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Chess Lessons for Artists February 17, 2009

Posted by Jennifer in : art,books,chess , add a comment
A Duchamp portrait by Arnold Rosenberg
I annotated 15 chess games by Marcel Duchamp for a forthcoming book, Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess (Readymade Press, 2009).  The conceptual artist and painter is famous for works such as Nude Descending a Staircase, Étant Donnés, and of course, the urinal, or Fountain.

I was inspired to update you on this project when reading a recent New Yorker article about Scrabble, "Spreading the Word" by Judith Thurman. The article touches on a lot of interesting points, including the lawsuit over Scrabulous (now renamed Lexulous on facebook.) There is also a section on online gaming addiction, in which New York Times columnist, Deborah Solomon is quoted: "I used to be a productive individual who read serious fiction in the hours before I went to sleep. But that was in the innocent Un-Scrabbled past." Thurman continues: "She plays every night on ISC(Internet Scrabble Club) under the screen name Duchamp- a nod to the French Dadaist, who claimed to have renounced art for chess, and who Solomon says, ‘in that sense, deserves to be seen as a pioneer of the ruined-by-games-online present.’"

After reading a fascinating article about fact checking at The New Yorker, I’m surprised this sentence went through. Duchamp never “claimed to have renounced art for chess,” as Thurman stated. He never said this or anything like it, although, admittedly, countless others have, as the present case demonstrates. I also object to the idea that chess stole Duchamp away, as if it was a useless pastime that didn’t inspire him or add anything to his oeuvre. In fact, Duchamp’s artistic output related to chess is prodigious: He collaborated on a book on pawn endgames, created a pocket chess set and co-organized with Julian Levy the exhibition, "The Imagery of Chess." Many of Duchamp’s works refer to or represent chess, from his early Cézanne-inspired painting, The Chess Game (1910) to the Cubist King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912.) When you read Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess, you will see that this is just the beginning.  In this book, gallery owner and the mastermind behind the publication, Francis M. Naumann, writes an essay that examines Duchamp’s career arc as if it were a chess game. Professor Bradley Bailey adapted his thesis on Duchamp, chess and The Large Glass for the book. All the aforementioned things come even before Duchamp’s games themselves, which include many brilliancies. I was particularly impressed by Duchamp’s handling of an opening close to my heart, the Dragon, which showed that in some ways, Duchamp was ahead of his time in chess.

I am involved more and more in art through writing, and various video and photo projects, and I’ve noticed some ways that my background in chess helped me as an artist.

1.   Relentless Self-Criticism:  From chess, I know that some ideas that seem good at first do not pass the "bullshit" meter. I try to be self- critical about any major projects I undertake, so I don’t waste a lot of time on something that is inherently flawed.
2.    Focus: Chess helps me recognize flow moments, where you lose a sense of time and are lost in the moment, which is crucial in any creative endeavor.
3.    The importance of confidence: In chess, without confidence, you can’t improve. I’m also realizing how important confidence is in art and writing. In an interview with February 09 Chess Life cover girl Rusudan Goletiani said it again and again — she never would have won medals at the 2008 Dresden Chess Olympiad if she wasn’t confident. In chess, it’s obvious to me if I spend too much time on a move, it may be cause me to lose on time. If a month passes me by without progress on any projects that are important to me, due to some combination of a lack of confidence and distraction, it’s not as obvious that this may signify a missed opportunity, a project stalled, a chapter unwritten. Check out one embarrassing excerpt from the aforementioned interview:

Rusudan Goletiani (RG)- Our motto at (my chess academy in Westchester) is the 3 C’s. 1. Concentrate, 2. Calculate and 3.

Jennifer Shahade (JS): Hold up; let me guess the third one… Checkmate?
RG: No

JS: Control? Capture? Check?
RG: No, no, no.

JS: OK fine you can tell me. Why can’t I get this?
RG: No, you can get it…

JS:  Oh, confidence, duh!
RG: Yeah, I guess if it took you so long to get that, it may be something you need to work on it….  (Laughs)

On May 6, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art will host a book signing and panel discussion for Duchamp, the Art of Chess. This is just a day before the 2009 U.S. Championships will kick off at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Look for more details on the book and related events here or on uschess.org.