With the production of the first of his Bicycle Wheel collection in 1913, the great designer Marcel Duchamp
may very well have been one of the earliest artists to achieve widespread fame and success in the world of modern art.
First unveiled in 1913, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel was designed with the specific intent so common among the works of the great modern artists: to challenge what is really art.
While some people, including a narrator from one of Kurt Vonnegut’s stories, consider modern art to be little more than “meaningless pictures … entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid,” there is much more to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel than simply this.
Unfortunately, the 1913 original has been lost to time and dust, leaving us with only Duchamp’s third iteration of the sculpture, which he produced in 1951. This version appears to be a simple bicycle wheel attached to a stool.
Is This Even Art?
In many ways, that’s all it is, all it was, and all it ever will be, but does that mean that it is not art? This is the exact question that modern artists of the late 1800s to mid 1900s sought to impress into the minds of their viewers, making Duchamp successful if nothing else.
The question of what art truly is or can be is at the core of every modern art exhibit. From bicycle wheels fixed to steels to literal garbage cans full of paper, modern artists consistently challenge contemporary definitions of art.
If you’re looking for more of a story behind the art then this, you’re simply looking in the wrong place. The primary purpose of modern art is to unsettle, to dethrone the popular understanding of art, and send ripples through the cultural world.
In that case, if art exists to challenge conceptions and to cause people to think and come to a better understanding of their existence, then yes, this is art. But then again, the modern artist might ask, “Is that really the definition of art?”
Bicycle Wheel (1913) and all the subsequent editions of that design were part of what Duchamp referred to as his Readymades.
This collection featured many different works, all of which are bound by the common theme of comprising ordinary household objects modified in minor ways.
These designs were intended to challenge retinal art, another popular style of Duchamp’s days. I
More from the Readymades
While the Bicycle Wheel was the first, it was far from the last and perhaps not even the strangest of the Readymades.
The L.H.O.O.Q. was essentially a simple photo of the Mona Lisa with facial hair drawn on. The title was a phonetic play on words in the original French, the translation of which reads, “She has a hot ass.”
There are plenty more Readymades out there if you are looking to broaden your understanding of French modern art from the early-to-mid 1900s.Like the rest of us, begin first with the Bicycle Wheel series and then expand into the world of constant existential dread, not knowing if anything really means anything.