Chess to a naked eye

mug of Sarina Bell

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His name isn’t Lars, and he doesn’t have a chess set, but we’ll call him Lars, and he’s teaching me chess. It’s a warm Friday evening on the Seine. Lars pulls out his grid-lined notebook and, in the process of explaining the knight, accidentally draws a swastika. He falters and I snort, feeling a bit tired and a bit guilty. I put him in this situation. I put a lot of people in these situations. Every guy I’ve considered going out with while studying abroad in Paris, I’ve demanded teach me how to play chess.

In theory, I’m a lesbian. In practice, I need men to love me like I need air to breathe. Thus, my attraction to them cycles through a series of domestic fantasies. And this summer, my imagination has arrived, like the truncating tick of a Technicolor pinwheel, at the following isosceles triangle: I want a man to play me in a naked game of chess.

To explain this fantasy, I have to go back to the early ‘60s, when the writer Eve Babitz (then unknown) met the artist Marcel Duchamp. After cementing himself as the father of conceptual art, Duchamp quit art to play chess full time. Forty years later, he agreed to a 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, and every New York intellectual and Los Angeles hedonist turned up for opening night.

Miss Babitz, a member of the latter category, didn’t know who Duchamp was, but three days after the party, the two took a now notorious photo together. Duchamp’s in a dark suit, thick glasses and leather loafers. Babitz is naked; they’re playing chess. It’s one of the greatest photos ever taken. She’s a marble nude come to life. Bare to the viewer, unabashed, but able to go toe-to-toe with this mammoth of the art world. Her femininity is obvious but irrelevant.

So, it was with this image in mind that I downloaded Tinder and started messaging men, “Bonjour do you know how to play chess?” The goal? Recreate the photo. The plan? Murky, but it began with Lars: my first victim, a Swedish backpacker. Lars and I go on this date. He draws a hate symbol; I forgive him. He asks me if I listen to The Smiths; I forgive him. The date ends. No photo.

The next morning, frustrated, I head to the Centre Pompidou to see a few of Duchamp’s glass works on display, and I find “Nine Malic Moulds,” a precursor to his more famous “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” I didn’t know either of these works before entering the Pompidou, but apparently the series aims to represent nine bachelors who are forced to masturbate for all eternity while being taunted by a naked woman. 

Disturbed, I left the Pompidou and focused my research on the photo. I was shocked to learn, though, that when the photo was taken, Babitz was 20, only a year older than me. Duchamp was 76, 57 years my senior. I had also assumed Babitz had some hand in the photo, but the photographer Julian Wasser chose her almost at random. Almost. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015, Wasser described a trove of “art-groupie type girls” at the retrospective who “liked to fuck artists.” When pressed on why he chose Babitz, Wasser replied, “You’re really asking me that? Oh, Jesus.” And finally: “I asked Eve because she had a very classic female body, okay?”

So, he chose her for her breasts. Shortly after agreeing to the photo, Babitz hoped Wasser would forget about it, but he didn’t. She had already committed to the bit, and how could she back out when she was in so deep? Then, there’s the image of Babitz the day of, described by her in the same interview. “I’m sitting there, smoking like crazy,” she says, “pretending to be bolder than I am.”

I told my friends I would recreate the photo, but I didn’t really want to. I found some men who were more than happy to pose with me naked, but once I had my fantasy, I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be just my body, even if it was on my own terms. Even if I were the one recreating the photo, I wasn’t the one taking the photo, and neither was Babitz; not everything needs to be reclaimed. I’m exhausted from pretending to be bolder than I am.

It’s Sunday, and I’m at the Musée D’Orsay, and everywhere I look there are naked women. I’ve been looking for a female artist for hours, and I can’t find one. I spend 15 minutes trying to translate a Maillol quote on the wall, only to realize what this sculptor, famed for his nudes of plus-sized women, is saying: “With a man, there is always something, a muscle to fix on. With women, there is nothing, no shapes, you have to invent it all, unless they are very well developed, but that’s rare.”

I am so angry, and I am not naked, and I won’t take the bit any farther, and the pinwheel spins again. And I still don’t know how to play chess.

“Arts Away” columns catalog Daily Cal staff members’ arts and culture experiences away from Berkeley. Contact Sarina Bell at [email protected].