The "Yarn" About Walter Hopps and Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp (left) and Walter Hopps at an exhibition of Duchamp's work in 1963.

Marcel Duchamp (left) and Walter Hopps at an exhibition of Duchamp's work in 1963.

The clue is of course the ball of twine, a pretty ordinary commercially available ball of twine in the shape of a torus, or donut. That ball of twine the one now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wrapped around the dark little void space within which is generated the Hidden Noise--is at once the best-known and the most mysterious sculpture in modern art history.

With Hidden Noise  displayed with its "legs" in the air, the orientation Kurt believed was Duchamp's intention for its display.

With Hidden Noise displayed with its "legs" in the air, the orientation Kurt believed was Duchamp's intention for its display.

Twine, string, cord, line: in its lineality, the emblem of one-dimensional space, a METAPHOR of time passing, and of the continuity of human consciousness, and of history, geological or cosmological, both before and beyond the duration of time we live out as our EON of earthly existence. Hence to spin a yarn--to tell a tall story--might also be the unraveling of a clew. And so here is how it happened:

When Walter Hopps organized the first Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, I was teaching in New Zealand. I returned in 1964 to take up a teaching post at Princeton, while at the same time ­finishing up a dissertation that had to do with 20th century sculpture, and with questions about art under a totalitarian political system. I wish I had realized at the time that the career of Marcel Duchamp had certain lessons for me, even with that unlikely topic.

During the Second World War, Duchamp devised a most imaginative and practical response to the Nazi invasion of France. Having secured papers as a travelling CHEESE MERCHANT from Roquefort, MD made several trips between Paris and the free zone of France to remove the works of art that came to be known as the Boite-en-valise, finally making his way, in 1942, from Lisbon to America.

Duchamp's  Boite-en-valise , a collection of miniatures of his works packed in a suitcase.

Duchamp's Boite-en-valise, a collection of miniatures of his works packed in a suitcase.

Many years after the Second World War, I did eventually have the good fortune to MEET DUCHAMP, just once, in New York City. It was just before the opening of the Cordier-Ekstrom exhibition of the Mary Sisler Collection--that would have made the date January 13, 1965. There was nobody else in the gallery, and so we just walked around together while he previewed the show. I remember he was particularly delighted to see the Anemic-Cinema, the beautiful wooden camera box with which he and Man Ray made that brilliant short film. But that is another story.

In the Fall of 1965, I took up a teaching position at UCLA, and very soon visited Pasadena, wanting to get together with Walter Hopps, who was, as they say, one of the "live" ones. Late in the evening, after some opening reception or another, we once found ourselves having a drink or a cup of coffee (it was probably a drink then) at his place, intently discussing the famous Ready-made A bruit secret -­with Hidden Noise.

Duchamp's version of the origin of this piece was told to James Johnsen Sweeney: he was being interviewed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of a 30-minute film made by NBC and first shown (January 1956) on American TV in the program Elderly Wise Men:

"This Ready-made is a ball of twine between two squares of brass ...and before I finished it, Arensberg put something inside the ball of twine, and never told me what it was and I didn't want to know. It was a sort of secret, and it makes a noise, so we call this Ready-made with a secret noise, and listen to it. I will never know whether it is a diamond or a coin."

Walter Hopps then told me the following anecdote:
During the 1963 retrospective, Marcel had come out to Pasadena, of course choosing to stay in the Green Hotel. Where else for an artist who issued an edition of replicas of his most important pieces as The Green Box? Duchamp's long-time friend Walter ARENSBERG, the collector and his collaborator in 1916, had DIED in 1954, almost a decade previously. At that time there was presumably no one who actually knew the secret of A bruit secret. Since Duchamp himself did not know, nor did he care to spoil his part in the game at such a late date, he authorized Hopps to PEEK inside the ball of twine, the strands of which could be separated with some difficulty, and so to ascertain the nature of the mysterious object. [Note: as the artist himself renders the title, it is the noise that is secret].

The Duchamp scholar Ulf Linde made what is called a '"replica" of this piece (among several others) in 1963 for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Since Duchamp didn't make it, the technical term should be something other than "replica," perhaps re-creation, re-production, or even "copy" ? I do not know if Linde's piece contains an object, nor if it makes a noise. If it does, then that is Linde's yarn to spin.

I do not for a minute believe that Walter Hopps would have betrayed the secret to anyone; nor can I imagine Duchamp having condoned letting anyone else peek inside the original. An edition of With Hidden Noise was produced by the Schwarz Gallery in Milan in 1964--eight REPLICAS, in which Teeny Duchamp inserted a "secret object." I have no idea what those (presumably eight) secret objects might have been nor what combination of analytical and divinatory processes might have guided her insertions. Presumably Duchamp still did not know, nor did he ever care to know the answer to the enigma.

I did, however, and Walter Hopps endowed me with a clue. It may not seem like much but it proved to       immensely, essentially helpful. He told me that if one really thought about it, the secret could be figured out. FIGURED OUT! That was almost all I really needed to know. Consider the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project—America's effort during the Second World War to develop and test the first thermonuclear weapons under the tragic leadership of the genius J. Robert Oppenheimer. This has been hailed as one of the biggest and most carefully- and for a while, successfully-guarded secrets of history--the SECRET of atomic energy. But once it was known that the thing could be done at all, that it COULD be figured out, then several other nations have been able to do so: Britain, France, Russia—and subsequently China, probably Israel, South Africa, India and, may Allah have mercy, even Pakistan. Knowing the problem had a solution that could be figured out was the essential clue.

Later I discovered that Arensberg had been an intense amateur fan of cryptography. This helped, too. It meant that he wouldn't have put just anything inside, now would he? Having some understanding of the sophisticated, highly intellectual but also playful frame of mind of the two principals was a boon. But the big break-through came when I really began to look at the piece itself, intently and analytically, BY THE NUMBERS.

The traditional art that has been made by human beings over thousands, tens of thousands of years of our global history, has been done by COUNTING. There are venerable artifacts of the paleolithic such as the Nishango bone written about by Alexander Marshack, engraved with clusters and series of minute scratches that turn out, after careful counting, to have been objective records of LUNAR CYCLES. And there is the highly ritualized, incredibly intricate, sacred and secret process of IKAT dyeing and weaving still practiced in an admittedly rather debased form by the Iban Dyak on Borneo (or Kalimantan as the island is now called). In fact, most peoples throughout history have made their art BY THE NUMBERS. A well-known example in our own time is Andy Warhol's famous series of paintings-by-the-number.


It became clear that With Hidden Noise could be elegantly and accurately described by the numbers. The counting could be done in either direction; but what follows here is a summary description of the Ready-made, counting from the outside in:

A 6-sided cube-shaped piece of sculpture measuring 5 inches (more or less) along each edge held together by 4 bolts and nuts with   lines of ciphered text in capital letters (inscribed within an engraved matrix, in descriptive language) and 2 cursive lines of plain text indications (written in injunctive language) inscribed on each outside surface of the 'bolted brass plates between which is compressed 1 ball of twine [the CLEW] inside of which was a 0 space, dark and void... into which, however, shortly before the piece was completed...there was introduced an object (here called i, the conventional notation mathematicians use for the imaginary value, thought to be poetically appropriate since we cannot see but can only imagine the exact nature of the object) which potentiates the piece of sculpture, thereby producing, when the object strikes either of the two plates, as it were, by the sound of 3 hands clapping, the "hidden noise."

We should note particularly the importance of the number six which is the number of faces of the generalized exterior form of the Ready-made. And, as we have seen, it is also the number of principal conceptual elements of the piece of sculpture. But then the "void" inside the ball of string counted as a zero-space and the secret object as i.

Adaptating the ancient Hermetic dictum "As above, so below" for our present enigma, we might declare "As without, so within." Thus we might expect the general shape and form of the secret object (representing an imaginary form of unity inside the "void") to recapitulate the exterior form of the piece. How perfect!

How perfect indeed. A text by Leonard Eugene Dickson, called History of the Theory of Numbers, is a model of objectivity in that it does not offer one opinion. This is all the more impressive since the text is in three volumes of some 1,600 finely-printed pages. Professor Dickson begins this monumental enterprise on the first page of Chapter 1, in the first volume, where appears this (actually the second) sentence: "A number, like 6 = 1   +   2     + 3, which equals the sum of its aliquot divisors is called perfect (vollkommen, vollstandig)."


SIX, as the first perfect number is of course rich with connections for the associative mind: carbon, the central atom of life, has the atomic number six. The most elegant design of a binary logic circuit sufficiently complex enough to generate an imaginary value requires six gates. Both the Hopis and the Tantrics count six chakras inside the body. Water, the so-called universal solvent, in its crystalline state as a snowflake invariably has a six-part structure. Salt, in traditional alchemy symbolizing sexual energy, and also essential for our life, forms a cubic, 6-sided crystal. And salt is the element Duchamp identified with when he published a collection of his own writings with the anagram/pun title; MARCEL DUCHAMP / MARCHAND DUSEL: SALT SELLER ("salt cellar") [ed. Sanouillet].

The Italian Renaissance writer and sometime painter, Giorgio Vasari, among the very first art historians, adopted the approach of BIOGRAPHY in his classic text, The Lives of the Most Famous Painters,  Sculptors and Architects. So, following that grand tradition, here are six important dates in the life of Marcel Duchamp:

  1. Born July 23, 1887 at Blainville (Seine-Maritime), near Rouen and the medieval monastery of Fracamp where they still produce the liqueur Benedictine, which figures prominently in the iconography of the Great Glass and in MD's on-going symbolic reference to bachelors.
  2. MD was to die near midnight on October 1, 1968, while on vacation in Paris, thereby astounding the art world which had believed that either Picasso or Salvador Deli or Duchamp might actually prove to be immortal.
  3. The question of his love life and marriages is intricate and highly personal. Duchamp did have a brief marriage to a French automobile manufacturing heiress (Lydia Sarazin-Levassor, 1927). He studied chess problems on their honeymoon, and--as Man Ray tells it--he awoke one morning to find the chess-pieces glued to the board. They were divorced very shortly thereafter. He had a long relationship with Mary Reynolds, happier than most marriages until her death in 1950. In 1954 he married Teeny Battler, who had previously been married to Pierre Matisse.
  4. MD traveled frequently. For our immediate interests, he decided to burn his bridges in France in 1915 and set sail on August 6th for America, arriving in New York on August 15th (not June 15th as some accounts would have it). In 1918 he left for Buenas Aires with Katherine Drier, when America entered the First World War. Back and forth between France and America, but living in New York in 1942, becoming a citizen in 1955, as he said because with a U.S. passport it was easier to smuggle cigars (Blackstones).
  5. The first key date in his life as an artist was 1912 and his break with the Cubists over his NUDE DESCENDING...NO. 2, and hence with all groups and movements. At the same time he began Ready-mades (although not yet called that) and began work on his renowned masterpiece, the Great Glass.
  6. The second key date was 1923 when he stopped working on the Large Glass and signed it as having been brought to a final state of incompletion. The MD myth then has it that he devoted his life to chess, or to the living of life as his principle art form. While there is some truth in this, he also began work on the optical discs later used in Anemic Cinema. Indeed, despite his passion for chess, he continued to produce art, working in secret or "underground" (as it were, in the salt mines?).

The crucial question about the six faces or sides of A bruit secret - With Hidden Noise is quite simply "Which way is up?" This is one of the oldest canards about modern art--you know, when the museum displays the piece UPSIDE DOWN. Not that this should be a cause of shame or embarrassment, remembering that a pure approach to abstract art--non-objective painting--was pioneered (in 1911) by Wassily Kandinsky, when after having worked at the easel with a painting on its side, later returned to his studio and didn't recognize the piece.

As we approach Duchamp's original sculpture sitting on its pedestal in Philadelphia, most of us bring a very typical set of EXPECTATIONS. This has to do with the way we see furniture set up on legs, or the way we experience our own bodies. But there is no compelling reason why we should extrapolate this "standing on legs" paradigm to the piece of sculpture in question.

Quite the contrary there are certain reasons for concluding that, while the idea is admittedly upsetting, for all these years A bruit secret has been approached and displayed upsidedown!

Not that this is such a big deal. The June 23 issue of Time shows the Star Wars logo behind General James Abrahamson. The logo features "shield of Ajax" copied from a 15th century B.C. Mycenaean dagger--UPSIDE DOWN, and blocking only 3 out of 5 space-blasts. The supposed non-directionality in space is no good as a defense for this!

In her book on Marcel Duchamp (edited with Kynaston McShine) Anne d'Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, quotes one of MD's famous ideas (Ce sent lea regardeurs qui font les tableaux). "His conviction that 'It is the SPECTATORS who make the pictures' rendered him an interested and impartial audience for theories about the meaning of his own oeuvre...issuing, as it were, a free pass to those wishing to explore the enigmatic regions of his creative activity."

This theory about the proper orientation of ABS to be believable has to be shown. The showing is the thing, just as "theorem" and "theater" derive from the same word root (Greek thea = a viewing). Viewing the piece in Philadelphia, we can only read the underside by looking in the mirror upon which it sits. This is a stratagem of display that may have amused Duchamp, because the reading of the initial written clue (inscribed on the "bottom") was made thereby all the more difficult.


In our concise description of ABS by the numbers, 5 for the five inches of the piece's dimensions comes next. Robert Lebel cited the piece in his Catalogue Raisonne as 5 x 5 x 5. Duchamp had a chance to correct this data in 1963, as he and Walter Hopps cut and pasted the Lebel catalogue, which "make-ready" is reproduced as such for the Pasadena publication. But while he made other corrections and emmendations, he let these figures stand. So the aspect of ABS in its 5-ness has to do with its measurement in English inches, newly come to MD's attention following his arrival in America in 1915, and a truly geodeisic standard, whereas the meter was political and arbitrary.


The English inch, was first established by King Athelstan in the 10th century (924-940) in legally defining the foot, and "the King's girth" [3 miles of 5280', 3 furlongs of 600', 9 acres of 65', 9 palms of 3/4 foot, and 9 barleycorns of 1/3 inch = a radius of 12,250 feet] or 3 minutes of latitude (6 minutes of latitude north to south, or 1/10 of degree. So one degree was understood as 365,000 English feet, which is the length of a degree at the latitude of Winchester (according to Livio Catullo Stecchini in his Appendix to Peter Tompkins, Secrets of the Great Pyramid, p. 344). It was at the time of Athelstan that the tradition of Freemasonry first entered England as a Sufi society, long before being introduced into Scotland disguised as a craft guild by the Knights Templar's in the 14th century [Robert Graves, "Introduction" in Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. xix]."The words of law of Athelstan were repeated exactly in the legislation about measures issued by King Henry I. The law of Athelstan provides the fundamental text for the study of English measures, but it has been ignored." However, for the Tate exhibition of Duchamp's works in London (1966), Richard Hamilton also fortuitously recorded the dimensions of ABS in English inches, rounded off to three 5s.

Thus, Arturo Schwarz quite possibly misses the point when he lists the dimensions of ABS in his 1969 monograph with over-precision even though he calls the the bolts "screws" as does Lebel. Schwarz also gives the measurements in centimeters: 5 1/16" (12.9 cm) x 5 1/8" (13 cm) x 4 1/2" (11.4 cm). Not even these are correct, however, because the so-called 4 1/2-inch bolt is measured from inside the slotted head, so the actual outside dimension is closer to 4 11/16".

Garcia Lorca

Garcia Lorca

The number five itself, coincidentally relates to the time this presentation was scheduled to begin: "A las cinco de la tarde," as the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca sang in his Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias (1935) "...Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde," although that was about death in the bull ring--more appropriate perhaps for a talk on Picasso. But Lorca did write that gorgeous poem Romance Sonambulo, like a Chinese fu, dedicated to greeness (in Romancero Gitano 1924­-1927) "Verde que to quiero verde./ Verde viento. Verdes ramas."

A mystical interpretation of the "secret history of the United States" (as characterized by Robert Graves in The White Goddess) reads cabalistic significance into the number of 55 delegates to the Grand Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in May of 1787, that John Adams called "the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen." It took place 100 years before Duchamp was born, and 200 years ago next Spring. Reflect that it is no mere accident the Washington Monument is 555 feet high.


The associative, analogical mind has suffered from a rather bad press ever since the intellectual conquest of the Enlightenment in the West, no doubt in part because the associations swiftly become tedious and threaten to be unending, without ever demonstrating direct, convincing, causal connections.

Therefore, we shall pass swiftly over the images brought to mind by the four nuts and bolts that hold With Hidden Noise together. Besides, maybe we should count them as 8 (4 of each), lust as there are 8 holes drilled in the two plates. In counting the yarrow stalks for the I Ching, the number 9 is read by the Chinese as a yin or double number, and counted as 4. The nuts are hexagonal, 6-sided and it is also true that the I Ching is composed of hexagrams, figures with six lines. Right here perhaps we encounter the problem of how far to take it in the numbers game: does one count the threads on the bolts? Is it at all likely that Duchamp did? Well, he was nothing else if not a stickler for detail and precision: a vendor of the concept of "Infra-mince"--an esthetic medium in its own right, perhaps intended to be utterly divorced from any possible practical application. This attitude he may well have picked up from Raymond Roussel, who sought to create entirely from the domain of the mind, without reference to any naturalistic source of inspiration whatsoever.

The number 4 was a favorite (together with 7) in ancient Egypt. The symbolism- (as c the bolts) =  what holds the earth together. The 4 directions on the wheel of the annual calendar referred then, as they do now, to the two solstices and the two equinoxes--and our Easter (when Duchamp made and inscribed ABS in 1916) is the festival of the Vernal Equinox. By extension, there are the 4 Ages of Man, or the structure of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as grounded upon the Four Dublin Eternals. 4 colors are sufficient to color a sphere (or any-topological surface of genus zero). We have the mathematical Group, the power series of i, and the Adamantine Isomorph. Contemporary physics recognizes 4 forces abounding in the cosmos (a recent news item reports new theories that may make a hypothetical "fifth" force unnecessary). Apparently only 4 simple compounds (water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia) are sufficient to make the chemical soup from which amino acids, the building blocks of life itself, can be synthesized, with the help of the odd bolt of lightning.

The problem is not that the world of things in their "fourness" is not true--but rather that it is all too true, and therefore, it's frequently difficult to maintain our perspective. The Hopis talk of the Four Purifiers. Some anthropologists have interpreted this as a reference to the "races" of mankind, in part because of the Hopi color symbolism: white, black, red and yellow. For anyone who has seen the movie Koyaanisqatsi (with the marvelous musical score by Philip Glass) the "Purifiers" might be recognized as the paramount threats to life on earth as we now know it:

1.   War (either by accident or by design)‑
2.  Pollution (radiation, ozone depletion, climate, water)
3.   Population (starvation, disease)
4.  Habitat destruction (misuse of resources, rainforests, water)

Or, to put it in local terms, a survey published in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 20, 1986) listed the four biggest problems for Bay Area residents = transportation, pollution, over-population & housing. The last three check out, but from this we can see that getting to work in San Francisco takes the place of thermonuclear war.


Let us return to the piece of sculpture in order to consider the inscriptions--same of the most cryptic and puzzling in the whole of modern art—with which Duchamp has graced its surface. Tamara Blanken was able to observe or to confirm a number of very important details about Duchamp's inscriptions which enable us to correct several widespread misreadings and erroneous transcriptions. These have to do with three different inscriptions on the piece:

  1. An injunctive sentence, scratched by Duchamp in a cursive hand, that extends in a single horizontal line over each of the two plates, beginning with a capital "R" on what has hitherto been mistaken as the "lower" plate, but which we may now call the "upper" plate.
  2. The cipher text studiously painted by Duchamp in yellowish-white paint, composed of 88 separate capital letters, 20 dots and 2 commas, set in a grid pattern of 3 x 20 spaces on one side and 3 x 25 spaces on the other.
  3. The inscription, signature and dates scratched by Duchamp on what was hitherto known as the "underside of the upper" plate, but which we may now call the top side of the lower plate, here presented transcribed in full detail for the first time.

While it may usually rest like any other static work of art upon its pedestal in the museum, With Hidden Noise becomes dynamic and sonorous if it should be picked up and rotated in space. This is made exceedingly difficult by the guardian spirits of the curatorial profession. Nevertheless it becomes necessary in order to realize fully the intentions of the work of art--indeed, in order to read the full text of the inscription as we are enjoined to do in accordance with the indications.

There is a clear sense of order, a logical sequence, for reading the inscriptions. If we assume the zero-state to-be With Hidden Noise resting with its legs sticking up in the air, then we can begin to read at the beginning of the sentence, as indicated by the common convention of the capital letter. Here is the text of the injunctive sentence, scratched in the brass plates in a cursive hand by Duchamp:

Remplacer cheque point par une lettre (arrow)
convenablement choisi dans la meme colonne

Replace each dot with a letter
conveniently chosen from the same column

Contrary to the way this sentence has been transcribed by many authors, "convenablement" does NOT begin with a capital letter. It's amazing how sometimes we just do not look, or if looking, we do not see. Most of the school teachers I know complain about students not being able to follow directions. Of course the problem is also sometimes with teachers who cannot themselves distinguish between INJUNCTIVE and descriptive language, despite the new importance of understanding this for computer programming. Duchamp is, not to put too fine an edge on it, plainly enjoining us to do something: to "Replace each dot with a letter," after which is scratched an arrow, indicating that the sentence is to be continued. When we pick up the piece and turn it over, we discover, written in the same style in the same relative position on the "other" plate, the continuation of the injunction: "conveniently chosen from the same column."

Arturo Schwarz confirms that the reading of the text begins on the "lower" plate, and supplies the following information: "The words inscribed were nothing but an exercise in COMPARATIVE ORTHOGRAPHY (English-French). The periods must be replaced (with one exception: debarrasse[e] by one of the two letters in the other- two lines, but in the same vertical as the period--French and English are mixed and make no "sense," me three arrows indicate the continuity of the line from the lower plate to the other [upper] still without meaning. (Letter of Duchamp to the author.)" (p. 462)

Few texts manage to transcribe correctly the ciphered text in the matrix, because the authors do not realize that the arrow serves as an injunction for the cryptoanalyst: each of the 3 lines contains 3 words and begins on the face from which the arrow (at the end of each line) directs the reader to turn the piece over to complete the reading on the other face. Then the piece must be turned back again to begin the sequence with the next line. We are made to shake the rattle we find, in short, that in order to read the two lines of instructions,  and then in turn the lines of ciphered text we need to make 7 turnings of the piece. An 8th turning restores the piece to its original zero-position, threaded "legs" in the air, like the Hanged Man of the Tarot.

Some transcriptions are simply inaccurate and must be corrected by comparison with photographs. Unfortunately the photos supplied by authors are not always of the highest quality, and so the presence or absence of a dot or stress mark may leave the reader in an understandable dilemma. For example, there is NO dot before "HEAP," NOR between BAR and AIN. Each of the individual words temptingly prompts speculation as to meaning.

E.g.-- .IR. could become "FIRE" (relating to primordial New Fire ceremonies kindled at Easter, or the Vernal Equinox) or "TIRE" (relating to Tiré a quatre épingles, the title of a 1964 etching of a lost Ready-made ventilator given (1915) to Louise Varese; the title means "dressed to the nines" but is translated literally as "Pulled at Four Pins," not so far from the four bolts of ABS).

CAR.E could become "CARRE" and refer to the shape of ABS self-referentially; or it could be an explicit clue as to the nature of the secret object, picked up on by Arensberg, who was said to be a great fan of cryptography; or it could be an oblique reference to Carrie Settheimer, for whose doll house MD made a miniature edition of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 4 And LONGSEA could be short for "long time, no see" or it might refer to a ship chandlery where the brass and twine were possibly acquired.

The grids themselves are interesting, with 20 rectangles to a line on the side initially read, and 25 to a line on the other plate; thus columns do not line up, preventing letter substitution from side to side. As it turns out, there are a total of 20 dots and 25 blanks, with 88 letters and 2 commas, accounting for 135 spaces.

Plus 3 arrows. "Eros! c'est la vie" written three times is the frontispiece in Schwarz's monograph. Rrose Selavy = the alter-ego artist of Anemic Cinema (1926), who published "her" book of puns in 1939. "Arroser la vie" = drink it up, live life!

Finally, there is an inscription and SIGNATURE with dates that I have not yet found published in full. It is scratched on the back of the plate that begins with P.G in the grid (now the lower plate);

Sophie Marcel
Paques 1916    31 Decembre 1916

Marie Sophie Eugenie Gallet was the name of Duchamp's maternal grandmother, born in Harve in 1830. If she were still alive in 1915, she would have been 85 years old. I do not know when she died. Perhaps this inscription could refer to another Sophie. The name, of course, ­comes from the Greek sophia meaning wisdom.

The Ready-made is always dated "Easter 1916," and I have seen no explanation (or scant mention) of the second date, the last day of that year. We know that MD executed an edition of 3 of these Ready-mades, but it is unknown how long it took him to accomplish this. The other two examples from 1916 have been lost.

The title contains 3 words, whether in English or in French. As an announced "exercise in comparative orthography," the French title can also be read in English: "A bruit secret," which becomes an oxymoron meaning a "noisy secret." The word "bruit" is usually used with the preposition "about;" it means "to spread news of," or "to repeat," and through the Old French verb bruire, probably derives from the Vulgar Latin brugere as a variant of the Latin rugere = to roar. In the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Coming Buddha, the Buddha of Future Generations is called "Maitreya," and he is to speak "with the Lion's roar."

In their version of Duchamp's chronology, Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine include a fascinating entry for the year 1922: "Experiments with the secret truth of numbers, applied to games." Ah, but what is the difference--or the similarity, for that matter--between a truth and a secret truth? Suppose we take the initial letters of the three English words of the title: W, H and N, and perform the standard cabalistic operation assigning them conventional numerical values: W = 2 x V (V = 6), W = 12; H = 8; N = 50; so the total = 70, and the piece is 70 years old! Hooray for secret truth!

Only one of the three pieces made in 1916 by Duchamp had a secret object inserted in in. The other two examples have been lost. Nevertheless, the aspect of mass-production according to the principle of 1, 2, 3 = infinity is one of the most significant aspects of ABS.


Duchamp was one of the first artists to appear willing let go of the precious, overblown and self-defensive ego of the Romantic notion of the artist. He cooperated with others in art projects (Man Ray and Marc Allegret, John Cage Reunion, 1968), admitted collaborators (A. Klang, the sign painter who painted the pointing finger in Tu M' and was even invited to sigh his name, which he did, on the painting, in minuscule letters). Duchamp gave credit to the whole world of mass-produced objects and popular culture by showing the way to "create" Ready-mades.

The two plates of brass in ABS can thus be taken to symbolize the intimate spirit of collaboration between Arensberg and Duchamp. The work of art becomes only-the most striking and expressive monument to a very long and affectionate friendship.

In a famous talk, On the Creative Act, given by Duchamp in 1957 at Houston, MD began by saying,

"Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art; the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity.
          To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing. ...
          The phenomenon [of a spectator's reaction] is comparable esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble. ...
          The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.
          All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist  alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives its final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists."


The string is the organic element, the single piece analog of a one-dimensional line. But it is wound and contorted to form a torus, and thus to partially define and enclose the space that becomes symbolic of the void.

Nobody knows who first invented twine, string, cord or rope. Alexander Marshack mentions the impression (mould) of some cord in the mud at Lascaux--although the cord itself has long since disintegrated. Leo Frobenius distinguished between two different kinds of history possible; that in temperate latitudes in which the data of a culture was typically preserved in stone, bone or other durable material; and that of equatorial peoples who had to transmit their culture through the non-material oral & ritual arts such as dance, because anything made out of stuff would be gone in a rainy season or two.

One of the strongest surviving traditions of Tibetan Buddhism is called the Ka-rGydud Pa, and is known as the "Practicing Tradition,' or the "Black Hat" tradition after the crown worn by its head, the Karmapa. This lineage of Tantric teachings was brought into Tibet by Marpa the Translator; it includes Tibet's greatest saint and poet, Milarepa, and is the historical tradition in which there first appears the idea of "incarnation," hundreds of years before the "Yellow Hat" tradition associated with the lineage of Dalai Lamas was established. It is this continuous practice and direct transmission from one living teacher to another, as well as the spiritual lineage, and the telepathic means by which it is transmitted at the highest level, thatmis referred to by the Tibetan word "rGyud," in the tradition's name. ["Ka" is Tibetan far "one".]

Richard Broxton Onians, in The Origins of European Thought About  the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World Time, and Fate associates the rope or string (particularly the warp thread of weaving) with the idea of the aion, the fluid of life itself.

But that, again, is another yarn.
As Caesar said crossing the Rubicon, "Alea jactus est."

Kurt von Meier

Below is a letter Kurt sent to Walter Hopps ("Chico") in April of 1987. His reply is shown below this letter.


And below is a letter Kurt recieved from Anne d'Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the original sculpture of With Hidden Noise is located.