- Marcel Duchamp
- Pocket Chess Set
- Signed Marcel Duchamp and dated N.Y 1944
- Pocket chessboard in leather, celluloid and pins
- 6 1/2 by 4 in.
- 16.5 by 10.1 cm
Thence by descent
Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1969, no. 318, illustration of another example p. 517
Arturo Schwarz, Marcel Duchamp, 66 Creative Years, Paris, 1972, no. 139, illustration of another example p. 61
Marcel Duchamp (exhibition catalogue), Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York, Museum of Modern Art & Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, 1973-74, no. 162, illustration of the assemblage p. 305
Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp, The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, New York, 2000, illustration of another example fig. 6.11
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While living in New York, he would play regular games at the Marshall Chess Club, where he would play the likes of Picabia, Man Ray and Roché. A taste for chess was considered a sign of intelligence and, for Surrealist artists, a claim of continuity with other types of intelligence. Not only was chess a prominent motif in Duchamp’s work, but he occasionally buried coded messages in his art that could only be understood by proficient players of the game. He famously remarked that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists” and that “art and chess are inseparable.”
Duchamp used a manufactured chess set that held the pieces in place by small pockets cut into a leather board. He designed his own chess pieces and had them printed on celluloid, and then inserted small pins to secure the pieces during transport. John Myers, editor of the Surrealist magazine View, saw Duchamp playing on the set one day and asked who he was playing. “Marcel versus Duchamp,” he playfully answered. At least 25 of these chessboards were assembled in New York in 1943-44 (John Bernard Myers, Tracking the Marvelous: A Life in the New York Art World, New York, 1983, pp. 33-34).
In 1944, Julien Levy organized an exhibition called The Imagery of Chess and asked thirty-two Surrealist artists to submit their own chess set designs. Duchamp submitted an example of his Pocket Chess Set, to which he added a single rubber glove (this work has since disappeared but was later replicated). The opening featured a game organized by Marcel Duchamp, in which an acknowledged master, George Koltanowski, played blindfolded against seven artists concurrently, beating all of them except the visionary architect Frederick Kiesler, who fought the maestro to a draw.
The sensibilities of chess are found throughout Duchamp’s art, and his Chessmen of 1918 (see fig. 1), Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled of 1932 and Pocket Chess Set stand out among many of his works that honor the game.
This Pocket Chess Set was a gift from Duchamp to Harold M. Phillips, President of the United States Chess Federation (USCF) from 1950-54, President of the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs and organizer of the groundbreaking 1954 match between the Soviet and American teams (see fig. 2).