According to Marcel Duchamp, "all chess players are artists". He became so enthralled by the lure of the chessboard that it threatened, as he grew older, to consume all his imaginative energies. The spirit of Duchamp hovers over "The Art of Chess" at Somerset House, summing up the fascination and danger of a game that has seduced artists throughout the modern period.
As if to match the drama of chess, all the rooms are shrouded in darkness. Intensely theatrical spotlights are trained on the 19 chess sets, designed by artists over the past century. The story aptly commences in Russia, where chess is as important to life as vodka. Before the revolution, an outrageously extravagant set was made by Faberge in St Petersburg as a gift to the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces that invaded Manchuria in 1904. Although gleaming with silver, jasper and pale apricot serpentine, this luxurious ensemble looks over-polite, even dull. It compares poorly with the entertaining propaganda chess sets made after the revolution by two sisters, Natalia and Yelena Danko. At the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad during the 1920s, they transformed the chessboard's king and queen into factory workers. The knights became power stations, the rooks water towers and the pawns electric light bulbs - all symbols of the Soviet Union's supposedly thriving industrial strength. But the Danko sisters' most shameless set opposes capitalists to communists, with the capitalist king as Death clutching a human thigh bone as a sceptre. On the other side of the board, the bishops are replaced by Cossack soldiers in red breeches, while the pawns have become tough, good-looking peasants grasping sickles and sheaves of corn.
Duchamp, who became so expert a player that he was part of the French team for the first chess Olympiad in 1924, had nothing to do with such political strategies. For him, chess was irresistible because of its close links with the "mind art" he had pioneered in his radical experiments with ready-made objects. His preference for the mental sphere led him to abandon fine art and, in 1918, devote himself to playing chess in Buenos Aires. There, he made a wood, metal and linoleum chess set, carving each piece with care and incorporating two stopwatches for timed games. The ensemble has a studious air, but one of the pieces is badly chipped. Perhaps, just once, Duchamp lost his conceptual poise and hurled it across the room after losing an especially hard-fought game.
I cannot imagine such fieriness erupting from anyone who played the Bauhaus chess set. Designed in 1924 by Josef Hartwig, head of the wood-carving workshop, it is irreproachably geometric. True, Hartwig stressed the fluidity of the game by turning the queen into a sphere set on a large cube, and the minimalism of the set is quietly satisfying. But it also exudes functional severity, making me prefer the spontaneous wit of Alexander Calder's Travelling Chess Set. One weekend in 1942, he knocked it up from fragments of a discarded broom handle. Each rudimentary piece was daubed with red or black paint, and Calder introduced sly eroticism by portraying the king as an erect, expectant screw.
Two years later, he made a different wooden set for "The Imagery of Chess", an exhibition in New York celebrating how the game acted as a stimulus for the international avant-garde. Man Ray, who in Rene Clair's 1924 Dadaist film Entr'acte had played chess with Duchamp on a rooftop in Paris, produced an abstract set for the show. It was dominated by a pyramidal form for the king, and the artist emphasised the Egyptian origins of his inspiration by scratching into its surface the proud words "Man Ray The King".
The brazen machismo flaunted in such symbolism could hardly be further removed from Play it by Trust, an original version of which was displayed by the young Yoko Ono at the Indica Gallery, London, in 1966. Conventional in form, the wooden pieces are nevertheless made subversive. Ono painted the pieces for both sides entirely white, ensuring that players would lose track of their moves soon after the game commenced. She thereby undermined chess's inherent aggression and replaced it with an alternative goal rooted in mutual empathy. Ono's idealism is admirable enough, and at one with her 1960s crusade for peace and love, but I cannot imagine Play it by Trust endearing itself to diehard chess players.
Has anyone, professional or amateur, ever seriously tried using such sets? The question needs to be asked, particularly when we encounter the most recent works in the exhibition. Completed this year following commissions from the London-based art firm RS&A Ltd, the makers seem bent on making the game well nigh unplayable. Yayoi Kusama, who paints obsessively in an attempt to control her incessant hallucinations, has concocted a set where the bulbous pieces and board are spattered with red and black spots on white and yellow grounds: they would bewilder the eyes of anyone who sat down to play. The Chapman Brothers' set is even more provocative. Inlaid with white and black skull-and-crossbones veneer, the board supports a gaggle of naked, "post-apocalyptic" and utterly repellent adolescents. Although they have girls' bodies, penises sprout where their noses should be. Squatting or gesturing as though limbering up for a martial arts fight, they inhabit a nightmare world. Damien Hirst presents an equally pessimistic vision. His pieces, all medicine bottles cast in silver and glass, are housed in a clinical cabinet. When taken out, they are positioned on a mirrored glass board displaying the biohazard sign. Hirst makes the set even more ominous by resting it on a surgical trolley. Although he calls the work Mental Escapology, chess is here coldly equated with the unavoidability of death.
It is a relief, finally, to encounter Paul McCarthy's offering. This blithely dysfunctional renegade from LA has conducted a raid on his own kitchen. Like his fellow countryman Alexander Calder, he thinks nothing of placing the lowliest utensils on a board made from 64 segments of his kitchen floor. Among the domestic detritus, a tub filled with "Extra Value Goop" promises to eradicate "spots on washable clothes". But the Goop tub's surface is as besmirched as all the other well-used objects on view here. Whether butts in an ashtray, a smeared ketchup bottle or a repellent piece of leftover food, they transform chess into a Mardi Gras of all-American excess. The traditional sobriety of the chessboard has been left far behind, and McCarthy invites us to play an alternative game with a dildo, a fag lighter and a miniature rubber duck.
"The Art of Chess" is at Somerset House, London WC2 (0870 842 2240) until 28 September
Richard Cork's four new books on modern art (1970-2000) have just been published by Yale