A Bruit Secret: Draft notes for a talk at UC Davis


[The Announcement]


A talk: (and revelation) with slides to be given on
Wednesday, October 2', 1986 at 5:00. p.m.

in Art 217 on the University of California, Davis campus
by Kurt von Meier
(Professor of Art at California State University, Sacramento)

The brilliant revolutionary French/American artist Marcel Duchamp created, early in 1916, a series of enigmatic sculptures which have intrigued and baffled art historians ever since. Among the most cunningly mysterious of these is a ball of twine pressed between two cryptically inscribed brass plates secured by four long bolts. Just as the piece was being completed, Duchamp's friend and patron Walter Arensberg put inside the ball of twine a secret small object which made a tinkling sound as it struck the metal; hence the title A Bruit Secret, or, With Hidden Noise [Easter 1916, New York].

Duchamp said he "never told me what it was, and I didn't want to know." But this has not stopped other artists, historians, students of Surrealism and fans of Dada (non-)sensibility from trying to figure out or guess the secret.

Now it has been accomplished; finally the secret has been divined! And so now it can be told! Revealed to the public for the first time--an apocalyptic event--will be the nature of the secret obiect, and the source of the hidden noise plus an anatomy of the piece, together with a trenchant analysis of its amusing but heretofore inscrutable logic.


[Pre-Event Notes]

Set up:

1.  Slide projector (Kodak Carousel from TB), slides.
2.  Nagra tape recorder, podium, mikes
3.  Cameras--Polaroid, lights for TV?
4.  Pedestal with ABS Ready-re-make (Rready-made?), veiled.
5. Egouttoir ("Herrison") in Library?
6. Handouts: green tickets for drawing, xerox bibliography?
7. Refreshments (in Library): Benedictine, thimble glasses, infra-mints, chocolate, Perrier (eau at gaz in green bottle).

Introduction of Kurt by Tamara:

  • Exoteric (BA Berkeley, Madrid, Stanford, MFA & PhD Princeton)
  • Teaching positions (NZ, Princeton, UCLA, CSUC since 1969)
  • Publishing (Art International, Artforum, Artscanada, Vogue, etc.) Lectures (CAA, radio & TV, Australia/NZ, civic organizations)
  • Esoteric (last 20 years: Hopis, Tai Ch'i, Tibetan Buddhism, since Afghanistan.--early1970s--"Sufi" school tradition)

Kurt begins:

  • Announcements promise a "revelation"
  • Not quite the Apocalypse of Revelations according to the visions of St. John, 7 Seals of Ingmar Bergman
  • But Hopi prophesies consider these the last days, Tibetans agree
  • Gary Snyder: 3 times when all the earth was one this = 3rd work to be done to realize Unity
  • Major challenge for education: bridging exoteric with esoteric; both necess. methods, traditions of transmitting teachings; Exo = objective, science, mental clarity (written--theory) Eso = experience, art, whole consciousness (oral--practice)
  • Revelation of secrets, admitting fundamental truths to light -Basis = psychic, social and environmental, integration/sanity
  • Art = powerful cultural instrument (= manifestation of Unity)
  • Art = ideal subject in curriculum -- at all levels; "Ideal" etym. weid = to see
    Eidos = forest (individual works = trees, hule "stuff")
  • A demonstration today
  • Focus = A Bruit Secret, translated as "With Hidden Noise", original now Philadelphla museum of Art
    - 1916 -- 70 years old (50 years a secret--MD's own estimate)
  • Propose to treat as an ideal work: as a paradigm or model, as a pattern or exemplar—which, if read aright--functions as a DIE with which to cut through symbolic ignorance, self-referentially revealing its own mystery
  • Involves a secret object which generates the "hidden noise"
  • I know the secret--I think I do/have for 20 years
    - It was 50 years old then
  • To reveal it and how I figured it out; The secret itself--we could almost say--is trivial
  • But. John Barth Chimera: "Key to the treasure = treasure"
  • Anyway, since we promised a revelation (technically the same as an unveiling) we will at least guarantee minimum fulfillment
  • First, let me thank the U. of C. at Davis, the Art Department, and its Chair, Harvey Himmelfarb for gracious hospitality (and to CSUS -for not scheduling classes for me on Wednesday)
  • Deepest thanks to Tamara Blanken: Former student, collaborator whom I now respect as colleague
    - Magnificently spirited research: Dada, Surrealism & Duchamp
    - Trip to Philadelphia for scrutiny, recorded Hidden Noise
    - You shall hear presently, rare event: (only recording)
    - Keeping log, detailed notes of project = substantial. docum.
    - Own publication for Duchamp centenial (1287-1927)
    - So helpful coordinating arrangements today & poster project
    - She = artist in modern tradition begun by Duchamp: Editions of wk: Replicas, Re-creations, Re-petitions, Re-productions
    - She has Re-made (?) a version of the Ready-made A Bruit Secret  Remarkable piece of work, based on exacting precision (You've seen her before, now here she is again...)
    - Will play her recording of original "noise" & unveil piece.


Tamara Blanken and her replica of  With Hidden Noise

Tamara Blanken and her replica of With Hidden Noise

  • Extends her thanks. acknowledgments
  • Announces reception, green tickets, drawing for poster document
  • Briefly recounts her visit to Philadelphia
  • Circumstances of recording the "noise"
  • Plays tape
  • Construction of her piece(s)
  • Unveils piece.


  • Ceremonial presentation of piece to the light of day obvious: mixed media construction approx cube-shaped dimens: Not quite so simple! imagine glass box exterior measurements (5 x 5 x 5)
  • I promised an "apocalyptic" event which = revelation or "unveiling" Further indicated I wd betray what I believe to be the nature of the original secret object ch still (in Phila) endows the piece with hidden noise
  • I hope you will condone what an Occultist Witness might render informational treason because I will also be demonstrating the method by which this secret was divined
  • My guides: two mottoes
    - Leonhard Euler; V + F = E + 2
    - Marcel Duchamp's self-composed epitaph: "D'ailleurs c'est toujours les autres qui maurent." Translated as; "Besides, it's always the others who die."
  • Perhaps appropriate time to ask for lights to be turned out
  • Will return to scrutinize the piece
  • But perhaps helpful for those who may not be familiar with MD to enjoy a brief orientation to the world of early MD
  • The better to appreciate: subtlety, precision, wit and humor, historical impact of 1916 piece--MD's creative intelligence together with that of his collaborator Walter Arensberg who added the secret object that renders the hidden noise
Kurt and Tamara enjoying the moment at the reception after the unveiling and lecture.

Kurt and Tamara enjoying the moment at the reception after the unveiling and lecture.


  • Limitations of 33 mm. slides
  • Necessary respect for original work of art
  • Altho MD himself posed basic questions about this point, regarded replicas, copies as valid vehicles of the idea
  • The work of Marcel Duchamp, especially the radical sculpture pieces he began to execute around 1913 (for ch a few years later he invented the term "Ready-mades") forced a radical reexamination of sculpture and of Art itself.
  • Our method: by the numbers & with reference to ABS (or HN)
  • Approach from outside: in theory 12 edges (ch draw distinctions)
  • 12 radical/revolutionary features of MD's art


  • Issue of old history; also current: KDVS, Berkeley FM program guides, Meese war on porn = means of distraction/repression Nazi Germany
  • NUDE = notorious & offensive paintings of 20th century
  • Caused scandal & outrage at the great 1913 Armory show in NYC, to put America in touch with state of the art Art of Europe.
  • Title integral role as (also basis of objections by "Avant-garde" who were NOT painting nudes in 1912
  • Puteaux group (Kupka, Gleizes) thought MD betrayed the movement: "humor?? descending?? mockery??
  • "I said nothing to my brothers but I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a pain my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested after that." (B&D, p. 22)
  • But interest in nude cannot be new/innovation, rather = MD's extreme individualism = typical for artists
  • Important also to recognize what MD was NOT
  • Q: "I contradict myself to avoid repeating myself...

Odilon Redon (April 20, 1840 -- July 6, 1916)

  • Mother said she saw a monster at sea from Louisiana
  • Had most works in 1913 Armory Show (32 ptgs, pastels, 29 lithos)
  • He and Duchamp sold most (John Quinn bought them both)
  • T. Roosevelt like little but "Redon's marvelous color pieces" thought MD's NUDE "?"
  • Rewald (MONA 1961): "MD, who emerged from the show as one of the most talked-about and most controversial leaders of contemporary art, replied when asked if he and his colleagues derived from Cezanne: "I am sure that most of my friends would say so and I know that he is a great man. Nevertheless, if I am to tell what my own point of departure has been, I should say that it was the art of Odilon Redon."
  • One of Redon's 1st series of lithos were to illustrate Mallarme's Un Coup de des which the poet came to read to the artist in 1397 (Vollard planned typography). "But the project came to naught when Mallarme died in September 1898. Redon wept upon learning the news."

2. COFFEE MILL (1911)

  • Machine esthetic, machines as subject matter
  • Implicit motion before he saw Futurists
  • Favorite idea of motion in art, also in NUDE
  • Source Marcy chronophotography (cf. Muybridge, Eakins)
  • 1st use of arrows (Eros, a Rose, Arroser la vie)
  • INFRAMINCE (INFRATHIN) 9 verso: "The convention of the arrow /sign produces an infra thin    reaction on the sense of displacement  /  agreed to" MD- Notes Paul Matisse, tr. 1983

 3. Klee MASK OF FEAR (1932)

  • Arrow, sense of humor
  • Societe Anonyme Catalog (1949) MD as insightful critic.
  • Q: "The first reaction before a painting by Paul Klee is a pleasant realization of what we all might have done when drawing in childhood. Most of his compositions show this delightful side of unsophisticated, naive expression. But this is only the first contact with his work and a very appealing one. When we look closer we immediately discover how incomplete the first impression was and if- Klee often uses a`childish' technique, it is applied to a very mature form of thinking which an analysis of his work discovers. His extreme fecundity never shows signs of repetition as is generally the case. He has so much to say that a Klee is never like another Klee."
  • Klee CHILD DRAWING (1883) Puts MD's last observation to the test.


  • 1st made Ready-made, before the term was coined in America
  • Also 1st kinetic sculpture; Calder--"mobile" 1932
  • Sense of play questioned the "high seriousness" of art
  • MD authorized copies, Re-makes? (Ulf Linde, Schwartz)
  • Not the same problem in China where masters copy


  • Mechanical drawing, precise mathematical perspective
  • Notes refer to "entire section" in Bibl. Genevieve
  • "Fabricated with string; paint and canvas rather than pictorially represented," gold lettering on leather
  • Q: "Art at the service of the mind"
  • Q: "The bachelor grinds his own chocolate"
  • Models in Rouen; art and life (refreshments?)


  • 4-D, time, chance, precision, hyper-intellectualized
  • "A delay in glass" -- optics, shadows, view-through
  • MD: "greatest piece"
  • The GLASS based on units of measure derived from;
    - MD: "favorite piece"
    - "A straight horizontal thread, 1 meter in length falls from a height of 1 meter onto a horizontal plane while twisting at will and gives a new form (value)to the unit of length" (Note in the GREEN BOX)
    - NOT a "croquet case," but of white wood for "Jeu de spirobole"

7. TU M' (1918)

  • Notes in Green Box refer to principles by which to regulate the chance happenings of shadows cast by ready-mades "brought together"
  • Real bottle brush, bolt, safety pins holding trompe d'oeil rip
  • Collaboration with the sign painter A. Kiang who did pointing hand
  • MD's last "painting"


  • Commissioned for "under $300"
  • For Katherine Drier's sister Dorothea (horrified)
  • K.D. a bird lover (cage & cuttlebone offended) gave it back
  • Arensberg bought it from MD for $300
  • Visual pun when picked up (weight)
  • Material = marble "sugar" cubes


  • "First papers of Surrealism"
  • Either one or 16 miles of string.
  • (Benefit for the Children's Relief Fund)
  • Invited Janis children to play at opening
  • Didn't attend himself

10.  ANEMIC CINEMA (1926)

  • 7-minute film with Man Ray & Marc Allegret
  • Practical way to show optics in motion with verbal puns
  • Signed Rrose Selavy + thumbprint
  • Camera in Mary Sisler Collection


  • MD: "Ready-mades = most important pieces"
  • IN ADVANCE OF THE BROKEN ARM (1915) Black humor (Andre Breton)
  • 1st piece called "Ready-made" (1st really useful American word learned by MD) Art by nomination, signature
  • PHARMACY (1914) Identical additions of rod and greed dots to 3 copies of commercial print (the "given" winter landscape)
  • "3 means 'number' for Duchamp. 1 is unique, 2 is a pair, 3 approaches many. To make = of a thing was to mass produce it--as important a decision as that of isolating one example of a mass-produced object to call it art. The number 3 is also a major theme of the Large Glass." (Richard Hamilton. Tate cat. 1966)



Q: "What is important in what we must call a work by Duchamp is ­not exactly what one has before one's eyes but the stimulous that this sign provokes in the mind of the onlooker. The worth of a work of art does not come so much from what its creator condensed in it through his talent and experience as from the unexpected resonnances and harmonics that it sets loose in the reader or viewer." J.-H. Levesque


  • Catalog of Grand Bazar de l'Hotel-de-Ville (1912)
  • NOT "Porte-bouteilles" To dry cider bottles in Normandy Art and Life, material mass-produced
  • Shares creative effort, taking the conceptual credit
  • Rauschenberg 0: One of most beautiful sculptures of 20th c.


  • Conventional notions of taste challenged ("good" or "bad")
  • New interrelationship between Art and Life, proto-Pop
  • Perspective with precise mechanical drawing, machine esthetic
  • New, unorthodox materials (twine, galvanized metal, glass)
  • Intellectuality, mathematics, optics, shadows
  • Words, inscriptions and titles made integral part of work
  • Injunctive logic of abstract signs: musical notation, arrows
  • Sense of play/humor, game theory, chance process
  • MD's "4th-dimension" space/time concepts
  • Motion: kinetic sculpture, implied motion, movies
  • Questioning "uniqueness" --mass-production valid for art
  • Radical redefinition of "originality" & collaboration

[E + 2]: Chess & sex

  • Brisset: the theory of "Sere" = "Qu'est rque c-est?"

Returning to the piece ABS as a pattern or die - (With Euler in mind:    + F = E    2)

  • Let us proceed with formal approach from outside, as if = cube, like the gaming piece: a die in the other sense of the word which, by the way, comes from the P.I.E. zero-grade root do: through the Latin datum, "that which is given" [as in MD's last piece, 20-year secret Etant donee "Given") and the Latin verb dare, = both "to give" and to play" to English through the Old French de, "a playing piece"
  • ABS. like so many of the other Ready-mades is a playing piece: it presents a curious & challenging puzzle, perplexing enigma
  • Also: appealing size, invites you to pick it Up
  • Indeed, as we shall see presently, one of its inscriptions is an injunction that pretty much tells us to pick it up and turn it over, only thereby generating the secret noise!

Art history, like other humanistic disciplines, is built progressively on the work: of previous scholars, teachers. and writers

  • It is not only correct and gracious to acknowledge the work of others when it has proven useful or stimulating
  • But is also an intellectual obligation and service to students (taking account of our immediate circumstances)
  • Duchamp has generated an enormous mass of commentary, criticism, interpretation (amateur & scholarly)
  • Huge bibliography, people come from all angles (several coo-coo)
  • MDs influence has grown at an increasing rate (others fade)
  • Consider the eight vertices or corner points of an imaginary cube--‑a plastic box enclosing the piece--ABS
  • Let them symbolize 3 points of reference: key authors on MD
  • 8 references (approximate chronological sequence) the most important, relevant authors and their key studies:

1.  Andre Breton, "Mare de is Mariee" Winter (1934-35) Minotaure

  • Translated as "Lighthouse of the @ride"
  • But salacious pun (?) = "feats" or "deeds" of the Bride
  • AB = brilliant Surrealist friend -- 1st important essay
  • Provided a model for many subsequent analyses
  • "R-Ms = Manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of objects of art through the choice of the artist."
  • 1930 rebuke of MD for quitting painting to play chess
  • Both the "Minotaure" and the "Lighthouse" as a tower of Daedalus may relate to ABS--ball of twine = clew of Ariadne, also in sculpture key to dark void which conceals mysterious entity

2.  Robert Label, Sur Marcel Duchamp (Trianon Press, 1959)

  • lst serious attempt at a catalog; ABS =5x5x5
  • Breton's essay, some Duchamp writing, H.P. Roche
  • Translated by George Heard Hamilton (Grove Press, 1'59)
  • "Duchamp says that these inscriptions, made up of French and English words, have no special significance."

3.  Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (Abrams 1989)

  • BIG Monograph; on ABS "Three originals were made in 1916—only one with the 'secret object.' The other two have been lost." Also documents ABS Milan gallery replicas (1984)
  • DYEING: Cites Label article (Litterature 1923) "...in New York he embarked on a short-lived commercial venture with a dyeing business." Lebel: "principally because it allowed him to pride himself on being a 'tinter' (in French teintre, a play on peintre  (painter) and teinturier (dyer)." The pun took the form of a classified ad: "Teinturerie Rrose Selavy: robe oblongue pour pereonne affligee de hoquet" in Breton "Black Humor" program. Anne d'H; Brief experiment with Leon Hartl "produced a bottle green shirt which pleased him, but proved a commercial failure."
  • With Ulf Linde and Walter Hopps, MD: Ready-mades. etc. (1913-64)  Linde "l'Esoterique" (in MD: abecedaire. approaches critiques, with Jean Clair): Cites Dictionary of Dom Pernety on metaphorical use ofdyeing terms in the Hermetic tradition.

4. Calvin Tomkins, articles for The New Yorker on Duchamp, John Cage, Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, later published as The pride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-garde (Viking) 1965.

  • MD "believes that chance is an expression of the subconscious personality. 'Your chance is not the same as my chance, he has explained, 'just as your throw of the dice. will rarely be the same as mina.'" (p. 33)
  • Also The World of Marcel Duchamp 1287- (Time/Life Books 1966) Beginning title: A Most Unlikely Patron Saint (p. 7) "And if Duchamp is really anti-art, how has he managed to serve as inspiration and guide to so many artists, from the Dadaists and Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s to the current crop of young American painters--for whom Duchamp, an occasional New York resident since 1915 and a United States citizen since 1955, has become a sort of patron saint, a benign and legendary figure?... It will be seen, moreover, that the questions raised by his long and unusual career lead straight to the sources of modern art, over whose development his unique and complex intelligence has presided, somewhat ironically, for half a century."

5.  Richard Hamilton, The Bride Stripped bare...typooraphic Version of Green Box, translated by George Heard Hamilton (Wittenborn 1960) "This version of the Green Box is as accurate a translation of the meaning and form of the original notes as supervision by the author can make it." (Duchamp)

  • The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (Tate Gallery, 1966) ABS inscription accurate except capital "Convenablement," no-sig. Note on "mass production" by 3s.

6.  Michel Sanouillet & Elmer Peterson, editors, Marcel Duchamp  Marchand du Sel, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp  (Oxford, 1973)

  • "The important artist is perhaps like an alchemist whose work incommunicable to the general public, can nevertheless bring about that process of transmutation in certain especially receptive painters, poets, and musicians." (p. 3)
  • "The Surrealist; had proclaimed in the twenties that words were no longer playing around but had started making love."
  • From The Green Box (1934):
    - "PIGGY SANK (or canned goods)
    - Make a readymade with a box containing something unrecognizable by its sound and solder the box   already done in the semi Readymade of copper plates and a ball of twine" (p.32)
    - A piggy bank-- 1s for putting something inside;

7.  Anne d'Harnoncourt & Kynaston McShine, editors. Marcel Duchamp  (MOMA & Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973)

  • Contains Sanouillet; "MD & French Intellectual Tradition"
    - Eccentric branch of Symbolists post-1880 "Decadent" Laforgue Huysmans, Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Jerry (satrap) Complaintes
    - Challenged Romantic myth of woman-Muse (NUDE)
    - J-P Brisset "poetic dislocations of language" Gram. logigue  Vermot almanac = underground literary tradition: Popular, oral--shunned by Frence intellectuals--"failure" puns, riddles, jokes, vulgarity, neologisms, aberrant figures of speech, abstruss rhetorical usages, "oh, 'quite simply, syntactical structures unintelligible to most ordinary mortals."
    - Break with syntax & style "high culture" (1912) c Apollin. Roussel Impressions d'Afrique, Comment j'ai ecrit...
    - (+1935) "secret, posthumous bean-spiller" linking puns by a
    - e.g. 1st phalange (finger joint)   de (thimble)
    - 2nd phalange (phalanx--rays of glory) a de (die--dice)
    - "which gave the troupe of Talou's sons & their dice game."
  • Collective Portrait (Dan Flavin: unable myth profound magician)
    - Georgia O'Keefe: teacup with grace only memory Stettheimers
    - William T. Wiley "To MD 1887-1968, Tool & Die Maker" 1968
    - Pyramid, sphere, chain (Ed & Audrey Sabol, Villanova, Pa.) "Sad young train of thought on a man"
  • Schwarz on Alchemy; Hamilton on Glass; Bernard Karpel. Bibliog.
    - "If I have ever practiced alchemyit was in the only way it can be done, that is to say, without knowing it." (Artist = medium)

8. Walter Hopps, By or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy: at the Pasadena Art Museum A retrospective exhibition October 3 through November 3, 1963.   MD corrected Lebel's catalog
- "He ranks with the greatest artists of the century without conscious concern for either greatness or specifically being an artist. None of his peers has produced or exhibited as little as he to achieve such stature. He is a `merchant of wit' whose major works are as complex as any produced in our time."

With the calling of Walter Hopps name, exoteric approach can be bridged with esoteric (abstruse, difficult to understand, intended for a small group, confidential) i.e. oral transmission from a living person.

Since Hopps is the only one of the above mentioned people whom I have ever actually met and talked with (except for, in addition to MD)

Method based on principles as objective as Leonhard Euler's famous theorem: V + F = E + 2

  • We have done the V (Vertices = u authors, published references) and the E (Edges = 12 aspects of Ready mades & MD's early art)
  • Also the +2 slides (two re-creations), +2 aspects (Sex and chess) Now the F (6 Faces 

he answer (the identity of the "secret object" inserted by Walter Arensberg inside the ball of twine as Duchamp was -Finishing putting the piece together on the date of April 27, 1916, Easter Sunday in New York City) was not told to me by anyone.

But i did receive from Walter Hopps what at -First may seem to be a very slim (one could almost say "infra-mince") clue (or clew, as the British spell the word, which also means "ball of twine." Here's the yarn:

Kurt von Meier
October, 1986

This is the form Tamara Blanken and Kurt von Meier filled out at UC Davis to get approval for Kurt to appear as a guest speaker, for an honorarium of $75. Kurt used a calligraphy pen to fill in descriptive information.

This is the form Tamara Blanken and Kurt von Meier filled out at UC Davis to get approval for Kurt to appear as a guest speaker, for an honorarium of $75. Kurt used a calligraphy pen to fill in descriptive information.