PRINT October 1989


CONVENTIONAL WISDOM TELLS US THAT the father of “object art” was Marcel Duchamp—that in transplanting the perfectly ordinary manufactured urinal of his 1917 Fountain from the vendor’s shelf to the exhibition space Duchamp rattled the foundation of the work of art itself. Though the mere reenactment of Duchamp’s maneuver would seem to lack any intrinsic interest,1 it is nevertheless among the most often-repeated artistic gestures of our century. This poses us a question. Duchamp’s readymades transformed esthetic judgment, challenged the functions and powers of critical discourse. Yet having labeled an object a readymade, having validated it as “art,” must we then wash our hands of the critical burden, as though an “equals” sign ran through every object ever designated a member of the class? Duchamp actually remarked once that “taste—bad or good—is the greatest enemy of art.”2 But if the readymade has become a genre, an artistic technique, 3 is it the first such to dispense completely with the judgment of taste? What happens if we replace the couplet ”this is beautiful/this is not beautiful,“ the formula of traditional esthetics, with the phrase ”this is art/this is not art"? Hasn’t the readymade in one stroke canceled the distinction between good and bad art?

Theoretically, no amount of difference between one readymade and another can serve as a basis for esthetic distinctions. The only way out of this dead end is a full stop (the assertion that Duchamp’s readymades alone have undergone the magical transmutation of object into art) or a shift into reverse (the idea that Duchamp’s readymades were only transformable into art as a continuation of painting by other means.4) But can another interpretation of the recurrence of the everyday object in 20th-century art be formulated? Is it possible to plot a genealogy of object art in which Duchamp would have another significance besides his influence on the work of his so-called descendants? I would argue that the Duchampian readymade can be recognized as a manifestation-a premonitory and spectacular one-of a logic more general than the narrow trajectory that has been charted for it, and that from this view we can arrive at some basis for esthetic comparison among works calling on the values and virtues of the readymade.


EVERYDAY OBJECTS SEEM TO HAVE exercised a fascination over human beings since well before recorded history. “At Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne),” notes André Leroi-Gourhan, “I discovered a number of odd objects picked up by the inhabitants of the Cave of the Hyena in the course of their wanderings. These include a thick spiraled shell of a fossil mollusk of the Mesozoic or Secondary era, a ball-shaped cluster of coral of the same epoch, and oddly shaped blocks of iron pyrites.”5 There is no suggestion here that these things are works of art, nor even that they are artifacts, that they were marked or worked on for some long-forgotten human end . Nevertheless, in the fact that ”these natural forms were noticed by our zoologica l predecessors“ Leroi-Gourhan sees ”a degree of esthetic interest”6—a perception we may amp lify by noting the relationship between these found objects and the esthetics of the readymade. Jumping a few score millennia we find a similar link in Roman mosaics, in which, under the title “The Unswept Room,” appear such modest objects as the leftovers of a meal. (Historians have attributed this mosaic to Sosos of Pergamum, who lived in the second or third century B.C.7) Before becoming a genre in Western art of the 17th century, the still life, often rendered in trompe l’oeil, was regularly practiced by the Greek painters and then by the Romans, as several fresco fragments at Herculaneum and Pompeii attest. The object depicted may be utterly commonplace and everyday; in becoming an element in a mosaic or painting, however, it is placed at a remove from reality by an act of representation, or, more exactly, of mimesis—a manifestation of techne. From here to Duchamp, the everyday object most often exercises its fascination through this filter.

Love of the object a painting represents and love of painting itself are antithetical; we cannot give to one without taking away from the other. This tension constitutes the only real interest of trompe l’oeil. In this kind of art (the term “trompe l’oeil” did not come into use until the 19th century, but its referent was clearly in existence much earlier), painting and representation pretend to destroy themselves on behalf of the objects they represent. We might not be surprised, then, to find a readymade object transformed into a work of art, or becoming a part of a work of art, as a fragment of trompe l’oeil. In 1682, when the Jesuit father Andrea Pozzo was commissioned to paint the corridor adjoining the rooms of Saint Ignatius, in the Casa Professa dei Gesuiti in Rome, he incorporated a real window into his mural, and matched it with an identical one that he painted on the wall.8 The paradox of the work is its self-dissimulation, as it elevates into art a simple product of craft. Indeed, it was in the context of artisanry that deliberate illusionism first became attached to the everyday object, in the 15th-century craft of intarsia. These complex panels of wood inlays involve a particularly whimsical sleight of hand, for the unpainted veneers resist the illusion that they were so intricately cut and fit to create. Yet within or despite this contradiction whole worlds of inanimate objects appear, chosen for their symbolic meaning—musical and scientific instruments, hourglasses, books.

The intarsia was a common element of decor in the Renaissance palace studiolo and in the stalls of the Renaissance cathedral. The object culture to which it testifies prefigures the somewhat more slowly developing tradition of the curio cabinet and other Kunst- and Wunderkammern—the displays by rich collectors of extraordinary bazaars of rare things. Krzysztof Pomian has described these fantastical treasuries as "collections with an encyclopedic bent aimed at presenting a reduced model of the universe, at making the whole visible by reducing it for human view through the intermediary of each category of beings and things.”9 The trompe l’oeil and the Wunderkammer traditions actually overlap, for trompe l’oeil painters, and other painters too, on a number of occasions took the curio cabinet as their subject. Here we find a potential short circuit of the entire art of painting, for paintings themselves sometimes ended up in Wunderkammern, as curiosities of the same order as the other natural and cultural objects there (though of less value10). In 1670, in fact, long before René Magritte’s Condition humaine of 1933, the Flemish painter Cornelis Gijsbrechts painted a small work clearly intended to show what might be called the pictorial condition: the back of a canvas is depicted in trompe l’oeil, reducing the painting, any painting, to the status of a simple object.

Just as paintings of objects on shelves or in curio cabinets appeared at the end of the 16th century, William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Peto revived an interest in this kind of focus at the end of the 19th century in America. From these painters an almost direct line runs through Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze (Ale Cans), 1960, and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, 1964, to a contemporary generation of artists such as Haim Steinbach. These latter figures, of course, are all post-Duchampian. Yet in Johns and Warhol at least, there is an equal kinship with the older, trompe l’oeil tradition: their works are not readymades, but simulations of readymades. Johns’ Ale Cans is painted bronze, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes silkscreened plywood. Like Gijsbrechts, moreover, Johns has actually used painting itself as the subject of a trompe l’oeil, in this case a three-dimensional one: the astonishing Painted Bronze (Savarin), 1960, in which paintbrushes seem to soak in a coffee can. The work lifts the misleading veil that trompe l’oeil casts between the painting and the object, but also between the object and the painting.

Works like these by Johns and Warhol were soon followed—coincidentally?—by an equally ambiguous elaboration on trompe l’oeil, the photorealist art that emerged in the mid ’60s, and that focused on the “literal” (the “photographic”) reproduction of industrial objects. And from 1962 comes Daniel Spoerri’s small masterpiece La Douche (Detrompe l’oeil) (The shower [undeceive the eye]). Affixing a real faucet and shower spigot to a laboriously painted landscape of a mountain torrent, Spoerri too uses trompe l’oeil to address the relationship between painting and object, diving fearlessly into the choppy waters of reality.


WALTER BENJAMIN SEEMS TO HAVE been the first writer to emphasize the connection between the fetishism of merchandise, as analyzed by Marx, and the rise of the “universal exposition” in the 19th century. Quoting Hippolyte Taine’s remark that all of Europe went to Paris to see the goods at the first such fair held there, in 1855, Benjamin noted that these displays are the fetishist’s "sites of pilgrimages.”11 Since commodities are such an important constituent of contemporary object art, it is useful to unravel this concept of fetishism, and to discuss the exact function of largescale expositions in the 19th century, when the confrontation between art and the curio became the confrontation between art and the product of the machine. Not even Duchamp, I believe, would ever have envisioned the exhibition of a simple industrially produced object as a work of art without these temporary museums of merchandise, which were ritually repeated after the first of them, in London, in 1851.

The word fetish has been the site of a strange crossover: at first applied depreciatingly by Westerners to certain aspects of “primitive” cultures, today it is used ubiquitously in Westerners’ discussion of their own relation to their own objects. The word derives from the Portuguese feitiço, which itself stems from the Latin facticius and means “made,” or, more precisely, “made by human hands”—that is, artificial. When the term first appeared, in the 17th century, it referred to the religious objects of tribal peoples, and was used to contest the ”acheiropoiète“ status claimed for these objects by their adherents—acheiropoiète being the Greek for ”not made by the hand of man,“ issuing, in other words, not from human facture but from miraculous intervention. In the word fetish, then, the tribal idol is robbed of its divinity and becomes simple handiwork.12 From fetish to fetishism is but a step: by 1760, Charles de Brosses could define fetishism as ”the cult of certain earthly and material objects called Fetishes by the African negroes.”13 Although ultimately abandoned by anthropologists because of its blatant ethnocentricity, the term, through a strange mirror effect, has won more widespread usage. Auguste Comte made it an essential part of his theory of religion, it was clearly important to Marx, and Freud in turn would take it up to examine a recurrent aspect of the phantasmic foundation for human behavior in general.

“The table remains wood, an ordinary thing we take for granted,” wrote Marx in his discussion of the fetish, “but as soon as it is presented as merchandise, it is another thing altogether. At once graspable and ungraspable, it is not satisfied to place its feet on the ground; it rises, in a manner of speaking, on its wooden head, facing other merchandise, and abandons itself to the most bizarre whims—it practically begins to dance.”14 One notes here that by ascribing animate life to the everyday object (though only when transformed into merchandise), Marx has allowed it an attribute of the acheiropoiète. Less than 50 years after the publication of Das Kapital, Duchamp introduced his readymade, an industrial product that complexified the dance of the fetish by making it a function of esthetics as well as of merchandising. This double acheiropoiète would not have been possible, I believe, without the regular staging of the fetishist phantasmagoria in the universal expositions. Marx himself attended the first London show, which was held in the ”magical“ atmosphere of the Crystal Palace, a kind of cathedral built by John Paxton to house a gigantic mass for merchandise. ”With this exhibition in the modern-day Rome,“ wrote Marx, ”the world bourgeoisie builds its Pantheon, where, proudly self-satisfied, it displays the gods it has created for itself.”15 Other visitors saw in this exhibition not only the apotheosis of the bourgeoisie but also a challenge to the traditional relationship between art and the production of goods. For the great expositions were “Platonic bazaars,” to borrow the description of a contemporary; everything was on view, but nothing was for sale. The fine-arts community could not help but notice that in these “fairylands,” as Giorgio Agamben has called them, there began "to be directed toward merchandise the kind of interest traditionally reserved for the work of art.”16

From the 1851 fair in London on, the fine arts—with the exception, at first, of painting—were included in the expositions, as if to measure themselves against industry and its products. The opportunity for comparison gave rise to a number of responses. In a report on the art shown at the 1851 exhibition in London, Count Leon de Laborde wrote, “1) that everyone is an artist; 2) that art and industry are not incompatible; 3) that décor need not oppose function; 4) that the art of tomorrow will, in large part, be reproducible.”17 De Laborde’s agenda quite closely anticipates developments in 20th-century art. By 1867, as visitors to the third Parisian exposition (now open to painting), the Goncourt brothers could be shocked at the spectacle of ”the last blow in what amounts to the Americanization of France, industry surpassing art, the steamboat cutting into painting, chamber pots displacing statues—in a word, the Federation of Matter."18 Duchamp’s (American!) urinal was not yet present, but the Goncourts were already frightened by the idea of seeing chamber pots one day standing in for art.

It was in the grandiose, magical context of the international exposition in the second half of the 19th century that the transmutation of the industrial object into a work of art began. From this transmutation would follow the 20th-century dismissal of ornament or decoration in art, architecture, and design. To the machine, to the engine, ornament is a useless burden. And it was not long before the stripped-down look of pure functionality was perceived to have an intrinsic beauty, in an esthetic that penetrated art from De Stijl to the Bauhaus. As Fernand Léger wrote in his 1934 article “Avènement de l’objet” (Advent of the object), “In a market, 6 coffee grinders, 12 watering cans, 4 hatchets assembled on the same panel make up a work of decorative art. . . . The current ornamental revolution is based on the fact that for the most part these objects are not decorated, they are decorative by their very nature.”19 Thus did the everyday object become the esthetic object. It is important to remember, however, that the barrier through which it passed was permeable in both directions—that if the commodity became an art object, so did the art object become a commodity. And to preserve art’s old aura in the face of this debasement, an element of mystery was attached to the art object’s sale. (In our own time more than ever, the ritual of the auction is feverish with skyrocketing prices for works of art, be they new or old.) Is it not possible to see these two transmutations—from the industrial product to the art object and from the art object to the commodity—as canceling each other out? Does the transubstantiation of industrial product into fetish and of the artwork (the ”hyperfetish") into merchandise eventually become a continuous, circular cycle, in which all the mutations are simultaneous?


ART ISN’T ART UNLESS it somehow differentiates itself from the rest of the world’s substance. In identifying art with the everyday object (and vice versa), then, a radical problem emerges: art may disappear. During the reign of representation, the danger of such an occurrence was remote. The art object, whether painting or sculpture, was obviously removed from everything else, since what represents is obviously of a different order from what is represented. In addition, art’s role as representation allowed it to enter a symbolic dimension, whether religious, social, or a combination of the two. A representation can stand in for what is absent; visible itself, it can give us access to the invisible. An everyday object, on the other hand, abolishes this mediation. Even when transmuted into art, it cannot represent; it is not a depiction. Furthermore, it shares with every other perceptible object the fact that it is visible hic et nunc. In other words, it does not distinguish itself from the rest of reality by in some way embodying what is invisible and absent. What, then, is the function of a work of object art?

The philosopher Lucien Stéphan has proposed a new way of analyzing the characteristics of object art. His aim is to resolve certain problems posed by African objects, but his ideas are equally helpful to those approaching the 20th-century readymade. Stéphan proposes the category of “présentification,” which he describes as “the action or operation by which an entity belonging to the invisible world is made present in the world of humans. . . . The invisible presentified has a power, a force, a capacity to act that activates visible things in which it is presentified.”20 The presentifying object does not represent or symbolize the invisible entity it gives us to see. It is that entity. Neither simulacrum nor simulation intervenes. A canonical example of presentification can be found in the transubstantiation claimed in the Eucharist: “This is my body,” the ritual formula states as we eat the wafer, “This is my blood,” as we drink the wine. I believe that a similar process of presentification is at work in the 20th-century art of the everyday object. It is even expressed in a similar formula, the barely veiled testimonial “This is art,” which we ritually intone to express the profundity of the transubstantiation of common objects. Yet we must still define what invisible world these objects presentify, since it is no longer the supernatural world of religion.

What was celebrated in the international expositions, those grand rituals of fetishized merchandise, if not the universal presence of that invisible entity the market? It’s true that in the mid 19th century the market had not completely achieved its irrational deification; it was not yet an “imperial, bulimic Gestalt in perpetual metastasis,” in the anthropologist Remo Guidieri’s phrase, and was just starting to show its true nature as a "form of the spirit that shapes actions in their totality.”21 Yet the process had surely advanced beyond the larval stage. Since then, of course, the function of the work of art, of every work of art, has inevitably become the presentification of this immaterial but now universal entity. The task is performed to the rhythm of the stellar waltz by which millions of dollars change hands over this or that masterpiece. Unrepresentable and invisible by definition (since it is merely a structure of relations organizing a worldwide social space), the market can only be presentified. Perhaps this is why representation, and painting itself, have undergone the decline, the marginalization, that we associate with Modernism. By this reasoning, formalist abstract painting is a last-ditch effort to preserve an art that has lost its function by reducing it to the self-referential demonstration of its own conditions. Cut off from its historic place of birth, the Church, painting could know no other fate in the Modern era but the decadence—often admirable—that Baudelaire glimpsed when he described Monet as the first in the senescence of his art; a decadence picked up and reechoed by the tendency toward the monochrome that has haunted 20th-century painting.

The presentification of the market demands its sanctifying site, its temple. That site is the museum. In ritualized and ritualizing space, the visible and the invisible join as they formerly did in the church. That the invisible has changed in nature does not alter the essence of the process. Pomian has argued that every collection supposes a relation between the visible and the invisible, 22 for what it effectively allows us to see is what cannot be seen—the immaterial link running between every object it contains. The museum is the lay consecration of the collection. The religion observed there retains a faith in a supreme being, but that being is not a god, for it consists solely of the strength we cede to an abstract universal structure when we allow it to endow inanimate objects with power over us. As the site where this new cult is practiced, the museum certainly fits the definition proposed by Guidieri: "By Museum I understand the estheticization of the market and of everything within it, that everything being literally Everything.”23


AND SO WE COME TO the moment when we must reconsider the problem of equating the object works, readymades or not, that have invaded museums the world over. The basic misunderstanding of these objects lies in reducing them to their function and in canceling their formal properties. The works presentify rather than represent; they do not simulate, they are. That does not mean, however, that they are identical to the other works of their type, particularly (though not solely) in their formal construction. And if they are different from each other, they can be compared, and can be the subject of an esthetic judgment. To equate under the blanket critique “This is art” all the everyday objects that have advanced to the rank of art would be the same as to equate every Sienese madonna under the pretext that they all obviously had the same function . A work of art can never be reduced to its function, and all works of art are subject to esthetic evaluation. There is no reason why there wouldn’t be esthetically good or bad uses of the everyday object, just as there are good and bad Sienese madonnas. Still, how can we anchor the notion of presentification in order to proceed from it to any comparative evaluations at all?

I propose, provisionally, a strategy based on distinguishing among the different families of objects-become-works-of-art in order to promote a more rigorous critical dialogue in their evaluation. Offering categories in order to judge individual cases—such a strategy may seem contradictory, and is so. But the antinomy in question runs through esthetics as a whole. That it might fail us doesn’t diminish its problematic necessity, unless we want to reduce criticism or esthetics to a simple subjective response, stripped of all supporting commentary.

Stricter and Looser Readymades: We can begin by distinguishing—from empirical observation as opposed to historical study—the precise attributes of the readymade in the strictest sense of the word. Let us call a readymade an industrial product presented without any modification whatsoever, unless it be its exhibition in a place exclusively reserved for art. Though works depending on this utterly literal form of presentification are rare, they do exist: Ange Leccia’s Arrangement CDV, 1987, the Mercedes he showed at Documenta 8 in Kassel, is a perfect example, as is John Armleder’s untitled battery, 1987. Scarcely any of Duchamp’s objects fit this definition of the readymade. Bicycle wheel and stool are amended by their attachment to one another, and the “original” bottle rack was graced by an inscription or title, now forgotten; the urinal—Richard Mutt’s Fountain—is signed and inverted. Similarly, Steinbach’s works are not strictly readymades, but presentations of readymades, and presentations that rely on Minimalism for much of their formal setup. (Some of Jeff Koons’ pieces operate similarly.) In Steinbach’s art, disparate objects are brought together either in formal relations, or in configurations that refer to their usual functions. (In passing, one should note that faced with virtually any deliberate juxtaposition of objects, one may find it impossible to refrain from seeing emotional and intellectual associations among them.) Steinbach’s works draw their power not from their intrinsic form but from their context, which, by the very act of making space for them, brings the boundary between art and nonart into play.

A second mode of presentification aims at exploiting the tension between the serially produced object and the traditional unique work of art. Robert Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim, 1960, for example, a combine of a canvas and a chair, integrates its two elements in a symbiosis that cancels the tension between them by displaying it openly. In this ambiguous genre the status of the object ultimately depends on the pictorial context into which it is inserted. In a third strategy of presentification the artist explicitly addresses the reduction of objects, including art objects, to the status of fetish, setting the process in the context of history. Braco Dimitrijević, for example, in a series of works entitled “Triptychos Post Historicus,” 1976–, combines well-known works of art—generally borrowed from the museum in which he is exhibiting—and a pair of everyday objects: a fruit or vegetable on the one hand, an armoire or automobile on the other, say, thus referring to both nature and culture. With corrosive irony, Dimitrijevic’s practice elaborates on what Duchamp called the “reciprocal readymade,” which he defined as "to use a Rembrandt as one would an iron.”24 Somewhat similarly, when Louise Lawler photographs works of art in their installation at a collector’s house or in a museum, she is fixing these works as objects in confrontation with other objects.

Playing on analogous mechanisms, the recent work of Hans Haacke incorporates a critique of the historical and economic systems that have contributed to the hyperfetishization of the art object. A 1988 piece includes a golden urinal installed on an ironing board. Thanks to a pump system that circulates water from a fireman’s bucket below, the inverted urinal functions explicitly as a fountain. The title of the work, Baudrichard’s Ecstacy, puns on the first name of Duchamp’s “R . Mutt” and on the name of the French theorist of the simulacrum, Jean Baudrillard. In The Saatchi Collection (Simulations), 1987, Haacke turns the simulacrum inside out, like a glove, by simulating a Haim Steinbach work that belongs to collectors Charles and Doris Saatchi. Advertisements, fragments of reports and articles published in the business press, and Haacke’s own explanatory text articulate the Saatchi advertising agency’s economic and political connections, notably with South Africa. Precisely because their power is essentially critical, such works rest on a reduction of the artwork to its function as the presentification of the market. Their troubling paradox is that they are deliberately included within the context that they denounce.

Hitting the Nail on the (Bull’s) Head: When Pablo Picasso made a bicycle handlebar and seat into the head of a bull, in 1943, he took up the readymade in his own way by throwing it back into the traditional problematics of representation. For Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Tête de taureau (Bull’s head), though a “wise hybrid,” is finally only a “sweetened version of Duchamp’s readymades. Its error is to rejuvenate the mythological image of the minotaur through iconographic codes of sculpture and to end up with a codified genre of the bronze cast.”25 If, however, Tête de taureau is seen as related not only to the readymade but to African masks (which we know were an inspiration for Picasso), it becomes difficult not to admire this successful operation of esthetic deification, which transubstantiates two objects in themselves mundane into a god image. Although no necessity urges the combination of representation and presentification, they are not incompatible either. Tête de taureau demonstrates how the representational potential of the everyday object can contribute to its presentifying role, the more so because the piece allows the importance of visual form. For it is the work’s form that saves it from the rock on which the literal readymade founders: the danger of being indistinguishable from the rest of the world. One cannot apply to Tête de taureau Duchamp’s description of the readymade as ”a thing one doesn’t even see.”26

Anthropomorphism; Monumentality; Gigantism: From the way Ange Leccia couples two movie projectors, he is clearly showing us a kiss (in Baiser, 1985). Seating these same projectors in a pair of armchairs, he suggests a discussion (Conversation, 1985). Installing a series of loudspeakers, or running filmless projectors, on rows of chairs (Séance, 1985), Leccia gives objects postures normally reserved for human beings. The fetishism of the object is inverted, then, as it’s subsumed in a disclosure of the reification of the human. Presentification becomes anthropomorphic. Similarly, in Claes Oldenburg’s ’60s sculptures the common object gains a soft skin, and is blown up to giant size. In 1%1, when he was working on The Store, Oldenburg wrote,

Why want to create ’art’. . . . It’s an idea of which I must rid myself. While admitting that I want only to create something, what could that be? Simply a thing, an object, there wouldn’t be art in it . . . The ‘artistic’ appearance and content come from the object’s connotations, but not from the object or from me. These things are exhibited in galleries. It isn’t the right place for them. A store would be better (= a place filled with objects). The museum as a b. (bourgeois) concept is the equivalent of the store in mine.27

Questioning the museum, Oldenburg passed through the idea of the store, and also through the idea of the monument—a parodic proposition that pushes the logic of the readymade to an extreme. The drawings, models, and collages for these projects have a charm that is often lost in their realization, for Oldenburg’s monuments, and those he has made with Coosje van Bruggen, are not objects but representations of objects. The artificial gigantism in which they are frozen deprives the actual object of a significant part of its identity.

The fallen object: The distance between the fetishization of merchandise and the trash can is but a small step: no sooner are products consumed as fetishes than they become waste destined for the rubbish pile. The great merit of Nouveau Réalisme, particularly in the work of Arman, César, and also Daniel Spoerri, is to have invented a form of presentification that celebrates the fallen fetish—as if the “death” of the product had opened the gates to the paradise of hyperfetishization that is the museum. And because death remains the archetype of all boundaries separating the visible from the invisible, the deaths that are so visible in Arman’s accumulations, César’s compressions, and Spoerri’s leftovers of meals are compelling and resonant in suggesting the implications of our fetishizing of the object and the hyperfetishizing of art. To the extent that it is made up of scraps of industrial discards and debris, Tony Cragg’s work can be seen as a descendant of these Nouveau Réaliste pieces. And when Bill Woodrow brings forth a new object, a sculpture, out of a dead one, he reproduces, in the world of objects, the separation of the soul from the body that defines death in the Christian tradition. Closely related are the bandaged objects that Erik Dietman made in the early ’60s. Completely covered by adhesive tape, these works seem to float in an in-between space—neither life nor death, a kind of purgatory.

What’s in a Name? Intrinsically minuscule, signature occupies a place out of all proportion to its actual size in questions of art. Once sanctified by a revered autograph, a work can rise spontaneously to the heights of hyperfetishization, commanding enormous sums for its purchase. The object art of our century has not escaped these laws; quite the contrary. Often perfectly acheiropoiète—in the sense that the artist has had no hand in its making—the work is always related to the artist through the one concrete relation that ties it to his or her name, the signature. From the idolization of Richard Mutt to the recent frenzy around the Warhol auctions last May in New York, and passing through the certificates that have often accompanied conceptual works, a whole history of the signature remains to be written. The signature on readymade objects would certainly hold a privileged place in it.

Philippe Thomas has rigorously explored the disturbing consequences of this condition. Observing that a readymade often undergoes two successive sales- the purchase by the artist of an everyday object, and its transfer to the collector as a signed artwork—Thomas has set out not to reduce the object to a signature but to put it up for sale on the basis of a signature. Readymades Belong to Everyone is the name of Thomas’ very unusual firm—unusual because it sells objects that are doubly readymades, for their buyers acquire the right to sign them. “Art History in Search of Character: With us you will find all the facilities you need to have your name definitively linked with a work of art, a work that will have been waiting only for you and your signature to be called into being. History is in the making: be a part of history,” states the business’s ad poster. It would be hard to imagine a nicer account of the two factors most decisive for the status of the modern or contemporary work of art: its role, often doubled, as merchandise, and the role of signature in the process.

Forms Become Forms: In all the types of presentification discussed above, the common object becomes transubstantiated into a work of art under two conditions, which can be separate or combined: its context, and the exposition of its formal qualities. Certain works today, those of Bertrand La vier in particular, operate in the tension between these limits, and create a singularly dazzling transmutation of object into artwork. Whether repainting an old refrigerator—in its original color, but using a brushstroke associated with Modernist painting—or superimposing a safe and another refrigerator to make one into a sculpture and the other into a pedestal, or hanging a piece of prefabricated building facade as if it were a painting, La vier consistently separates the objects themselves from their forms. As he writes in a recent text, in all these cases “the forms become forms.”28 The object gains its transmutation, in other words, from itself- from its own formal properties. Its setting in the museum or gallery is a separate issue altogether. If the boundary that separates the manufactured, serial object from the hyperfetish, that separates art from nonart, runs through the work, this time it is within the object itself—and no longer between the object and its context or between the object and what it represents. The object or objects also retain, of course, their own name; their commercial logo becomes the work’s title. Lavier’s own signature, on the other hand, arrives in the form of the forms that his specific intervention has produced.

These objects bespeak an ironic luxury, a seemingly spontaneous flow into the classical categories of the fine arts—painting, sculpture, monument. Repainted, the refrigerator becomes, according to its own properties, either painting or polychrome sculpture. Raised onto another object, which although transformed into a pedestal nevertheless remains identifiable, it asserts itself as sculpture. Objects like the grain silo and the scaffolding of Privé/Moby (Private/ Moby, 1987) need not the slightest enlargement to have the proportions of a monument. This use of the object is both close to and far from the Duchampian readymade. The object seems here to achieve its new status of artwork by itself; it is a visible intermediary between the visible and the invisible. The task of presentifying the market aspect of every object-work is simultaneously fulfilled and dissolves into the work.


IN ONE OF HIS LITTLE sketchbooks, Marcel Broodthaers wrote one day, “Put your work in the studio twenty times . . . Put your work on the market twenty times.” The road from the market to the museum is very short these days, as museums seem to proliferate with the same speed as churches did in another time. In concert with the task of further defining the distinctions between art objects, and between art and the object, one of the most urgent tasks for the theory of art is undoubtedly a new and rigorous theory of the museum. The task goes well beyond the theory of the object, but in a way it encompasses it. Perhaps it was Broodthaers who best formulated the terms of the struggle that task will entail when he gathered together, for a 1972 exhibition in Düsseldorf, over 300 objects related to the eagle—every kind of object, from painting to sculpture to a stamp to an egg. In this extraordinary exhibition, “Section des Figures: l’aigle de f’oligocene au présent” (Section of figures: the eagle from the Oligocene to the present), each object shown was accompanied by a black tag bearing words in white that said, “Ceci n’est pas une oeuvre d’art” (This is not a work of art).

Daniel Soutif is a writer who lives in Paris. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.



1. Marcel Duchamp himself believed that the annual number of re-creations of his readymades should be limited. See Duchamp, Duchamp du signe, ed. Michel Sanouillet, revised and expanded edition Paris: Flammarion, 1976, p. 192.

2. Duchamp, quoted in conversation with K. Kuh, The Artist’s Voice, New York: Harper & Row, 1962, p. 92. See also Duchamp, lngénieur du temps perdu: Entretiens avec Pierre Cabanne, Paris: Belfond, 1976, in which Duchamp states that “the choice of the readymades is always based on visual indifference as well as on the total absence of good or bad taste,” p. 80. English trans. Ron Padgett, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, New York: Viking Press, 1971.

3. This, of course, is not the hypothesis proposed by Thierry de Duve in his numerous works on Duchamp. See especially "Le monochrome et la toile vierge,” in Résonnances du readymade, Paris: Jacqueline Chambon, 1989.

4. See de Duve. ’“The Readymade and the Tube of Paint,” in Artforum XXIV no. 9, May 1986. pp. 110–21.

5. André Leroi-Gourhan, Préhistoire de l’Art Occidental, Paris: Mazenod, 1971, p. 35. English trans. Norbert Gutterman, The Treasures of Prehistoric Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1967.

6. Ibid.

7. See Charles Sterling, La nature morte de l’antiquité au XXe siècle, rev. ed. Paris: Macula, 1985, p. 11 and plate 4.

8. If a verbal definition of the concept of “window” had accompanied this object and its representation, would one be so far from Joseph Kosuth and the “One and Three” series, 1965?

9. Krzysztof Pomian, Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux/Paris, Venise: XVIe·XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Gallimard, 1987, p. 85. See also Adalgisa Lugli, Naturalia e mirabilia, il collezionismo enciclopedico nelle Wunderkammern d’Europa, Milan: Mazzotta. 1983.

10. The inventory of the collections of Lorenzo de Medici at his death, in 1492, included a Saint Jerome by Van Eyck appraised at 30 florins and a “unicorn’s horn” at 6 thousand florins. See Louis Marin, “Fragments d’histoires de musées,” in Les Cahiers du Musée nos. 17–18, Paris: Musée national d’art moderne, March 1986, p. 13. By the 17th century, the price for a painting had already increased considerably. See Pomian, p. 127ff.

11. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, capitale du XIXe siècle,” May 1935, French trans. in Essais 2/1935–1940, Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1983, p. 43 . Eng. trans. Edmund Jephcott, Reflections, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, p. 151. This theme is taken up by Giorgio Agamben in “Dans le monde d’Odradek, oeuvre d’art et marchandise,” in Stanze, parole et fantasme dans la culture occidentale, French trans. Paris: Bourgois, 1981, p. 72ff.

12. See Lucien Stéphan, “Le Regard-pilote,” in Jacques Kerchache, Jean· Louis Paudrat, and Stéphan, L’Art africain, Paris: Mazenod, I 988, p. 53ff.; and Jean Baudrillard, ”Fétichisme et idéologie: Ia réduction sémiologique,” in Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse no. 2. Paris: Gallimard. Fall 1970. p. 215.

13. Text reproduced in Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse no. 2, Fall 1970, p . 132.

14. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, French trans. Le Capital, Paris: Editions Sociales, 1962, val. I, p. 84.

15. Marx, in La Nouvelle Gazelle Rhénane, quoted in Le livre des expositions universelles, 1851–1989_, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1983, p. 18.

16. Agamben. p. 80.

17. Count Léon de Laborde, quoted in Pascal Ory, Les Expositions universelles de Paris, Paris: Ramsay, 1982, p. 54.

18. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal, 16 January 1867, 22 vols., Monaco: Imprimerie Nationale, 1956, 7:237 . Quoted in part in Ory, p. 50.

I9. Fernand Leger, “Avènement de l’objet,” Le Mois no. 41, June 1934, reprinted in Fernand Léger: La Poésie de l’objet, 1928–1934, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Musee national d’art moderne, 1981, p. 26.

20. Stéphan. p. 239.

21. Remo Guidieri, Cargaison, Paris: Le Seuil, 1987, p. 124.

22. Pomian, p. 30ff.

23 . Guidieri. p. 123.

24. Duchamp, Duchamp du signe, p . 192.

25. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Construire (l’histoire) de Ia sculpture,” in Qu’est-ce que la sculpture moderne? Paris: Musée national d’art moderne. 1986. p. 256.

26. Duchamp, quoted in de Duve, “Readymade,” in Marcel Duchamp: Abécedaire, exhibition publication, Paris: Musée national d’art moderne, 1977, p. 174.

27. Claes Oldenburg. note dated 1961. quoted by Buchloh. p. 274.

28. Bertrand Lavier, Plus no. 3/4, Dijon, May 1988, p. 46.