Revisiting Duchamp’s Readymades in the 21st Century

Marcel Duchamp, 'Porte-chapeau and Fountain (R.Mutt),' 1917, ARS/Art Resource

Marcel Duchamp

Porte-chapeau and Fountain (R.Mutt), 1917

Private Collection of Arturo Schwarz, Milan

Marcel Duchamp, 'Bicycle Wheel,' 1963, ARS/Art Resource

Marcel Duchamp

Bicycle Wheel, 1963

Private Collection of Richard Hamilton, Henley-on-Thames

Marcel Duchamp, 'L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa,' 1919, ARS/Art Resource

Marcel Duchamp

L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa, 1919

Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Marcel Duchamp approached the art of living with an attitude of intense curiosity and confrontational subversion. This attitude is manifest in readymades like Fountain (1917), his world-famous porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” which was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists on the grounds of indecency. Several editioned versions of Duchamp’s iconic objects are on view now in an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery’s Madison Avenue location. Many of Duchamp’s original readymades were lost or destroyed but 14 editions were published by Italian Dada scholar and collector Arturo Schwarz, beginning in 1964. 

Duchamp’s practice played Ulysses to the fine art world, drastically altering the modernist landscape and bringing into question every previously held tenet about what art could be. We’ve come a long way technologically and conceptually since Fountain was first executed in 1917, but that isn’t to say that the lessons of Duchamp shouldn’t be at the forefront of how we currently think about contemporary art. His ethos transcended the act of creating; he once said, “I like living, breathing better than working...my art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral, it’s a sort of constant euphoria.” Around 1923, he “gave up” art to devote his time to chess, which he believed was a purer symbolic expression of living. Today’s art market has come to represent a chess game of sorts, with questions of strategy, power, and objecthood often dominating the discourse. 

Worth noting is the show’s inclusion of Duchamp’s Mona Lisa readymade, adorned with a little mustache and the title L.H.O.O.Q. When read in French, the letters roughly pronounce, “She has a hot ass.” Fast-forward to Urs Fischer and Maurizio Cattelan; it’s difficult to find a conceptualist today who doesn’t use some sort of subtextual humor or ironic distance in their execution. Duchamp elevated ordinary objects to the realm of high art but iconoclasm was his real specialty. As we approach the 100-year anniversary of Fountain, let us ask ourselves where we can take things from here. Revisiting Duchamp’s readymades in a gallery setting allows us to ponder the next great creative revolution.

Charlie Ambler

Note: Images are sourced from alternate editions of the works included in the Gagosian show and referenced in the article. Versions of the works may vary.  

“Marcel Duchamp” is on view at Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave., New York, June 26 to August 8, 2014.

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