Photo par Philippe Fragnière
January 1916. From New York, where he’d gone into exile, Marcel Duchamp remotely created the very first ready-made and entered history. In a now-famous letter, he asked his sister to “activate” a bottle rack that had been sitting in his Parisian studio since 1914. To do so, all Suzanne Duchamp had to do was place her brother’s signature on the object along with an inscription “at the bottom on the lower ring in small letters painted with an oil brush in white lead.” An everyday object was thus “promoted to the dignity of an art object simply by the artist’s choice,” to quote André Breton’s 1938 definition of the Duchampian ready-made. It was an unprecedented artistic revolution: henceforth, everything had the potential to be art.
But what if Bottle Rack were not the first ready-made? In 1913 Duchamp bought a bicycle wheel which he fixed to a white wooden stool. But he didn’t yet envisage it as an artwork, more as a “distraction.” As for bottle rack, it was unfortunately thrown away when Duchamp’s family cleared out his studio. But a bottle rack can be replaced! And so Man Ray photographed a new version in 1935−36.
More than 20 years later, in 1959, New York decided to honour Duchamp with an exhibition. He immediately asked Man Ray to dispatch the 1935 Bottle Rack from Paris, or failing that to buy another one from the Grand Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, the department store that had supplied the first two. Which is exactly what Man Ray did. After travelling round the US with the exhibition, the new Bottle Rack was bought by Robert Rauschenberg for just $3.00 (!). But, to the despair of the legendary American artist, it wasn’t signed, nor did it have the inscription that had originally been painted by Suzanne Duchamp.
Chance, luck and a little courage overcame this deficiency. Jasper Johns, who was Rauschenberg’s boyfriend, invited the Duchamps to his studio. Johns also collected the Frenchman’s work, and asked him to sign one of his pieces. It was an entirely unexpected opportunity for Rauschenberg who, at first shy, hesitated before opening up to Duchamp’s wife. “Marcel will sign anything!”, she replied. And so the Bottle Rack bought by Man Ray in 1959 was signed in early 1960. But Duchamp couldn’t for the life of him remember the original inscription. In its place he wrote, “Impossible for me to remember the original phrase M. D. / Marcel Duchamp / 1960.”
Fifty-six years later, against all expectation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has decided to sell this holy grail, and has charged gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac with finding an international institution worthy (financially) of such a resonant object. Duchamp often regretted that his bottle rack was admired. “It came to seem too beautiful,” he said. Yet as early as 1951, American painter Robert Motherwell declared that “the Bottle Rack he chose has a more beautiful form than almost anything made, in 1914, as sculpture.” It’s currently on display in Paris (until 14 January).
Bottle Rack, by Marcel Duchamp,
on display at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris,
until 14 January 2017,