It is "a joke about the meter," Duchamp glibly noted about this piece, but his premise for it reads like a theorem: "If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases[it] creates a new image of the unit of length." Duchamp dropped three threads one meter long from the height of one meter onto three stretched canvases. The threads were then adhered to the canvases to preserve the random curves they assumed upon landing. The canvases were cut along the threads' profiles, creating a template of their curves creating new units of measure that retain the length of the meter but undermine its rational basis.
Gallery label from 2006
To a large degree, 4’33” and the works preceding it were inspired by Duchamp, in particular by his employment of “chance operations” as championed in his 3 Standard Stoppages. In constructing this piece, Duchamp dropped three meter–long pieces of thread onto a canvas, letting them fall as they may, then cut their variable silhouettes to display the inherent indeterminacy of life, even in so–called standardized measurements. Speaking about the influence of his friend and mentor, Cage noted: "I always admired [Duchamp's] work, and once I got involved with chance operations, I realized he had been involved with them, not only in art but also in music, fifty years before I was. When I pointed this out to him, Marcel said, 'I suppose I was fifty years ahead of my time.'"
Gallery label from There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014
A working note of Duchamp's describes his idea for this enigmatic work: "A straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases and creates a new image of the unit of length." Here, three such threads, each fixed to its own canvas with varnish, and each canvas glued to its own glass panel, are enclosed in a box, along with three lengths of wood (draftsman's straightedges) cut into the shapes drawn by the three threads.
Duchamp later said that 3 Standard Stoppages opened the way "to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art," such as what Duchamp called "retinal painting," art designed for the luxuriance of the eye. This required formal intelligence and a skillful hand on the part of the artist. The Stoppages, on the other hand, depended on chance—which, paradoxically, they at the same time fixed and "standardized." (Duchamp used the phrase "canned chance.") Subordinating art both to accident and to something approximating the scientific method (which they simultaneously parodied), 3 Standard Stoppages advanced a conceptual approach, an absurdist strain, and a way of commenting on both art and the broader culture that inspired countless later artists of many different kinds.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 91