What happened to readymade and found objects?



In the first part I of the essay I will describe the characteristics of the ready-made through one of Duchamp’s objects, Snow Shovel (In advance of a broken arm) to explain the difference between a found object and the ready-made and why, apart from Duchamp’s, there are no other ready-mades, just objet trouvé or assemblages. In the second section of the essay I will explain how the legacy of the readymade has been largely photographic, using the tools of mass media production: the situation has become inverted in comparison to the 1930’s, where the artist becomes a conduit of mass production, manipulating objects in order emulate commercial goods. The third part will examine two contemporary artists: Bertrand Lavier and Maurizio Cattelan, and how the relationship toward the object has changed again whereby the mass produced object, has reached the status of an hand made object in terms of uniqueness. Detached from the means of production, that artists have used mass produced objects, not only to points toward collective memories that we all share with these items, but also to imply other meanings outside of them.

Part 1: Surrealism (found Objects) / Duchamp (ready-made): The object subverted

In the period after the First World War many artists found themselves to be in a state of transition. Duchamp began visiting America and discovered a fascination for manufactured objects that led to an intense period of experimentation with different objects. Breton’s more psychological approach with found objects allowed for two particular approaches to develop, possibly combined by artists such as Man Ray. The development of mass production since the nineteenth century fascinated Duchamp, and allowed him to apply the language of industry in order to avoid any sort of contact with traditional pictorial painting, largely as a response to the condition of everyday life. The readymade in itself says nothing much; its interest lies in Duchamp’s use of the language.

Duchamp produced several art objects that he called ‘ready-mades’ the first in this series in 1915 was an ordinary snow shovel bought from a hardware shop on which he painted the title: In Advance of the Broken Arm. Duchamp had never seen a pre-manufactured snow shovel before in his native France and has never been able to define or explain what ready-mades are. The only definition of the ready-made published under the name of Marcel Duchamp exists in Andre Breton and Paul Elouard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme: “ An ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Louise Norton suggests that whether or not an artist like Duchamp has made the object itself played little significance for the work. Far more pertinent were the choices that allowed the object to become representative of an idea or a new thought for that object, giving it a new point of view (Norton, 1917).


In Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay ‘The Radicant’ he states that Duchamp never used the term appropriation in reference to his objects, he refers to the ready-made in terms of choice, like choosing the colours for a painting. Bourriaud makes the distinction between the act of choosing and the act of appropriating. The object in itself becomes immaterial, it is ‘indifferent’ with no physical importance, the choice of the object does not become associated with desires but rather they become displaced. It is the context in which they are shown that validates the object through the institution that displays it (Bourriaud, 2009: 147).

Ready-mades and found objects were often found to run in parallel with one another, intertwining ideas; yet they presented some distinct differences. Where the conditions of the ready-made required an indifference toward the object Breton’s found object was in essence a unique, irreplaceable object that was at the same time lost and found. Contrary to choice and indifference, the found object inhabited a place where it becomes the object of desire itself, where it points outside of itself and alludes toward something which inside of the artists imagination (Iversen, 2004: 46). They are used as raw materials, as forms to constitute assemblages to point toward subconscious associations that the objects conjured up. Through using disparate and seemingly unrelated objects, new relations and meanings between them could be created. As with the ready-made, the object loses its original function but through the assemblage it also loses its original identity. A new identity for the combination of objects emerges, and reveals the space of the unconscious. Man Ray’s the Gift (below) brings together an Iron and 14 nails glued to the front of the ironing surface. The object is rendered useless, yet through the combination of elements creates an unsettling assemblage. His intention was more elusive than a mere shifting of the iron’s function, he posits the object with a new role. A role which is unclear due to the strangeness of the assemblage itself. They become ‘visual residues’ from past experience that turn up in dreams. Breton had anticipated Lacan’s writings in Objet Petit a – where he describes how a lost (and subsequently found) object inhabits the gap between its loss and its original function and the unconscious projection that allows for its new meaning to be conceived (Iversen, 2004: 48-49).[1]

Man Ray (1921) Gift

Lynne Cooke describes artists such as Manzoni and Klein as sons of Duchamp, who’s way of working can be recognised (albeit without their awareness) in their focus on the “issues of designation and contextualisation” where humans are displayed on pedestals: the world is declared an artwork in Manzoni’s Socle Du Monde or in Klein’s Void the empty space of the gallery is declared as the very object of an artwork (Cooke, 1990: 103). Bourriaud talks about Duchamp’s readymades as not falling into any specific category of environment—never mentioning the word ‘appropriation’. Here Duchamp heightens the value of the object, not only raising its use, exchange, and aesthetic value but also in terms of ideology behind it. This is in opposition to Manzoni or Klein who were signing (adding their signature) to living people, effectively devaluing them and objectifying the human body. It is thanks to these details that we can perceive that the way in which readymades are understood was, and still is changing, the ideological context in which they are read it is different,  e.g. the use of their actual signature in contrast to using a pseudonym (Bourriaud, 2009: 148-149).

Part 2: Andy Warhol, Brassai and Richard Wentworth—The object in society / Mimesis of the object

For Bourriaud (2002: 25-28) the essential quality for a readymade is building up worth between picking, making, consuming and manufacturing and thanks to that denote a passage from a “product oriented society” to a “selection oriented society”. The artists active in the period between late 1950 and 1960 evinced the fake reality of the consumer society, using media images to denounce it. Inspired by the medium of popular culture they believed in a return to the real through it. American pop artists rarely presented the object for its aesthetic integrity. Objects were often converted through the use of media like screen-printing and photography. This added an element of credibility until the reproduction became an insubstantial, odd form of discomfort. With his Campbell’s tomato soup packing case or the Brillo Boxes, Andy Warhol creates fake ready-mades, appearances of objects with the purpose of showing the lies behind market strategies (Leoni-Figini, 2007).

Using mediums that are not yet coded with meaning created a merger between the painted surface and the social/aesthetic interpretations that these objects convey. The New Realists adopted the same interest for imagery of mass culture but even more important was the object as work of art through an act of appropriation. Artists like Arman, Cesar and Spoerri (below) approached objects in many ways: fetishizing, accumulating, compressing or “entrapping” them. While the New Realists acknowledged the importance of context, charm and irony in defining an artwork, Andy Warhol and other Pop artists were much closer to New York Dada in their consequent and clear approach to making in a more detached and speculative way (Leoni-Figini, 2007).

Daniel Spoerri 1972 in Helmhaus Zürich

Anne Marie Freybourg explains that in this period the idea of aesthetic practice became radically changed. In the first part of the century, “handwriting” was recognised as the distinguishing mark of the artist, as a clear sign of authorship and originality. Thanks to the implementation of new media, the handwritten becomes “questionable or even unimportant” (Freybourg 1990: 123). Using film or photography as a means of reproduction without the immediate codification through painterly representation. A good example is Warhol’s series Wild raspberries, drawings made by his mother that he merely used for his own needs through the addition of his own signature (below). Here he uses the handwritten to take advantage of the power of authenticity.

Andy Warhol (1959) Piglet (Wild Raspberries)

As Duchamp chose objects from mass production as medium and concept, Warhol celebrates everyday activity framing them through the camera position. Photography and film play the same role for Warhol, fascinated by the culture and proliferation of the mass media, he was able to use the machine to dictate the event rather than the event controlling the machine, with the recording machine only being turned off when the event has concluded. The first version of Chelsea Girls was a 30 hour-long film where the participants became ‘movie stars’ through improvised and staged activities (Freybourg, 1990: 123). Warhol’s characteristic aesthetic, of propagated indifference, was that of the advertising industry. Through repetition and reproduction of mass media images and silkscreen printing techniques, he brought in an element of ambiguity, pushing it into the domain of the chaotic and banal whilst raising the image-status to that of the artwork. This mechanical process was implicitly criticising capitalist society whilst undoubtedly working within its framework. Owing to the repetition of similar violent subjects and images he annihilates any element of affect from them. Warhol reminds the viewer of the mediated experience of the image, severing, detaching the viewer from the overwhelming reality of the image.

The perception of everyday objects influenced by the surrealist view relies as Rosalind Krauss points out, on the fluidity of meaning as and associations between objects. Photographer Brassaï elevates the objects that he photographs through a conscious and specific authoritative style. Staging and lighting the photographs of the involuntary sculptures. What he photographs are the subjects of everyday activities that are undertaken without paying attention to them, such as rolling up a bus ticket. Giving equal importance to act of staging and the object itself, at the risk of disrupting the precarious line connecting spectacular to the vernacular (Dezeuze, 2013: 102).

Brassaï Untitled (Picasso's Cigar, 1941)
Brassaï (1941) Untitled Picasso’s Cigar

The surrealists utilised photography to point toward the remarkable within the everyday similar to amateur photographers, the approach would become a vital framework for the conceptual photography of the 1960’s and 70’s. Richard Wentworth uses a loose, amateur approach toward the object, and celebrating the chance encounter with an object inside its context. Seeing an object within its ‘natural habitat’ and allowing this fleeting reframing to exist on its own, accepting that a replacement or re-enactment of the object or event would in fact negate its place in the world. Wentworth decides to be ambivalent about his personal objectives. Rather, showing the functional needs of the objects he encounters framing them in an anonymous way, without distorting their meaning. The interest for Wentworth lies in the objects creation inside of everyday life, how reality is framed, determines then how it is eventually transmuted (Dezeuze, 2013: 107). In an interview with Roger Malbert, the artist said that:

After a century of mass over production, terms like “found object”, or the exquisitely dignified object trouvé, are obsolete. Whoever first said “readymade” was very clever, but it’s a long time since people discovered that you could dig with an antler – something serviceable, heraldic and mythic all rolled into one. Humans don’t change that much. (Malbert-Wentworth, 1998).

Thierry De Duve declared in his essay, ‘Echoes of the readymade’: that the readymade validated its position through the statement “this is art”, manifesting itself as material object, the opus of the author, visual phenomenon offered to the viewer and as valued by institutionalisation. The advent of conceptual art negated these relationships one to one (De Duve, 1994: 118-119).

Part 3 Bertrand Lavier and Maurizio Cattelan – Staging the object

Where Warhol was working with images of the mass media, Bertrand Lavier works with the objects of mass production. Using wrecked cars, refrigerators, or pianos to elevate and bring about new significance (as with photography he focused attention on everyday aspects, presenting directly the objects instead of its representation) to the objects, painting over them.

Bertrand Lavier (1994) Teddy
Bertrand Lavier (1994) Teddy

Here being restricted to the preliminary idea of the readymade as theorized by Duchamp is a mistake, because it doesn’t open things up, on the contrary it restricts them (Birnbaum, 2002: 115). Bertrand Lavier brings together many different dimensions that are been mentioned before in this essay: the psychological, historical/sociological, symbolic and ironic. Lavier started his career in the 1960’s but instead of following the movement of Conceptual Art he questioned one of its principal dogmas: the correspondence between things and words. With a conspicuous body of works he demonstrated how words can often be identical, but things usually aren’t. Contrary to a conceptual approach, concerned more on verbal definitions rather than visual results, Lavier’s choice of utilitarian objects linked to a careful attention for colours, proportion and materials produced pleasurable objects precisely made for the purpose of been exhibited and looked at (Gauthier, 2012).

Bertrand Lavier (1993) Giulietta (vue-de-dos)

With Giulietta — a crashed Alfa Romeo that Lavier rescued from a scrapyard in 1993 — the industrial object is invested with emotional value because of its destruction. The readymade is not a neutral object anymore as with Duchamp’s model, but it becomes empowered with a narrative of feelings (Gauthier 2012). The boundaries between what is art or not are brought into discussion again through the series of painted objects. With this series, Lavier attenuated the limits between a painting and an object, creating a work which is neither one thing, nor the other. In this case it’s the painter’s act that raises a common object into the realm of the art object. In an interview Lavier mentions as his main interests Andy Warhol and Raymond Hains.Thinking about Giulietta, there is a direct link between Warhol’s Disaster series because they both talk about a new kind of commercialising death as ‘product’ and spectacle of the mass media. Speaking about the act of choosing and manipulating objects, he made the same parallel that Duchamp made, saying that even classical painters have to choose between two colours; the moment in which you manipulate objects or paint a canvas you are in this delicate state between something good or bad (Birnbaum, 2002: 115).

Maurizio Cattelan’s practice resembles Duchamp’s particularly in his use of humour and the questioning of the art object and the art world. His works are sourced from common situations and things that are subsequently managed and re-enacted often in absurd, ironic or terribly, gloomy sculptures. Untitled is a sculpture composed by a broom and canvas. Here, Cattelan openly recalls the monochromatic paintings of Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana in order to create an ironic dialogue with art history. The work is a play between the balancing of two objects and an irreverent joke, quoting Richard Serra’s work Prop (1968). The intent is to temper that mist of value and veneration towards art institutions.

Maurizio Cattelan (1994) Lullaby

The work always recalls something else, a memory, a personal story or someone else’s. In Lullaby the title refers to a criminal act perpetrated against the state—when a bomb exploded in the Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Milan—but it is about the state itself, criticized for its own frivolousness (Manacorda, 2006: 34).This work talks about death and acceptance; instead of recreating a “fake” system, Cattelan decides to show the memory of the disaster without representing it. Paradoxically the lack of definition in terms of artistic imprint humanizes the work and opens it more to a collective and emotional value. When an artist tries to talk about a disaster that has affected many people it is a way to bring it to an approachable dimension to make it less distant. The bag (filled with rubble from the explosion) was like a sort of burial for Cattelan. In an interview he states that firstly that the particular arrangement was just a necessity in order to transport the rubble but then, as usual, he realized that there was something more “respectful” in the way the work could have been approached through the bag as container instead of spreading the rubble in a particular way.

The object was already “staged”; the container, a demolition crew’s system for transporting materials, played a significant role and was less demanding from the point of view of the visitor. They were allowed to open the container and take a “souvenir” with them if they wanted (Bonami, 2006: 120-122). In the work Another fucking readymade, Cattelan trespassed the limits of the law. In this case not only the legacy of the art system like Duchamp, but literally the judicial system. A significant act of appropriation in which he plundered another gallery space in order to have a work to show for his own exhibition. A conceptual escape from the idea of work and from the arm of justice as an artistic position (Manacorda, 2006: 34-35). The museum had to justify the artistic act to the local police whilst accepting, at the same time that the work was to be confiscated leaving nothing but a photographic record. Thereby dealing a double blow to the museum, with Cattelan all the while escaping the scene and absolving himself of any duties toward the gallery. In this work he is rejecting the very idea of work in general.

In one of his interviews Cattelan, speaking about how he deals with the work, he has a very precise means of working within the exhibition situation. Assuming a sort of Duchampian role, he never touches the work himself, it’s out of his hands. He stated that the meaning of the works its out of his control, preferring to use someone else’s thought or even as his substitute (Bonami, 2006: 12). He asserts that today, research about objects, as well as the relationship towards them, has radically changed in comparison to the beginning of the twentieth century. Cattelan associates himself far more with the Futurists than with Duchamp. Their approach to art was more alive and tactile than intellectualised. Creation is a state of mind and often derives from an intimate emotion instead of calculated thoughts and craftsmanship (Bonami, 2006: 112-113).


All objects are now found objects because of their inherent quality as being manufactured. All objects are pre-existing in the world and therefore our relationship toward common art objects is a complete inverse of the situation that we found in the first part of the 19th century. Artists are not trying to convey a general message anymore. The message is a personal mythology: artists prefer to use specific rather than generic language. The key for reading these works is going through the signs that artists are presenting in their works without pretending to find a universal meaning. At the beginning of the century people still had a totally different approach to life. That is why arriving in America was a shocking revelation for the some artists. Because serial objects and faster methods of production were becoming part of everyday reality, society was slowly getting used to consumerism and many artists started to include objects in their works in order to comprehend and criticize it. Today, it does not matter anymore if the object is fabricated or craft made, all that matters is the relationship of that object to the viewer. The main shift that we can witness in the artists use of the object, pulls it away from a society driven toward production to a society consciously orientated around selection. The artist acts as a researcher of signs rather than a producer of things.




Birnbaum, D. (2002) Interview with Bertrand Lavier and Daniel Birnbaum In: Bertrand Lavier: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2002). Paris: Musee d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

Bonami F. and Spector N. and Vanderlinden B. (2000) Maurizio Cattelan. London: Phaidon

Bourriaud N. (2002) Postproduction. New York: Lukas & Sternberg. Available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bourriaud-Postproduction2.pdf [Accessed: 6th Apr. 2016]

Bourriaud N. (2009) The Radicant. New York: Lukas & Sternberg

Breton A. (1924) Manifesto Of Surrealism. Available at:


http://new-territories.com/blog/2013GSAPP-UPENN/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Pages-de-manisfesto2.pdf [Accessed: 2nd Apr. 2016]

Cooke L. (1990) Reviewing Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Rrose Sélavy, Marchand Du Sel. In: The readymade boomerang (1990) Sydney: Biennale of Sydney.

De Duve T. (1994) Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism. October Vol. 70, The Duchamp Effect (Autumn, 1994), PP. 60-97 Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/779054?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [Accessed: 10th Apr. 2016]

Dezeuze A. (2013) Richard Wentworth’s Making Do, Getting By and the Elusive Everyday. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/3291197/Found_Sculpture_and_Photography_from_Surrealism_to_Contemporary_Art_-_co-edited_with_Julia_Kelly_Ashgate_2013 [Accessed: 2nd Apr. 2016]

Freybourg A.M.(1990) Taken in a moment of optical confusion. In: The readymade boomerang (1990) Sydney, Biennale of Sydney.

Gautier M. (2012) Bertrand Lavier, since 1969: Centre Pompidou (September 2012) available at: https://www.centrepompidou.fr/media/imp/M5050/CPV/a5/7c/M5050-CPV-5ef595ce-273c-40ba-a57c-b0b6e17426d4.pdf [Accessed: 11th Apr. 2016]

Groom, N. and Ferleger, B. and Malbert, S. and Malbert, R. (1998) Richard Wentworth’s Thinking Aloud (1998) London: Hayward Gallery Publishing.

Iversen M. (2004) Readymade, Found Object, Photograph. Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Summer, 2004) Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4134520?origin=JSTOR-pdf [Accessed: 2nd Apr. 2016]

Leoni-Figini M. (2007) The Object in the 20th Century Art, Available at: http://mediation.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-Object-EN/ENS-objet-EN.htm [Accessed: 19th Apr. 2016]

Manacorda, F. (2006) Maurizio Cattelan In: Bonami, F. (2006) Supercontemporanea: Maurizio Cattelan. Milan: Electa.

Norton L. (1917) The Blind Man. Available at: http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/dada/blindman/2/index.htm [Accessed: 2nd Apr. 2016]


[1] see also “André Breton – Surrealist Situation of the Object” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, p.272