In 1913 Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase exploded through the American art world. This is the story of how he followed the painting to New York two years later, enchanted the Arensberg salon, and—almost incidentally—changed art forever.
A group biography of sorts, which charts, in sometimes gratuitous detail, the triangulated love affair between Duchamp, Wood and Roché, and the others who crossed their paths and their beds ... The claims Brandon makes at the outset seem a little far-fetched ... It is hardly the case that these people were dreaming up new patterns for living. So Duchamp and Roché had threesomes (and, I counted, at least one foursome). These things were hardly invented in 20th-century New York ... The portrait Brandon sketches of Wood is especially winning ... It is questionable whether we really need the pages and pages devoted to ferreting out whether or not Wood actually had penetrative sex with her various lovers ... In spite of this — or because of it? — Spellbound by Marcel is a delicious and deeply researched portrait of its time; Brandon mines the archives to establish who did whom when. I’m not sure this generates any insight into Duchamp’s work, but spending time with Beatrice Wood was an unexpected surprise.
Brandon...takes an unusual approach to the famously enigmatic Marcel Duchamp by focusing on his relationships ... With clarifying details, Brandon places Duchamp’s art in the context of his affairs and marriages; exhaustively chronicles Roché’s obsession with conducting simultaneous love affairs, and tracks Wood’s nightmare marriage to a heartless con man and ultimate triumph as a renowned ceramicist. With singular characters and rare sexual specificity and candor, this is fresh and revelatory art history.
Brandon has woven a narrative that intermingles complex romantic entanglements with persistent artistic aspirations, giving readers a book that is one part 20th century cultural history, two parts gossipy soap opera ... What do we learn from Ruth Brandon’s probing account of these artists, connected by their presence in the Arensbergs’ salon? Her attitude toward them might be described as sardonic, stressing as it does the casual, transient nature of their relationships, their carelessness with each other, the selfishness of their motivations. These characteristics of their personal lives overshadow her interest in their artistic output and accomplishments ... Perhaps the key is Duchamp’s pose of indifference in both his personal life and his art, an indifference that cast a spell on those who drifted into his path, but left broken hearts in its wake.