Conroy Maddox The Cloak of Secrecy 1940 © Consent given by kind permission of the artist's daughter

A found object, sometimes known as the French ‘objet trouve’, is an object which is retrieved or bought by an artist for its intriguing or aesthetic properties. Some artists have transformed found objects into works of art, while others have derived inspiration from collected items. Some of the most famous examples include Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ sculptures and Tony Cragg’s eclectic assemblages.

Early Ideas: Cubism, Dada and Surrealism

The term ‘objet trouve’ was coined in the early twentieth century as various artists began incorporating found items or objects into their works of art. One of the first artists to experiment with the placing of found, ordinary materials into art was Pablo Picasso, who brought scraps of newspaper, string and matchboxes into his Cubist collages and sculptures.

German and French Dada artists pioneered found object sculpture in the years to follow. Marcel Duchamp led the way, although he set his famous ‘readymade’ sculptures apart from other 'aesthetic' found object works, claiming his items were selected purely for conceptual reasons. His iconic Fountain, 1914, for example, made from a urinal, deliberately subverted notions of artistic taste. It also proved almost anything could be transformed into a work of art through a process of artistic selection, an attitude that would have a profound impact on the course of art history.

Various Surrealist artists brought found objects into their artworks, harnessing Freud’s concept of the “uncanny” to transform once familiar objects into the haunting and unsettling. These objects reflected the uncertainty surrounding the First and Second World Wars, a time in which ordinary life had been subverted into the fearful and menacing. Popular motifs were eerie dolls coming to life or dismembered mannequins, as seen in Conroy Maddox’s The Cloak of Secrecy, 1940, which brings a shop mannequin’s disjointed limbs together with other unlikely found items including a plastic bottle and a lobster, and Hans Bellmer’s nightmarish headless dolls.

British sculptor Henry Moore was also drawn to found objects throughout the 1940s and 1950s, collecting a wide variety of shells, bones and rocks, but rather than creating works of art they became the inspiration for his organic sculptures, such as The Helmet, 1939-1940, which resembles the enclosed space of a sea shell or worn-down rock.

Pop Art, Conceptualism and Arte Povera

As influenced by the experimentation of Dada and Surrealism, the mid twentieth century saw American and European artists becoming more adventurous than ever with found objects. Neo Dada, Pop and Nouveau Realistes artists made eclectic, haphazard arrangements with pre-existing material, often as a commentary on the excesses of consumer culture throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Broodthaers. Others brought found objects into performance art, such as Arman, who would smash up musical instruments, cars and domestic items in the name of art, later displaying the fragments set in resin as seen in Violoncelle dans l'espace [Cello in Space], 1967.

Found objects were explored in powerful and atmospheric ways by various conceptual artists of the same era including German artist Joseph Beuys, who experimented with sledges, dead animals or vehicles to conjure up emotive autobiographical content. Arte Povera artists of the 1960s and 1970s deliberately chose ‘poor’ found materials such as coal, wool and chalk to challenge to monetised commercialisation of art. Jannis Kounellis was one such artist, bringing together tactile and sensory arrangements featuring unconventional matter including coffee beans, hessian sacks, planks of wood and hair. Similarly, Italian artist Mario Merz created unlikely juxtapositions of ordinary matter including wood, wax and metal, as seen in Lingotto, 1968.

Contemporary Ideas

Today found object sculptures continue to allow artists room to create stirring or unsettling commentaries on their everyday experiences, or to elevate the ordinary into the mystical or mysterious. British artist Tony Cragg made found object sculptures in his early career, combining unusual objects together to convey new, atmospheric possibilities as seen in Kahzernarbeit, 1985, which transforms sewage pipes into a monstrous snake form resembling the mythical Laocoon sculpture. The Young British artists of the 1990s have also been particularly adept at recontextualising found objects, as seen in Damien Hirst’s dead animals preserved in formaldehyde and Sarah Lucas’ Freudian or ‘laddish’ language of innuendo involving fruit, cigarettes and fried eggs, echoing the uncanny language of the Surrealists.

Watch | What is Dada?

Artists

Henry Moore
1898 - 1986
Jannis Kounellis
1936-2017
Damien Hirst
born 1965
Marcel Duchamp
1887 - 1968
Sarah Lucas
born 1962
Tony Cragg
born 1949