18 February 2013

Bicycle Wheels: Tri-Spokes Came And Went, But Duchamp's Endures

No, the man in the photo is not a French bicycle mechanic. And he's not truing the wheel.  In fact, that wheel has remained in the stand, not having been touched by a spoke tool or cone wrench, for the past hundred years.

The man in the picture is indeed French, as his wheel most likely was.  He is long dead, but the wheel didn't end up in the hands of some rich Japanese collector.

In fact, it's in Philadelphia.  But, one hundred years ago, it was in New York.  I've ridden from New York to Philadelphia, though not on that wheel.

All right:  You may have already figured out (if you didn't already know) that the man in the photo is artist Marcel Duchamp.  And his wheel was indeed a wheel, but it's listed in books and catalogues as a sculpture.

One hundred years ago yesterday, it stood among other sculptures, paintings and other objets d'art in the 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets in Manhattan.  The building still functions as an armory and hosts various events, and is today surrounded  by some of Baruch College's buildings.

On that date, the Armory Show (as it's commonly known) opened.  Little more than two weeks earlier Grand Central Station began, the first travelers and commuters embarked and disembarked from trains at the new Grand Central Terminal, about a kilometer and a half uptown.  It's an interesting turn of history because GCT is, arguably, the last great monument to the Gilded Age, while the Armory Show did as much as any event to move American notions of art, aesthetics and public space away from Gilded Age, and even classical, notions.  Literally steps away from GCT is the Chrysler Building; between them and the Armory, the Empire State Building went up months after the Chrysler Building was completed.  The Chrysler and ESB could hardly be more different from GSC or, for that matter, the Armory; neither of the latter two buildings could or would have been built in the wake of the Armory Show's influence.

So why, you may ask, am I writing about these events on a bike blog?  Well, before the show, almost no American, artist or otherwise, would have thought to declare a bicycle wheel as a work of art.  In fact, very few Americans would have thought bicycles to be appropriate subjects for art, let alone used bicycles or parts of bicycles as materials for works of art, as Picasso and others would later do.

So, the next time you make, sell, buy or wear a bracelet made from a bicycle chain or earrings made from spokes, remember that the Armory show helped to make them possible!

N.B.:  Picasso's "bull" is in the Paris museum dedicated to his works.  Duchamp's bicycle wheel is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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