Update (January 2013): Here's a fresh post, by a French blogger, recounting the history of "Bicycle Wheel," Duchamp, and the many iterations of this work: "A Hundred Years Ago: 'Bicycle Wheel,' by Marcel Duchamp."
Original 2009 post:
A few days ago, I was looking for an online image of a bicycle wheel that I could use as a Twitter icon. Talk about having a high purpose.
I happened upon a Museum of Modern Art image of "Bicycle Wheel," a found or "readymade" art object by French artist Marcel Duchamp. It's a sweet and goofy construction: a bicycle wheel and fork mounted upside-down on a tall stool. Many aspects of a bike lend themselves to wonder and introspection–everything from the the double-triangle frame design to the bearings and races in a hub–but the wheel ranks right up there at the top with its combination of fragility and strength. Duchamp is said to have enjoyed spinning his stool-mounted wheel and is widely quoted as saying, ""I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."
The MoMa site has a nice picture of one of the three Bicycle Wheel constructions Duchamp is said to have made The first of the three Bicycle Wheels, dated in 1913, was "lost." The MoMa wheel is dated 1951, is said to be the thirdand features a classic raked-forward fork. The way it's presented on the site, there's no question it's an objet d'arte. (The version pictured here appears to be the same sculpture; it's uncredited and found here. I'm seeking permission to publish the MoMa's image here; we'll see if I get it).
Below is another another Duchamp "Bicycle Wheel" that appears (with no copyright notices) here and there on the Web (this image is from Wikicommons). The source says "replica," but I believe that refers to the fact it's a Duchamp copy of the lost original.
What I love about dipping into something like this is the impromptu museum tour that happens. "Bicycle Wheel" in MoMa: check. Another version in some other exhibition: check. The next stop is (if picture captions are to be believed) is Duchamp's studio a few years after he first put wheel and stool together.
There it is, the object pre-veneration, the wheel askew, apparently just part of the disarray in an artist's quarters. You can appreciate the inspiration and the execution–and the suggestion the creator apparently didn't take it too seriously.
All of which brings us to our final display: the continuing life of "Bicycle Wheel" outside the gallery. For starters, we have the creation of "The Duchamp," a found musical instrument. And this alternate take on the concept. And finally: Duchamp Reloaded, by an artist who liberates "Bicycle Wheel" to experience the life of New York's streets.
(Photo: Ji Lee, "Duchamp Reloaded." Used with permission.)