Duchamp’s ‘Readymades’ and the Making of Contemporary Art

Ralph Rugoff

When surveying the diverse and often difficult works on display in modern art galleries, it’s always tempting to ask: ‘what exactly is contemporary art?’

Director of the Hayward Gallery in London Ralph Rugoff offers one answer to this contentious question: that ‘contemporary art is defiant about defying any attempt to define it’ — and it wholly embraces this ambiguity. Rugoff credits Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ‘readymade’ as the watershed moment for contemporary art as we know it, the word and form arising from his repurposing of a prefabricated object as sculpture. In this video, Rugoff examines how Duchamp’s concept has ricocheted through art history, touching upon works by modern and contemporary masters such as Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst and Jeremy Deller.

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It’s always tempting to ask ‘what is contemporary art?’ and I think I would almost say that one definition of contemporary art is that its art that is defiant about defying any attempt to define it.

I think that there’s a really strong argument that Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ is the starting place for contemporary art.

Duchamp said he wanted to put into doubt or to question the status of the artist, or our definition of what an artist is.

The first readymade was probably the Bicycle Wheel in 1913, and he took a bicycle wheel and its fork and screwed it into a painted stool, and, you know, he used to occasionally turn the wheel and enjoyed it as a kind of interesting optical device.

And then Fountain which is probably his most famous, was a urinal that he presented upside down, signed ‘R. Mutt’. The Fountain is always identifiable as a manufactured urinal, at the same time, because it’s been recontextualised as an object, it’s something else, it’s a representation, perhaps, of an object, but it’s not an object.

And you’re left with something which you don’t really know how to judge. And this is why I think it had such an incredible impact.

So normally when we think of an artist, yeah, it’s someone who’s talented in one of these particular skills, they’re good at drawing, or painting, and suddenly if all an artist is doing is representing an existing object in a different context somehow, that means an artist isn’t somebody who’s good at making something, maybe an artist is someone who’s more of a philosopher, whose asking questions about how we order the world.

OK, that’s to me the legacy of Duchamp that is so important.

Jasper Johns actually said that Duchamp’s great gift to the world was to instil doubt into the discourse of contemporary art and Johns himself in 1955 started producing these Target paintings, and they’re images that look like targets. But of course, a target is also an abstract design, and so there was a sense that you didn’t know what you were looking at – is this a picture of a target or just an abstraction? Is it representational or is it abstract? And again, a target itself is a ready-made, in the sense that it’s a pre-existing emblem in the world. Johns didn’t invent the target, he took it.

Gerhard Richter in the early 60s started making paintings from black and white photographic snapshots, and so he took a brush after painting them when they were still wet, feathered it over the surface so you get this kind of blurred image which suggests the variable focus of a photograph, and it also made the subject seem elusive but the reference point was clearly a photograph, you never felt this was a portrait of someone – it was a portrait of a picture. And we live in this mass-media culture, we swim in a sea of images all the time, so how do you actually get someone’s attention? How do you get someone to actually engage with a picture?

And I think one way artists approach this is to kind of pull the rug out of under our normal ways of looking.

I think a big thing that became really important and people talk about it a lot with Postmodern art, but I think Warhol really started it, was the sense that artists aren’t separate from the culture, they can’t stand apart and critique things, they’re just as vulnerable as anyone else to be manipulated by Hollywood or commercial images and Warhol was very upfront about it and I mean, you know, he did this series of Campbell’s Soup cans, as if he was painting the Holy Grail. Because he grew up eating Campbell’s soup that’s what his mother would serve, and for him Campbell’s soup and motherly love got all mixed up, and the idea that a can, this immaculate thing, right, it’s supposed to guarantee the virgin quality of what you’re about to eat, became the symbol of the Virgin Mary.

Well I think it’s very interesting this idea of the readymades and the artists who then inherit it does touch on our relationship to the everyday. A well-known one in the UK is Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass. And this is a performance from 1997 in which Jeremy commissioned a brass band from the North, the Williams Fairey Band, to create their own version of a number of Acid House anthems. Deller had made a drawing called The History of the World and it was kind of a flow chart looking at correlations between coal miners and the Acid House movement. And those connections are invisible only because we don’t pay attention to them.

There are obvious people like Damien Hirst who presented sharks, fish and sheep of different kinds in formaldehyde, in vitrines, where people are continuing to take a found object and recontextualise it in ways that open up its meaning.

You know, they say that we can’t actually hold two separate ideas in our head at the same time, that supposedly is impossible. But I feel that this is what art is constantly trying to get us to do. But I think Duchamp understood this and I think this is why he wanted to create something that would make us question our certainty about art’s definition and its meaning, to allow a place, for you, the audience, the visitor, for all of us, to realise that it’s what you bring to it yourself.

I think if we ask what contemporary art means, it would respond in turn by asking us to redefine our question.

With thanks to

Damien Hirst

Gerhard Richter

Jeremy Deller

Tate Modern

 

Archive

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

DACS, London

Estate of Alfred Stieglitz

Estate of Marcel Duchamp

Gerhard Richter

Getty

Jasper Johns

Jeremy Deller

Man Ray Trust

Museum of Modern Art, New York

National Gallery of Art, Washington

Norton Simon Museum

Oddball Film Archive

San Francisco Museum of Art

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

The Neues Museum, Nuremberg

Yale University Art Gallery

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Full list of images shown: 

Fountain

Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (replica 1964)

Tate Modern

© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

In Advance of a Broken Arm

Marcel Duchamp, 1915

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Bottle Rack

Marcel Duchamp, 1914 (replica 1963)

Norton Simon Museum

© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp

Man Ray, 1920-1921

Yale University Art Gallery

© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Bicycle Wheel

Marcel Duchamp, 1913 (replica 1951)

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

 

Duchamp, Fountain

Alfred Steiglitz, 1917

© 2018 Estate of Alfred Stieglitz / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

Marcel Duchamp

Eliot Elisofon, 1952

The LIFE Picture Collection

Getty

 

Marcel Duchamp walking down a flight of stairs

Eliot Elisofon, 1951

The LIFE Picture Collection

Getty

 

Jasper Johns

Ben Martin, 1959

Getty

 

Target with Four Faces

Jasper Johns, 1955

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Jasper Johns/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.

 

Target

Jasper Johns, 1974

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Jasper Johns/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.

 

Matrosen (Sailors)

Gerhard Richter, 1966

© 2018 Gerhard Richter

 

Portrait Liz Kertelge

Gerhard Richter, 1966

The Neues Museum, Nuremberg

© 2018 Gerhard Richter

 

Portrait Schmela

Gerhard Richter, 1964

© 2018 Gerhard Richter

 

Triple Elvis

Andy Warhol, 1963

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

San Francisco Museum of Art

 

Marilyn Monroe

Andy Warhol, 1967

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

 

Coca-Cola (3)

Andy Warhol, 1962

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

 

Self-Portrait

Andy Warhol, 1986

National Gallery of Art, Washington

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

 

Campbell Soup Cans

Andy Warhol, 1962

Museum of Modern Art New York

© 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

Campbell Soup Cans

Andy Warhol, 1962

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

 

Brillo Box (Soap Pads)

Andy Warhol, 1964

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

 

Performance of Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, Williams Fairey Band at Manchester Airport

Jeremy Deller, 1997

© Jeremy Deller

 

Performance of Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, Williams Fairey Band at Manchester Airport

Jeremy Deller, 1997

© Jeremy Deller

 

Performance of Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, Williams Fairey Band at Manchester Airport

Jeremy Deller, 1997

© Jeremy Deller

 

Performance of Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass in Regents Park, London

Jeremy Deller, 2006

© Jeremy Deller

 

Performance of Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass in Regents Park, London

Jeremy Deller, 2006

© Jeremy Deller

 

The History of the World

Jeremy Deller, 1997

© Jeremy Deller

With thanks to Tate

 

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Damien Hirst, 1991

Prudence Cuming Associates

© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2018.

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