Friday, April 18, 2014

Found Object or Readymade?

Now that submissions are starting to roll in on our "Call for Entries" for Readymade@100 at AU's Katzen Arts Center, some definitions are in order before the deluge. In unpacking "what constitutes a readymade" in 2014, 100 years after Duchamp's first object was tagged with the name, there are two art terms that should be examined, both for general readers of this site and, most urgently, for those artists out there who plan to submit their "new readymades." 

The easier of the two terms is assemblage, which is essentially a three-dimensional collage composed of objects instead of flat materials like paper or photographs. Assemblage in art (not to be confused with MIT's now defunct architectural theory journal or the on-line collaborative for "real-time connectedness") can be made from natural or man-made objects, is labor-intensive, sculptural and an additive process to develop form. As such, it is far from the essence of a readymade, even though it is sometimes constructed of found objects.  

That's the thornier of the two art terms, the found object, or objet trouvĂ©. The difficulty arises because some art historians, scholars, critics and curators throughout the 20th Century have exasperatingly continued to classify found objects as readymades, and conversely, confuse readymades with found objects.

True, readymades must be found first but let us be clear: it was Marcel Duchamp who definitively established the manufactured, mass-produced, commodity object as a readymade, first using the term in 1914. As will be mentioned often during the next four months leading up to the September 6th opening of Readymade@100, it was Duchamp's choice that defined his act as an artistic one. Furthermore, Duchamp's engagement with the context of an art exhibition (Society of Independent Artists, 1917) by entering his readymade Fountain (subsequently rejected) that sparked over a century of debate about the definition of art and what constitutes an artwork. 

At this juncture, and again I stress "before the deluge," I simply want to offer Margaret Iversen's distinguished essay, "Readymade, Found Object, Photograph." Let this serve as evidence of the complexities of the associative "unconscious" designation of the objet trouvĂ©:

"The found object shares with the readymade a lack of obvious aesthetic quality and little intervention on the part of the artist beyond putting the object in circulation, but in almost every other respect it is dissimilar. The difference is attributable to [Andre] Breton's positioning the found object in a different space -- the space of the unconscious. [...] The object found as if by chance is situated at the point of connection between external nature, perception, and the unconscious, and thus has a peculiar, elusive relation to vision. The space occupied by the found object is carved out by traumatic experience, defined precisely as an experience that has failed to achieve a representation, but on which, nonetheless, one’s whole existence depends. I will argue that this object calls attention to itself by creating a hole in the fabric of normal perception. This may sound as though I'm contrasting the found object with the readymade in terms of a subjectivity/anti-subjectivity polarity, but the matter is not so simple. The traumatic subject is not the personal self that was so strenuously avoided in the tradition of disinterested art. Both that tradition and Surrealism were interested in the displacement of the artist’s agency."(1)

With both found objects and readymades requiring "little intervention" from the artist we can perhaps see the confusion between the two. However, Iversen's emphasis on the "traumatic experience" that allows the subject to find an object that visualizes the "hole in the fabric of normal perception" distinguishes the found object as an unconscious selection. Moreover, Iversen cites Breton's Mad Love (1937) for later influencing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's retooling of the Freudian trauma as a "Surrealist encounter," to crystalize her distinction between found object and readymade: 

"The found object is encountered and the effect is traumatic. The contrast between the Duchampian rendezvous and the Bretonian encounter should now be clear. While the readymade is essentially indifferent, multiple, and mass-produced, the found object is essentially singular or irreplaceable, and both lost and found."(2)

How will this figure in my curatorial consideration of your "new readymade" submissions? Instead of requesting a psychoanalyst to accompany my review of the Readymade@100 image submissions, I will have to trust my visceral response to each of the objects that I regard. The possibility that a mass-produced, commodity object may fulfill an artist's "singular or irreplaceable" traumatic need is obviously very real. Certainly, I do not wish to miss such a delightful object as Breton's little wooden spoon that he found in a Paris flea market, and whose delicious mystery Man Ray's evocative photograph, reproduced above, only slightly captures.

IMAGE: "From a little spoon that was part of it..." (1934); photograph by Man Ray, published in Andre Breton, Mad Love. Copyright 2004, Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London. 


1. Iversen, Margaret. "Found Object, Readymade, Photograph" in Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2; Summer 2004; 48-49.

2. Ibid., 50.

Monday, April 14, 2014


This Fall, the American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center will present “Readymade@100,” an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’sreadymade concept. The exhibition is curated by Maryland artist, art theorist, and Corcoran College of Art and Design professor Mark Cameron Boyd and includes an “open call,” juried exhibit opportunity seeking submissions of “new” readymades from artists that significantly expand upon Duchamp’s idea. As the originary conceptual act, Duchamp’s choice of commercially available objects for art exhibition, such as “Bottle Rack” and his infamous “Fountain”urinal, secured his reputation in art history. It was Duchamp’s location of these objects within the “art context” that began a century of debate about the definitions of art and established Duchamp’s influence on contemporary art practices.“Readymade@100” will both celebrate Duchamp’s vision and recognize the relevance of the readymade by exhibiting new work by emergent artists that continue a contemporary development of the concept.
The American University Museum will publish a catalog of the exhibition with reproductions of selected artworks and a curatorial essay, and public talks and a lecture are planned during the exhibition.


Submissions of artwork must be in high-resolution (300dpi) digital format and must be received by June 15, 2014. Artists interested in submitting work who require further information may contact