Duchamp painted Coffee Mill for his brother, the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who, at the time of his wedding, asked a number of his artist friends to make small works to decorate his kitchen. As Duchamp later recollected: 'I made this old-fashioned coffee mill for him. It shows the different facets of the coffee grinding operation and the handle on top is seen simultaneously in several positions as it revolves. You can see the ground coffee in a heap under the cogwheels of the central shaft, which turns in the directions of the arrow on top.' (d'Harnoncourt and McShine, p.256.)

The year after he painted Coffee Mill Duchamp attracted considerable attention exhibiting his most Cubist work, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) at the Armory Show in New York. The influence of Cubism was, however, already visible in Coffee Mill: the use of fractured lines and repeated elements to suggest the movement of the grinder were typically Cubist devices, and Duchamp himself said that the painting was 'based on the idea of "dismantling" the grinder' (interview with Dorothy Norman, 1953, first published in Art in America, vol.57, July-August 1969, p.38). With its diagrammatic appearance, specifically the inclusion of an arrow, Coffee Mill can also be thought of as the forerunner of all Dadaist machine imagery. 'When I painted the Coffee Mill it was the first time I became interested in machine forms', Duchamp later explained, 'the arrow indicates the direction in which the machine should turn. The handle is shown in different positions - this having to do with the idea of movement, of repetition.' (ibid. p.38)

Both functionally and symbolically Coffee Mill anticipates the role of the element identified as a chocolate grinder in Duchamp's celebrated work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (Tate T02011). In a series of notes written to accompany The Large Glass, Duchamp explained that, 'The bachelor grinds his chocolate himself' (Schwarz, p.573). This statement hints that the action of the Coffee Mill might also be taken as a metaphor for masturbation, and Duchamp later commented that: 'Always there has been a necessity for circles in my life, for, how do you say, rotation. It is a kind of onanism.' (Ades, p.75.)

Further Reading:

Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp, London 1999, pp.45-7, reproduced p.47 in colour
Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp.255-6, reproduced p.81 in colour
Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, revised and expanded edition, New York 1997, pp.558-9, p.696, reproduced p.558

Sophie Howarth
May 2000