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A century of the readymade

Duchamp’s influence is in evidence at the fair, but can today’s artists reimagine his idea?

John Isaacs’s Ngorongoro, 2013 (above), looks back to Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917

One hundred years after Marcel Duchamp invented the readymade, his influence reverberates around Art Basel. Overt references include the late Elaine Sturtevant’s Duchamp Porte Bouteilles, 1993, suspended from the ceiling at Galerie Hans Mayer (2.0/E8). The work, which sold to a private collector for €60,000, is a replica of, and homage to, Duchamp’s first pure readymade, Bottle Dryer, 1914, which the artist bought from a Parisian department store.

John Isaacs’s Ngorongoro, 2013, quotes Duchamp’s famous Fountain, 1917—a urinal turned on its side, placed on a pedestal, signed by the fictional R. Mutt and submitted (unsuccessfully) for exhibition to the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Isaacs’s rainbow-coloured ceramic, priced at €34,000, “is about Duchamp’s legacy and also an ironic breaking with that”, says Erika Költzsch, a director of Galerie Michael Haas (2.0/D5).

There is also a Duchampian flair to work by the late French artist Philippe Thomas, who set up a public relations firm called Readymades Belong to Everyone in New York’s Cable Gallery in the late 1980s and took photographs that collectors signed. In so doing, the buyer became the work’s author—so Insight, 1989, available for €36,000 with Jan Mot (2.1/H10), is listed as a work by its first owner, Jay Chiat.

“Which artist could say he’s not influenced by Duchamp? It’s almost impossible,” says the artist Michael Müller, whose 25-year project to translate Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities into an invented language incorporates readymades such as the bright scarlet ibis bird in Spiegelwächter, 2013, on sale for €12,500 with Galerie Thomas Schulte (2.1/K7).

The dangers of Duchamp

Such ubiquity can be problematic. “Duchamp has become a synonym for the idea that anything goes, that you can do anything and call it art. This is a misunderstanding of Duchamp’s readymades,” argues the critic Calvin Tomkins in his biography of the artist. “You could say that Duchamp has been an enormously destructive influence. But he never tried to be an influence. He was working things out for himself, and the fact that so many people have taken his example as an excuse not to make the necessary mental effort is a perversion of what Duchamp was all about.”

“What was an iconoclastic gesture has become an icon,” says Thomas Girst, the head of cultural engagement for the BMW Group and the author of The Duchamp Dictionary. “Whatever the readymade stood for during Duchamp’s time, and for Duchamp, is no longer of any value.”

Instead, artists must engage with the readymade in new ways. Ai Weiwei is “someone who uses the charged object in a new sociopolitical context”, says Max Hollein, the director of the Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Lisson Gallery (2.0/B12) has sold two editions of Ai’s Forever, 2013, which uses bicycles bought from the manufacturer, for €100,000 each to private European collections.

According to the art adviser Todd Levin of the Levin Art Group, the artist Cyprien Gaillard chooses objects “because they exist precisely as they are found in the world and yet still manage to constructively engage the concept of degeneration that is so central to his practice”. An industrial digger is the major component of Gaillard’s Cozumel Thrasher, 2013, which sold at Sprüth Magers (2.0/B19) for €150,000.

The video artist Christian Marclay interacts with the readymade in a distinct way—specifically in The Clock, 2010, but also in earlier works such as Shake Rattle and Roll (Fluxmix), 2004, which is on show with Paula Cooper Gallery (2.0/E5) in Unlimited (Hall 1 Süd/U71).

Other artists reimagining the readymade include Mathieu Mercier, whose Untitled (work in progress), 2013, is available for €88,000 with Mehdi Chouakri (2.1/N17), and Kader Attia, whose Repair, Culture’s agency #7, 2014, is at Galleria Continua (2.1/M20), priced at €95,000. Untitled (Bottles, Horse, Heads), 1989, by Haim Steinbach, the subject of a show at the Kunsthalle Zürich (until 17 August), sold for £85,000 at White Cube (2.0/C18).

Museums are ready

Artists are not the only ones grappling with the legacy of Duchamp’s readymades. New York’s Museum of Modern Art is said to be planning an exhibition in 2016, while “The Readymade Century: 1916-2016” is due to open in 2016 at the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, and the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. A show of Duchamp’s editioned readymades is due to open at Gagosian Gallery in New York this month (26 June-8 August).

Perhaps the impact of the readymade is more profound than even Duchamp could have imagined. “Art itself has become a readymade. It doesn’t matter what art it is—you can plug it in and create a certain cultural atmosphere,” Max Hollein says. “Marina Abramovic in front of Jay-Z at his concert in an art gallery becomes a readymade; Yayoi Kusama working for the storefronts of Louis Vuitton; the simulation of works of art as the backdrop to a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel fashion show. Art loses its original intention and becomes a simulacrum.”

Hollein says: “One hundred years ago, the white cube was the framework that absorbed anything and transformed it into art. Now art itself is made use of for different purposes than its original conception. The positive is that this is a symbol of the popularity of art, especially contemporary art. The problematic element is that the powers now surrounding art in fashion, luxury, advertising and so on communicate an environment in which art could be conceived solely as an aesthetic or social foil.”

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24 Jun 14
22:0 CET


Duchamp didn`t get cubism? Ryan McCourt is being facile. Duchamp was also better looking than Picasso. Joseph Kosuth was right to claim Duchamp was the first artist to give Art it`s own identity. Unfortunately Kosuth seems oblivious these days to who else is creating radical,independent thought on the subject of the nature and function of art.

24 Jun 14
17:38 CET


Who is John Galt?

24 Jun 14
15:18 CET


LOL. Duchamp didn't get cubism. He thought, like other essentially conservative people of the time, that it's point was to be outrageous, so he took it a step further (he thought) and made the "joke" even more obvious. Sadly, enfant terriblism is more common than talent in the art world, so Duchamps followers not only didn't understand cubism also, they didn't understand that Duchamp was goofing on it. Ignorance abounds in arts officialdom, this article makes at least that clear!

23 Jun 14
2:23 CET


Congrats for article

23 Jun 14
2:22 CET


“Whatever the readymade stood for during Duchamp’s time, and for Duchamp, is no longer of any value.” Sorry Thomas, history won't let wriggle out quite so easily.

23 Jun 14
2:21 CET


I think Calvin Tomkins is empirically correct here. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth was even helped financially by Marcel Duchamp. Kosuth`s early works being excellent examples of the conceptual use of Duchamp`s ideas about the Readymades. Richard Hamilton`s final works and his interest in Duchamp `popularised` Duchamp in the UK.

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