I don’t often link Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marcel Duchamp. Yet, in September 1995, Chicano artist Rupert Garcia did just this when he sat for an interview with Paul J. Karlstrom. Garcia highlighted the similarities between these iconoclasts, both of whom died in 1968.
Karlstrom began the interview,
Karlstrom: I wanted to just point to one thing in this chronology to get us started. It jumped out to me in my reading. And that was, under the little paragraph “1966 to ‘69,” towards the end of that entry it says “assassination the same year”—and that’s ‘68—“of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the death of Marcel Duchamp strike a deep chord with the artist.” And for some reason I find this promising, shall we say, in terms of your interview, and could you expand on that a little?
Rupert Garcia: Yes. You know, I have always—not always—for many, many years I’ve been very interested in Dada and Surrealism and for sure in Marcel Duchamp and the ways in which he upset the perceived notions of what art is supposed to be, what it’s supposed to look like, and the procedure of making something called art. I found that very, very fascinating, very intriguing, and intellectually stimulating because of the challenge it proposed—to me specifically. And then the death of Martin Luther King, his assassination in the same year in which Duchamp died, resonated for me in terms of the challenges that King represented—the social-economic-racial dimension of protest, which, of course, Duchamp was also protesting—more of a cultural protest having with it moments of political ideology. So the event of these two men dying in the same year, for me, rang, as the chronology says, it resonates deeply for me because it kind of combines an aspect of who I think I am—the aesthetic, cultural, artistic dimension with the twist of having a critical bent built into it, not taking things for granted in terms of art and culture, represented by Duchamp, and then Martin Luther King representing that part of me who has always been conscious of the dimensions of racism and class in our society. Even as a kid in high school I knew about that. And even as a kid growing up, the dimensions of being an artist and then being socially conscious were always there. And so when these two men died they kind of represented to me this moment of, yes, this is really . . . these two men represent something that is a part of me, that I can actually point to these two folks and say, “Yes, they represent something that is me.” And the ramifications, of course, is in terms of my work, in terms of my thoughts about my work, is, I think, more complex, but they did, nevertheless, symbolize something very great.
To me, it was so interesting when I found out that they both died in ‘68. I mean, I couldn’t believe that they both died in ‘68. Let alone died, but that they both died, and I saw these two symbols that I embrace. On the one hand, this is so sad, but just so wonderful.
On April 4th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the centennial of the 1913 Armory Show, I am grateful to Rupert Garcia for pointing out and pairing these perhaps unlikely men, two symbols that I too embrace.
Kelly Quinn is the Terra Foundation Project Manager for Online Scholarly and Educational Initiatives at the Archives of American Art.