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Ready-made

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term applied from 1915 to a commonplace prefabricated object isolated from its functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection. Unlike most types of Objet Trouvé, of which it can be considered a sub-category, it is generally a product of modern mass production, and it tends to be presented on its own without mediation. In its strictest sense it is applied exclusively to works produced by Marcel Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the clothing industry while living in New York, and especially to works dating from 1913 to 1921. Duchamp envisaged the ready-made as the product of an aesthetically provocative act, one that denied the importance of taste and which questioned the meaning of art itself. According to Duchamp, the artist’s choice of a ready-made should be governed not by the beauty of the object but by his indifference towards it; to these ends it could be selected by chance methods, for example by a predetermined weight or at a predetermined time.

Duchamp’s invention of the ready-made can be related to a more general interest in machine imagery, for example in Futurism, and especially to Cubism, with its emphasis on the painting as an object in its own right, and to the use in Collage of existing materials. These developments, together with the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, which similarly embraced fragments from everyday life, appear to have strongly influenced Duchamp, but the starkness of the ready-mades made his gesture all the more provocative. The most notorious of these works, a urinal entitled Fountain (1917, editioned replica, 1964; Ottawa, N.G.), is occasionally termed an ‘assisted’ ready-made because the artist has made slight physical interventions to the object, for example in this case by signing it with the pseudonym R. Mutt. For objects to which he made more elaborate changes, in order to bring out an idea implicit in the original thing, he coined the term ‘rectified’ ready-made. Hence, in 1920, Duchamp drew a moustache and beard on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, along with a punning inscription that also served as its title: L.H.O.O.Q. (1919; Paris, priv. col.), roughly translatable (when the letters are read in French) as ‘she has a hot arse’. The iconoclastic gesture was obvious, but the ambiguous sexuality of the painting revealed by the gesture was more provocative.

Other artists associated with Dada produced ready-mades, although they were constricted by the severe demands of aesthetic indifference. Of Duchamp’s friends Morton Schamberg, Francis Picabia and especially Man Ray, to whom he was particularly close, produced objects in a similar spirit. Man Ray’s most successful works of this type, however, such as Gift/Object (1921; priv. col., see Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, exh. cat., London, ACGB, 1978, p. 178), a flat iron with a row of nails stuck on to its lower surface, evoke a mood of personal history and even anxiety that would have been inadmissible in Duchamp’s terms. Such objects by both Man Ray and Duchamp were exhibited in the 1930s by the Surrealists, but their interest in their subversive potential was tempered by an emphasis on personal obsessions.

Duchamp’s preference for ideas over purely visual effects was rediscovered in the 1950s by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who produced object-related work influenced by the ready-mades. Duchamp’s key notion of indifference was most closely followed, however, by Andy Warhol and other Pop artists in their apparently passive acceptance and reproduction of commercial packaging and other mass-produced printed material; yet even the works that were closest in spirit to Duchamp, such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (exh. 1964; New York, Leo Castelli Gal.; see C. Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York, 1983, p. 48), were not true ready-mades but handmade, three-dimensional replicas of real things. The vogue in the 1960s and early 1970s for art objects manufactured in limited editions, known as Multiples, also provided an appropriate medium for the reproduction or imitation of machine-made objects, for example Richard Hamilton’s The Critic Laughs (1971–2; see R. Hamilton, Collected Words, 1953–1982, London, 1982, p. 73), in which an electric toothbrush is surmounted by a set of false teeth made of dental plastic. During this period European artists, especially those associated with Nouveau Réalisme, such as Arman and Daniel Spoerri, also extended the use of the ready-made by juxtaposing different objects or by grouping them together in large quantities, while Piero Manzoni concentrated on the importance of the act of choice. In the 1970s and 1980s the ready-made featured in conceptual art, Arte Povera and in the sculpture of Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow and others. Few artists, however, maintained either Duchamp’s restraint or his indifference.

Matthew Gale
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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