The most successful art”, says Gavin Turk, “is the one that has been misunderstood by the most number of people”. This bon mot is just as impeccable as it is unprovable, and we could apply it to anything from cave art to constructivism to culture itself. If we ponder the artist’s maxim more closely, we might be led to think that successful art presupposes that there is something to be understood, and that hence, it must be a distinctly modern phenomenon. Despite the odd exception, it is only really in the last hundred years that art works become equivalent to the question ‘What do I mean?’. And this notion that works are puzzles that need to be understood owes so much to the one artist who had little time for supplying or even believing in explanations : Marcel Duchamp.
‘Aftershock’, opening at Dickinson on May 5, sets itself the agenda of charting the legacy of Duchamp’s readymades in post-war and contemporary American art. If we take Gavin Turk’s definition seriously, this will mean that we are in for a sublime catalogue of misunderstandings and misreadings. To start with the most common, a readymade, as we all know, is just any object we happen to choose and then present as art. As long as the object finds itself in the right place – a museum or a gallery – and is offered by the right person – an artist – then it becomes a work of art. It could be a urinal or a bottle rack or some bricks or anything we happen to select. The classic example is Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, a urinal, signed, dated, entered and rejected for the Society of Independent Artists show in New York in 1917.
This is the stuff of legend, but both the standard narrative of ‘Fountain’ and the stock account of the readymade are confused and historically inaccurate.We tend to assume that the readymade objects were supposed to count as ‘art’, but according to Duchamp, the key was to produce works that were not art as such. “I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it”, he said, “it was just a distraction”. Likewise, the choice of readymades was to be based on visual indifference and, contrary to the usual idea, they were not intended to be unique. In one of the excellent essays in the ‘Aftershock’ catalogue, Francis Naumann argues that readymades were also to be accompanied by a specially chosen inscription. The recently completed Woolworth building in New York, for example, did not become a readymade because Duchamp didn’t come up with the right text for it.
If we follow the scholarly consensus, a readymade couldn’t be just anything, and Duchamp even wanted to limit the number of readymades in circulation. And yet no one would deny that if the purity of this supposed concept had been respected, twentieth century art would never have been what it was.The concept had to be misunderstood, and this was what gave it all its success. As Duchamp would say many years after the first readymade : “The fact that they are regarded with the same reverence as objects of art probably means that I have failed to solve the problem of trying to do away with art”. Misunderstanding proved more fruitful than understanding, perhaps in the same way that film footage of Pollock painting was more influential for conceptualisations of art and the artist than the paintings themselves.
This tension between Duchamp’s readymades and the appropriation of the concept is still abundantly obvious. If the two catalogue essays by Francis Naumann and Thomas Girst do their best to dispel misconceptions of Duchamp’s project and the details of these early pieces, the press release then perpetuates them. We read that a readymade is “a mundane object taken out of its usual, functional context and presented as art”. Now, rather than seeing this clash of interpretations as clownish, why not see in it an exemplary misconstrual, exactly the kind of creative misunderstanding that moves things along in both art… and science.
And in fact, why not say that the true legacy of the readymade is exactly this misreading? The works collected together for ‘Aftershock’ demonstrate the richness of such appropriations and inflections, although it is far from clear that they can all be placed in the tradition of the readymades. We would have to add the legacy of surrealism, with its focus on chance and the found object, themes which are central to many of the works in the show. Whereas readymades don’t emphasise the presence of the people who have come into contact with them, found objects carry all the traces of their users and owners. The objects that crop up in a combine by Rauschenberg have a rather different effect from the presentation of new, manufactured items in Koons or the serial, commodified images in Warhol.
The discrepancy between the element and the place it occupies that is so central to the appropriation of the concept of the readymade is clear in many of the works in this show. And also, as a legacy, the way in which the readymade can now be a work of art that has been previously acknowledged as such. Warhol’s Mona Lisa images, for example, use the image of an iconic artwork as an ingredient, just as Koons’ hoovers complicate the readymade idea by adding a vitrine. Where Duchamp added a latrine to a show to pose questions about art, Koons adds a vitrine to suggest that the hoovers are already art. In other words, the tension between object and place that gave the key to the readymades is now included within the work itself.
One of the virtues of ‘Aftershock’ is the breadth of work on display, from pieces like Sherrie Levine’s ‘Fountain ( After MD ) : Madonna’ which directly engage with Duchamp, to Felix Gonzales-Torres’ ‘Untitled ( lover boys )’ which takes the readymade’s logic to new extremes. Visitors can help themselves to a pile of candy that gallery staff replenish, questioning the uniqueness and identity of the artwork and providing a sort of experimental access to the Sorites paradox. These lively and important works demonstrate both the power of Duchamp’s concept and its creative misunderstanding. Dali was clearly wrong to say that when all existing objects are considered readymades, “there will be no readymades at all”. ‘Aftershock’ shows how once practically everything has been taken as a readymade, what’s left is the simple, elegant principle of the readymade itself : that works make us question the space they inhabit.