Bicycle Wheel
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Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913, replica 1951) “...was the first version of the thing that would become the readymades.”

At their core, the readymades were mass-produced objects selected by Duchamp, who then declared them to be art. Prior to the readymades, art generally strove to be a beautiful, handmade object. In contrast to this idea, Duchamp stated that the object’s choice was based on visual indifference, “...with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste.” This rejection of taste and beauty positioned Duchamp’s readymades as “anti-art.” 

However, the origins of Bicycle Wheel (1913) run contrary to Duchamp’s professed disaffection. When Duchamp invented the readymade with Bicycle Wheel (1913,) he focused on the pleasure the object gave him. It was, “...something to have in my room the way you have a fire or pencil sharpener, except that there was no usefulness. It was a pleasant gadget, pleasant for the movement it gave.” This sense of pleasure derived from the work is contrary to the aesthetic void that he would later describe as the basis for the idea of the readymade to in interviews.

Bicycle Wheel has been remade several times because it keeps getting lost. Both the 1913 and 1916 versions have disappeared. The 1951 replica is still extant, however.

There are slight differences in the design of Bicycle Wheel (1916) and Bicycle Wheel (1951). In a 1916 photograph from Duchamp’s New York studio, the 1916 iteration of the wheel appears to be either from a straight-forked unicycle or a bicycle nicknamed the “Bone Shaker.” If the latter, this type of bicycle was produced between 1863-1878. It was gradually phased out of production for the curved form of the “safety bicycle.” In contrast to the 1913 version, the Bicycle Wheel (1951) spins on a modernized curved fork.

Paradoxically, Duchamp may have considered all versions of Bicycle Wheel (1913-1951) as the same piece. Since the objects were mass-produced, Duchamp didn’t consider any of his readymades as “originals.” Following this thought, Bicycle Wheel (1951) is the same piece as Bicycle Wheel (1916) and Bicycle Wheel (1913.) This logic is a bit much to wrap one’s head around. However, it is a puzzle for the viewer that would have undoubtedly delighted the mischievous artist.

Duchamp reinvented the wheel with his fork affixed to a stool. This work was the first in a line of his pieces that redefined art as an act of the mind. His work went on to influence artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joseph Kosuth. It is also perhaps one of the most notorious ideas in contemporary art. It gave way for the likes of Damien Hirst to declare his dead shark art and rake in millions at auction. 

Whether good, bad, or indifferent to him, Duchamp’s readymade idea began with Bicycle Wheel in 1913 and crafted a legacy that changed the course of art history.




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