»... a work [is] made entirely by those who view it or read it and who, by applauding or rejecting it, ensure that it endures.« (Marcel Duchamp, 1956)
Actually, »Readymades« were never intended to be remembered in our time. And the fact that an entire style was founded on the principle of the Readymade is one of the great misunderstandings of art history. Yet these everyday objects elevated to the status of art, a small group of works that is inseparably linked with the name of French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), became a source of inspiration for the avant-garde, a plaything for Dadaists and Surrealists, and an icon of Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, and Conceptual Art. No one today will regret that the few known Readymades, particularly the precious works that originated between 1913 and 1919, have been preserved in one form or another, either as photos or replicas. Nearly all of the originals have vanished. Yet the Readymade revolutionized the concept of art and our ideas about what art is.
Readymades, as the word itself suggests, are found, finished objects, mass-produced and available practically everywhere. The concept of the Readymade is based on the mere choice of these random objects. When Marcel Duchamp created Bicycle Wheel, his first Readymade, in 1913, he was looking for something that was neither art nor anti-art, something to which no aesthetic categories would apply. He wanted to create a work that was not a work of art—a work without artistic design and thus devoid of personal expression. He mounted the front wheel and fork of a bicycle on a stool that was never intended as a base. »In 1914, and even in 1915, I had a bicycle in my studio that turned without any purpose whatsoever,« remarked Duchamp, adding, »This strange device had no purpose except to get rid of the character of art.« In 1914, Duchamp had the intend to sign a bottle rack he had bought in a Paris department store. Neither object was ever exhibited, and both were lost after the artist moved from Paris to New York in 1915. Duchamp never intended to preserve the objects for posterity. The first Readymades—a term that was not used to describe them until 1915—were nothing more or less than the fruits of a personal experiment by an artist working on a way to eliminate art altogether—a »pastime,« as he referred to it, one he pursued earnestly but not without a certain irony.
The snow shovel bearing the inscription »In Advance of the Broken Arm« (1915), the iron comb similarly inscribed with the date and exact time of day (1916), the coat rack nailed to the floor of his studio and the urinal (Fountain), both done in 1917, represent the Readymade in its purest form. Created in New York, these objects are unaltered everyday items to which Duchamp first gave the title »Readymade.« They became what they are solely through the act of choosing them. It is the viewer, according to Duchamp´s theory, who makes the work. Proceeding from the assumption that no creative act is an original creation out of nothing but always relies in some way on something that already exists, he revolutionized the concept of creativity by equating random discovery with invention.
Duchamp had previously experimented with the principle of chance, which emerged through his work as a recurring concept in the art of the twentieth century, in his Trois Stoppages-Étalon (1913-1914). For this work, he dropped a one-meter-long thread from a height of one meter three times in succession, affixing the random form of the fallen thread to a strip of canvas each time. The painstaking process used in these experiments with chance thus makes his Trois Stoppages-Étalon a borderline case within the work group of the Readymades, which are not the products of a creative act but pure expressions of a mode of perception. In this sense, the landscape entitled Pharmacy (1914), in which Duchamp added »two small lights« with dabs of red and green paint, is not a pure Readymade, nor is the famous bearded Mona Lisa of L.H.O.O.Q (1919). That work, whose title, read in French, sounds like Elle a chaud au cul (She´s got a hot ass), was welcomed with cries of jubilation by the Dadaists above all. These two works and several others dating from later years, are classified as »assisted« or »rectified« Readymades. The changes made in the works of this group range from minimal interventions, as in Air de Paris (1919)—for which Duchamp emptied a glass ampoule from a Paris pharmacy, recapped the empty vial, and brought it to his friend Arensberg in New York—to such complex objects Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy (1921), a painted metal cage containing marbles cubes, a thermometer, and a cuttlebone.
To speak of a concept of the Readymade would be to place it within the context of art, and that was precisely what Duchamp did not want to do. His experiments were personal, devoid of intent, and they went virtually unnoticed for more than ten years—until the 1930s. He did not exhibit them—with the exception of one showing at the Bourgeois Gallery in New York in 1916: »I hung three of them on a coat rack near the entrance, and no one noticed them—. . . which pleased me greatly,« Duchamp explained several years later. In 1917, Fountain, which Duchamp had submitted under the name and signature of »R. Mutt« for the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artist, was rejected by the show´s organizers. Duchamp did not reveal his identity, and thus it is safe to say that there is one thing his Readymades could not have been, namely objects intended to provoke scandal or gestures of provocation, although they were later appropriated by the Dadaists and presented to the public precisely as such. One such work was the Bottle Rack, which enjoyed its first major public presentation in 1936—twenty-two years later and long after the original had vanished, as a replica and in photographs by Man Ray at a Surrealist exhibition.
Exposure of the Readymades to public view represented for all practical purposes the final failure of »project Readymade.« Interpretations abounded, as did misunderstandings. The conflicting assessments ranged from radical rejection to admiration for the aesthetic quality of the objects. The idea of their indifference to all artistic values, which Duchamp never failed to emphasize, was overlooked entirely. His private experiments with the Readymade became a public spectacle. Duchamp reacted, resolving to keep the number of Readymades to a minimum. Today, only about a dozen have been identified. Many presumably never attracted any public attention at all. Between 1935 and 1941, however, Duchamp placed his objects in the context of art himself with his museum-in-a suitcase called La Boîte-en-Valise, a documentation of his Readymades comprised of photographs and miniatures. In 1964, under the influence of Pop Art, Duchamp brought the sense of irritation associated with the Readymades to a peak when he made and exhibited fourteen Readymades as serial objects for the Galerie Schwarz in Milan. But isn´t the multiple precisely the opposite of a Readymade? This questioning of the underlying principle of the Readymade by its own creator is perhaps the most ironic twist of all.
Fifty years after they were first created, the Readymades were exhibited all over the world—truly a stroke of luck for posterity.
23.10.2003 Dorothee Fauth