Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was created in 1913 by mounting a bicycle wheel and fork on a stool painted white. The version at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, pictured here is one of three replicas either made by or under the supervision of Duchamp after the original was lost. Though the term as applied to art was not coined by Duchamp until after its creation, Bicycle Wheel is considered to be the first of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’; a category of artistic works that present mass-produced articles selected by an artist as art, the most notorious of which is Duchamp’s famous Fountain.
With his readymades Duchamp sought to challenge contemporary notions of what art was. Choosing an object was a creative act in itself while negating its intended function transformed the object into art. The addition of a title further gave an object new meaning and Duchamp asserted that it was the artist who defined what art is, not the art world, the critics, or the consumer.
Interestingly Duchamp’s original idea was not intended as a work of art but was more in the nature of a personal experiment as he was later to explain.
“Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of [Bicycle Wheel]. The word ‘Readymade’ did not appear until 1915, when I went to the United States. It was an interesting word, but when I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a ‘readymade,’ or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it, or describing anything. No nothing like that…”
In an interview with Arturo Schwarz in the 1960’s he explained his motivation behind Bicycle Wheel further.
“The Bicycle Wheel is my first Readymade, so much so that at first it wasn’t even called a Readymade. It still had little to do with the idea of the Readymade. Rather it had more to do with the idea of chance. In a way, it was simply letting things go by themselves and having a sort of created atmosphere in a studio, an apartment where you live. Probably, to help your ideas come out of your head. To set the wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day. I liked the idea of having a bicycle wheel in my studio. I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoyed looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. It was like having a fireplace in my studio, the movement of the wheel reminded me of the movement of flames.”
If he had not envisaged Bicycle Wheel as art at the time of its creation Duchamp was happy to do so when the art world designated it as such. The original was lost when his sister, Suzanne, allegedly threw it out along with other early readymades when cleaning out his studio following his move to the United States in 1915. Duchamp made two duplicates, the one for MOMA in 1951, another in New York in 1916, and supervised the construction of a third for the Galerie Schwarz, Milan, in 1964.
If the artist defined what was art the consumer could equally define what they thought it represented, an interaction that Duchamp himself wholeheartedly agreed with saying that an artwork was not complete without the perception of the viewer. To some extent any such interpretation is negated by Duchamp’s admission that Bicycle Wheel was not intended as art. In effect critics and the art world are placing meaning and emphasis on the work that were not in Duchamp’s mind at the time of creation. Was he, as the art world claims, striking at the very heart of what it means to create an art object? Was he commenting on the pointless kinetic effort of sexual action, specifically masturbation? Was he inviting us to think how Bicycle Wheel departs from traditional notions about sculpture?
Personally I don’t think so. If Bicycle Wheel reminds me of anything it is desk toys like Newton’s cradle and the simple pleasure of physical interaction with objects. Even now I rarely pass a set of railings without unconsciously running my hand along them. Bicycle Wheel is an object that calls for interaction. It begs to be spun and Duchamp himself is said to have enjoyed spinning the wheel just for the delight of it. If it was not a deliberately created art work there is a delicious irony in the inversion of Duchamp’s own idea that it is the artist who defines what is art. Instead it is the art world that has given significance to Bicycle Wheel by giving it the status of art and treating it as such.
Art or not, that it is significant is beyond doubt. MOMA devotes considerable floor space to its display and it has inspired later artists to create their own works based upon it. Ji Lee’s Duchamp Reloaded project removes Bicycle Wheel from the gallery and places it in the streets of New York as if it were a bicycle.
Elaine Sturtevant’s (1924-2014) Duchamp Bicycle Wheel (1969-1973) is a reproduction of the original made from memory and using the same methods. As the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, would have it, “Through this subversive approach, Sturtevant divorces an artwork from its visual image to investigate its conceptual meaning and value.” Sturtevant herself has said:
“The brutal truth of the work is that it is not copy. The push and shove of the work is the leap from image to concept. The dynamics of the work is that it throws out representation. It is this leap that severs a work from its original time and place of making.”
It seems clear that Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel has evolved into something that he did not originally envisage and has been imbued with meaning and significance that was not implicit in the original. It is a process that Duchamp himself was complicit in. A photo of his studio in Paris circa 1913 shows his original work.
Here we see Bicycle Wheel as just part of the disarray of his studio before it had gained the attention of the art world cognoscenti. By 1951 when he made the third version for MOMA Duchamp was clearly more conscious of its artistic significance, deserved or not, as this staged photo of him complete with lampshade for headgear demonstrates.
Duchamp may not have set out to make a work of art out of Bicycle Wheel but when the opportunity to make more out of his ‘distraction’ arose he didn’t hesitate to take it.
Postscript, February 10, 2015.
While researching for a future post I discovered this photograph taken in 1918. One wonders if the person who built the improvised telescope stand had seen Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel”, or if this was truly an independent case of life imitating art.
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