One Hundred Years Out:
The Relevance of 1920s Glass
to Current Practices
Chanel No. 5 and Case, (1921)
Detail, The Large Glass (1915-23), Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Tea Glass with Saucer and Stirrer (1925), Museum of Modern Art, NY
To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot always
live in the present it must not be considered at all.
-Pablo Picasso, 1923
Has the artworld moved beyond The Large Glass? I am speaking of Marcel Duchamp’s double-paned sculpture constructed a century ago. Is it truly contemporary in its provocation and prescience? Can The Large Glass stand up to the insistent allure of our digital technology and screen culture? And, more radical still, do other modern glass forms that are physically overlooked and critically dismissed join Duchamp’s masterpiece in its arguable presentness? In this lecture, I contend that a hundred years out, three different types of 1920s glass manufacture—the studio objects of Marcel Duchamp, the workshop prototypes of Josef Albers, and the factory commodities of Guerlain and Chanel—are both current and compelling. After delving into these three productions, I circle back to Duchamp and his 1921 readymade, Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette. This singular work operates provocatively as studio object, workshop prototype, and factory commodity.
All of these glass objects continue to challenge us today. Whether made in the studio, the workshop, or the factory, these works remain current in their ability to engage us physically, emotionally, intellectually. In Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, the material serves to multiply our encounter, and its breakage leads to a richer, metaphorical reading of the narrative. With Belle Haleine, a glass readymade parodies manufactured luxury commodities, and we first laugh at the joke, then question our own complicity. In Josef Albers’ Frontal, glass participates in pictorial discourse and simultaneously offers a potential for serial production. His Tea Glass with Saucer and Stirrer is a functional object that aims to provide society with a superior product. In Guerlain and Chanel’s signature perfumes, glass commodifies feminine fantasies and feminist ambitions. The savvy business acumen of the two companies is apparent in flacon designs that capitalize on current trends, manufacturing processes that pair industrial and artisanal methods, and marketing plans that use display strategies, fashion brandings, and global distribution networks.
These glassworks are compelling in their materiality, provocative in their manufacture, and laden with meaning and significance. They argue successfully for the presentness of good art conceived and produced in past times. Whether it is by contesting convention, designing social change, or embodying desire, Marcel Duchamp and Josef Albers, along with their industry colleagues Guerlain and Chanel, created works that are truly contemporary. Current artists need to consider these century-old glass forms as current forms. One hundred years out, the works remain fresh.