Marcel Duchamp Bicycle Wheel New York, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913)

  • Not on view

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.

Gallery label from 2011.

Marcel Duchamp was a pioneer of Dada, a movement that questioned long-held assumptions about what art should be and how it should be made. In the years immediately preceding World War I, he found success as a painter in Paris. But he soon gave up painting almost entirely, explaining, “I was interested in ideas—not merely in visual products.” In this spirit, he began selecting mass-produced, commercially available, and often utilitarian items, designating them as art, and giving them titles. These “Readymades,” as he called them, disrupted centuries of thinking about the artist’s role as a skilled creator of original, handmade objects. Instead, he argued that “an ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Duchamp claimed he selected objects regardless of “good or bad taste,” defying the notion that art must be pleasing to the eye.

Publication excerpt from Modern Art & Ideas, Coursera.

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.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 87.

According to Carroll Janis, his father, New York gallerist Sidney Janis, found the bicycle wheel and fork in Paris in 1950, while the stool was found in Brooklyn. Duchamp put them together to create this, the third version of Bicycle Wheel. The first, now lost, was made in 1913, almost 40 years earlier. Because the materials Duchamp selected to be readymades were mass-produced, he did not consider any readymade to be an “original.”

Publication excerpt from Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, MoMA Learning.

When Bicycle Wheel was first displayed, Duchamp encouraged viewers to spin the wheel. Although he claimed to select objects for his readymades without regard to beauty, he said, “To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting…I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."

Publication excerpt from Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, MoMA Learning.
Medium
Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool
Dimensions
51 x 25 x 16 1/2" (129.5 x 63.5 x 41.9 cm)
Credit
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Object number
595.1967.a-b
Copyright
© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp
Department
Painting and Sculpture

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