The readymade – a mass-produced object displayed within an art context – undermined notions of authorship and rejected the manual in favor of a conceptual approach. Introduced by Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement a century ago, the provocative, imaginative use of everyday materials continues to influence art up to the present. From the late 1950s onwards, the readymade took on a life of its own and was continually redefined. Drawn to found or industrial objects, artists incorporated alternative materials into their works, merging reality and art in a forceful, sometimes brutal, manner.
In the late 1950s, Spanish Informalist artist Manuel Millares began his in-depth investigation into matter, working primarily with coarse burlap. He tore, stitched, and splattered the fabric and blowtorched cavities in order to provide a glimpse into a mysterious “other side.” In the 1960s, members of the Italian movement known as Arte Povera – literally “poor art” – merged life and art by creating objects and events out of everyday materials and actions. Jannis Kounellis alluded to loss, degradation, and destruction by incorporating found materials such as jute sacks and coffee beans and by using fire as a tool. Other avant-garde groups of the 1960s that explored the readymade include Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), represented here by Jacques Villeglé and by César, who compressed paper, metal, or rubbish to create his provocative works. Contemporary sculptor El Anatsui continues the idea of compression as he brings Africa’s weaving traditions and present-day reality to bear on his large-scale sculptural pieces. Comprising thousands of flattened aluminum caps from discarded alcohol bottles, his work offers a multilayered commentary on colonialism, consumption, and the environment.
Vito Acconci was best known for his controversial Body Art of the 1960s and 1970s, which probed the politics of the human body and its relationship to public space – ”I want to put the viewer on shaky ground,” Acconci said. His Adjustable Wall Bra evokes both furniture and architecture, a physical shelter. The human form is also at the heart of works seen here representing two generations of female artists: the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois focuses on domesticity, sexuality, and the subconscious; Pamela Rosenkranz employs synthetic veryday materials like thin spandex, which functions as a second skin, to question contemporary representations of body, health, and beauty. Mona Hatoum redefines household items to suggest an unsafe world of violence, oppression, and exile. Grater Divide – a kitchen implement of absurd proportions – may separate geopolitical opponents, or perhaps it serves as a warning against the oppressiveness of bourgeois life and fixed gender roles.
(Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Elie Posner)