Reading about Marcel Duchamp can be hard work, unless the writer has Francis Naumann’s ability to leaven imaginative scholarship with clarity, candor, insight, and high spirits. The most influential artist of the last century caught Naumann’s attention more than forty years ago, when he saw a reproduction of Duchamp’s bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool, and asked himself how this could be art. The question has pursued him ever since, and his consistently fresh approaches to Duchamp’s work and Duchamp’s life, set down in agile and jargon-free prose, make these collected essays the single most informative book you will find on the endlessly fascinating artist.
The Cubies’ ABC was published in the aftermath of the celebrated Armory Show of 1913, the largest and most sensational exhibition of modern art held in the United States. Designed to appear as little more than a children’s ABC book—where three pyramidal-shape characters take readers on a tour of the modern works included in the exhibition—the actual purpose of The Cubies’ ABC was to introduce the newest manifestations of contemporary art to the public in a humorous and highly ingeniously fashion. Thus the letter “A” is for “Art, Archipenko and Anatomics,” “B” is for “Braque and “Beauty as Brancusi views it,” “C” is for “Color Cubistic ad libitum,” and “D” is for “Duchamp, the Deep-Dyed Deceiver,” whose Nude Descending a Staircase is rendered in the illustration as an accordion in need of repair. The rhyming text in the book was written by Mary Mills Lyall, and the drawings were by her husband, Earl Harvey Lyall (an architect who had studied at Amherst College, Columbia University and, for a brief period, in Paris). When The Cubies’ ABC appeared in 1913, The Dial declared it “the oddest little color book of the season,” telling readers that “the book must be seen and read to be appreciated.” It is here reprinted in a near-exact facsimile of the original publication, accompanied by an introduction (inserted hors text) by Francis M. Naumann.