Found art

Found art
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Photograph by Alfred Steiglitz

The term found art—more commonly found object (French: objet trouvé) or readymade—describes art created from undisguised, but often modified, objects that are not normally considered art, often because they already have a non-art function. Marcel Duchamp was the originator of this in the early 20th century.

Found art derives its identity as art from the designation placed upon it by the artist. The context into which it is placed (e.g. a gallery or museum) is usually also a highly relevant factor. The idea of dignifying commonplace objects in this way was originally a shocking challenge to the accepted distinction between what was considered art as opposed to not art. Although it may now be accepted in the art world as a viable practice, it continues to arouse questioning, as with the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize exhibition of Tracey Emin's My Bed, which consisted literally of her unmade and dishevelled bed. In this sense the artist gives the audience time and a stage to contemplate an object. Appreciation of found art in this way can prompt philosophical reflection in the observer.

Found art, however, has to have the artist's input, at the very least an idea about it, i.e. the artist's designation of the object as art, which is nearly always reinforced with a title. There is mostly also some degree of modification of the object, although not to the extent that it cannot be recognised. The modification may lead to it being designated a "modified", "interpreted" or "adapted" found object.


Origin: Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp coined the term readymade in 1915 to describe his found art. Duchamp assembled the first readymade, entitled Bicycle Wheel in 1913, the same time as his Nude Descending a Staircase was attracting the attention of critics at the International Exhibition of Modern Art. His Fountain, a urinal which he signed with the pseudonym "R. Mutt", confounded the art world in 1917. His Bottle Rack is a bottle drying rack signed by Duchamp, and is considered to be the first "pure" readymade.[1]

Research by Rhonda Roland Shearer indicates that Duchamp may have fabricated his found objects. Exhaustive research of mundane items like snow shovels and bottle racks in use at the time failed to reveal identical matches. The urinal, upon close inspection, is non-functional. However, there are accounts of Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella being with Duchamp when he purchased the original Fountain at J. L. Mott Iron Works.[2]


The use of found objects was quickly taken up by the Dada movement, being used by Man Ray and Francis Picabia who combined it with traditional art by sticking combs onto a painting to represent hair. [1] A well-known work by Man Ray is Gift (1921), [2] which is an iron with nails sticking out from its flat underside, thus rendering it useless.

The combination of several found objects is a type of readymade sometimes known as an assemblage. Another such example is Marcel Duchamp's Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, consisting of a small birdcage containing a thermometer, cuttlebone, and 151 marble cubes resembling sugar cubes.

By the time of the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects in 1936 a whole range of sub-classifications had been devised — including found objects, readymade objects, perturbed objects, mathematical objects, natural objects, interpreted natural objects, incorporated natural objects, Oceanic objects, American objects and Surrealist objects. At this time Surrealist leader, André Breton, defined readymades as "manufactured objects raised to the dignity of works of art through the choice of the artist."

Pablo Picasso used found objects as the basis for Baboon and Young, and joined a "bicycle saddle" with "handle bars" to make a bull's head.

In the 1960s found objects were present in both the Fluxus movement and in Pop art. Joseph Beuys exhibited modified found objects, such as rocks with a hole in them stuffed with fur and fat, a van with sledges trailing behind it, and a rusty girder.

In 1973 Michael Craig Martin claimed of his work An Oak Tree, "It's not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn't change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.[3]"

Commodity sculpture

In the 1980s, a variation of found art emerged called commodity sculpture where commercially mass-produced items would be arranged in the art gallery as sculpture. The focus of this variety of sculpture was on the marketing, display of products. These artists included Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Ashley Bickerton (who later moved on to do other kinds of work).

One of Jeff Koons' early signature works was Two Ball 50/50 Tank, 1985, which consisted of two basketballs floating in water, which half-fills a glass tank (an influence on Damien Hirst).

Trash art

Junk art at Oak Street Beach

A specific sub-genre of found art is known as trash art or junk art.[4] These works are primarily comprised from components that have been discarded. Often they come quite literally from the trash. Many organizations sponsor junk art competitions.

Creating and using trash art can expose people to hazardous substances. For instance, older computer and electronic components can contain lead (in solder and insulation). Jewelry made from these items may require careful handling. In France, trash art became known as " Poubellisme", art made from contents of " poubelles" ( trash bins)


Throughout the 1990s, the Young British Artists (YBAs) made extensive use of found "objects", often with very strong press reaction. Damien Hirst exhibited a shark preserved in formaldehyde in a glass tank and called it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. He has taken this to extremes by presenting in the same way a cow and calf cut into sections, and, in A Thousand Years, a rotting cow's head, maggots and flies. Tracey Emin exhibited a tent covered with appliquéd names, titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, and then her own unmade bed with sweat-stained sheets, surrounded by items such as her slippers, period-stained underwear and drink bottles, titled My Bed. Sarah Lucas enlarged to a giant size a lurid tabloid press cutting; she also exhibited a mattress with two melons, a bucket and a cucumber, representing female and male genitalia.

Found art can also occur on the internet, where an image found on the internet can become the core component of a larger artwork made by modifying the image through basic computer graphic tools.

Historical precedents

Gold, when used in art, as in Medieval altar pieces, is present for its own innate quality, and is therefore a found object, as are precious jewels used in artworks. The essential difference is that these materials were already considered precious, whereas modern art's use of found objects has mostly been of mundane items, which are then deemed to be elevated into a special status.

An exception in 2003 was the Chapman Brothers use of a set of Francisco Goya prints, The Disasters of War, which they "adapted" by collaging clown and puppy faces onto the figures. The prints were valuable already in their own right as art.[3]

Like Marcel Duchamp before him, Damien Hirst has suggested that a painting can be considered an adapted found object (the object being paint), i.e. the whole history of art is based on the found objects.

In the 19th century, the French writer Comte de Lautréamont had drawn attention to the possibilities of transforming the otherwise mundane object with the now famous phrase, "Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table."


The modern use of found objects aroused hostility from the start, when Duchamp's urinal, titled Fountain, was rejected by the "unjuried" 1917 Society of Independent Artists on the basis that it was not art.

The found object in art has been a subject of polarised debate in Britain throughout the 1990s due to the use of it by the Young British Artists. It has been rejected by the general public and journalists, and supported by public museums and art critics. In his 2000 Dimbleby lecture, Who's afraid of modern art, Sir Nicholas Serota advocated such kinds of "difficult" art, while quoting opposition such as the Daily Mail headline "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all". A more unexpected rejection in 1999 came from artists—some of whom had previously worked with found objects—who founded the Stuckists group and issued a manifesto denouncing such work in favour of a return to painting with the statement "Ready-made art is a polemic of materialism". [4]

Other art forms

"Other People's Mail", was a zine first published in 1995 by Abby Bridge. The photocopied publication contained found documents including: "lists found in the pockets of thrift-store clothes, notes passed in coffee shops or left on windshields, school work left in textbooks, postcards and photos from junk stores, letters left at bus stops, rants posted on power boxes, writings left in photocopiers, and so on.".[5] It was resurrected on in 2000 and also inspired an episode of This American Life. Found Magazine, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, first published in 2004,[6] collects and catalogs found notes, photos, and other "interesting" items. Music composers use found sound in their compositions. Examples include John Cage, Nicolas Collins, Art of Noise, The Slant (band), Robin Rimbaud AKA Scanner and The Books. In British experimental music, Christopher Hobbs was the foremost proponent of the 'musical readymade', a concept named by John White.[7] Hobbs used chance operations, systems and other 'dislocating procedures'[7] on works by Tchaikovsky, John Bull, Bach, and others to create new pieces, including using a readymade or 'found' system (a knitting pattern for an Aran sweater) to create Aran (1972). Writers Brion Gysin and William Burroughs pioneered "cut ups", which was the random assembling of cut-up pre-existing text. This has also been employed by David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Ted Milton and Thom Yorke for lyric writing. Poets, too, create art out of non-literary writing, such as vocabulary books, adverts or newspaper articles. Adrian Henri made the poem On the Late Late Massachers Stillbirths and Deformed Children a Smoother Lovelier Skin Job (and the title) by combining found text from John Milton's "Sonnet XVIII", the TV Times and a CND leaflet. Cordelia McGuire turned a funeral home classified advertisement into a poem entitled Embalmer by adding line breaks. Found art features in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie and the 2001 independent comedy, Ghost World.


Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin. 1973
Tea Bird by Colin George Jeffrey. 2008
Barney by Tom Shelton

Many modern artists have used found objects in their art. These include:

See also


  1. ^ Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, pages 181-186. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0-8050-5789-7
  2. ^ Shearer, Rhonda Roland: "Marcel Duchamp's Impossible Bed and Other 'Not' Readymade Objects: A Possible Route of Influence From Art To Science", 1997.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Marshall Raeburn Found Object Art: "Stuff I Made from Junk", 2009.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London: Studio Vista, 1974), pp. 141-2.

External links

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