Term used by the French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe works of art he made from manufactured objects

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  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964

    Marcel Duchamp
    Fountain 1917, replica 1964
    Porcelain
    unconfirmed: 360 x 480 x 610 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999 Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Fresh Widow' 1920, replica 1964

    Marcel Duchamp
    Fresh Widow 1920, replica 1964
    Mixed media
    object: 789 x 532 x 99 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1997 Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?' 1921, replica 1964

    Marcel Duchamp
    Why Not Sneeze Rose Slavy? 1921, replica 1964
    Mixed media
    unconfirmed: 114 x 220 x 160 mm
    Purchased 1999 Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

    View the main page for this artwork

Duchamp’s earliest readymades included Bicycle Wheel of 1913, a wheel mounted on a wooden stool, and In Advance of the Broken Arm of 1915, a snow shovel inscribed with that title. In 1917 in New York, Duchamp made his most notorious readymade, Fountain, a men’s urinal signed by the artist with a false name and exhibited placed on its back. Later readymades could be more elaborate and were referred to by Duchamp as assisted readymades.

The theory behind the readymade was explained in an article, anonymous but almost certainly by Duchamp himself, in the May 1917 issue of the avant-garde magazine The Blind Man run by Duchamp and two friends:

Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

There are three important points here: first, that the choice of object is itself a creative act. Secondly, that by cancelling the ‘useful’ function of an object it becomes art. Thirdly, that the presentation and addition of a title to the object have given it ‘a new thought’, a new meaning. Duchamp’s readymades also asserted the principle that what is art is defined by the artist.

Duchamp was an influential figure in dada and surrealism, an important influence on pop art, environments, assemblage, installation art, conceptual art and much art of the 1990s such as YBA.