'"Why not sneeze?" was ordered by Katherine Dreier's sister [Dorothy Dreier], who wanted something of mine', wrote Duchamp. 'Since I didn't want to do a painting, in the usual sense of the word, I told her, "Fine, but I'll do what ever comes into my head". I took some little pieces of marble in the form of sugar cubes, a thermometer, and a cuttlebone, shut them up in a bird cage, and painted the whole thing white.'1
The confusion as to the true identity of the material used in the caged cubes … sugar or marble … would be revealed when the work was picked up: 'It weighs a ton', said Duchamp, 'and that was one of the elements that interested me when I made it … It is a Ready-made in which the sugar is changed to marble. It is a sort of mythological effect'.2
The thermometer protruding from the cage also draws attention to this effect, as it is intended to measure the difference in temperature between the (heat-giving) sugar and the colder marble. The inclusion in the cage of the cuttlefish bone further reinforces the fact that this is a bird's cage.
Duchamp commented on the title of this work during an interview on French television:
The cage with sugar cubes is called Why not sneeze … ? and, of course the title seems weird to you since there's really no connection between the sugar cubes and a sneeze … First of all there's the dissociational gap between the idea of sneezing and the idea of … 'Why not sneeze?' because after all, you don't sneeze at will; you usually sneeze in spite of your will. So, the answer to the question, Why not sneeze? is simply that you can't sneeze at will! And then there's the literary side if I may call it that … but 'literary' is such a stupid word … it doesn't mean anything … but at any rate there's the marble with its coldness, and this meant that you can even say you're cold, because of the marble, and all of the associations are permissible.'3
The 'Rose Selavy' of the title was a pseudonym Duchamp adopted in 1920. He had first considered using a Jewish name, as he was Catholic, but eventually decided that a female identity would be more extreme. Soon after this work was completed 'Rose' gained a double 'r', becoming 'Rrose'. When Duchamp returned to Paris in May 1921 he signed Francis Picabia's (1879-1953) painting L'Oeil Cacodylate (Musée National d'art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) with a pun that suggested that Rose, like the name Lloyd, could begin with double letters.
Although commissioned by Dorothea Dreier, Why not sneeze Rose Sélavy? was not to her liking, and she passed it on to her sister Katherine who in turn was unable to live with it and asked Duchamp to sell it. It was eventually acquired by Walter Arensberg in 1934 and is now in the Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art. A second version was made by Ulf Linde for the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
The Australian National Gallery's version is from an edition of eight produced by Galleria Schwarz, Milan, in 1964 under the supervision of Duchamp. Two further examples of this edition were reserved for Duchamp and Arturo Schwarz, with a third inscribed to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
This edition differs from the original in Philadelphia in two respects. In accord with Duchamp's wishes, in this edition the title on the bottom of the cage is written in mirror writing so that when reversed by reflection it can be read correctly.
The second difference is more prosaic. Each of the marble cubes in the original work in Philadelphia bears the rubber-stamped caption 'Made in France' which was applied in 1936 to comply with customs regulations when the work was being returned to the United States after being exhibited at the Exposition Surrealiste d'Objets, held at the gallery of Charles Ratton in Paris.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.120.