Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why the Urinal Is #1

Yesterday's blog entry explored concepts regarding the 20th century art scene drawn from an article by Keith Martin-Smith. What got me jazzed, besides his clear analysis of the primary themes in contemporary art, was that Marcel Duchamp's Fountain had replaced Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as the most significant piece of art of the 20th century.

Duchamp's Fountain was but a joke. It stands in importance alongside a comb and other "Readymades" which he introduced in a 1917 exhibition, many of which can be found in a collection at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia in close proximity to The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors and other select pieces including Chocolate Grinder No. 2 and the erotically titled but comically sexless Nude Descending A Staircase. The Readymades' significance has been summed up best by Tom Wolfe in his essay The Painted Word. At some point it wasn't the art that was important, but the idea behind the art that was significant. Martin-Smith points out that the "big idea" was an inside joke, without a wink. It's irony.

Forty years ago Picasso's influence was pervasive and paramount. Art students studied the manner in which Cezzanne began breaking reality into shades, shapes and panels of light and dark, slowly moving realism toward abstraction, but Picasso leapt past the whole concern with reality altogether. Picasso's Les Demoiselles was astonishing at the time, quickly morphing into cubism and ultimately liberation.

Though Picasso did have thoughts in mind when he painted, his ultimate end was something tangible, material, usually visual and sometimes even tactile. Picasso painted and drew and painted and made sculptures for a lifetime. His art was the thing. Not so Duchamp. Duchamp painted some, but for this hero of anti-art, the idea was the thing.

And so it is that forty years ago Picasso was the missing link to our modern era, but today Duchamp has become the representative man. Ideas became more important than objects. Conceptual art had been conceived, was birthed and survives.

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