The Smithsonian called it “among the key documentary images of American modern art”. On 18 October 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, Time’s Julian Wasser took a photo showing Marcel Duchamp playing chess against a totally naked young woman, Eve Babitz.
It was an iconic juxtaposition, of the nude bride and the bachelor Duchamp (who remained unmarried for most of his life), of black and white pieces, of man and woman. Symmetries and asymmetries abound: of young vs. old, of faced vs. faceless, of Duchamp’s aged body vs. Babitz’s full figure. Looming over them was Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — a fitting piece for Babitz, who would go on to have affairs with Jim Morrison, Ed and Paul Ruscha, Steve Martin, and Harrison Ford. She recalls in Esquire magazine in 1991:
“I had been taking birth control pills for the first and only time in my life, and not only had I puffed up like a blimp but my breasts had swollen to look like two pink footballs. Plus they hurt. On the other hand, it would be a great contrast–this large, too-L. A. surfer girl with an extremely tiny old man in a French suit. Playing chess. (After I saw the contact sheets, I never took the Pill again.)”
By 1963, Duchamp, one of the fathers of Dadaism and conceptual art, was semi-retired and had turned his focus to playing chess. But that year, when the Pasadena Art Museum staged his first retrospective, the elderly artist was having a renaissance. He appeared playing chess in the documentary made to coincide with the show. The avant-garde art world of the 1950s found in him a kindred spirit. His 1917 work, “Fountain” — a piece which he deliberately crafted to offend — ironically became a highly sought-after art piece after the second world war, and Duchamp issued three authorized copies in 1950, 1953 and 1963. The next year, Duchamp was to replicate his important works into 12 replicas.
“At 9:00, Marcel arrived alone, wearing a little straw hat he had picked up the day before in Las Vegas … And these completely detached eyes, which seemed charmed to be alive but otherwise had no comment on the passing scene, met mine.
A feeling of gentleness pervaded him… I took the smock off, letting it fall beside me, but Julian kicked it far across the slippery floor, out of the way in a corner. I sat down quickly at the chess set and wondered if we could just pose or did we actually have to play, but Marcel–whose obsession with chess made him give up not only art but girls–was waiting for me to make the first move.
“Et alors,” he said. “You go.”
I, of course, had youth and beauty (and birth control pills) over him, but he had brains on his side–or at least chess brains–and though I tried my best, moving a knight so at least he knew I had some idea what a knight was, he moved his pawn and the next thing I knew, I was checkmated. “Fool’s mate” they call it when you’re so stupid that the game hasn’t even begun and you’ve lost.
I became interested in playing and tried to stop thinking about holding in my stomach, but every time I thought I was so brilliant, like taking his queen on the fourth move, I’d lose.
Of all the things that have ever gone on be tween men and women, this was the strangest, in my experience. But it got stranger. For one thing, there were Teamsters in the next room, moving paintings, and they couldn’t help but be amazed.