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Retinal vs conceptual

By Sebastian Smee   September 2003

“Retinal” was the word Marcel Duchamp used in the early 20th century to disparage painting designed to stimulate the eye rather than the brain. Duchamp’s objection was to the kind of painting that had emerged with Courbet and been taken up by the impressionists: painting which shunned literary or religious notions and pursued visual representation for its own sake.

Duchamp abandoned oil painting and then abandoned making or displaying art altogether, preferring instead to play chess and to pursue an oblique but influential role on the margins of New York’s art world. His disparagement of retinal art (he also called…

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