Recently I had occasion to write about a collection of replicae of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, executed for an important patron under the supervision of the artist himself in the early 1960’s. There were fourteen of these pieces, and they were exhibited together at an auction house, in a special room which reminded me of a Wunderkammer – a cabinet of curiosities – of the kind assembled in the sixteenth century by European princes. The ready-mades, of course, were everyday objects – a snow-shovel, a bicycle wheel mounted on a household stool, a typewriter cover, and of course a urinal. There was a glass vial from the apothecary shop, a bottle rack, a bent-wood coat-rack, and so on. But grouped together for the purposes of scrutiny, the objects served to release one another from their commonplace functions, and each became strange and beautiful, and the bearer of new powers and novel thoughts. Familiar as Duchamp’s ready-mades are to us, the format of the cabinet vested them with an aesthetic of wonder. And though Duchamp realized his ready-mades one by one over a period of years, with perhaps no particular thought that they would be shown together, the accidental circumstance through which they were exhibited in a room set aside for the purpose made one realize how much more such a space suited them than the kind of space that had become canonical in modern times – the painting gallery, in which pictures hang along walls, and one moves from one to the other, ravishing the eye. The gallery engages us as visual beings, lookers-through or lookers at. The wonder-box engages us as thinkers. Each of the objects contained in it is detached from the real world. The gallery, like a book, is furnished instead with representations.
The poet Apollinaire refers to an institution in Paris that was a source of inspiration for Duchamp in the period of the ready-mades, and the preparatory studies for the Large Glass. This was a museum attached to the Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Metiers, which the art historian, Linda Henderson describes as “Filled with equipment of physics and chemistry, as well as examples of recent technology.” And she reminds us of a famous episode in which Duchamp visited the Salon de la Locomotion Aeriènne in 1912, together with Brancusi and Leger, where they were awed by an airplane propeller. Duchamp said “Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do any better than that propeller?” The first ready-made – the bicycle wheel - dates from the following year, and the project of the Large Glass, so like a piece of scientific apparatus, was germinating in Duchamp’s mind. But I am interested in Arts-et-Metiers museum itself, with its displayed objects of human ingenuity, pieces of scientific gear, gauges and tubes, wheels and gears, pendulums and dials, each connected somehow with the forces of nature – electricity, magnetism, and chemical forces, which they served to measure. Our representation of nature was mediated through such instruments. The Arts-et-Metiers museum was the direct descendent, it seems to me, of the Wunderkammer, with its arrays of curiosities and marvels, in which even the works of art took on an aura of magic and barely imaginable powers.
Paul Forte’s objects have this aura. They may not quite be ready-mades, but they convey the sense of something that pre-existed their appropriation as art, as if salvaged from a museum of discarded instruments. And they feel as if they belong to an era in the history of thought, when the boundaries between science and magic were not yet charted, and the scientific demonstration was not entirely different from a magician’s performance or even a spiritualist séance, in which reservoirs of existence in adjacent worlds could be tapped for reassuring communications. Forte describes the various art movements of the early 1970s in the Bay Area, each in its way a Duchamp tributary. But his work seems to me closest to that phase of Duchamp’s evolution which was centered on the Arts-et-Metiers museum, where he began to see ways of making art that evoked science and engineering, magic and eroticism, when in his view painting was washed up, and artists had a world of wonders to explore. Even Forte’s extraordinary photograph, Swallowing Sunlight, has the look of documenting a strange phenomenon, indeterminately situated on the boundary of nature and spirit, as when Mary is transradiated by the Holy Ghost.
I have seen old photographs which show goateed scientists on some platform, wearing the frock-coat and striped trousers affected by magicians, dazzling their audiences with electrical discharges and dramatic chemical reactions, or the wonders of the x-ray, much as magicians would pull pigeons out of a hat or saw a woman in half. Such demonstrations belong really to the early history of performance art, and Forte’s performances of the mid-1970s – Swallowing Sunlight or Orphic Descent - use light as if in some ritual enactment, making higher powers present in ways that unite the priests and shamans of a primitive culture with mediums and spiritualists, on the one hand, and the physicists and chemists who astonished our great-great grandparents with dramatic entertainments. And who knew in those years whether animal magnetism or parapsychic forces would not join gravity and electromagnetism in forming the scientific picture of the world? The one time I saw Forte’s work in any depth was at his show at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York, where my impression was precisely that of a collection of fitted cases that scientific performers would open to set up the experiments that would draw gasps from credulous viewers, and at the same time instruct them in the marvels of the world.
The works are characteristically assembled from found materials – pieces of old plumbing, rusting hardware, alphabet blocks, anonymous photographs, illustrations from old books and period magazines. In this they appropriate the poetry of dated artifacts, much in the way of Cornell’s boxes. But in the imaginary Wunderkammer they evoke, they coexist with mysterious books or curious panels of the kind medieval painters might have used in painting devotional images. The books imply dark knowledge, ancient secrets, forgotten recipes. The panels, one might say, are blank, as if they were awaiting some magical appearance. In the ancient tradition, one spoke of the mystical presence of the saint in the icon. These were not pictorial representations, but actual presences. Saint Luke did not so much paint the Virgin’s likeness as he was rewarded for his piety when the virgin rematerialized herself on his panel, as a miracle, without the mediation of the brush. In this sense, the old paintings were like scientific instruments, on the monitors of which marks of various sorts would compose themselves before the viewer’s eyes as the visible evidence of invisible powers.
For this reason, one feels, Forte’s work requires a room filled with its peers. The aggregate effect has a power single works taken one at a time can barely hint at. That makes the CD-Rom, which has its own magic and depth, a not inappropriate way of experiencing this body of work, as a piece of apparatus in its own right, bringing onto the screen of one’s computer a sense of his singular achievement.
(The above essay was written by Danto as an introduction to a CD of my works in 2002 --PF)