When Marcel Duchamp pointed out in 1965 that he did not want to found a “school of the readymade,” he was conscious of the fact that this already had happened. From the 1960s up to now, we can compile a voluminous compendium of readymade-related works and artistic positions. As an ironic tribute to the countless variants and derivates, John Armleder collected the Readymades of the 20th Century in a kind of readymade gesamtkunstwerk in 1997.

The expansion of the readymade principle in recent art continues the pluralism, which was already part of Duchamp’s work, and cannot be brought under a common denominator. Nevertheless, two strands can be discerned: on the one hand, the ongoing development of practices of the “already made” without an explicit reference to Duchamp; on the other, art-historical references or revisions of his works.

The readymades after readymades by Sherrie Levine and Elaine Sturtevant for instance do not present ready-made objects that were selected by the artist, but, similar to Duchamp’s multiples, they were produced in small limited-edition series to the artist’s specifications and offered for sale on the art market. Interestingly, both artists, on different occasions, presented a complete edition of their multiples as temporary ensembles. Levine first showed Fountain (After Duchamp) in 1991 at Mary Boone Gallery, New York, with three copies from the edition of multiples simultaneously on view. At the following museum exhibition, the complete run of six copies of the bronze sculptures was shown side by side. Sturtevant exhibited the full edition of Duchamp Fresh Widow from 1992 with nine copies at the Moderna Museet Stockholm in 2012. In these exhibitions, both Levine and Sturtevant presented the multiples as multiples (after readymades). Thus they countered the illusion of the singular readymade, which had established itself through the classic museum presentations of Duchamp’s works.

As some copies were sold, the ensemble character soon dissolved after the exhibitions, and soon the multiples by Levine and Sturtevant were presented as unique exhibits just like Duchamp’s readymades. While Duchamp’s post-readymades and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes mask or respectively reveal the commodity status of the art “product,” Levine’s and Sturtevant’s readymades after readymades give a whole new twist to the story: the art market’s reinterpretation of the readymades now itself becomes a topic of artistic and also market-strategic “speculation,” which moves us on to the next level of ambivalence between affirmation and critique.

The conflict between singularity and pluralism, which has already been laid out in Duchamp’s work, is explored in ensembles by Bethan Huws and Saâdane Afif. In 2008 Huws presents a room installation of 88 bottle dryers in different sizes and forms under the suggestive title Forest. As an ensemble of meta-readymades, Forest evokes Duchamp’s lost object while making it disappear behind gradations of differences. Their patina and clear signs of usage lend each of the pieces a sense of its own story and individuality, and so they become objects of contemplation. In this sense, Forest deliberately contradicts Duchamp’s quest for an aesthetic indifference.

With his Fountain Archives (2008–2017), Saâdane Afif has built an “imaginary museum” of reproductions, which will finally comprise 1001 images of the titular readymade collected from various publications. This archive, organized after a strictly scientific classification system, reflects the wide distribution of Duchamp’s Fountain, which today has become an icon of modernism. At the same time, the visible differences between the objects and their modes of representation within the illustrations reinforce the absurdity of a search for their “authentic” (pre-)image or origin.

The Fountain Archives portray the “Readymade Century” as a century of reproduction: a urinal that was never exhibited, that was soon lost and photographed only once, has caused a steadily growing avalanche of illustrations. On a second layer, this process also takes hold of Saâdane Afif’s own artistic project: any published appraisal of the Fountain Archives leads to a growing number of illustrations from the project, and the Fountain Archives themselves become a component of the Fountain Archives, occupying a specially created section within them. These “epistemic” constellations in the work of Bethan Huws and Saâdane Afif play on the difference between the imaginary and the real. Their work thematizes the idolization and fictionalization of Duchamp’s readymades during their reception history as well as the intangibility of a supposed “original,” which recedes further and further with its multiplications.

Most of the practices of the “already made” today do not explicitly refer to Duchamp’s readymades, but to aspects of the contemporary art world and commodity culture. So what shifts in meaning do we find in the concepts of the “contemporary readymade” under the post-modern, post-colonial, and post-medial conditions of a “post-contemporary art”? From an interdisciplinary and intercultural perspective, the (post-)contemporary readymade does not form another genre in the classical canon of the arts, but a cross-disciplinary method or approach, which offers new principles of authorship and originality on a level with already established forms. The huge diversification and dilation of the readymade principle a hundred years after Duchamp seems to be based on the historical openness of the term, on the indefinability we have discussed at some length, which allows for a constant updating and expansion.

Circulation of capital, globalization of markets, establishing transnational brand identities, and the new (post-)industrial processes for manufacturing goods—these are central themes of artistic practices that revisit the readymade in the 21st century. Art becomes part of a feedback loop: on the one hand it explores or critiques the global circulation of goods and “cognitive capitalism,” on the other it serves the market capitalization of ideas and brands by “rebranding the readymade” as art merchandise.

With this we can finally see another reason for the currentness of the readymade, reaching far beyond Duchamp’s work: the continuing state of tension between the two meanings of the word ready-made/readymade, between industrial and artistic production—or, more generally, between the unabated need for individuality and the formatting of that need by the capitalist production of commodities, ever progressing since Duchamp’s time.

This cultural-historical dimension also sees the readymade as a witness of its time: Every readymade was or is ‘contemporary’ by its very essence: it is like a snapshot of the time of its selection, which contrasts with the timelessness of artworks in the classic genres. The significance of Duchamp’s readymades, just like that of today’s practices evolving independently, is not limited to the sphere of art. Instead they are “externalizing a way of viewing the world” and “expressing the interior of a cultural period,” as Arthur Danto has written in reference to the Brillo Boxes. And that is the main reason why it is still fascinating to again reconsider Duchamp’s readymades a hundred years later.

(Edited excerpt from: Dieter Daniels, The Readymade Century, Spector Books: Leipzig 2017, in print)

The three chapters of The Readymade Century explore the readymades of Marcel Duchamp from different perspectives: In the Readymade Index, the origins and consistency of Duchamp’s concept during the first 50 years of the “Readymade Century” from 1914 to 1964 are being studied. In the second part, Readymade Exposition, the reception history of that concept, which still continues long after Duchamp’s death, is being followed. Both aspects still have a direct impact on today’s artistic practices of the “already made,” even on artists that may not see themselves in the tradition of Duchamp’s readymades. The development and expansion of the readymade concept is discussed in the book’s epilog, Readymade Contemporary from which this excerpt is taken.