Curator, Anne Umland: Marcel Duchamp's To Be Looked At (From the Other Side of the Glass) With One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour is basically a Duchamp instruction piece, one of many works that suggests a new form of audience engagement.
It speaks in many different ways to the beginnings of Duchamp's interest in strategies that move outside conventional aesthetic realms. It parodies the age-old idea of art as a window, as a picture onto another world. Chance enters into this work not only in terms of its transparency, which subjects its 'composition,' in quotes, to constant change, but also in the way that damage to the glass, that occurred during transit, was welcomed by Duchamp as an intervention.
The images, the objects, the lines and forms that are imbedded within To Be Looked At, the spheres, the magnifying lens, the 3-D rendering of a pyramid that floats up ahead, are as baffling as the work as a whole. They suggest an interest in optics, in peepholes, in looking, in perspectival conventions of rendering. It's a picture that is vaguely cosmological, pseudo-scientific in the extreme, that evokes diagramming and mapping, but that at the same time cancels or perturbs any sort of seamless illusion.
The title of this work, which Duchamp said he "intended to sound like an oculist’s prescription," tells the viewer exactly how to look at it. But peering through the convex lens embedded in the work’s glass "for almost an hour” would have a hallucinatory effect, the view being dwarfed, flipped, and otherwise distorted. Meanwhile the viewer patiently following the title's instruction is him- or herself put on display for anyone else walking by. Duchamp called To Be Looked At . . . his "small glass," to distinguish it from his famous Large Glass of 1915–23. He made the work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had fled earlier in 1918 to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the United States during World War I. When he shipped it back to New York, the glass cracked in transit, an effect that delighted him.
Inscribed in French on a strip of metal glued across the approximate center of this work are the words of its title, suggesting that viewers look through the lens Duchamp mounted between two panes of glass haloed in concentric circles. Peering through the convex lens "for almost an hour" is supposed to have a hallucinatory effect, as the view is dwarfed, flipped, and otherwise distorted. Duchamp delighted in the fact that the glass shattered while being transported.