The first definition of the "Readymade" was published in 1938 in André Breton and Paul Éluard's Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme which famously states that it is "…an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist." Thus, by simply choosing a manufactured object and reappropriating it, the “found” object became art.
The Traveler’s Folding Item was Duchamp’s fourth readymade out of the thirteen he would create between 1913 and 1923. First came the Bicycle Wheel, the Bottle Rack, and after his move to New York in 1915, the snow shovel inscribed In Advance of the Broken Arm, and the Traveler’s Folding Item in 1916. It was in New York that Duchamp coined the term “Readymade” based on an expression that was then current in industrial manufacturing to describe prêt-à-porter or ready-to-wear clothing. Before being lost, Traveler’s Folding Item was exhibited only once in 1917 and in an uncertain circumstance, possibly suspended on a coat rack, at the Bourgeois Gallery in New York City.
The Traveler’s Folding Item’s original function as an Underwood typewriter cover is entirely reappropriated. Interpretations of this work have been manifold and the literature is vast. What is certain is that, typical of Duchamp, the various layers of meaning are not fixed. Is the typewriter cover a sort of veil, some have said a skirt, with the associated erotic implications that invites the viewer to discover what lies hidden beneath it? The way the Traveler’s Folding Item was exhibited under Duchamp’s supervision in the legendary 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum seems to suggest this among other possibilities. However, to seek a specific interpretation for a Readymade such as Traveler’s Folding Item is to misunderstand Duchamp’s intentions. He sought to “Entirely get out of art” (in, Francis Roberts, 'I propose to strain the laws of physics', Art News No 8, December 1968, p. 62), and his choice of objects was intended to be based on complete visual indifference and on the total absence of good or bad taste. In 1953, When Duchamp was asked about the genesis of the Traveler’s Folding Item he stated: "I thought it would be a good idea to introduce softness in the Readymade - in other words not altogether hardness, porcelain or iron, or things like that... So that's why the typewriter cover came into existence" (Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1997, p. 646). The Traveler’s Folding Item can arguably be considered as the first ‘soft sculpture’ in the history of art. Moreover, like the other Readymades, the Underwood typewriter cover seems to emphasize the randomness of its selection, and thereby establishes itself as a basis for later surrealist investigations of chance juxtapositions, such as they were originally suggested by Isidore Ducasse (Comte de Lautreamont) in his Chants de Maldoror, 1869, with his famous description of “… the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.”
The mechanism of the Readymades, their various levels of meaning, makes it impossible to provide the viewer with a definitive interpretation. It is precisely these characteristics which make them so important in the history of art and fundamental in the development of Modern and Contemporary art to this day. With the Readymade, Duchamp singlehandedly disrupted centuries old notions of the artist’s role as the creator of original handmade objects while also defying traditional Beaux-Arts notions that art must be beautiful. Set far beyond any sense of aesthetic judgment, directly relying on the viewer’s own interpretation, the Readymade establishes Duchamp as one of the founders of conceptual art.
We wish to thank Francis Naumann for his advice and help with this catalogue note.
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