The Duchamp Dictionary

Written by: Thomas Girst
Illustrations by: Luke Frost and Theresa Vandling
Publication date: May 13, 2014
Buy it: Amazon 

How do you write a new publication about one of the most discussed, influential, and written about artists of all time? You go back to the basics and break down the information in a familiar yet refreshing format. Thomas Girst has done this in his new title, The Duchamp Dictionary, where the reader gets more than one "A," "B," "C," and "D" to learn about the master, Marcel Duchamp, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the readymade.

The dictionary format isn't a random choice, as Girst explains in the introduction of the book. He writes, "The idea of the dictionary clearly appealed to Duchamp, as it did to the Surrealists, many of whom were his close friends." In many ways, the structure is complimentary to Duchamp's belief that "art was not in need of verbal translation." Instead, Girst breaks down both the elements of Duchamp's work and life and the vocabulary that's been used to discuss his pieces over the years, making way for new ideas and interpretations.

The terms explained in the book itself are vast—"Chocolate," "Citizenship," and "Coffee Mill" appear in that order, and so do "Love," "Lovers," and "Luck." At other points, names are explained, like "Octavio Paz" (followed by the terms "Penis" and "Perspective"), "Hans Richter," and "Max Stirner," to show who influenced his beliefs and vice versa.

The multiple terms per letter, the non-linear narrative, and the indirectly biographical structure combine to create a delightful, whimsical read for the Duchamp novice and expert alike. It's likely that one would learn more from this seemingly segmented book than they would a formal Duchamp biography, as the dictionary makes room for details to appear and be emphasized in a way they couldn't be otherwise.

Perhaps Duchamp would have suggested reading the book's pages at random instead of going in order. On page 42, Duchamp says of the term "Chance"—"Chance is the only way to avoid the control of the rational, [chance alone could] express what is unique and indeterminate about us." This reader suggests taking the book by the letters and moments in Duchamp's illustrious career that intrigue one most. With a book so accessible and visual, yet still remarkably complex, it makes sense to enjoy it in multiple ways and sittings.