September 6, 2014

Curatorial Essay for "Readymade@100" (Part 1)

It is hard to name a more polarizing event in 20th century art history than Marcel Duchamp’s selection of mass-produced, commodity items and their re-contextualization as art objects. 

Clearly, Duchamp’s theoretical positioning of commercially manufactured things as “art objects” has continued to provoke controversy and to influence subsequent generations of artists. His act of “choice” has become the exemplar of an art practice that would birth Conceptual Art as an art theory stressing the idea as paramount over the form an object may take. Duchamp himself may have foreseen the potential impact of his invention when he said: “I’m not at all sure that the concept of the readymade isn’t the most important single idea to come out of my work.”(1)

Duchamp had lost interest in painting by 1912, partly from disappointment at the reception given to his Nude Descending a Staircase and partly because so-called advanced painting of that era, in its emulation and admiration of scientific or optical theories of color, had continued to reinforce the existing aesthetic canon that Duchamp would come to dismiss as “retinal art.”

Ironically, Duchamp’s decision to mount a bicycle wheel atop a stool was perhaps related to his fascination with movement, as he described watching that wheel turn was like “looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.”(2) By the time Duchamp arrived in America in 1915, and discovered the English word readymade that described machine-made clothing, he retroactively tagged two of his most memorable commodity object choices, Bottle Rack and In Advance of the Broken Arm (the snow shovel), as readymades. Duchamp now understood that simply through his intellectual selection of these industrial forms he was given a means of “substitution of the handmade by the already manufactured.”(3)

To address the legacy of the readymade, as well as attempt a determination of its evolving “definitions” in current art practice, are the chief curatorial goals for this exhibit. Thus, Readymade@100, a Centennial Celebration of Duchamp’s invention, included an “open call” exhibition opportunity for contemporary artists to submit “new readymades” that would honor his concept and/or significantly expand upon the readymade concept.

In early reviews of artists’ submissions, I began to grasp how the collective and continued understanding of Duchamp’s idea was sometimes respectfully copied and just as often brazenly ignored, but frequently indelibly transformed by contemporary artists. It became abundantly clear to me that our Readymade@100 exhibition, far from being mere homage to “The Old Fox,”(4) may also provide us an opportunity for an appraisal of the multiple trajectories this marvelous, contrary and liberating concept has taken into the 21st century.

My curatorial vision was to maintain an emphatic reverence for Duchamp’s selection of the unaltered, manufactured object as encompassing both a disruption of the object’s function and its concomitant transformation through its new context as art. Further, and on this point most scholars agree, Duchamp was first to designate unaltered, manufactured objects as art and to present these commodity objects as his readymades. Thus, he distinguishes his choice as the conceptual act of “making art” from existing mass-produced objects and this distinction separates Duchamp’s readymades from works that were created from “found objects” and then further modified and/or altered by artists.

In curating the submissions for Readymade@100, I applied strict criteria for acceptance based on what I perceive as Duchamp’s original vision. Moreover, this required respect for a century’s worth of academic and scholarly research on the subject. Before discussing my curatorial selections, I want to clarify my elimination of assemblage from the exhibit. Assemblage is “made from natural or man-made objects, is labor-intensive, sculptural and an additive process to develop form. As such, it is far from the essence of a readymade, even though it is sometimes constructed of found objects,”(5) because the result becomes one’s aesthetic composition that drifts away from Duchamp’s conceptual act of choosing a commodity object. Thus, the essence of Duchamp’s anti-aesthetics, this “anesthesia” of taste in his readymade act, is that “the abandonment of craft constitutes the craft.”(6)

But let Duchamp speak for himself as he strictly adjudicates all paintings as assemblage: “Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and readymade products, we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are ‘readymades aided’ and also works of assemblage.”(7)


IMAGE: Illustration by unknown artist that appeared in a Parisian newspaper on the 65th Anniversary of the readymade; English translation of the caption reads, Marcel Duchamp buying at the Bazar of the Hotel de Ville one of the objects he brought to New York in 1915 and called Readymades. (Reproduction courtesy of Lila Snow.) 

1. Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography; New York: Museum of Modern Art Edition; 2014; p. 155.

2. Schwartz, Arturo. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp; New York: Delano Greenidge; 2000; p. 588.

3. Alkhas, Anita. “Heidegger in Plain Sight: ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ and Marcel Duchamp;” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry; Vol. 5: No. 12; Spring 2010; p. 5.

4. Walter Hopps’ characterization of Duchamp in letter dated August 20, 1963 to Frederic S. Wight, then chair of UCLA Art Department; original in Norton Simon Museum Archives, Pasadena, CA.

6. De Duve, Thierry. “The Readymade and Abstraction” in Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 1991; p. 158.

7. Duchamp, Marcel. “Apropos of Readymades” in Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp; (Michel Sanouillet, Elmer Peterson: eds.); New York: Oxford University Press; 1973; 142.

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