Revisioning Chess

Eye Level, the new blog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, points us in the direction of the Ben Davis review of "The Imagery of Chess Revisited," currently on exhibit at the Noguchi Museum. Many very cool artistic interpretations of the chess set.

Man Ray
Silver Chess Set
The Museum of Modern Art

A sample from Davis' review:

[T]he "Chess" show points [to a] common interest: the mutation of traditional art forms by technology. You've got Man Ray's combination of reverence and technophilia, Calder's decorative sensibility combined with an eye for technical innovation and Noguchi's organicism intertwined with the polish of industrial design.

Chess — a mythic game but also one associated with cold scientific rationality — seems to have provided a field on which to wrestle with such tangled feelings about artistic modernization. It's an ambivalence Duchamp famously took to the next level.

. . .

Thinkers from Wittgenstein to Saussure used chess as a key metaphor to illustrate how meaning is produced. Like words, the values of chess pieces are not determined by any positive, intrinsic property, but by a set of arbitrary conventions. Change all the pieces on the board for stones and good players can progress just fine, because the specific pieces are only place-holders for certain functions.

Duchamp became influential for bringing this lesson of the chess board to the art world, showing that art, like chess, is a set of rules that functions independently of the positive properties of the pieces — replacing the art object with a bike tire or a bottle rack, for instance. Asking his friends and contemporaries to trade the traditional chess pieces in for their own inventions at the Julien Levy Gallery was, in a way, the beginning the infiltration of his ironic relation towards visual values into broader artistic discourse.


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