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Mike Bidlo. Interview with Francis Naumann

 
 

  Francis Naumann:

For those who are not familiar with the art of Mike Bidlo, I thought I might begin this conversation with a few general comments about his work. Mike is best known for his appropriations, works that are based on the paintings and sculptures of some of the best-known artists in this century: Picasso, Léger, Brancusi, Man Ray and others. Over the years, he has also elected to replicate selected works by Duchamp - including a full-scale painted copy of The Nude Descending a Staircase, as well as replicas of the most infamous Ready-mades, like the Bicycle Wheel, Bottle Rack and Fountain. These and a number of other works after Duchamp were gathered for public display in an installation entitled Saint Duchamp, which opened in a storefront on East Fifth Street in Manhattan in the fall of 1996. It might be appropriate to begin this session by questioning the title - Saint - for throughout history, saints have customarily been referred to by their first names, like Saint John, Saint Peter, etc. With this reasoning, the installation might have been called "Saint Marcel." I am wondering, Mike, if you chose the last name intentionally, in deference to those who knew Duchamp personally and continue to refer to him by his first name? In other words, did you select the title Saint Duchamp as a means by which to emphasize that your view of the artist was one that was distanced, that is to say, more historical than personal?
       
 

  Mike Bidlo:

Yes, but I was also thinking about the title as a pun. In French, the words Saint Duchamp and sans Duchamp sound almost the same, although they are spelled differently. I like the play on words, because "sans Duchamp" means "without Duchamp".
 
 
       
 

  Francis Naumann:

 

I look at your work as though I were playing a game of chess. At a glance, you see a simple one-to-one relationship between your work and Duchamp's, like say, between his original Fountain and your many variations. But that's just one level of understanding; if someone really wants to know what your work is all about, then they are forced to make the next move, think a bit more deeply and advance the
game to a new level.
 
       
 

  Mike Bidlo:

 

Right - almost like peeling the successive layers of an onion. But... I'm not consciously playing chess with Duchamp. I don't see myself in an oppositional role at all. If anything, I complement him by introducing new levels of meaning to the work. With Fountain, I bring a symbolist aspect to the piece that I think was always implied but never really acknowledged by Duchamp himself.
I remember the first time I showed my Desmoiselles d'Avignon, I called it She Works Hard for the Money, which is the title of a Donna Summer song from the early eighties. I vividly remember listening to it repeatedly as I painted it. It seemed appropriate on several levels. The urinal and the Rower painting in my Origins of the World are works of art that have been traditionally identified with sexual forms - even though both O'Keeffe and Duchamp might not have intended that to be the case. They are visually androgynous, and when combined, they ignite each other's meaning. Ultimately, they assume complementary positions like Yin and Yang - they are a modernist balancing act - a metaphysical Mobius strip.
 
       
 

  Francis Naumann:

 

When Bidlo remakes a work of art, he usually calls it "Not-whomever." Each of the paintings in his Léger series, for example, is called Not Léger, followed by the title of the Léger painting he chose to replicate. The Duchamps are all called Not Duchamp in other words, you can call them anything you want, except Duchamp. He is making it clear that you should not confuse the two, and that one should not be considered a simple substitute for the other. In the case of combining two works - as he does in Origins of the World - the historical implications are quite complex, for there was a physical relationship between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, one that is obviously played upon through the combination of these two images. Moreover, it was Stieglitz who took the original photograph of the urinal on its back against a painting by Marsden Hartley, so the ultimate meaning of this work has to be played through these various historical associations: from Courbet to O'Keeffe, from O'Keeffe to Stieglitz, from Stieglitz to Duchamp, from Duchamp to Hartley and, finally, although most importantly, from all of these artists to Bidlo. To arrive at a complete aesthetic experience, in John Dewey's terms, you have to know everything.  
       
 

  Arthur Danto:

 

I would like to chime in on that. One of the points Duchamp made in connection with the Fountain is that objects just like it were visually available in the windows of the plumbing supply stores, so it cannot in any way be noxious, visually. You could pick one out for your bathroom, but presenting it in the context of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 was really to test the resolution of the board of that organization - to have neither jury nor prizes, in emulation of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. And he said: "Okay - let's see how firm your resolution is", and immediately the beautiful question opened up - not so much that this is obnoxious, but that it isn't art. Any work of art you bring in is fine, however obnoxious... but this is not a work of art. Its being offensive may have factored into Glacken's response - the head of the hanging committee. But Duchamp forced him to make, instead of an aesthetic response, an ontological one. He was forced into a metaphysical trap (it was like a check in chess). But it was the right response to make and I don't feel it was a censorious response. Let me put it this way: I think if Duchamp had brought in a sink he would have had the same kind of response.  
       
 

  Mike Bidlo:

 

Yes, he was backing them into a corner, his submission of a urinal was a provocative gesture. Or maybe it was intended as a prank - I don't know. I think Duchamp was just being a difficult customer, an artist who enters a show with some- thing he knows the organizers would have a problem accepting. Dada encouraged that sort of thing. It was expected of someone in Duchamp's position to take a grand stand like that. At least it was more meaningful than just submitting another easel painting in the show. I also think there might have been an elitist attitude on Duchamp's part. After all, he was European avant-garde among a bunch of American provincials. I think he believed it was the artist's responsibility to challenge authority and old-fashioned notions of propriety.
(...)
 
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