Matthew Taylor and the Art of the Impossible

by Michele Manelis April 16, 2020
Director Matthew Taylor

Filmmaker-documentarian-artist-sculptor, Matthew Taylor, is a lifelong admirer of groundbreaking artist Marcel Duchamp, the famous French-born painter, and sculptor who broke down the boundaries between works of art and everyday objects. Art was always an integral part of Taylor’s life. Hailing from an artistic background, his mother was a fashion photographer, his father a painter and hospital administrator, and from as early as he can remember Taylor’s parents encouraged his interest in the arts and took him to museums and galleries, where he discovered his love for Duchamp. He went on to study art history and earned a degree in sculpture, and now, with The Art of the Impossible, Taylor introduces Duchamp to a new audience. This straight-forward and enlightening documentary explores the life, philosophy, and impact of one of the most influential early 20th century modernists and showcases how Duchamp’s ideas changed the public consciousness, and our understanding of aesthetics, art, and culture.  The film features interviews with artists including Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Michel Gondry, Edward Ruscha, and Bibbe Hansen, and each speaks to the myriad ways in which they’ve been influenced by him. 

How did you decide on Marcel Duchamp as the subject of your documentary?

It was the mid-90s and my dad gave me this book called Duchamp by Calvin Tomkins. I became so enamored with Marcel Duchamp that it became my bible as I entered art school, and I painted my entire perspective of art-making in the kind of framework of Marcel Duchamp. Also, at the turn of the century, Duchamp was seeing all these new technologies come about, and I was at the turn of the millennium seeing a whole bunch of technologies come out like Google and social media, so there were parallels between his and my technology.

How important is he in today’s art world?

I think Duchamp is basically the basis of everything that goes on in the art world today. When he put that urinal into the art show, as well as other concepts, it gave artists the permission to try new things. So, if someone says, ‘Oh, you can’t use that, that’s not artistic material,’ Duchamp’s principles would say, ‘Well, why not?’

So you’re persuaded that, without Duchamp, there wouldn’t be Andy Warhol, nor would Maurizio Cattelan’s exhibit at Art Basel in Miami be considered legitimate -- a duct-taped a banana that sold for $120k.

Oh, absolutely. Duchamp allows you to do that. In a lot of ways that is already a readymade. In some ways, it’s an obvious way to use his ideas. I would even go as far as to say it’s one of the more uninteresting ways to use his ideas. (laughs)

In what ways was he ahead of his time?

When he took the postcard and wrote LHOOQ, what he was essentially doing was creating a meme. You take an image someone else made and you add something to it, and it changes the context yet carries with it all the ideas of the original. And then someone else takes it and they modify it, so if you think about it, that’s what Tik-Tok is now. It’s sampling and re-sampling and taking things and modifying them, and it becomes a communal consciousness. He saw photomechanical recreations as a way for people to see information that you could never see with your own eyes and would have the same value and performance as the original.

He had an image of being a rebel or ‘bad boy in the art world.’ How did that image sit with him?

I think he was a guy who just did what he wanted to do. The personal accounts of Duchamp by people who knew him were that he was a nice guy, kind of quiet, never rude, he was never chauvinistic or nasty, and people really liked him. I don’t think his rebelliousness and bad boy-ness was conscious. I think when he experimented, he was kind of a naughty guy and he had a naughty sense of humor. He never would join a group, he didn’t want to be part of an art movement -- he was all about the individual. So part of his bad boy-ness is also the fact that he would never formally be a Dadaist or a surrealist because he believed that groups would make rules because to have a group you need rules, and he just never believed in following them.

Who was the most surprising interview from the documentary?

Jeff Koons. I think a lot of people’s perspective on Jeff Koons is that he is a controversial artist. But when he spoke about Duchamp, he had some of the most thoughtful, interesting perspectives that I’d heard from anybody in the film. I think people go, ‘Oh, he makes balloon dogs,’ but I don’t think they listen to what he says. He has opinions and perspectives that I think are absolutely mind-blowing. It was probably one of my favorite interviews I have ever done in my entire life.

Who would be a modern-day equivalent to Duchamp?

Elon Musk or even Zuckerberg -- they’re the architects of the future by breaking everything down in the past. And that’s very Duchampian.

What do you want to convey through this documentary?

That Duchamp is a passport to unlimited creativity. And not just in art, he’s a passport to unlimited creativity in whatever you do. Duchamp was not just for the elite, Duchamp was for anybody who did anything, who wanted to push the limits of anything. And so for me, you can look at the work, and the work is fine, but the work is kind of inconsequential to what it all means. If you have an idea, then you are valid. That is what his basic premise is.

How can art help us through the COVID-19 crisis?

It’s really interesting because typically we are consumers, right? We go to the movie theater, we go to the rock show, we massively take in content. But what’s really interesting right now is all of that has been taken away. So we can’t go to movie theaters and we are going to run out of content eventually, and there’s no content being made. So what’s going to happen is, the younger generation is stepping up to the plate with things like Tik-Tok. And what is interesting about a platform like Instagram and even more like Tik-Tok or even YouTube, is that these technologies have empowered people in isolation right now to communicate with each other, through humor or through drama. And so if you are isolated right now, you can do the great Duchampian thing, which is using what you have in front of you.

So it goes with the adage, necessity is the mother of invention.

There are certain platforms that will emerge as completely critical during this time to save people’s sanity. Creativity found its way through the Dark Ages, it found its way through World War II, and it will find a way through now. 1917 was the year that Marcel Duchamp did the urinal, and that’s the same year that the Spanish flu was killing 50 million people. And so I think that what is going to happen is that you are going to have a new group of unknown creative people emerges, and that will be how the society shifts towards a completely different paradigm.