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Measure of Time

Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell: Sand Fountain, twentieth century; wood, sand, and glass; 11 1/2 x 7 x 4 1/2 in.; purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Currently on view in Measure of Time, an evolving exhibition examining temporality and duration in American art of the past century, are works from the BAM collections by two ancestors of the assemblage aesthetic celebrated in Semina Culture: the consummate intellectual gamesman Marcel Duchamp, and Joseph Cornell, maker of poetically evocative box constructions.

A museum within a museum, Duchamp’s Boîte-Series F is a portable retrospective of the artist’s work. Notorious objects like L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), a postcard of the Mona Lisa improved with a mustache and a rude pun, are meticulously reproduced here, artifacts for a time capsule in which Duchamp wittily canonizes his own career. Although Boîte en Valise can be viewed as a commentary on the status of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, its construction required laborious craftsmanship; among the people Duchamp engaged to help assemble editions of the Boîte in the 1940s was his friend Cornell. Both artists investigated the almost alchemical process that transforms mere objects into art, but where Duchamp uncovered conceptual ironies, Cornell found strains of the sublime. His Sand Fountain is a kind of metaphysical toy: when the box is turned over, a hidden chamber releases a stream of blue sand that flows, hourglass-like, into a broken cordial cup. On display in the museum, the sands of time are stilled, eternally overflowing the glass.

Juliet Clark

Measure of Time is made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Henry Luce Foundation.

Additional support has been provided by the Museum Loan Network, a national collections-sharing initiative funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by MIT's Office of the Arts, and by Joachim and Nancy Bechtle.