Duchamp's 3 Stoppages Étalon

"Many of the stories he tells just don't line up," Shearer says. Consider Three Standard Stoppages, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a key early work. Toward the end of 1913, Duchamp said, in his Paris studio, he cut three lengths of thread, each just under one meter long, dropped them from a height of one meter, and affixed the results on three separate canvases---a new standard of measure, incorporating chance and randomness, for the new art of this century.

"Why is it that John Cage and the artist William Anastasi tried replicating this experiment many times and couldn't come up with anything like it?" Shearer asks. "I tried with every imaginable type of thread---silk, cotton, waxed, unwaxed. I haven't been able to come close to what he presented. What I think is that Duchamp did this over and over again. He gives us the notes, the protocol, and the results don't match. When you put them together, you have the opportunity to be the discoverer."


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Many people -- perhaps, for the fun of it, or to feel some affinity with Duchamp, rather than from any suspicion about the master's standard protocol -- have tried dropping strings of the same apparent composition following Duchamp's method: regular tailor's thread, one meter long, dropped from a height of one meter. And, to put the matter succinctly, no one (at least anecdotally) has presented evidence that they have been able to replicate any of Duchamp's gentle patterns, even once. Light string just will not fall into such a regular pattern when dropped from such a height. Try as many times as one may, the actual results always produce a pathway far more jerky and wiggly than anything obtained by Duchamp in any of his three stated attempts.

For example, a well known and oft repeated story states that Duchamp's friends, composer John Cage, and artist William Anastasi each tried to drop string numerous times following Duchamp's protocol, and never could match any of his patterns closely because the actual drops always exceeded the pathways of the stoppages in degrees of irregular wiggling. We do know that when Walter Hopps and Arturo Schwarz both asked Duchamp how they should make the pathways of the strings for their reproductions of the stoppages (they were having trouble replicating the pathways even by trying to lay out the string in the "right" patterns by hand because the string always jumped and wriggled in other parts as they tried to lay out one part in Duchamp's gentle arrangement) -- Duchamp advised them simply to lay out the string along and against the path of the wooden templates (residing in MOMA).(3)

Yet Duchamp continued to insist, vehemently and even when questioned closely (and perhaps in the light of such suspicions), that he had followed the stated protocol of dropping each string -- "exactly" one meter in length -- just once, and gluing it where it had landed "à son gré" (by its own will). For example, in an interview with the young Carroll Janis (who has told us that he pressed the point because he had developed similar doubts and puzzlement): (4)

Marcel: It could be done only once. Also I like that it could only be done once and no more. That's like an experiment or something. I liked it very much ...

Marcel: It could be done only once. Also I like that it could only be done once and no more. That's like an experiment or something. I liked it very much ...

Carroll: I wanted to ask you about the lines. Were they dropped according to the laws of chance, and the first position they fell, they were? In other words, it was strictly that one drop and it wasn't any drop until you felt you had achieved this sort of effect?

Marcel: No, there were three drops.

Carroll: Yes, I know there were three separate drops, but each was one drop?

Marcel: Absolutely. Also, that's the point...

Carroll: Marcel, did you drop each one just once, or did you keep on dropping them?

Marcel: Just once, just once. Don't recall there was any mishap.