By Rachel Pastan
My first encounter with Marcel Duchamp was in high school in the Tristan Tzara Dada club. This club was started by Mr. Turner, the hip new history teacher from Texas with the droopy moustache, the jean jacket, and the collection of postcards featuring giant rabbits and armadillos being ridden by cowboys and housewives. Exactly why Mr. Turner started the club I’m not sure. To provoke us, I guess, or maybe just to entertain himself. Not unlike the reasons Marcel Duchamp—who wasn’t a Dadaist, but to whom the Dada group looked as a kind of patron saint—made art.
At the first meeting of the Tristan Tzara Club, on a Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Turner showed slides. Maybe he showed images of the work of lots of different artists, I don’t remember. But I remember the Duchamps. The moustache on the Mona Lisa. The perplexing Fountain (I had never seen a urinal and didn’t know why the boys were giggling). And Bicycle Wheel, the eponymous object mounted, for some reason, on a kitchen stool.
If Mr. Turner was trying to provoke us, he succeeded. Or at least, he succeeded in provoking me. What on earth was this? I thought. Was it a joke? Surely it wasn’t art. I subscribed to Emily Dickinson’s assertion that, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Art was something that reached into your body—thrust its hand into your chest and squeezed, made the hairs on your neck stand up. Art was visceral, immediate, inarguable. Whatever this Duchamp guy was doing, it wasn’t that.
But as I glanced scornfully around the room to check whether the others agreed with me, my eye was drawn back to Bicycle Wheel: The perfect circle of the rim. The thin spokes spreading out from the middle like the rays of the sun. The surprise of seeing something belonging on the ground perched on a stool the way a person would perch. This made the wheel seem almost human—friendly—though at the same time it was satisfyingly geometric, gracefully constructed of circles and line segments. The wheel was black, metal, modern; the stool was white, wooden, and a bit old fashioned. These contrasts and contradictions held my eye for a long moment, long enough for the image to burn itself into memory.
Nonetheless, when the hour was over, I quit the Tristan Tzara club. There was lots of Faulkner to read, after all; I didn’t have time for this.
It would be years before I saw Bicycle Wheel again.
Constructed in Paris in 1913, Bicycle Wheel was the first of what Duchamp would come to call his readymades—objects he plucked from the world, signed, and thereby transformed and transported into the heady, ambiguous, problematic realm of art. In the words of Surrealist Andre Breton, they were “Manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of objects of art through the choice of the artist.” According to Calvin Tompkins, Duchamp insisted there was no concept at work in Bicycle Wheel, he just mounted the wheel on the stool and kept it around because he enjoyed setting it spinning: “It came about as a pleasure,” Duchamp said, “something to have in my room the way you have a fire, or a pencil sharpener, except that there was no usefulness. It was a pleasant gadget, pleasant for the movement it gave.”
Of course, in the century since Duchamp assembled this pleasurable object, much in the way of concept certainly has been ascribed to the readymades—by Duchamp himself as well as by a myriad of interpreters.
Duchamp said he liked the readymades in part because they “were a way of getting out of the exchangeability, the monetization of the work of art. In art, and only in art, the original work is sold, and it acquires a sort of aura that way. But with my readymades a replica will do quite as well.” Which is good, because the originals of many of the readymades—including Bicycle Wheel—were destroyed, and replicas are all we have left. He also found them funny, which he considered a valuable quality. You could also think about them as making a statement about the mechanistic age we live in—and here it’s useful to remember that the bicycle was as revolutionary in its time as the cell phone is in ours. In this way, putting a bicycle wheel on a pedestal and calling it a work of art is not so different from calling an iPhone a work of art, which some have done—though I suspect the iPhone is far too slick and celebrated for Duchamp ever to have exercised his choice on it. He was interested in humbler objects—a snow shovel, a typewriter cover, and—perhaps the most beautiful of them all—a rack for the lost art of drying bottles.
And of course, the readymade was part of Duchamp’s long campaign against the traditions of art—a provocation. That it continues, a hundred years later, to provoke, you may learn by lingering in the Duchamp room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as I did one day last fall. “Is this art?” a young man asked his companion not five minutes after I entered the room. They stared at the row of readymades on their plinth—Bicycle Wheel, Bottle Rack, and Fountain—considering. Which I have to think would have pleased Duchamp.
I wonder whether it would please Mr. Turner, who still teaches high school history, that I remember Bicycle Wheel but not who invented the cotton gin or the dates of the Civil War. I’ve been thinking about why this is—why I remember it.
I have already mentioned Bicycle Wheel’s formal qualities, and the contrasts of style and material it offers. I have told you that Duchamp liked to set it spinning—that he found pleasure in the movement of it, the way one might find pleasure in looking into a fire, or at a moving stream. It’s too bad we can’t see it moving the many images of it, can’t touch it ourselves to make it spin when we visit it at the PMA. But I think you can imagine it in motion, can’t you? The patterns made by the circling spokes, the moving shadow cast on the wall. The lovely pointless motion of a wheel going nowhere, whizzing and then slowing, like a roulette wheel with no money down. Or like the earth making its yearly circumnavigation of the sun. Or like rings of Saturn, the origin of which, scientists tell us, is pretty much a complete mystery.
Rachel Pastan is the author of two novels, Lady of the Snakes and This Side of Married. She teaches fiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars and is Editor-at-Large at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she writes the blog Miranda.