While an object may be defined as ‘a material thing that can be seen and touched,’ it would seem that the work of art is a special kind of object, representing something of a visual extension of the artist’s oeuvre, a construct that is beyond spacetime. Consider Cézanne’s apples, Magritte’s pipe, Dalí’s watches, Duchamp’s urinal, or Warhol’s soup cans—it could be argued that all of these “objects” have managed to transcend the real world and claim an eternal spot in the popular imagination.
Looking at Vanitas of the seventeenth century that present objects of their day, the experience feels comparable to reading a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Just as the literary genius would articulate his portraits of society in prose, Harmen Steenwyck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanitas of Human Life (circa 1640) offers a Vanitas story for you to read in the language of presented objects. There is a shell and a Japanese sword symbolizing wealth and abundance; and there are books and musical instruments alluding to the ostentatious nature of human civilization—the vanities of worldly pleasures. The work also signals warning with objects such as a chronometer and an expiring lamp—symbolic representations of the frailty of human life. And the skull, an unmistakable allusion to death which appears not just in the Vanitas paintings, but throughout other works in art history. And while Vanitas may seem to be filled with objects, they nevertheless present a void. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Marcel Duchamp recognized the importance of objects, suggesting a new paradigm for the ontology of everyday life. Before Duchamp, objects were things that passively existed on a canvas; however following his presentation of a urinal as a work of art with the brilliant title, Fountain, objects would obtain a new status in the everyday lives of their viewers, becoming core themes of artistic visions and assuming artwork status. Nonetheless Duchamp’s reinterpretation of everyday objects as objets d’art was no different from Magritte’s dépaysement, which literally referred to the feeling of becoming immersed within an unknown environment. While René Magritte collapsed the semantic relations between objects by re-positioning and re-combining them within the frames of his paintings, Duchamp instead developed the notion of dépaysement by way of assigning unexpected functions to ordinary objects—including his ready-made items. By choosing prefabricated items and calling them art, he would overturn firmly held concepts of the artist’s craft and the aesthetic experience of the audience.
Later on in his book, 'Art and Objecthood' (1967), Michael Fried would argue that Minimalism is a new genre of theatre as it focuses more so on the viewer and the environment, rather than on the artwork itself. As art became more object-oriented over the course of the 60s and 70s, Minimalists would enthusiastically emphasize the ‘objecthood’ of their artworks in order to eliminate the illusions that encroaching on the art world in the modern era. After Duchamp, objects that had come to the foreground of the viewer’s everyday experience would become drivers of timely narratives based on their materiality and presentness. And the Minimalists would continue to experiment with the most basic form of art, ultimately opening the door to post-modernism and enabling artistic pluralism.
In response to the oeuvre of Sol LeWitt and the work of his descendants, for quite a while the work of artists throughout the art world tended toward the dematerialized and anti-object-oriented. To boot, this movement was deconstructed by another movement in art world motivated by the construction of situations in order to explore notions of context. In this regard, the process of artists who create physical, object-based artworks would seem to be informed by Duchamp’s manifesto, which focused on the meaning of objects rather than their practical functions in the world. Working in the spirit of Duchamp these artists are effectively evolving the notion of context as it relates to a contemporary concept of ‘dematerialization.’ Among this group of artists there was Felix Gonzalez-Torres who stood at the onset of the movement, as well as El Anatsui, Guerra de la Paz, and Pascale Marthine Tayou—all of whom have presented objects in constructed circumstances in order to convey situations rather than singular presentations of objects themselves. Worth noting is that the artists that comprise this movement are not producing materials for the sake of materials.
René Magritte, Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952, Oil on canvas, 77,5 x 100 cm, Collection Museum of Modern Art San Francisco SFMOMA / © Charly Herscovici, Brussels, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York