Arturo Schwarz, Scholar Who Decrypted Duchamp’s Elusive Art, Is Dead at 97

Arturo Schwarz, an influential art historian who wrote one of the defining books on Marcel Duchamp, has died. Exibart reported that Schwarz died on either June 22 or 23 in Genoa, Italy, at age 97.

For many, Schwarz’s greatest achievement is his two-volume book The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. First published in 1969, the book elucidated the hidden ideas at play in the artist’s cryptic Dada creations. It was not the first monograph ever devoted to Duchamp, though it remains one of the most comprehensive ones—even if scholars have since learned of the existence of works that Schwarz missed.

The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp has received a good deal of criticism from other Duchamp historians, too. Some have claimed Schwarz’s reliance on psychoanalytic theory by Jacques Lacan was an issue, given that Duchamp himself did not display any affection toward those writings. Duchamp was famously averse to telling critics what to think, however. “Schwarz was only one of many to benefit from his tolerance,” art historian Molly Nesbit wrote in Artforum, reviewing the book’s third edition in 1997. “He did not repay it in kind.”

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1924, Schwarz departed for Paris when he was a teenager. He came into contact with André Breton’s writings, and wound up developing a life-long affection for Surrealist art. Later on, he became involved in the Fourth Trotskyite International’s French chapter. His political leanings got him in trouble, and he was interned for 18 months.

In 1949, he was expelled to Italy. He settled in Milan, where he would go on to set up a bookstore and, later, a gallery. Opened in 1961, Galleria Schwarz became known for its exhibitions of Surrealist art.

Over the course of his lifetime, Schwarz went on to amass a collection of hundreds of Dada and Surrealist artworks. In 1998, he donated many of them to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. To that museum went more than 30 artworks by Duchamp and more than 60 works by Man Ray, as well as pieces by Dora Maar, Joseph Cornell, Alexander Calder, Arshile Gorky, and more. Additionally, he gave works by artists he considered forerunners to the two movements, among them Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake. “This gift really caps our collection,” James S. Snyder, then the museum’s director, told the New York Times.

In that same article, Schwarz said, “Though I am an agnostic, I am profoundly attached to the ethical values of Judaism. For us, a good act is a commandment. Besides, I feel it is immoral for a private person to keep hold of something which the community could enjoy.”

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