From an artist to Pro-engineer

Marcel Duchamp's Optical Disks, 1923

From the beginning of the 1920s to the early 1930s, Duchamp was fascinated by the idea of movement and that of how the movement directed our retinal impression.

Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics), 1920

Throughout the decade, he made several works closely related to the experiments of retinal effects. It was in 1920, with the assistance of Man Ray, Duchamp built the Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics), the first motorized optical machine demonstrating the continuity of optical illusion.

This optical device was composed of five glass plates painted in black and white linesmounted on an electrically operated metal axis. Seen from the distance of one meter, the machine would create the illusion of continuous concentric circles all on one plane, when the apparatus is in motion. In the dialogues with Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp once addressed that, Precision Optics “was in fact one of the first ‘things’ I made after I go back to New York....when you looked at it from a certain point, it all fell together and made up a single pattern. While the motor was running, the lines gave the effect of continuous black and white circles, very hazy, as you can imagine.” And, “Everything I did as an engineer was with motors I bought. The idea of movement was what preoccupied me.” (Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp, New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1967, pp. 63-4)


Disks Bearing Spirals, 1923

Three years later, Duchamp attempted other experiment to embody his idea. By using a turntableof a record player to study the effects of a revolving spiral, Disks Bearing Spirals (1923) achieved a striking impression of a three-dimensional depth. On seven irregularly cut white papers disks, he drew a series of spirals in ink and paint, and then mounted on blue paper disk attached to square cardboard. Disk Bearing Spirals envisioned the motif that would appear in Rotary Demisphere (1925), and in the film Anémic Cinema (1925-26).

In 1935, Duchamp finished the Rotoreliefs, the final version of these optical devices. Six disks painted on both sides, on one side appeared a new drawing for each disk, while on the other side of each shows the eccentric-circle derived from the earlier versions.


Optical Disk No. 1, 1926
Pun of Optical Disk No. 1, 1926
Optical Disk No. 2, 1926
Anémic Cinéma:
Disks Inscribed with Puns, 1926

Later, a wall-hanging unit was added in the edition of 1959.
It was a square wood board covered with black velvet, supporting a motor in the center driving a three-arm wire platform to hold the rotating disks. Unlike the prevoius hand-drawn disks, these disks were printed on both sides in color by offset lithography. The sense of depth is achieved again when the macine is moving on the turntable of a recpord player. Furthermore, as Duchamps noted, the illusion will be intensified when the image is viewed whit one eye instead of two.

Duchamp recalled, "using the same procedure, I found a way of getting objects in relief. Thanks to an offhand perspective, that is, as seen from below or from the ceiling, you got a thing which, in concentric circles, forms the image of a real object, like a soft-boiled egg, like a fish turning around in a fishbowl; you see the fishbowl in three-dimension. What interest me most was that it was a scientific phenomenon which existed in another way than when I had found it. I saw an optician at that time who told me, ‘The thing is used to restore sight to one-eyed people, or at least the impression of three-dimension,' Because, it seems, they lost it." (Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp, pp.23).

Not satisfying with a conventional expressive term about art, Duchamp shifted his identity from a visual artist to a proengineer, and to provoke the truth that our perception toward reality is in fact dominated and limited by the play of retinal movement, which is best exemplified by his optical works.