Suspended from the ceiling of the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing, and illuminated from the center of the room, Hat Rack (original 1917, 1964 recreation, image 1) hangs from the ceiling, casting shadows upon the wall, which resemble curved shapes protruding outward into space. Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made, Hat Rack is fashioned out of day-to-day objects repurposed as works of art, Hat Rack (1917), is a wooden hat rack, with a mass-produced finish, with six distinct racks emerging from the base.
Following a lineage that primarily mocked the institutions of art and life through his avant-garde work Fountain, Hat Rack and other Readymades created by Duchamp display the material world of modernity and its inclusion into life through the usage of objects, detached from their original purpose, and re-purposed as works of art. When one views Hat Rack (1917), one cannot help but to ask “How exactly is this thing a work of art? ” The object that Marcel Duchamp elevated to the status of art could’ve easily been any old, mass-produced, Hat Rack, or similar object out of a department store or SEARS catalogue during early 20th century America.
Blending the lines of art and daily life, the dark, dull brown of the wood is the only color on the sculpture itself. Furthermore, starting from a round, circular base, 6 prongs, Hat Rack’s (1917) fingers protrude outward 8 inches into the immediate space of the exhibition floor. The ambient lighting of the exhibition floor creates a projection of Hat Racks physical form on the white walls, creating a 2-dimension shadow form reminiscent of a spider-like creature. The rigid, inorganic contours and lines of the original sculpture juxtapose the organic representation shown upon the wall.
In truth, Hat Rack (1917), isn’t a visual masterpiece comparable to a Picasso or Pollock, however, just like Artists before and after him, Marcel Duchamp was in conscious communication with the cultural realities of his respective society of Post-World War I America. There is very little artistic creation in the process of making Hat Rack (1917), aside from the conscious choice of the artist, Marcel Duchamp. An unassuming furniture fixture became Hat Rack when he chose to suspend it from the ceiling, remove the base that would elevate it from the floor, and call it “art”.
Hat Rack stems from the lineage of to his most well-known and first readymade, Fountain (1917 Image 2). Under the guise of R. Mutt, Fountain was denied entry into an “open” exhibition on sculptures, where the only requirement was a 6$ registration fee. In an open letter, Marcel Duchamp argues that “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. ”
Through taking an ordinary facet of material life, Duchamp under the pseudonym of R. Mutt removed the “useful Significance” of the urinal, elevating it to the status of art, creating a new “Point of view” and “thought” for the object. Russian Suprematism broke down the formal constructs of art of canvas into geometric abstractions. The eventual question was what would follow after works like Kasmir Malevichs’ Black Square (1915, image 3). Constructivism followed within post-revolutionary Russia, with the goals of “building” art as opposed to creating it, furthermore, constructivists paid special attention to the material function of the medium that they used to work with.
The “transformation of materials from one form or another” is influential to Hat Rack, marking the movement towards art with a modern meaning and practical usage. However, although Hat Rack is constructed, the work bares little practical usage to the owner. Helen Molesworth states that “almost all of Duchamp’s Readymades could be found in the average home… they are objects that allow homes and offices to function… but this was not the situation of these objects in Duchamp’s studio,” reminding one of the “uselessness” of Duchamp’s Readymades.
However, to understand Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades one must also take into account the influence that Dadaism had on Duchamp’s life in Europe, before moving to America. Dadaism stemmed from the horrors of WWI and the realities of what modernity meant in terms of global warfare. The powers of Europe, who thought of themselves as the pinnacle of human evolution and civilization lay in ruins. Dadaism responded toward the horrors of WWI as a critique of modernity and modern life.
The Dada Manifesto of 1918 , an attempt to explain Dada as well as a written-form of Dadaism in itself, sums up the ideas of Dada with quotes like “Dada means Nothing” and “Some journalists regard it as an art for babies, other holy jesusescallingthelittlechildren of our day” in an attempt to explain the feelings of Dada in written language. Furthermore the quote “‘know thyself’ is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No Pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind” Is relevant because it directly conveys the sense of isillusion with the modern world, and its negative effects on society that those within the Dada circle felt after World War I.
The whimsical nature as well as the mistrust and critique of modern society in dada are critical to understanding Duchamp’s Hat Rack, and Marcel Duchamps artistic nature itself. The Art Historian Sidney Feshbeck states that after coming to America: “He [Duchamp] began a lifelong program… as an attack on the givens of many orthodoxies, such as the orthodoxy of canonical works, the orthodoxy of the authority of the museum as arbiter, confirmer, and innovator of taste.
The Orthodoxy of genius, personality, mentalism as the source of artistry,” highlighting the influences of Dada-style rejections of the status-quo. Furthermore, the nature of Hat Rack itself is reminiscent of the purpose of “nothing” within the Dada movement. Within the art studio of Duchamp, the ready-mades were purposed as objects of whimsical amusement. Helen Molesworth acknowledges the institutional critique that the Readymade’s served within the institution of the museum, however to truly understand the works one must understand that the Readymades within in studio further critiqued the institution of daily life and the household.
Hat rack critiqued the modern household, as well as the effects of modernity on society. Molesworth cites the historical changes occurring during the rapid industrialization and growth of the 1920’s through referencing the “crisis” of domestic science causing the household to be seen “as a site of production” in the form of household maintenance labor. Duchamp’s creation Hat rack repurposed a tool of labor optimization, into a tool of leisure, completely inverting the original intent of the hat rack he used to create the work.
Justly, Hat Rack can be seen as the critique of modernity and its pervasiveness in life. Modernity created the social construct of Leisure and labor, and a separation of the spheres, the encroachment of modernization into the household, the museums, and other spaces previously separated from labor. This eventually led to the commodification of everyday life and leisure, blending the once separate spheres of life together.
Through works like Hat Rack, Marcel Duchamp questioned the nuances that one takes for granted, influencing a new way of thinking about the society that one lives in. The legacy of the Readymades would have a lasting effect on Art throughout the century; Post-modernists position themselves within the lineage of Duchamp’s avant-garde works and in the last years of his life, American artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns regarded him as a mentor and precursor to movements like Neo-Dada and American Modern Art.