In April 1917 the American Society of Independent Artists decided to reject a submission to their open exhibition. The artwork in question was a men’s upturned urinal entitled Fountain and signed by an R. Mutt. It later transpired this was the pseudonym of the artist Marcel Duchamp and Fountain was an early ‘readymade’, a new concept in art whereby an ordinary object is redefined by the artist as a work of art. This wild and provocative idea was to transform the trajectory of art in the 20th century, and continues to resonate today.
Duchamp was born in Blainville-Crevon, Normandy in 1887 into a prosperous family. His grandfather had been a painter and both his sister, Suzanne Duchamp, and older brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, became artists. In 1906 he settled at Neuilly-sur-Seine on the edge of Paris. Early paintings were inspired by Cezanne and Fauvism, and he briefly became involved with the Cubist movement. Together with the artist Francis Picabia he developed attitudes of a sort subsequently labelled Dada. In 1913 he made his first readymade, Bicycle Wheel – a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool.
In 1915, already a celebrated artist, he moved to New York where he became part of a tight-knit group of émigrés that included Man Ray and Picabia. After the furor surrounding ‘Fountain’, Duchamp proceeded to produce many more readymades, but it was in 1923 that his masterwork, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was presented. Its meaning is still hotly debated, but it has become widely interpreted as an allegory of virtual desire in the machine age.
In 1926 Duchamp officially gave up art to play tournament chess, although he continued to publish books on his art, and made art in secret. In 1941 he produced Box in a Valise, a collection of miniature facsimiles of his works contained within a leather suitcase, which he described as ‘a portable museum’. He spent much of the rest of his life working on six further editions of 300 boxes, each slightly different from the other. By the time of his death in 1968 Duchamp was considered to be the father of conceptual art. The minimalist composer John Cage said, ‘I can’t get along without Duchamp. I literally believe Duchamp made it possible for us to live as we do.’
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