Bicycle Wheel is Duchamp’s first readymade, a class of objects he invented to challenge assumptions about what constitutes a work of art. Duchamp combined two mass-produced parts—a bicycle wheel and fork and a kitchen stool—to create a type of nonfunctional machine. By simply selecting prefabricated items and calling them art, he subverted established notions of the artist’s craft and the viewer’s aesthetic experience. The 1913 Bicycle Wheel was lost, but nearly four decades later Duchamp assembled a replacement from newly found prefabricated parts and affirmed that the later version is as valid as the original.
Marcel Duchamp: In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn. It was around that time that the word 'Readymade' came to my mind to designate this form of manifestation. A point that I very much want to establish is that the choice of these Readymades was never dictated by an aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on visual indifference—a total absence of good or bad taste—in fact, a complete anesthesia.
Curator, Ann Temkin: Duchamp's very modest words disguise the fact that his invention of the Readymade, as he called it, was probably his greatest contribution to the art of the twentieth century. Readymades completely upended so many ideas of what art needed to do in order to be considered art. They weren't all quite as simple as Duchamp makes it sound. For example, the readymade here of the bicycle wheel on the kitchen stool was not something he just found. He had to have the idea of sticking the wheel, upside down, on top of the stool. It is an early example of what today we might call kinetic sculpture, because originally Duchamp intended the wheel to be spun. He once said how it calmed him to watch the wheel rotating on the kitchen stool somewhat like looking at a fire in a fireplace.
One of Duchamp's most famous sayings was that a work of art was not complete without the perception of the viewer when he or she starts asking questions. Even if those questions are nothing more than, 'Why in the world is this a work of art?'
Narrator: New York Dada emerged as the result of an influx of European émigré artists, key among them Marcel Duchamp, who left Paris in 1915 and settled in New York. There he coined the term "readymade" for everyday objects stripped of their functional contexts and declared as art.
Artist, Marcel Duchamp (archival audio recording): In 1913, I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn. It was around that time that the word 'readymade' came to my mind to designate this form of manifestation. A point that I want very much to establish is that the choice of these readymades was never dictated by an aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on visual indifference—a total absence of good or bad taste, in fact, a complete anesthesia.
Curator, Anne Umland: Duchamp really is striking at the very heart of what it means to create an art object. What is the character of that object? And can it be simply a matter, as he said, of choice? I think Duchamp is inviting you to think through in every possible way how the bicycle departs from traditional notions we might hold in our minds about sculpture. Here instead of a pedestal, we have stool, and instead of something that is solid or monumental, we have an open, transparent form that moreover is poised on the edge of motion.
Narrator: The original version of Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel was made a few years before the term Dada was coined in Zurich.
Although Duchamp had collected manufactured objects in his studio in Paris, it was not until he came to New York that he identified them as a category of art, giving the English name "Readymade" to any object purchased "as a sculpture already made." When he modified these objects, for example by mounting a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool, he called them "Assisted Readymades." Duchamp later recalled that the original Bicycle Wheel was created as a "distraction": "I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."
Bicycle Wheel is Duchamp's first Readymade, a class of artworks that raised fundamental questions about artmaking and, in fact, about art's very definition. This example is actually an "assisted Readymade": a common object (a bicycle wheel) slightly altered, in this case by being mounted upside-down on another common object (a kitchen stool). Duchamp was not the first to kidnap everyday stuff for art; the Cubists had done so in collages, which, however, required aesthetic judgment in the shaping and placing of materials. The Readymade, on the other hand, implied that the production of art need be no more than a matter of selection—of choosing a preexisting object. In radically subverting earlier assumptions about what the artmaking process entailed, this idea had enormous influence on later artists, particularly after the broader dissemination of Duchamp's thought in the 1950s and 1960s.
The components of Bicycle Wheel, being mass-produced, are anonymous, identical or similar to countless others. In addition, the fact that this version of the piece is not the original seems inconsequential, at least in terms of visual experience. (Having lost the original Bicycle Wheel, Duchamp simply remade it almost four decades later.) Duchamp claimed to like the work's appearance, "to feel that the wheel turning was very soothing." Even now, Bicycle Wheel retains an absurdist visual surprise. Its greatest power, however, is as a conceptual proposition.