- "The strange thing about ready-mades is that I’ve never been able to come up with a definition or an explanation that fully satisfies me." [Marcel Duchamp, cited in Katherine Kuh, 'Marcel Duchamp', published in Katherine Kuh (ed.), The Artist's Voice. Talks with Seventeen Artists (Harper & Row : New York 1962) 91]. Commentators have tried, but in vain. The elements have been covered by a scientific straight jacket whose thickness is even more surprising since the accounts from that era are rare and ambiguous. This imbalance between the fact and its effect has led certain critics to decry fake. "The only possible issue consists in rigorously distinguishing the history of the objects from the history of the idea of the ready-mades." [Dieter Daniels, 'Marcel Duchamp. L’artiste le plus influent du XXe siècle?', in Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue (Musée Jean Tinguely : Bâle/Hatje Cantz 2002) 29].
- The first ready-made objects appeared before being labeled as such. They were both playful and intimate, and have disappeared today. In 1913, when Marcel Duchamp first screwed a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool, he had no artistic intention – "I didn’t want to make a piece out of it, you see [...] There was no conception of ready-made nor of anything else, it was just a distraction. I didn’t have a specific reason for doing so, or any intention of an exhibition, or description. No, nothing like that ..." [Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp (Somogy : Paris 1995) 58].
Motivated by the simple pleasure of watching the wheel’s movement in space, he took away its functionality by turning it upside down. The wheel then became a personal object, which decorated the private space of his workshop. "To see this wheel turn was very pleasing, very comforting [...] I liked watching it, just as I like watching flames dance in the fireplace." [Cited by Arturo Schwartz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. Volume II (Delano Greenidge Editions : New York 1997) 442]. After buying it at the Bazar de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, the second object that Duchamp brought back to his studio was the Porte-bouteilles. History categorizes it as the first pure, untransformed ready-made. Yet, just like with the wheel, however, Duchamp didn’t intend Porte-bouteilles to be a work of art; the object was thrown away during Duchamp’s move to the United States. These first 'sculptures toutes faites', as Duchamp named them initially, had been selected in Paris, but only in 1915, after the installation in New York, did the idea of ready-made emerge.
Filled with wonder, Duchamp discovered modern industrialization, much more advanced on the New World. Accompanied by Fernand Léger and Constantin Brancusi, he had expressed this same wonderment in 1912 at the Salon de l’Aéronautique in Paris: "Painting is finished. Who can do better than that propeller?" [Duchamp du Signe. Écrits (Flammarion : Paris 1994) 242]. Skyscrapers, plumbing and iron bridges fascinated him; they are "the only works of art that America has produced." [The Blindman no. 2 (May 1917) 5]. Duchamp learns English from his francophone friends. He then becomes aware of the word 'ready-made', which had existed since the end of the 19th century in the clothing industry. Previously unknown in the arts, the term first appeared explicitly on January 15, 1916, in a letter to his sister Suzanne: "Here in New York, I’ve bought some things in the same taste and I treat them as 'ready-mades' – you know enough English to understand the meaning of 'already made' that I’m giving these objects. I sign them and give them an inscription in English." [Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (eds.), Affectionately, Marcel. The selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp / translation by Jill Taylor (Ludion Press : Ghent 2000) 43].
- Henceforth, premeditated ready-mades leave the domestic sector of the studio. Duchamp organized their first encounter with the public, as well as their institutional recognition: invited in April to an exhibition of modern art at the gallery Bourgeois, he agreed to exhibit his paintings only under the condition that the director also display his ready-mades. The art dealer accepted and listed 'two ready-mades' in the catalogue but placed them in a corner of the entryway without label or description. These two objects have never been identified: Robert Lebel and Arturo Schwarz speculated that they were In Advance of the Broken Arm and Traveler’s Folding Item; Francis Naumann suggested rather Hat Rack and Trap. In any case, neither the public nor the press noticed them. It is true that the ready-made doesn’t call out for contemplation: "It doesn’t need to be deeply studied. It’s simply there. The eyes notice that it exists [...] simply take note [...]" [Marcel Duchamp parle des ready-mades à Philippe Collin (L'Échoppe : Paris 1998) 14].
- In Advance of the Broken Arm was the first ready-made conceived by Duchamp in New York. He bought an ordinary snow shovel in a hardware store, engraved its title in English along the handle, and signed "from Marcel Duchamp". By associating incongruous words with a manufactured object, he also indicated that the work – not made by his own hand – was the result of an intellectual operation. A few months later, he reiterated this process of inscription. On a steel dog’s comb he inscribed: "New York 17 February 1916 11:00 AM". He added the strange message: "Three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery." "This sentence, instead of describing the object as a title might do, was destined to redirect the viewer toward other non-verbal regions," said Duchamp in 1961 [Duchamp du Signe. Écrits (Flammarion : Paris 1994) 191-192]. Thus, the ready-made became more precise and complex. Its title constituted an experiment with language independent from the object, influenced by the strange linguistic theories of Jean-Pierre Brisset and the new writings of Raymond Roussel.
Duchamp added a second precision, that of order and temporality: the ready-made is "a sort of encounter" [Duchamp du Signe. Écrits (Flammarion : Paris 1994) 49]. He added, "The important thing is therefore this timing, this snapshot effect, that called to mind Picabia’s 'instantaneism' – that moment when the encounter with the object takes place by chance, and somehow, the object chooses its author as much as the author chooses it."
- Very quickly, the ready-made evolved. In 1916, to "introduce some flexibility into the ready-made," [cited in L’OEuvre de Marcel Duchamp. Tome II (Éditions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 1977) 88]. Duchamp chose the cover for an Underwood typewriter whose form reminded him of a woman’s skirt (Beatrice Wood’s?). He titled it Traveler’s Folding Item. He also incorporated other people into his "creative process." Walter Arensberg slid a small, unknown object into ball of twine, which was then screwed between two brass plates. The plates were specially inscribed with words missing certain letters, as in a game. The nature of the object in the twine has since remained a secret. In 1918, Duchamp pushed the ready-made toward its proper dematerialization, foreshadowing the conceptual works of the 1960s. For the wedding of his sister with Jean Crotti, Duchamp, while on vacation in Buenos Aires, sent Suzanne instructions for realizing an Ready-made malheureux: one must hang a geometry textbook to the balcony of their Parisian apartment. The wind would then choose the problems in flipping through the pages, until eventually ripping them out. Suzanne Duchamp’s small painting, Marcel’s unhappy ready-made (1920), is the only trace of the work remaining today.
- It’s easy to note that each "ready-made is different." ['Marcel Duchamp', in VH 101, no. 3 (1970) 61]. This is why the scientific attempts to define and categorize them prove to be difficult. How to integrate into a system the manifestations of a spirit for whom seriousness is the enemy? Nonetheless, for the purpose of a rational history, one can categorize the 'assisted ready-made' like Trébuchet, a coat rack with four hooks, for which Duchamp’s contribution consisted of nailing the rack to his floor. With Hidden Noise and Why not Sneeze Rose Selavy? are categorized as 'semi-ready-mades' because they result in the assembly of multiple already made objects, whereas the 'imitated ready-made', like the Monte Carlo Gambling Bond, is a copy of an already existent object which is then altered by the artist. Finally, the 'printed ready-made' is of a literary order. It can also be lightly modified: from the expression "French Window", Duchamp composed Fresh Widow, the title of a ready-made representing a window darkened by black leather.
- The multitude of ready-mades thus reveals the shortcomings of Duchamp’s famous definition, repeated in André Breton’s The Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism. The ready-made is far from being simply a "manufactured object promoted to the dignity of an object of art through the choice of the artist." [André Breton, Oeuvres complètes. Tome II / éd. établie par Marguerite Bonnet (Gallimard : Paris 1992) 837]. However, it is on the role of the artist as miracle-worker king that the discussion has focused on. Until 1917, the year that saw the controversy concerning Fountain, the defense of these 'things' was based nonetheless on the question of taste and the visual properties of the object. William Camfield compiled a series of contemporary testimonials that demonstrated that the aesthetic argument was "the rule and not the exception." [William Camfield, 'Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: Aesthetic Object, Icon, or Anti-Art?', in Thierry de Duve (ed.), The Definitively unfinished Marcel Duchamp (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design : Halifax NS/MIT Press : Cambridge MA 1991) 141]. But in his retrospective declarations, Duchamp insisted that the 'anesthesia' that presided over the choice of his objects: "The choice of the ready-made is always based on visual indifference, as well as on the total absence of good or bad taste." [[Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp (Somogy : Paris 1995) 59].
- More so than The Large Glass, ready-mades testify to Duchamp’s impact on the development of 20th century art. His influence exerted itself from the moment the ready-mades were created: they shaped the work of Man Ray, whose objects have a symbolic dimension, unlike those of Duchamp. It continued with Surrealism, Neo-Realism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Body Art, Fluxus, etc., – very different movements, which all claim the same and unique experience. Thus, Duchamp concluded: "The fact that they have been considered with the same reverence as objects of art probably means that I’ve failed to resolve the problem of the attempt to entirely get out of art." [cited in Francis Roberts, 'I propose to strain the laws of physics', in Art News No 8 (December 1968) 62].
- TEXT CREDITS
Séverine Gossart, 'Marcel Duchamp / Ready-mades', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 378-382. The translation was part of the Press Kit, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 57-60 [Press Kit. Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
- Francis M. Naumann
Marcel Duchamp. The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction / Francis M. Naumann (Harry N. Abrams : New York 1999).
- François Raymond
Marcel Duchamp et le multiple dans l'art moderne / François Raymond (National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada : Ottawa ). Thesis.
- ARTICLES, ESSAYS & PAPERS
- Craig Adcock
'Duchamp's Perspective. The Intersection of Art and Geometry', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 5 (2003).
- Juam Alfaro
'The Art of Looking Back and the Reward of More or Less Being Seen', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 3 (2000).
- Paul B. Franklin
'Le (Re)tour du ready-made', in Étant donné Marcel Duchamp n°4 (2004).
- Thomas Girst
'(Ab)Using Marcel Duchamp. The Concept of the Readymade in Post-War and Contemporary American Art', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 5 (2003).
- Thomas Girst
'Von Readymades und "Asstricks". Forschungsergebnisse des Art Science Research Laboratory zu drei Werken Marcel Duchamps', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 2 (2000).
- David Hopkins
'Sameness and Difference. Duchamp's Editioned Readymades and the Neo-Avant-Garde', in Dietrich Scheunemann (ed.), Avant-Garde/Neo-Avant-Garde. Avant-Garde Critical Studies 17 (Rodopi : Amsterdam 2005) 91-108.
- Walter Hopps and Dennis Hopper
'A Readymade in the Making', in Étant donné Marcel Duchamp n°6 (2005).
- Jake Kennedy
'Modernist (Im)mobilities. Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, and the Avant-Garde Bike', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal perpetual (2005).
- Helen Molesworth
'Work Avoidance. The everyday life of Marcel Duchamp's readymades', in Art Journal (Winter 1998).
- Hector Obalk
'The Unfindable Readymade', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 2 (2000).
- David Reed
'The Developing Language of the Readymades', in Art History 8, no. 2 (1985) 209-227. Marcel Duchamp's 'readymades' enlarged the category of the art object to include movement and sound, to reflect the importance of machines in modern life, and to remind the viewer of his role in the artistic process.
- Rhonda Roland Shearer
'Marcel Duchamp's Impossible Bed and other "Not" Readymade Objects. A Possible Route of Influence from Art to Science. Part I [-II]', originally published in Art & Academe 10 (Fall 1997) n°1, 26-62 and (Fall 1998) n°2, 76-95.
- Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould
'Of Two Minds and One Nature', in Science 286, Issue 5442 (November 1999) 1093-1094.
- Jay D. Russell
Marcel Duchamp's Readymades. Walking on Infrathin Ice, in Contrapposto 12 (1997). Special Issue 'Crossing Boundaries/Beyond the Object' [Archive].
- Jack Spector
'Duchamp's Gendered Plumbing. A Family Business?', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal perpetual (2005).
- Olav Velthuis
'Duchamp’s Financial Documents. Exchange as a Source of Value (with video)', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 2 (2000).
- Olav Velthuis
'In Boggs We Trust', in tout-fait. Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal issue 4 (2002).
- BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCE
Arturo Schwarz (ed.), The complete works of Marcel Duchamp / by Arturo Schwarz. Rev. and expanded paperback ed. (Delano Greenidge Editions : New York 2000). Includes bibliographic references (p. 923-954) and index.