Two people walk into the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. There, against the wall they see a snow shovel. The first gasps and says, “Brilliant.” The other rolls their eyes and says, “What the fuck is this?”
It’s a replica of a lost artwork by the famous Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. In Advance of the Broken Arm humorously pointed out the possibility of such an accident occurring to one who shovels snow. This was one of many “found objects” that Marcel Duchamp called his Readymades. Readymades was a series of 13 pieces handpicked over thirty years. Among them: a signed urinal (Fountain), a bottle drying rack (Bottle Rack), a chimney ventilator (Pulled at 4 pins), and a typewriter cover (Traveller’s Folding Item).
Works from Marcell Duchamp’s ‘Readymade’ Series. From L to R : “The Bottle Rack” 1914 | “Bicycle Wheel”, 1913 | “Traveler’s Folding Item”, 1916 | “Fountain”, 1917 | “In Advance Of The Broken Arm”, 1915 |
To Duchamp, Readymades recognized that art goes beyond what he called “retinal art” and moves into “visual indifference”. To many, it was profound. To others, it was total shit.
Duchamp was not the only artist of the time to engage in objet trouvé, or as we know it today by its English translation, “found out.” Though credited as the “father” of found art, the use of real objects in art preceded his Readymades. Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years adorns a real ballet tutu, leotard and slippers. The difference, however, is that the little girl is sculpted, therefore not simply “found art”.
While Duchamp more or less left his objects in tact the way they were (close inspection does indicate slight changes), other artists made modifications. This was particularly popular in the pop art era of the 60s. Andy Warhol’s You’re In made in 1967 was just a crate of Coca-Cola bottles spray-painted metallic silver. Some years prior, in 1961, Piero Manzoni mocked the entire art form with his piece The Artist’s Shit. In this sculpture, the artist allegedly filled 90 tin cans with an artist’s feces. Each can was labeled in multiple languages describing the content – Artist’s Shit, 30 GR, freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961.
The practice of assemblage is putting together parts of multiple items, a common practice especially in the Surrealist movement. Quite possibly the most famous was Dali’s lobster phone. On a larger scale, Arman’s Long Term Parking, a sculpture of sixty cars stacked on top of each other with cement stands at Château de Montcel in Jouy-en-Josas, France.
L : ‘Long Term Parking’, Arman, 1982 | R: ‘Lobster Telephone’, Salvador Dalí, 1936
Often, assemblage art changes shape and form, a great deviation from Duchamp’s Readymades. Sometimes referred to as upcycled art, recycled art, trash art or junk art, assemblage can really embrace the act of sculpting. Susan Stockwell has used money to make dresses, computer parts to create a flood, and rubber tubes to tell the story of a slain human rights activist. Nick Gentry uses old floppy & hard disks as well as vinyl records in portraits.
L : “DBase”, Nick Gentry, 2013 | R : “Flood”, Susan Stockwell, 2010
World renowned artist Ai Weiwei is no stranger to using ordinary objects in his sculptures. Forever Bicycles made use of 1254 bicycles from Shanghai’s Forever Company.
“Forever (Bicycles)”, Ai WeiWei, 2003
Probably the most well-known “found art” of our time was Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian or better to known to the rest of the world: that fucking $120,000 banana duct taped to the wall at Art Basel Miami. Yes, you could have made it. Or Duchamp’s shovel against the wall. But, as the art community will always retort, “You didn’t.”
“Comedian”, Maurizio Cattelan, 2019
Is Found Art/ Assemblage/ Recycled Art actually “Art”?
The artists talked about here are just a drop in the bucket (or the trash bin, if you will). Artists across eras, across the world have created new work with objects. You won’t be hard-pressed to find art theorists – or everyday art lovers – who find this type of “art” as nothing short of bullshit. But is it? Perhaps any real artist or art aficionado would appreciate that there’s nothing black and white about life or art. To rule out an entire art form that has evolved over decades and helped us reflect on eras is a bit counterproductive to the purpose of art.
To categorically decide if found object art – or any piece of art – is really art would mean developing a certain set of metrics to critique, to determine. A formula. The essence of “art” rejects such an analysis. Neither collective opinion or even the dollar value of a piece determines whether or not something is or is not “art”. Art is defined as “the expression of human creative skill…appreciated for its beauty or emotional power”. Sometimes, anger at the fact that something is considered “art” is the very evidence of the emotional power it holds.