The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, New York: da Capo Press, 1973, p. 194.

7. From an interview with James Johnson Sweeney, The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol. XIII, no. 4-5, 1946, pp. 19-21.

8. From ‘Painting: The Task of Mourning’ in Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993, p. 242.

9. As Duchamp stated, rather than seeking an end, he sought to “put painting once again at the service of the mind,” as is manifest in the works Rauschenberg, Johns and the many others that followed.

10. Calvin Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, New York: Viking Press, p. 24, quoted in David W. Galenson, Outside the Lines, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 109.

11. Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp - Appearance Stripped Bare, Arcade New York: Arcade, (1970) 2014, p. 45.

12. From a statement given by Duchamp to the New York State Chess Federation in 1955, quoted in Francis M. Naumann, Bradley Bailey, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, New York: Readymade Press, 2009. p. 34.

13. Letter from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Crotti and Suzanne Duchamp, October 20, 1920

Francis M. Naumann, ‘Affectueusement, Marcel: Ten Letters from Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp and Jean Crotti,’ Archives of American Art Journal Vol. 22, no. 4, 1982, p. 14.