Duchamp’s “Readymades” Redefine Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Marcel Duchamp’s elevation of everyday objects to the status of art sparked controversy but proved enormously influential.

Summary of Event

“As early as 1913, I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.” In that one act, Marcel Duchamp originated two of the most significant approaches to modern sculpture: the mobile (sculpture involving actual movement) and the “readymade” (sculpture made from ordinary, existing objects). Of even more importance was Duchamp’s challenge to traditional concepts and definitions of art. Art;sculpture Readymades (Duchamp) Sculpture Conceptual art [kw]Duchamp’s “Readymades” Redefine Art (1913)[Duchamps Readymades Redefine Art (1913)] [kw]"Readymades" Redefine Art, Duchamp’s (1913)[Readymades Redefine Art, Duchamps (1913)] [kw]Art, Duchamp’s “Readymades” Redefine (1913)[Art, Duchamps Readymades Redefine (1913)] Art;sculpture Readymades (Duchamp) Sculpture Conceptual art [g]France;1913: Duchamp’s “Readymades” Redefine Art[03230] [c]Arts;1913: Duchamp’s “Readymades” Redefine Art[03230] Duchamp, Marcel Picabia, Francis Ernst, Max Man Ray

Duchamp was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and also one of the most fascinating and problematic, because there is so much in his art that resists explanation. He began his career as a conservatively trained artist in 1902 and, within a period of less than ten years, worked his way through the most advanced movements in pre-World War I art, including cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism. In 1913, he created an international sensation when his cubist Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York. By 1923, however, he had abandoned his painting career altogether. Although he had phased himself out of the making of art in the traditional sense, he continued to be an important figure in the international art world until his death in 1968. Duchamp’s career raised a series of intriguing questions: Why did he quit making art? Why did he remain an inspiration to so many artists, from the Dadaists and Surrealists of the 1920’s and 1930’s to young artists in the 1950’s and 1960’s? Was he, as some hostile critics have suggested, simply pretending to take an antiart stance to cover up his own failures as an artist, or had he really found a new expressive activity that took him beyond art in its historical sense?

From 1910 to 1913, Duchamp made some drastic changes in his work. In a series of nudes done in 1909 and 1910, he progressed from an Impressionist approach to pose, gesture, and brushstroke to a representation in which the gestures of the figures and their relationships to one another were not explicit; each figure was painted in a dry, precise style, with even some indication of internal organs beneath the surface of the skin. He had put formal precision of statement at the service of ambiguity or mystery of content.

Then, in 1911, he did a number of cubist-inspired works, which led to two versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, Nude Descending a Staircase (Duchamp) works that illustrated successive stages of movement of a single figure. At the same time, he did his first work involving the machine as subject. Choosing a commonplace household item, a coffee grinder, he created the illusion of motion by using graphic devices (arrows and dotted lines) to indicate the turning of the grinder’s wheel. This painting marked the beginning of his fascination with objects.

In 1913, having painted two versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp next painted Bride Bride (Duchamp) and Passage of the Virgin to the Bride. Passage of the Virgin to the Bride (Duchamp) In these two works, the directions he had taken in such earlier works as Bush, Nude Descending a Staircase, and Coffee Grinder seemed to come together. He combined his interest in both the human figure and machines to produce two works in which a “machine” became a metaphor for the human. In other words, he stripped the bride of all her historical, sentimental associations—wedding gown, veil, bridal bouquet, something old and new, borrowed and blue. He even removed her face and all external aspects of her body, imaging her as a complex combination of tubes, valves, slots, cones, and gears—in other words, as a machine. He painted the various parts in a careful and precise way, with all evidence of brushstroke removed. As he stripped down the bride on the physical level, he also stripped her of certain psychological or mental associations—the ideas of beauty and femininity, for example. The disenchantment that Duchamp evidenced for the subject was also his feeling about art itself. He was now taking a serious antiart position; with the precision of his drawing and painting, he was moving away from the traditional concept that tangible evidence of the artist’s hand in a work is an integral part of the aesthetic experience.

Duchamp was determined to break away from “retinal” art—art for the eye alone—which, as he observed, had led to the glorification of the craft aspect of painting, an enormous regard for the virtuosity of the artist’s hand. He dismissed such work as the “olfactory” art of painters who, being in love with the smell of paint, had no interest in re-creating ideas on canvas.

Duchamp’s next paintings, done in late 1913 and early 1914, were of a chocolate grinder—a machine he saw in a shopwindow. Again, his approach was to be as dry and as precise as possible in order to emphasize the object itself and its mystery, not the facility of his own hand. In the second version, he took the machine out of the illusionistic setting of the first painting in order to emphasize further the object character of his motif, and he also fastened pieces of thread to the canvas to represent the teeth of the three drums that revolved in the machine as the chocolate beans were ground.

In his thinking and in his art, Duchamp had moved away from the avant-garde (cubism and abstraction) and had achieved identifiability of the object and elimination of virtuosity in the making. Having gone as far as he could in terms of creating the illusion of an object in his work, his next logical step was to involve himself directly with objects. In so doing, he was declaring that creation resides not in making but in seeing. Duchamp stated that one important aspect of his “seeing” or selection of objects to be used as readymades was the absence of aesthetic delectation. His choices, he said, were based on a reaction of visual indifference, with a corresponding total absence of good or bad taste. The truth of that claim was evidenced by his work Fountain Fountain (Duchamp) in 1917—a porcelain urinal that he signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” and submitted to an exhibition sponsored by the Society of Independent Artists. The exhibition committee, finding the piece obscene and morally offensive, refused to display it.

Duchamp sometimes inscribed a short sentence on a readymade that, rather than being a title, he wrote, was meant to “carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions, more verbal.” When he added graphic details to satisfy his craving for alliteration, the object became “readymade aided”; to expose the basic antinomy between art and readymades, he imagined a “reciprocal readymade: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.” Realizing that the readymade could be repeated indiscriminately, he decided to limit the number he made each year. For viewer even more than for artist, he noted, “art is a habit-forming drug,” and he wanted to protect the readymades against such contamination.


In his creation of the readymades, Duchamp raised—and answered—the question, Who determines whether or not something is art? This question has provoked much heated debate through the centuries, with scholars arguing about the extent to which a work of art must be aesthetic, must be shaped by human hands, must be original (to distinguish it from craft), or must have a meaningful subject. Needless to say, little agreement has been reached on any of these points. With the readymades, however, Duchamp presented his own answer: It is the artist who determines whether or not something is art.

The readymades expressed Duchamp’s penchant for paradox, for the play of visual against verbal, for alliteration, and for both visual and linguistic puns. The readymades also illustrated another major aspect of Duchamp’s thinking about art, his courting of chance or accident. He created Three Standard Stoppages, Three Standard Stoppages (Duchamp) for example, which consists of three mystical, personal units of measure, by allowing three pieces of thread to fall onto three pieces of black paper, to which he then affixed the threads; he then carefully preserved the results in a wooden croquet box. The irony is that measure is usually identified with precision, but Duchamp’s measure was achieved by chance.

All these characteristics of Duchamp’s work—along with his antiart stance—had a great influence on the Dadaists. The Surrealists, too, were significantly influenced by Duchamp’s love of paradox and wordplay as well as, in particular, his involvement of the artist with chance and accident. The works of Francis Picabia and Max Ernst, for example, display the same kind of use of both visual and verbal language to create witty, satirical, punning references to the foibles of society as well as the same use of the machine as a metaphor for the human. Man Ray, the American painter and photographer, was another who was fascinated by what Duchamp and Picabia were doing to minimize the role of the hand in art.

When Duchamp incorporated movement into Bicycle Wheel, Bicycle Wheel (Duchamp) he pioneered kinetic sculpture. In the 1920’s, he experimented further with motion in Rotative Glass, Rotative Glass (Duchamp) which was based on the phenomenon that when two spirals revolve on a common axis but slightly off center, one appears to come forward and the other to go back. To demonstrate this, he built an apparatus consisting of five rectangular glass plates of graduated lengths, each with black lines painted at both ends and attached to a metal rod that was turned by a motor. In the 1930’s, he created the Rotoreliefs Rotoreliefs (Duchamp) —six round cardboard disks, each stamped with what appeared to be an abstract design; when “played” on a phonograph turntable, the disks gave the illusion of three-dimensional objects. When Alexander Calder’s Calder, Alexander first kinetic sculptures were exhibited in 1932, it was Duchamp who christened them “mobiles.” Calder’s wind mobiles, especially, relied on chance (moving air currents) for their effects. Most of the kinetic sculptors of the late twentieth century were ardent admirers of Duchamp—in 1960, for example, when the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely went to New York City to build his self-destructing sculpture Homage to New York at the Museum of Modern Art, he consulted with Duchamp.

Twentieth century sculpture, from the beginning, contained a strain of fantasy, resulting from the fact that most sculptors continued to use the human head and figure as subjects—and no matter how much they transformed the head and figure by every sort of reformation, deformation, stylization, and manipulation imaginable, some sense of human presence remained. The first twentieth century work in which fantasy appeared explicitly was Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). This was followed by Duchamp’s even more significant invention of the readymade. The Duchamp-inspired “object sculptures” created by the Dadaists reached a culmination in such pop art productions as Jasper Johns’s cast-bronze beer cans and coffee cans filled with paintbrushes.

Duchamp was the guiding light and a great influence on both pop art and the New Realism. Many terms that have special significance in relation to later twentieth century art were his—readymade, assemblage, mobile. As several scholars have pointed out, his last painting, Tum’ (1918), is almost a dictionary of postwar directions in art—from pop and op to color field to conceptualism.

Duchamp’s work has been one of the most important influences on the development of conceptual art. When Duchamp invented the readymade, he reduced the creative act to the elementary level of selecting or designating an object as art. By implication, then, art was more concerned with the artist’s intentions than with craftsmanship or style. Furthermore, he challenged the entire art establishment; art critics and professional arbiters of taste who dictated to the galleries, museums, and art-buying public were no longer needed as the artist, who decides what is or is not art, became both creator and critic. Also, if art inheres not in form but in the artist’s conception, then it is no longer an object for commercial, profitable speculation in the art market. The conceptualists—believing that formalism was dead and that art could survive only as idea—looked to Duchamp’s readymades as the beginning of modern art and of conceptualism itself. In the final analysis, however, the art establishment won out. As Duchamp himself later declared, “I threw the urinal in their faces and now they come and admire it for its beauty.” Art;sculpture Readymades (Duchamp) Sculpture Conceptual art

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Harnoncourt, Anne, and Kynaston McShine, eds. Marcel Duchamp. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973. The catalog for a comprehensive exhibition of Duchamp’s work. Contains essays on various aspects of his work by leading Duchampian scholars. Features a chronology, an excellent bibliography, and illustrations throughout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duchamp, Marcel. Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Edited by Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. An attempt to collect and publish all of Duchamp’s written work. Includes an English translation of Duchamp’s notes for his painting The Large Glass as well as the text of a lecture Duchamp gave in 1961 in which he discussed his creation of the readymades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duve, Thierry de, ed. The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. Collection of eleven essays that were first presented at a colloquium at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1987. Each essay is followed by a transcript of the discussion that took place at the colloquium following the essay’s presentation. Three of the essays are specifically concerned with the readymades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Judovitz, Dalia. Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Analysis of Duchamp’s work focuses on the significance of his readymades. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare—A Biography. Boston: MFA Publications, 2002. Biography draws on a wide variety of sources, including many unpublished materials held by various libraries and universities, interviews with people who knew Duchamp, and countless articles, journals, lectures, and books. Fully documented and illustrated with black-and-white plates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. 1965. Reprint. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Uses original manifestos and other documents to re-create the times and events of Dada. Emphasizes Duchamp’s influence on the development of Dada and discusses some of the movement’s leading artists.

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Armory Show

Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret Voltaire

Man Ray Creates the Rayograph

Categories: History