SCIENCE NEWS Vol 157 Saturday, January 1, 2000

An Artist's Timely Riddles  
by Ivars Peterson 


Deploying scientific methods to understand
a Dada artist's provocative creations

The artwork of Marcel Duchamp presents intriguing, yet maddeningly intricate, puzzles.

Born near Rouen, France, in 1887, Duchamp earned a reputation in later years as an "anarchistic dazzler," says science historian Gerald Holton of Harvard University. Duchamp made a career out of pretending not to work, and he professed to take nothing seriously.

Among his more notorious escapades, Duchamp scribbled a moustache and goatee on a cheap, postcard reproduction of the "Mona Lisa," added a salacious caption and his signature, and called the result art. He submitted an ordinary porcelain urinal to a major art exhibition as his own sculpture and gave it the label "Fountain."

Such irreverent antics strongly influenced the development of 20th-century art, including the work of such later artists as Andy Warhol. They also overshadowed another facet of Duchamp's restless, innovative mind--a passionate interest in mathematics and science.

Steeped in the philosophy of popular writings of French mathematician Henri Poincaré, Duchamp "understood the mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry and higher dimensionality in a far more serious and technical way than any other artist of his time," sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer and Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould contend in an essay in the Nov. 5, 1999 SCIENCE.

Shearer directs the Art Science Research Laboratory in New York City, which is devoted to the scientific study of Duchamp's art. In November 1999, she hosted a symposium at Harvard called "Methods of Understanding in Art and Science: The Case of Duchamp and Poincaré." CONTINUED>>