April 18, 2014

Always Alreadymade: Found Object or Readymade?

Now that submissions are starting to roll in on our "Call for Entries" for Readymade@100 at AU's Katzen Arts Center, some definitions are in order before the deluge. In unpacking "what constitutes a readymade" in 2014, 100 years after Duchamp's first object was tagged with the name, there are two art terms that should be examined, both for general readers of this site and, most urgently, for those artists out there who plan to submit their "new readymades." 

The easier of the two terms is assemblage, which is essentially a three-dimensional collage composed of objects instead of flat materials like paper or photographs. Assemblage in art (not to be confused with MIT's now defunct architectural theory journal or the on-line collaborative for "real-time connectedness") can be 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.  

That's the thornier of the two art terms, the found object, or objet trouvĂ©. The difficulty arises because some art historians, scholars, critics and curators throughout the 20th Century have exasperatingly continued to classify found objects as readymades, and conversely, confuse readymades with found objects.

True, readymades must be found first but let us be clear: it was Marcel Duchamp who definitively established the manufactured, mass-produced, commodity object as a readymade, first using the term in 1914. As will be mentioned often during the next four months leading up to the September 6th opening of Readymade@100, it was Duchamp's choice that defined his act as an artistic one. Furthermore, Duchamp's engagement with the context of an art exhibition (Society of Independent Artists, 1917) by entering his readymade Fountain (subsequently rejected) that sparked over a century of debate about the definition of art and what constitutes an artwork. 

At this juncture, and again I stress "before the deluge," I simply want to offer Margaret Iversen's distinguished essay, "Readymade, Found Object, Photograph." Let this serve as evidence of the complexities of the associative "unconscious" designation of the objet trouvĂ©:

"The found object shares with the readymade a lack of obvious aesthetic quality and little intervention on the part of the artist beyond putting the object in circulation, but in almost every other respect it is dissimilar. The difference is attributable to [Andre] Breton's positioning the found object in a different space -- the space of the unconscious. [...] The object found as if by chance is situated at the point of connection between external nature, perception, and the unconscious, and thus has a peculiar, elusive relation to vision. The space occupied by the found object is carved out by traumatic experience, defined precisely as an experience that has failed to achieve a representation, but on which, nonetheless, one’s whole existence depends. I will argue that this object calls attention to itself by creating a hole in the fabric of normal perception. This may sound as though I'm contrasting the found object with the readymade in terms of a subjectivity/anti-subjectivity polarity, but the matter is not so simple. The traumatic subject is not the personal self that was so strenuously avoided in the tradition of disinterested art. Both that tradition and Surrealism were interested in the displacement of the artist’s agency."(1)

With both found objects and readymades requiring "little intervention" from the artist we can perhaps see the confusion between the two. However, Iversen's emphasis on the "traumatic experience" that allows the subject to find an object that visualizes the "hole in the fabric of normal perception" distinguishes the found object as an unconscious selection. Moreover, Iversen cites Breton's Mad Love (1937) for later influencing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's retooling of the Freudian trauma as a "Surrealist encounter," to crystalize her distinction between found object and readymade: 

"The found object is encountered and the effect is traumatic. The contrast between the Duchampian rendezvous and the Bretonian encounter should now be clear. While the readymade is essentially indifferent, multiple, and mass-produced, the found object is essentially singular or irreplaceable, and both lost and found."(2)

How will this figure in my curatorial consideration of your "new readymade" submissions? Instead of requesting a psychoanalyst to accompany my review of the Readymade@100 image submissions, I will have to trust my visceral response to each of the objects that I regard. The possibility that a mass-produced, commodity object may fulfill an artist's "singular or irreplaceable" traumatic need is obviously very real. Certainly, I do not wish to miss such a delightful object as Breton's little wooden spoon that he found in a Paris flea market, and whose delicious mystery Man Ray's evocative photograph, reproduced above, only slightly captures.

IMAGE: "From a little spoon that was part of it..." (1934); photograph by Man Ray, published in Andre Breton, Mad Love. Copyright 2004, Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London. 


1. Iversen, Margaret. "Found Object, Readymade, Photograph" in Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2; Summer 2004; 48-49.

2. Ibid., 50.

April 1, 2014

Dear reader...

It has come to my attention that I have yet to submit a single essay for you thus far in this new year. However, apologies will not be forthcoming for my life has been anything but static because of my focused energies on physical and theoretical fronts since 2014 began.

The Corcoran saga continues, of course. As adjunct professor, my profile is relatively low thereabouts, even as my theory courses have run sequentially each semester since 2004. However, the angst pervading the ranks, both tenured and contracted, has provoked some of us to speak our minds publicly and in print. My own comments, though edited and taken somewhat out of context in this GW Hatchet article, expressed my gut concern for the “Corcoran experience” to survive this inevitable Academic Merger. And I was humbled to find my name amongst those “key” faculty mentioned by Corcoran students in Kriston Capps’ somber piece on “The Final Failure.”  

I must tell you that the thought of finding myself adrift, untethered from academia and my students, is simultaneously depressing and exhilarating. As an artist who teaches, my steady, part-time employment at Corcoran has been a godsend, ever more so because I deal with language, texts, and the discourse that enables this art experience that we are all so enamored of and fortunate to know. However, as a practicing artist I will undoubtedly benefit from those extra hours that would be returned to me if I were not reading about, lecturing on and teaching art theory.

And so it goes. We will not know how it will go until George Washington University and the Corcoran hammer out the details. Nevertheless, I have a good feeling that I will continue as a professor in their resultant institutional organization.

Meanwhile, I will be jurying two upcoming Virginia art exhibits: first, for Gallery Underground’s “Mayhem” show that opens April 29, with the opening reception on Friday, May 2, 2014; then for Target Gallery's Open Exhibition 2014, opening July 19, 2014. Submissions for both shows have closed and I look forward to viewing all of the artwork this month.

Finally, my "Readymade @ 100" exhibition for the American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center is heating up with my planned research visit to the Norton Simon Museum's Archives in the coming weeks. My interest is Marcel Duchamp's 1963 retrospective and the Archives have generously agreed to my request to peruse all correspondence, interviews and ephemera associated with that exhibit. Seeking mid-Twentieth Century perceptions of Duchamp's readymade concept, it is also my fervent desire to spend some quality time with the Norton Simon's Bottle Rack and La Joconde.

I promise that I will touch base periodically with updates, enlightenments and critiques as time permits. This little soapbox is still one of my true loves and I shall not ignore you loyal readers of this site.

IMAGE: L.H.O.O.Q. or La Joconde, 1964 (replica of 1919 original); colored reproduction, heightened with pencil and white gouache, edition of 35, No. 6 (Arturo Schwartz edition); Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Virginia Dwan; © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp.

December 23, 2013

A Chelsea Minute

Four recent Chelsea shows demonstrate how two major art world players stick to the formula, how another’s legacy continues to strengthen and how a newcomer attempts to breathe new life into Duchamp’s best idea.

Richard Serra’s massive new installation at Gagosian Gallery continues his tried and true audience-friendly environments. Without a doubt, Serra’s huge, raw, rusted steel walls create a Disney-like art experience as one walks the undulating passageways that sometimes narrow to just enough room to allow single ectomorphs to squeeze through. This shared negotiation with other visitors is coupled with the impossibility of one comprehending the entire form of the room-scaled, gargantuan “sculptures.” Our perception of these forms is rendered incomplete, mysterious and theoretically infinite because of their huge size and Serra’s apparent negation of Minimal Art’s “gestalt” object keeps his recent work at least interesting.

Sophie Calle, on the other hand, ventures into pathos in her Paula Cooper show, Absence, a series that Calle began in 2006. Mining the “universally resonant” territory of death and the loss of a parent, Calle goes to obsessive but aesthetically pleasing lengths to document her mother’s passing using “photographic documentation, narrative texts, found imagery and personal iconography.”(1) Calle’s cunning in accessing the melancholy and anguish in her viewer is somewhat diminished by our knowledge of how easily emotions like pity and compassion can be coaxed.

Meanwhile, Brice Marden’s graphite drawings at Matthew Marks confirm his essential position as one of the chief architects of Minimalism. Marden’s dense, obdurate blacks and grays shift in and out of focus visually as one tries to adjust to their unfortunate presentation behind sheets of Plexiglas. Cerebrally brilliant, Marden’s reductive forms establish the Minimalist trope of “less is more,” perhaps even more courageously than Frank Stella’s “black stripe” paintings of some of the same years. Again, the aesthetic quality of these graphite planes, characterized as “luxurious surfaces” in the press release, threaten to distract us from Marden’s lean toughness and the then burgeoning theories of literal art, reductivism and the grid.

Up at Gladstone Gallery, young upstart Cyprien Gaillard dramatically stages an antiseptic construction graveyard in homage to Duchamp’s readymade, or more accurately the “altered readymade.” Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens is the title of this show and the backstory of where Gaillard lifted this phrase from is almost more ironic than the show itself.(2) Nestled in Gladstone’s 21st Street “white cube” are 15 or 16 excavation machine heads – the earth-moving shovels that scoop up dirt or remove rocks in construction work. Into the shovels’ holes, where the bucket would be attached to the arm of a Caterpillar or backhoe, Gaillard has inserted long cylinders of “yellow hued banded calcite, which, though mined by similar machinery through a process of destruction, now rests in perfect equilibrium in the grip of the sculpture – an essential part of the work.”(3)

Whether their “perfect equilibrium” counters these brutish readymades’ historical reference to that other shovel, the urinal or the bottle rack opens a debate on the merits of “new readymades” one hundred years after the fact.(4) Roberta Smith has taken the position that Gaillard’s shovel-heads have been “tamed by their isolation and by the rods of beautiful, fragile yellow onyx that run through the holes.”(5) Thus, Gaillard’s “alteration,” or more semantically and historically accurate, his “aid” to these readymades, transforms their “anesthesia” into more profound readings and that may or may not mesh with Duchamp’s original intentions:    
“A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these ‘readymades’ was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste – in fact a complete anesthesia.”(6)

Gaillard’s objects, physically and psychically, very certainly were chosen, as well as “aided” with the calcite cylinders, to convey new readings and meanings. To quote Smith’s review again: “The rods have a civilizing effect on the otherness of the shovels, like the gold ormolu with which Europeans decorated, and appropriated, Chinese porcelains.”
This in and of itself is not counter to Duchamp’s original idea:
“One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the ‘readymade.’ That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal. Sometimes I would add a graphic detail of presentation which in order to satisfy my craving for alliterations, would be called ‘readymade aided.’”(7) 

Gaillard’s calcite rods are that “graphic detail of presentation” which does indeed “carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions.” Moreover, his 21st Century grasp of the essence of the readymade is made robustly more effective in the prehistoric, scarified ambiance of this herd of shovelheads.  


IMAGE: Installation view of Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens at Gladstone, NYC; © Copyright Cyprien Gaillard and Gladstone Gallery.  


1. Quotes from Paula Cooper Gallery press release.  

3. Quotes from Gladstone Gallery press release. 

4. I will explore the "new readymades" in my curatorial survey, "Readymade at 100," for American University's Museum at Katzen Arts Center in November 2014.

5. Smith, Roberta. "Cyprien Gaillard: Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens," New York Times, November 14, 2013.

6. Duchamp, Marcel. "Apropos of Readymades," 1961.

7. Ibid.