Do Not Touch, Just Think
Or Maybe, Do Not Look, Just Think
Readymades… The taxonomy of art was a calm, settled and semi-orderly domain with its various phyla, orders, families, classes and general all resting peacefully in their places until a seismic rumble in art began in and around 1912.
Amidst the rumblings, Marcel Duchamp’s "Bicycle Wheel", the first readymade, from 1913, barely registered because almost no one knew about it – on art’s Richter Scale it was very, very deep beneath the art world’s surface. "Bicycle Wheel" was an extremely brainy conception made by an equally brainy artist for his own pleasure, amusement, and cogitation. Fortunately, or unfortunately for him, others were similarly intrigued and the then-new constellation of art works called readymades emerged as found objects, assemblages, purchased things, found texts, and then any of these in slightly modified forms or positions. Sometimes cataclysmic events such as earthquakes wipe out species; in the 1912 to 1918 period the opposite occurred; many new species of art were born. We are still living in the cultural aftermath of the events of that period.
From the public point of view, none of this mattered much until 1917 when Duchamp played a serious trump card by sending a urinal, titled "Fountain", to the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at the Grand Central Palace in New York. The exhibition was ‘open to all’, so no work should have been rejected, but "Fountain" was summarily dissed by the organizers. That rejection ensured its notoriety, and that of readymades, in part because Duchamp and his friends tweeted about it in that very pre-Twitter age. Some of the tweeting was in a small circulation periodical called ‘The Blindman’. In the case of "Fountain", the object was rotated and inverted, offering a new point of view and, to the surprise of many, a new set of meanings and possibilities for art. Its title reverses the direction of the flow of its intended liquids. A readymade can sometimes be, broadly speaking, simply a re-framing, re-orienting or re-contextualizing.
Andre Breton’s early description from his and Paul Éluard’s mid-1920s Dictionary of Surrealism has, like the readymade itself, withstood the test of time:
"A readymade is an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist."
In 2014 Gordon Smith saw the Duchamp exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York; while it reminded him of how inspiring the 1961 exhibition Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art had been, it also catalyzed the idea for the Readymades exhibition in which you are standing. Mr. Smith chose the artists for the exhibition. At the moment of the exhibition’s inception, in summer 2015, Mr. Smith said “It is time for the young generation, and all generations, to realize how great these artists are in Canada.” He followed that up, in a note to Astrid Heyerdahl, saying “In my years as a teacher I would take my students to New York. In 1961 we saw the Assemblage exhibition at MOMA…My great idea is to have the artists I am impressed the most with in Vancouver have such an exhibition here....” He went on to say that “our school children must go beyond the Group of Seven and Emily Carr.” As an example of the elasticity of the readymade idea, the trees that Emily Carr ‘chose’ to paint, with readymade paints purchased in an art store, could be considered a type of readymade painting – she did the choosing, of subject and everything else. Duchamp worried about the frangibility of the readymade idea – overuse would spoil it, and a population explosion of readymades would undermine their value as ‘objects to think about’. We are all meant to tread cautiously, as I have the artists in the exhibition.
Gordon Smith has been an inspiration to many people in Canada, not just the students he taught in his many years at UBC. In the summer of 2015 no one had any idea whether all the artists Mr. Smith invited to take part in this exhibition, would indeed take part (they all did). And, at that time no one had any real sense of what works the artists might suggest could represent them in the exhibition. The answers to that question are the works of art in the room in which you are standing.