Progression of Art
This work, described by Duchamp as a "pleasant gadget," combined a stool with a wheel, which was intermittently turned so that it would revolve for viewers. Duchamp termed this an "assisted readymade" as it was based on the combination of two different objects.
The arrangement of these two objects is visually striking, even comical. As Duchamp experienced himself, there is also something very pleasing in how tactical this work appears, as if it invites the viewer to spin the wheel themselves. The work fuses together two different useful objects, but in doing so, renders them both stripped of their original function. We can no longer ride the bike or sit on the stool so the objects are totally reimagined. Instead, they become objects for us to contemplate, to look at, to treat as we would anything else in a gallery space. By juxtaposing two different objects, Duchamp creates a new thing, which is neither one nor the other.
Wooden stool, metal bicycle wheel - Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The Fountain is one of the best-known works of the 20th century and continues to be considered the most influential piece of modern art. Though its composition is simple - a porcelain urinal lay on its side and inscribed with the words "R. Mutt" and date - its impact on the art world cannot be understated.
With this piece, Duchamp could be saying any number of things, but most importantly, he seems to decimate the cultural reverence there is for art objects by making one of the most ubiquitous and lowly objects into one of admiration. By unifying the sacred and the profane, Duchamp rethinks the innate demands of art by asking us to laugh or feel puzzled by the object, rather than respecting it. Duchamp shows that even an ordinary toilet can become worth an incredible amount of money simply because an artist has selected it.
Duchamp also makes a joke about the good aesthetic "taste" of the artist by picking an object that most people would simply mock. He seems to challenge his audience, asking them: could you display this in your home? Clearly, one might never think it is in good taste to display a toilet, but by abstracting it from its use, Duchamp asks his audience to recontextualize the work, so it is no longer defined by its use, but instead by its lack of purpose. If we do this, then the object no longer becomes distasteful, but merely another object. By using indifference in selecting his objects, and transforming them into something other, Duchamp wanted to avoid making art into a purely aesthetic ideal that appealed only to the eye.
Though Duchamp is famous for his creation of the readymade, he actually only created thirteen such works of his own. Aside from The Fountain, this included Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack (1914), Prelude to a Broken Arm (1915), Pulled at 4 Pins (1915), Comb (1915), Traveller's Folding Item (1916), Trap (1917), 50cc of Paris Air (1919), Fresh Window (1920), Brawl at Austerlitz (1921), Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette (1921), and Why Not Sneeze, Rose Selavy (1921).
Porcelain urinal. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz - Multiple versions
This work was created in collaboration by The Baroness and painter and photographer Morton Schamberg. The piece was originally solely attributed to Schamberg, but recent scholarship has found that it is likely to have been a combined effort. The piece is a section of cast-iron plumbing that has been turned upside down and mounted to a wooden base.
God is considered the sister piece to Duchamp's The Fountain in both the use of banal plumbing parts and its re-contextualized orientation. Because The Baroness and Duchamp were dear friends, even living for a time in the same apartment building, and because God was made in the same year as The Fountain, there has been much speculation about which piece was actually created first. Like The Fountain, God takes an overlooked item and repositions it in a new setting, questioning the inherent value in any piece of art. However, Freytag-Loringhoven places a different emphasis on this piece through its title. By naming this phallic-shaped piece God, she appears to make fun of the traditional idea of God as an authoritative figure. In joining together the high and the low, she questions the arbitrary boundary between the two, and the societal structures that keep them in place.
This piece also asks interesting questions about authorship, particularly in the fact that it has been misattributed in the past. By a woman artist naming a lowly object God, she gives herself a new power to name and to create, a power that is affiliated with God himself (notice God is traditionally considered male). Freytag-Loringhoven's playful and yet powerful work seeks to question the possibility of women to assert their own independence by challenging dominating power structures.
Cast iron plumbing trap - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Though Man Ray is best known for his photography, he tried his hand at many other forms of artwork throughout his career. In The Gift, Ray took an iron and added fourteen thumbtacks to its underside. The object was made on the day of his first solo exhibition in Paris with the help of musician and composer Erik Satie. They bought the two items from which this piece is made up, quickly put it together, and displayed it that evening.
The iron is visually striking in its new form. In its new combination, much like with Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, a new object manifests, demanding another kind of attention. The domestic object becomes violent, even murderous, perhaps revealing the shadow sides of domestic spaces and familial homes. For example, if used to iron, rather smoothing the surface, this modified iron would cause harm and destruction. Curator Arturo Schwarz commented of this piece, "Man Ray never destroys, he always modifies and enriches. In this case, he provides the flatiron with a new role, a role that we dimly guess, and that probably accounts for the object's strange fascination." We might imagine then that this new iron is in fact waiting to discover its purpose, as we the viewers help surmise what that may be.
Iron with thumbtacks - Now Lost
Upon first glance, this piece appears as a bull's head mounted to the wall - a universally familiar symbol of a hunter's trophy from a kill. But upon closer inspection its true identity, that of a simple bicycle seat and handles, emerges clear.
Picasso noted that for the sculpture to truly work, the viewer had to be able to see the bicycle parts and the bull's head at the same time. This meant that the work existed as a duality. Perhaps Picasso sought to show the malleability of shape and design in our day-to-day lives, revealing to viewers, like a magic trick, the way that we might "re-see" objects around us. Moreover, the piece also reminds us of our proximity to nature and animals: by finding an animal within a human object, he disrupts the boundary between our apparent sophistication as humans and reminds us of our previous reliance on beasts.
Picasso had explored the possibility of found objects in his earlier collages, but this work is more in line with the techniques of readymade. When the work was displayed in 1944 at a Salon in Paris, visitors were shocked by the sheer audacity of such a simple object placed into the context of high art and the piece was removed.
Picasso did not make many other readymades, though he sometimes added found objects into his assemblage sculptures. His Glass of Absinthe from 1914, for example, incorporated a real silver absinthe spoon balanced on the top of his bronze abstracted glass. His Head from 1958 is fashioned from a wooden box with buttons for eyes, creating an oddly charming human face from this simple combination. It seems that rather than the pure Readymade, Picasso was more interested in tricking the eye, taking advantage of the audience's constant search for sense and meaning in the world around them.
Bicycle seat - Picasso Museum, Paris
In this piece, American artist Rauschenberg puts together various objects including glass, bottles, a wood newel cap, and iron wings into an eye-catching column. Rauschenberg also incorporates the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottle, referencing our societal familiarity with the infiltration of branded objects. The wings on either side of the piece suggest its elevation beyond simple objects and the earthly realm. This is furthered by the wood newel cap, which looks almost like a globe mounted on a plinth, so that bottles rise far above the human world. Rauschenberg seems to be commenting not only on the "worship" of brands, but also on the creation of artworks in general, perhaps poking fun at our lofty ideals.
Rauschenberg made several similar works, what he coined "combines," throughout his career, including earlier pieces such as Charlene and Collection, both from 1954, which include a range of different materials and textures fixed to board or canvas, in evocative displays of the detritus of human life. The materials for these combines were often collected trash from the streets of New York City, suggesting the contingency and chance implicit within art making.
Rauschenberg experimented across media during his career, working in collage, photography, and performance as well as painting. He is considered a Neo-Dadaist (and part of the informal group that includes Jasper Johns, John Cage, and Edward Kienholtz) because of the influence Duchamp had on his work, not only through his use and innovation of readymade artworks, but because of his desire to interrogate the relationship between artist, viewer, and the production of meaning.
Pencil on paper, oil on three Coca-Cola bottles, wood newel cap, and cast metal wings on wood structure - The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
This piece is a sled on to which German artist Joseph Beuys attached a flashlight, a ball of lard, and a blanket of felt. Beuys said that the Tartars used such a sled when they rescued him in 1943. Beuys, who was a rear-gunner for a time in the Second World War, claimed that this "survival kit" kept him alive after he crashed on the Crimean front.
Though this story may well be apocryphal, the kit still seems to exude a sense of hope and comfort; the combination of the blanket and flashlight seem to suggest the possibility of a pathway somewhere safer or better, and that this is only a transitory state.
Like the earlier readymades, Beuys selected normal everyday objects and elevated them in the gallery setting. However, through the addition of his inspirational story, he makes this collection of objects theatrical, as if setting the scene for the beginning of a play. In this way Beuys asks questions about what story objects can tell, and how each of us gives objects purposes that go beyond their original function.
As a Conceptual artist, Beuys used the readymade as part of his wider artistic practice. As critic Valery Oisteanu comments "For Beuys, the readymade became part of a larger effort to reinvest artistic activity with metaphorical, ritual, political, and even spiritual significance". He saw the readymade as a means through which he could reimagine the role of the artist entirely, attempting to reject the commodification of all artworks, and break down the barrier between art and real life.
Beuys worked in many different forms, including sculpture, performance art, installation art, and theory throughout his career. His work was in deep conversation with politics and he sought to question the constructions and ideas of society.
Wooden sled, flashlight, cloth straps, cord, wax - Harvard Art Museum, Boston
New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker
American artist Jeff Koons produces provocative and challenging work that looks to the relationship between high and low culture. His work is often comprised of banal, everyday objects that he places in new contexts to elevate them to the status of an art object. Like Duchamp before him, he sought to show the arbitrary line between objects of varying value, and perhaps exposing the underlining cynicism of the art world.
This early piece is made from four different Hoover vacuums sealed in a Perspex case. Each brand-name vacuum is lit with a fluorescent light as if presented in a showroom for purchase. This is furthered by the word "convertibles" as the title reminds audiences of America's very particular obsession with car culture, transporting spectators from the gallery space to the car showroom floor. Koons himself commented that '"if one of my works was to be turned on, it would be destroyed", echoing the ideas of Duchamp. In abstracting these objects from their normal contexts, they are no longer useful objects; this means that this piece only exists as an artwork because it has rendered these objects completely useless. Here Koons thinks about the idea of value within commodities and demonstrates that there is no such thing as innate value; instead our relationships with objects are totally contingent and changeable.
Under Koons' spotlight, we are shown that the value we place onto objects lives in a wildly transient zone, directed by our personal relationship and association with things we normally take for granted when viewed only in their familiar contexts.
4 vacuum cleaners, Perspex and fluorescent lights - Tate, London
British artist Tracey Emin works across media, producing works that explore her own life and history from many different angles. This piece competed for the Turner prize in 1999. It replicated a difficult moment in Emin's life when she was drinking heavily; she stayed in bed for several days, not eating and suffering deeply after a break-up. The scene is filled with bottles, dirty clothes, condoms, and a pregnancy test.
The work caused a stir at the time, with many think pieces produced about whether or not this qualified as an artwork. By using her own life's objects to illustrate the many different emotions centered on personal space and intimacy, Emin was often pegged as "confessional," opening her up to judgment and scrutiny by her viewers. A woman famously turned up at the gallery wanting to tidy the mess of the installation up.
Art critic Skye Sherwin wrote that this piece is "a theatrical arrangement worthy of Jacobean tragedy: a violent mess of sex and death" and the work does indeed engage with the mess of desire and of the body. In bringing this wide variety of objects into the gallery space, Emin seeks to tug at a viewer's sense of propriety about what one can and cannot share.
Under Emin's guise, the objects in our lives become fodder for artwork, helping to stage narratives and lend context to an artist's message.
Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects - Tate, London
Tate Thames Dig
American artist Mark Dion's work seeks to explore the way that the world around is arranged and organized. He often produces works from found objects, using many different combinations of discarded or no longer used materials. This piece is representative of that work, but here it is also tied strongly to place. It was produced with the help of a team of volunteers who scoured the banks of the River Thames in London to look for discarded objects. Dion then categorized and labelled the objects he found, noting trends and similarities between what was found at this location.
Though the objects are damaged or perhaps seem unimportant, Dion begins to construct an alternative history of London through his collection. By showcasing discarded items, he suggests another way of understanding our present moment that is not built from what we want to see, but from what we throw away or overlook. As art writers Tina Fiske and Giorgia Bottinelli comment: "Each is a material witness, performing the same function as a historical proof". In this way, Dion asks the audience to think about the production of culture and what it is we choose to see or ignore about our lives. By showcasing these objects in a cabinet, he asks viewers to contemplate his collection as one of value, that is based on time and experience rather than any other kind of value system - or indeed money.
Through Dion’s lens, the readymade becomes an object of sociological import, evidence of time and place, providing a clear capsule into life at any given moment.
Wooden cabinet, porcelain, earthenware, metal, animal bones, glass and 2 maps - Tate, London