This Artwork Changed My Life: Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel”

Francis M. Naumann
Apr 28, 2020 12:00PM

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Helen Charman on Susan Hiller’s “Dream Mapping.”

When I saw Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) reproduced on the cover of Calvin Tomkins’s first book on the artist in 1966, I was only 17 years old and I was certain it was not a work of art.

I was in high school then and, because my brother and I aspired to become artists, my mother subscribed to the Time-Life series of monographs on world-famous painters and sculptors; the books arrived at our home around the first day of every month. I had already read the volumes devoted to Delacroix and Leonardo, so I was looking forward to the next installment in the series. However, a bicycle wheel rim mounted on a stool looked like no other work of art with which I was familiar. I initially concluded that I was accidentally sent the wrong book, perhaps something from an instructional series devoted to mechanics. As I looked more carefully at the binding, however, I realized that the design of the book looked like the other volumes in the series. At that point—a specific moment in time that was so momentous that it has ingrained itself indelibly into my memory—I realized that it was a work of art, whereupon I can recall muttering to myself the words (forgive the blasphemy of a teenager): “Holy shit. This is art.”

Without being fully aware of it at the time, my life was changed forever. I would devote nearly my entire professional career—first as an artist, then as an art historian, and finally as a dealer—to studying the art and life of this one artist. The critic Jerry Saltz said that I had fallen deeper down the Duchamp rabbit hole than anyone he had ever known.

I would eventually discover that Bicycle Wheel was the first in a series of related objects that Duchamp classified as “readymades.” These were items he seemingly selected at random, signed, and declared works of art, thereby changing the definition of art and irrevocably altering the future course of modern and contemporary art. Duchamp would follow this work with others that would have an even greater impact on future generations of artists. The urinal that he submitted to an exhibition in 1917 under a pseudonym and provocatively titled Fountain (1917) is ranked among the most influential works of art ever made.

I have devoted considerable thought as to what it was about seeing Bicycle Wheel for the first time that affected me so deeply. It could be argued that the importance of the readymade was its influence on other artists, but I was unaware of that when I had the Time-Life book in my hands. All I knew was that this object did not conform in appearance with what was traditionally identified as a work of art, and I immediately realized that most other people in my small town—especially my parents—would not have accorded it that elevated status, whether reproduced on the cover of an art book or not.

To a certain extent, this same situation exists today. When you encounter the roughly chronological format of works in the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, you enter a room that is labeled “Cubist” and you can actually discern cubes in some of the pictures, just as you can see lines suggesting movement in works labeled “Futurist,” or expressive swatches of pigment in the room identified as “Expressionist.” But when you enter a room called “Dada” and see a bicycle wheel on display, you cannot start looking for “Da,” or, for that matter, “Dadas.” In order to make any sense out of what you are looking at, you would have to know that Dadaism was an art movement born during the years of World War I and was devoted to breaking from traditional aesthetics, a rupture that this bicycle wheel exemplifies.

When most viewers unfamiliar with this historical context first see Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel on display, the first thing they ask themselves is, “What is this thing doing here?” At that very moment, something magical happens: They are not just looking at a work of art and trying to figure out how it conforms stylistically to other works in the room, but they are using their gray matter, as Duchamp referred to it, in order to more fully comprehend and contextualize what they are seeing. Even if they should conclude that this is not a work of art and has no right to be placed on display in a museum, they are at least still thinking.

It would be wonderful if we could evolve as a people to that same degree when encountering others: We would not judge them simply for what they look like (male or female, their accent, the color of their skin, etc.), but for something more substantive—what they are thinking and their position on various subjects. To an extent, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel comes closest to doing exactly that, for almost immediately upon registering its existence with our eyes, we are forced into a position of using our brains to more fully understand what we are looking at. We are, in effect, spinning our own wheels (if the pun can be forgiven), just as I have done now, while attempting to understand and write about Duchamp’s work in the half-century that has passed since I first saw a rimless wheel mounted on a stool reproduced on the cover of an art book.

Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series Helen Charman on Susan Hiller’s “Dream Mapping.”

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”

Francis M. Naumann
Francis M. Naumann is a Duchamp scholar who has written extensively on the artist and his work. He is author of “New York Dada 1915–23,” which is considered the definitive history of the movement.