Modern Glass: How Williams Reframed Duchamp's Window

By Siraganian, Lisa | William Carlos Williams Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Modern Glass: How Williams Reframed Duchamp's Window


Siraganian, Lisa, William Carlos Williams Review


IN a 1924 letter published in the transatlantic review, Mina Loy chastises those readers who ignore the impact of modernity and modernism:

Modernism is a prophet crying in the wilderness of stabilized culture that humanity is wasting its aesthetic time. For there is a considerable extension of time between the visits to the picture gallery, the museum, the library. It asks what is happening to your aesthetic consciousness during the long long intervals?

The flux of life is pouring its aesthetic aspect into your eyes, your ears - and you ignore it because you are looking for your canons of beauty in some sort of frame or glass case of tradition [...]. Would not life be lovelier if you were constantly overjoyed by the sublimely pure concavity of your wash bowls? (Loy, "Gertrude" 429-30)

Loy reiterates a familiar avant-garde pitch: one must seize the present moment, accept the impact of modernism and recognize the beauty of unexpected, lowly, contemporary objects. Instead of experiencing modern art and literature at particular times, such as when we pick up Ulysses or visit the Armory Show, she asks us to acknowledge the everyday experience of both modernity ("the flux of life") and modern/sm ("its aesthetic aspect") in quotidian life. Just as Marinetti's later Futurist Cookbook proposes a constant absorption of art and life via your stomach, Loy asks that we accept the aesthetic even when it appears as the morning bath.

Henry Sayre rightly associates Loy's appreciation of the sublimely concave wash bowl with her friend Marcel Duchamp's aesthetic defense of his Readymades, particularly the urinal titled Fountain (1917) (Sayre, "Ready-mades" 11). Loy's letter thus reveals the influence of both futurism and Dadaism on her thinking. But there are echoes of Duchamp's aesthetics in another part of the quotation. When Loy writes that we mistakenly look for beauty "in some sort of frame or glass case of tradition," she is not only asking us to recognize the shock of art in unaccepted ways and places (futurist food for dinner, a urinal turned on its side and placed on a pedestal). She is also making the point that picture frames and glass cases are similarly flawed examples of "stabilized culture": both cut off the spectator from "the flux of life" - the living world of the art object - thus making art appear sterile and lifeless. Her logic implicitly makes a claim about how frames and glass cases function. In Loy's formulation, painting frames (by keeping the "flux of life" out of the painting) and glass cases (by preserving the art object from the corrosive effects of the "flux of life") do the same kind of unnecessary work. That is, in effect, the work of window frames, separating the world of one environment from that of another while permitting each environment to be mutually viewable. For if a frame is understood as trapping a painting in the stifling, airless atmosphere of the museum, just as a sealed glass case removes a precious object from the world, then, according to Loy, the physical world as we experience it can enter - and should be allowed into - art. We need only eliminate the windows: the painting frames and glass cases of tradition.

At first, this observation seems unremarkable. By the early twentieth century, the history of art was also a history of picture frames (if not glass cases) imagined as windows onto another world. This history begins, at least, with Leon Battista Alberti's fifteenth-century description of the picture frame as "an open window through which I see what I want to paint," and Leonardo da Vinci's claim that "perspective is nothing else than the seeing of an object behind a sheet of glass" (Alberti 55; Leonardo 369). By the nineteenth century, an expanded window/ painting metaphor informed the development and theorization of realism such that, in the 1860s, French art critic Charles Blanc used "the window metaphor" to describe naturalism, while Emile Zola praised Monet's paintings as a "window open to nature" (Levine 98). …

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