Essay: Conceptual Art

Who hasn’t heard of Picasso?  Matisse the master of color is world renown.  But have you ever heard of Marcel Duchamp? It is the following quote that set me off in pursuit of an art movement totally unknown to me.

“In the opening decades of the 20th Century, Duchamp is regarded along with Picasso and Matisse as one of the three artists who defined the revolutionary developments in the plastic arts.  When applied broadly this includes all the visual arts, painting, sculpture, film and photography of the 20th Century.”

I had to let that sink in. Why had I not known the work of Marcel Duchamp when so much of my approach to my work resonates with his?  I told myself that my art education was formidable.  At 19 I lived in Rome, Italy, an art education in itself.  I spent my Junior Year abroad at Loyola University’s Rome Center, visited most of not all the museums of Europe and had a working knowledge of Janson’s  HISTORY OF ART. None the less I knew nothing about the man considered the Father of Conceptual Art. I was determined to remedy the situation and discover more about him.


Marcel Duchamp was associated with Cubism, Conceptual Art, and DaDa. Duchamp rejected what he called Retinal Art, art intended only to please the eye.  Instead  Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.

In his work Marcel Duchamp laid the foundation for a new and original way of looking at art. The following quote is attributed to him.  “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists”. I knew the artists of the French Quarter in the 1970″s and 80″s.  I would  say, ” I like artists, art not so much.”

In 1919 Marcel Duchamp penciled a mustache and goatee on a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Intentionally disrespectful, Duchamp’s defacement was meant to express the Dadaists rejection of both artistic and cultural authority.  It must be said the defacement was to a cheap print of the Mona Lise not to the original itself.

Marcel Duchamp rejected all painting because it was made for the eye not the mind. In 1913 Marcel had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool. The construction he called “Bicycle Wheel” is now seen as a precursor of both kinetic and conceptual art.

By Source, Fair use,

His art piece with the weird name”The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” is known as “THE LARGE GLASS”.  It is over 9′ tall , and free standing. He worked on the piece for eight years from 1915-1923.

It consist of two panes of glass with materials such as lead, foil, fuse wire, and dust.  He considered the work unfinished.

It was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926.  The glass was shattered in transport when the piece was being moved. Duchamp repaired it but decided he admired the cracks;an element of chance that enhanced  what had been done intentionally and left the cracks as part of the piece and then declared the piece finished.

Duchamp filled his studio on West 67th St. in Manhattan with store bought objects called Ready Mades, everyday objects  which he used in his art construction. In 1917 he bought a porcelain urinal at a Fifth Avenue plumbing supply shop , titled it Fountain, and signed it R. Mutt. He anonymously submits it titled  FOUNTAIN  to an exhibition by the Society Of Independent Artists. Despite its “no jury” policy, the society rejects the work and Duchamp resigns in protest.  A few days later the Fountain is photographed and published in the May issue of the magazine The Blind Man, an avant garde magazine that Duchamp and his friends publish along with an essay defending the work.

An unsigned editorial declares “Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain or not is of no importance.  He Chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its significance disappeared under the new title and point of view-created a new thought for that object.”The Fountain became one of his most notorious ready made symbols and to this day continues to spark debate and bewilder.

Duchamp’s ready mades are massed produced objects that the artist chose, signed  and sometimes inscribed with mysterious phrases. He used them to shake up the accepted norms of artistic creation . Duchamp considered them his greatest achievement.

Could Duchamp foresee a world were “readymades” were used and then thrown in the trash as junk? A world where consumerism is rampant, cheap plastic objects are clogging our oceans, packaging materials have a short shelf life, are used  momentarily and then on to the landfill, put on the curb, or donated to charity? Today through the technique of assemblage and collage, these ready mades are transformed into 21st century sculptures, titled, signed and offered as art ala Duchamp.

This is Conceptual Art. It begins in the mind which validates the object as a product of the culture. It bemoans the use of the earth’s resources for such transitory use.  A plastic bag is used for one hour, or the time it takes to return home from the supermarket and then trashed.  Our mind says that we of the throwaway culture have to find a way out of this morass. Think about it.