A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1913 to describe an existing object that is taken from its original context and regarded as a work of art. The term is broadly applied today to any art that transforms ordinary objects into artworks through a variety of means.
The First Readymade
In Andre Breton and Paul Eluard’s Dictionnaire Abrege du Surrealisme, a Readymade was described as, 'an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist'. After the definition came the initials MD, an abbreviation for Marcel Duchamp, the most prolific and controversial supporter of the Readymade technique.
In 1913 Duchamp made Bicycle Wheel, attaching a bike wheel to a stool. He referred to the work as a 'readymade assisted' since it was made from two found objects joined together rather than one. In a bold move, he later transitioned to 'pure readymade' sculptures, such as Bottle Rack, 1914. He deliberately selected banal, functional objects which were then rendered useless by their transition into art objects, epitomising the anarchic, Dadaist spirit of play and experimentation that was key to his practice.
Duchamp’s Fountain: Scandal and Controversy
In 1917, while living in the United States, Duchamp produced his iconic Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed with the name R Mutt 1917, one of his artistic aliases, positioned 90 degrees from its normal use. The work was first exhibited anonymously at the Society of Independent Artists annual exhibition at the Grand Central Palace in New York, an open space where all submitted artworks were displayed, but the committee hid it from view during the show, stating, '(it) may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition, and it is by no definition, a work of art'.
In response, Duchamp arranged a defence for the radical theory of his readymade in the May 1917 edition of The Blind Man, an avant-garde magazine run by Duchamp and two friends. Alfred Stieglitz photographed the work of art and wrote a letter, while Beatrice Wood and Arensberg wrote anonymous editorials including the passage:
'Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object'.
Duchamp raised several key issues with his readymade sculptures; that the choice is itself a creative act, shifting the object’s original meaning can transform it into a work of art, and the way it is presented can give it a new meaning. His Fountain is perhaps the most memorable of his readymade sculptures, due to the crass nature of the original object. It was hugely controversial at the time and widely regarded as an attack on the conventional status of art. Although the original Fountain was lost, Duchamp made multiple, almost identical versions that are held in various collections around the world, proving that the idea is more important than the original object. He later produced La Boite-en Valise (Box in a Suitcase), 1935-41, which featured miniaturised versions of many of his most famous works of art, including Fountain.
Pop, Conceptualism and Neo-Pop
As a leading Dadaist, Duchamp’s readymade sculptures were hugely influential in Europe and the United States following the two World Wars, with ideas surrounding readymade concepts infiltrating into a variety of art forms. Pop Artists adopted readymade related ideas, placing images of ordinary, commonplace objects into works of art, including Andy Warhol’s use of everyday advertising, such as Hamburger, 1985-86.
Duchamp’s ideas also influenced Conceptual artists in the 1960s, who similarly believed the idea behind the work of art can be more important than its production, or even its end product, as seen in Sol LeWitt’s repetitious sculptures and wall paintings and Lawrence Weiner’s text art. In the 1980s, Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons expanded Duchamp’s readymade ideas in various directions, producing works including New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker, 1981-87, part of his Pre-New series which placed readymade, commercialised objects associated with the idealism of American consumerism in pristine, gridded arrangements.
Contemporary Art and the Readymade
British artist Tony Cragg has also explored new ways of incorporating readymade objects in his assembled sculptures, such as Kahzenarbeit, 1985, bringing together an eclectic arrangement of ordinary objects which are transformed into a reworking of the classical Laocoon.
Several of London’s YBAs (Young British Artists) explored readymade concepts in the 1990s, including Tracey Emin’s infamous My Bed, 1998 and Damien Hirst’s reworking of medicinal material in Love Will Tear us Apart (1995), while more recently Cathy Wilkes has brought together unsettling arrangements of shop mannequins and everyday objects seen in We Are Pro Choice (2007), to create haunting, desolate installations.