Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel is one of his earliest readymades, with which he questioned the very notion of what constitutes a work of art. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at the life and works of this pioneering twentieth century artist and at Bicycle Wheel itself.
Who was Marcel Duchamp?
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was born in Blainville, Normandy in a family where all his siblings also became artists. From 1904-1905 he studied at the Académie Julian and his early paintings were influenced by Matisse, Fauvism and Post-Impressionism. In 1911, he developed his own style of Cubism, which was equally Futurist in its inspirations and characterized by his 1912 work, Nude Descending a Staircase. From 1913, Duchamp rejected what he described as “retinal” art and began to make “readymades”. The readymades were appropriated everyday objects, which Duchamp used to question the notion of art and to remove the notions of adoration and attraction surrounding art which he found unnecessary. His first readymade was the 1913 version of Bicycle Wheel, in which he mounted a wheel on a wooden stool. Another of his most famous readymades was Fountain, which was made up of a urinal signed R. Mutt. Duchamp’s readymades had a huge influence on the conventional understanding of art and paved the way for many other revolutionary artists to follow.
After the outbreak of World War I, most of Duchamp’s friends left Paris to serve at the Front, however Duchamp, who was exempt from service due to a heart murmur, decided to emigrate to America. After the success of Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp was able to finance the move himself and was met with relative fame upon his arrival in New York. During this time, along with artist Francis Picabia, he was part of the New York Dada group and developed his ideas around “anti-art” and kinetic art that he had already begun with the readymades.
Duchamp also worked under pseudonyms, such as Rrose Sélavy, which he used in addition to his readymades to question the romanticization of the artist figure. He was also interested in music and made several aleatoric compositions which influenced the work of John Cage in the 1950’s. From 1918, Duchamp largely stopped producing art and began to play chess. He traveled to Buenos Aires to play before continuing to live between Paris and New York, staying more permanently in Greenwich Village from 1942. During this period, he was more of a consultant to artists, dealers and collectors. He died in 1968 at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine in France.
What is Bicycle Wheel?
Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel was first made in 1913 and was considered to be one of his first readymades (an object or objects found by Duchamp and labelled as art). Bicycle Wheel is made up of a metal bicycle wheel mounted on a painted wooden stool. Marcel Duchamp described its creation by stating: “In 1913, I had the happy idea to fasten the bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.”
For Duchamp’s readymades, he deliberately chose functional everyday items “based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste.”
Duchamp’s theory behind the readymade was detailed in the avant-garde magazine The Blind Man (which he produced with friends in 1917) when discussing another of his famous readymades, Fountain: “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.”
Therefore, the reasoning behind Duchamp’s readymades was primarily threefold. Firstly, it was the choice itself that defined the creative act; secondly, by removing the object from the context of its function it consequently became art; and finally, the addition of a title contributed another layer of significance and indeed, a new meaning. At the heart of Duchamp’s readymades was the concept that art was defined by the artist, which consequently expanded the possibilities of art exponentially.
The Bicycle Wheel that is today exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art is the third version of the work, the first having been made in 1913 and since lost. Due to the fact that Duchamp’s readymades were comprised of mass produced objects, he consequently rejected the idea of an original readymade.