What Makes a Toilet—or a Roomful of Kittens—a Work of Art?

Alina Cohen
Jun 29, 2018 7:39PM

In 2016, two teenagers left a pair of glasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). They stood back to watch unsuspecting visitors revere them as a sculpture. The audience gave the spectacles the same attention that they gave the other exhibited objects, even snapping photographs of the Burberry frames. Though intended as a prank, the action actually addressed an age-old philosophical quandary—What is art?—and offered an answer that’s been around for just over a century: Art is what you put in a gallery or museum.

In the 1910s, French artist Marcel Duchamp was working as a young painter influenced by Cubism. In 1912, he first inspired art establishment ire with Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which attempted to merge the geometric, fragmented style pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque with a sense of motion. An exhibition committee rejected the resulting form—hardly recognizable as a nude—from the upcoming Salon des Indépendants exhibition.

Far from deterred, Duchamp conceived an even more subversive way to depict movement. In 1913, he mounted a bicycle wheelatop a stool and told people that it was an artwork called Bicycle Wheel. He called this a “readymade,” invoking the language of mechanization and mass production: The term was already used to distinguish objects that weren’t handmade, but impersonally manufactured.

Installation view of Jason Dodge, “Hand in Hand with the Handless” at Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Casey Kaplan Gallery.


From there, Duchamp clarified his terminology. Bicycle Wheel was an “assisted” readymade, or a work that linked two or more objects together. A “rectified” readymade altered an existing object (like a print of the Mona Lisa with Duchamp’s drawing of a mustache). A “reciprocal” readymade, on the other hand, would turn an artwork back into a utilitarian object (using a painting as an ironing board).

Bicycle Wheel provoked viewers on aesthetic and visceral levels. The wheel served as a tease, all but begging bystanders to just go ahead and spin it, while repressing that instinct by designating itself “art.” By turning the wheel into a sculpture, Duchamp made it literally untouchable in the manner of a painting or marble bust. The quotidian was worthy of careful consideration, he believed, and the artwork was only really finished when the viewer thought about it in a new way.

Duchamp followed with other readymades, such as a bottle rack and—perhaps most famously—a urinal that he signed “R. Mutt” and titled Fountain. Over the years, various artists (including musician Brian Eno) have managed to actually urinate in the famed artwork within a museum setting. “The real point of the readymades was to deny the possibility of defining art,” said Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins, in a 2012 interview with artist Paul Chan. “Art can be anything.”

Installation view of Jason Dodge, “Hand in Hand with the Handless” at Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Casey Kaplan Gallery.

Installation view of Jason Dodge, “Hand in Hand with the Handless” at Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Casey Kaplan Gallery.

Anything, that is, that an artist selects. “The minute you choose something, generally, you are valuing the artistic facets of it or aesthetic essence of it,” Duchamp told Tomkins in a 1964 interview. “But that is not what the readymade was about. So that makes the selection much more difficult, because you can’t help but choose things that please you.” One might assume that the artist’s hand, or gesture, is absent in a readymade—but the creator is present by virtue of what he decides is fit for the gallery setting.

Contemporary artist Jason Dodge takes this process to a radical conclusion. He gathers a series of materials, brings them to the gallery, and assembles them in situ. In his current exhibition at Casey Kaplan, “Hand in Hand with the Handless,” one sculpture comprises two pigeon feed bags leaning against the wall, feathers emerging from the top, with a red cage in between. Another sculpture features an open cash register with towels stacked on top; wishbones, instead of coins, lie in a couple compartments. Elsewhere, there are projectors and blankets; lawn chairs mangled and propped up on glass cups. Throughout the show, red ant traps decorate the floor, as do the scattered bodies of dead bees.

Dodge has decided to no longer use titles, dimensions, or media when listing his individual sculptures. He’s not interested in the fact that he “made” the sculptures, and is instead more intrigued by how viewers interact with them. “The medium is the thing,” he offered during a recent conversation with Artsy. “The dimensions are the dimensions that it is. And the date is—Which date? The date you’re looking at it, the date that I decided it was an artwork, the date it was manufactured? In a sense a thing is always in the present. It can’t tell you its history.” (It’ll come as no surprise, perhaps, that Dodge also runs a poetry imprint. He considers words to be readymades: Language and its meanings exist before any writer shapes them on the page.)

Installation view of Darren Bader, “untitled show” at Andrew Kreps Gallery, 2018. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.

The objects, according to Dodge, come from myriad places—found, given to him, used, unused. He selects them based on intuitive reactions “to a situation or a place or a landscape,” he said. “I’m really interested in the intersection between what something is, how something is, what kind of history it might have.” Objects have a certain force or energy that he helps elicit via his interventions. In this particular exhibition, he highlights, among other ideas, human cruelty to the world around us.  

If Dodge posits dead bees as valid sculptural components, artist Darren Bader once went to an even greater extreme when he placed living goats in a gallery setting. In 2011, the goats roamed the white cube expanse of Andrew Kreps. Continuing with the theme, Bader included live, adoptable kittens in a 2012 exhibition at MoMA PS1 (a nearby center replaced the cats as they received new homes).

In a 2014 show at Andrew Kreps, Bader included a variety of everyday American objects, ranging from a pair of Nike sneakers and a white Rubbermaid trash can to dolls, a dildo, and a desk. He titled each work Object with a unique distinguishing letter (“A,” “A2,” “S,” and so on). The gallery became a pseudo-archive of contemporary American anthropology and artifacts. Bader describes his interest in such mundane forms in cinematic terms. “I came from a film background, and I was interested in just kind of fixing the camera on things,” he explained. “I was interested in losing the frame and dealing with objects in space.”

In other words, viewing a printer and a bottle cap in a gallery setting forces the viewer to pay attention to them in a new way. Artists working with found objects aren’t just shifting ideas about what art can be, but about how to look at it, as well: Art viewing is about directing one’s focus in a manner that the institutional setting uniquely permits.

Installation view of Darren Bader, “untitled show” at Andrew Kreps Gallery, 2018. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery.

It’s an artist’s job to know which placements, combinations, and objects themselves will generate meaning. Dodge and Bader are working with an intentionality that differs from, say, a prank pulled by a teenager at SFMOMA. Artists aren’t just taking things they like and throwing them into a gallery. First created in 1998, My Bed transported Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and the objects surrounding it (alcohol bottles, condom wrappers) to such reputable institutions as London’s Tate Gallery. In 2016, at David Zwirner, Sherrie Levine placed four brightly colored SMEG refrigerators next to monochrome panels, which represented hues from Renoir paintings of nudes. In each case, the carefully considered objects offered very different ideas: in the former, a literal exhibition of the relics accompanying an artist’s bout of depression, and in the latter, a meditation on hues and home decor within a gallery setting.

Haim Steinbach points out that it’s an artist’s responsibility to “define a way of working” which, over the decades, leads to a strong intuition for selecting objects that’s based on “knowledge and experience”—not whim.

In the 1970s, Steinbach developed his trademark display format for found objects: He places them on shelves that he builds himself. The shelf, he said, “is a device like a tape measure, like a level. It sets a context for the range of relations between volumes, weight. I’m leveling objects.” No matter whether an object is large or small, or plastic or gold, it gets the same treatment and dignification via placement on a shelf. In this way, using found objects evokes ideas about democracy and equity as it eliminates hierarchy.

Yet interestingly, both Steinbach and Bader are reluctant to situate their artwork within the context of Duchamp’s readymade. The latter called Duchamp’s approach to art “arch.” The Frenchman wrote cryptic literature about his practice, making it all into a wry game. Bader, in contrast, said he has a sincere attachment to a number of the objects he’s using. If sometimes he’s playing his own wry games (see: his cheekily titled website, and his own pages-long manuscripts), they’re more gentle than Duchamp’s.  

Steinbach finds the word “readymade” too specialized. “It’s a term that’s used in art discourse,” he said. “Most freshman students taking their first course in art wouldn’t know what it is.” The tchotchkes and tools (dog toys, surfboard fins, a plastic piggy bank, a drill) found in Steinbach’s work have little to do, he thinks, with whatever a sophisticated artist from a family of French artists did in 1913.

The concept of the readymade can also extend beyond the visual arts and into the auditory realm. Avant-garde musician John Cage’s seminal 4’33’’ (1952) consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. When “played,” the piece consists of the noises already present in a theater. 4’33’’ is, thus, as participatory a composition as is possible, turning unfortunate coughs and poorly concealed whispers into music.

The concept of the readymade has also interested architects. At the Swiss Institute, curators Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen have mounted a show, “Readymades Belong to Everyone,” which connects the adaptive reuse of buildings to the ideas of Duchamp. “Readymades radically changed the idea of labor,” said Olsen. Duchamp expanded the possibilities for what it meant to work as a creative person. He pointed to David Hammons’s 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale: In a kind of readymade performance, the artist sold snowballs on the sidewalk atop a colorful rug.

Ultimately, can we consider the pair of eyeglasses dropped on the floor of SFMOMA’s galleries to be art? For a moment, as they found an audience, perhaps they were. As soon as the teenager put them back on his face, their purpose once again turned utilitarian. If some witnessing the spectacle only had their prejudices confirmed—that contemporary art is, at heart, absurd—the would-be readymade also revealed the ways in which an art museum can function as a truly transformative space.

Alina Cohen

Cover image: Installation view of Jason Dodge, “Hand in Hand with the Handless” at Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Casey Kaplan Gallery.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019