Modernisms, Vessels and the Birth of Conceptual Art

To accompany the recent publication of The Journal of Modern Craft 6.3 we have invited a number of critics to respond to the lead article of the issue: John Roberts’ “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp,” which is freely available for a limited period (click here for the link).

The first response is written by curator and art historian Joakim Borda-Pedreira, who among his roles is Acting Editor of Norwegian Crafts Magazine, and founder and director of The Boiler Room, a contemporary art space in central Oslo.


The late Swedish art critic and museum director Ulf Linde would often repeat an anecdote from the 1960s, when he helped organize the first Marcel Duchamp exhibition in Stockholm. With the blessing of Duchamp, Linde scanned the city for an identical urinal as the famous Fountain ready–made. Eventually he found one in an old restaurant and Linde would laughingly recall the sight of the legendary art dealer and socialite Eva af Buren standing on her knees scrubbing the bowl frenetically to remove half a century of filth.

Reading John Roberts’ essay “Temporality, Critique and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp” this history seems to rise above the anecdotal, because if nothing else it illustrates that a urinal indeed qualifies as a vessel and can be read as a continuation of the ancient vessel tradition. This tradition, according to Roberts, represents a historical link between the most genuinely primordial of human creation and the alienated modes of mass-production attained to modernity. The vessel tradition is a pan-historical phenomenon which stands “at an authentic distance from the mere objectness of the modern work of art and the modern experience of art as such.”[1]

This conflict between craft – here represented by the vessel tradition – and a modernist understanding of art and originality is according to Roberts overbridged, if not entirely overcome, by the artistic strategies of both Duchamp and art potter Bernard Leach, who stood for a sort of refined modernism which eschewed industrialisation and mass culture. Indeed, Leach opposed not only the mass-production, but the “bad forms, and banal, debased, pretentious decoration”[2] which is ever-present in industrially produced ceramics. Roberts juxtaposes Leach’s “conservative modernism” with Duchamp’s “deflationary avant-gardism”, and sees the vessel become “a cipher for the unassimilable split in the very domain of art’s living temporality.”[3] It is particularly rewarding to read his analysis on Leach’s timeless modernism, committed to renewal within continuity, but when it comes to Duchamp Roberts overlooks one of the most important aspects of the ready mades, and in particular of the Fountain – that they initiated an aesthetic revolution which liberated the art work from the art object. In fact Duchamp did the opposite of what Roberts claims, as he did not create art from everyday objects, but rather everyday objects from art. Duchamp was integral in shifting artistic value from the object to the artist – an operation which would culminate with conceptual art in the 1960s and which today dominates contemporary art and is finding its ways into craft art as well.

This is also the reason why the Stockholm version of Fountain, which was manufactured and used as a real urinal, is no more or less genuine an art work than the many authorised versions which were produced in artist studios as limited edition art works for museums in America and continental Europe.

[1] Roberts, in The Journal of Modern Craft 6:3 (November 2013), p. 260.

[2] Bernard Leach, A Potters Book in Glenn Adamson (ed.) The Crafts Reader (2012), p. 178.

[3] Roberts, in The Journal of Modern Craft 6:3 (November 2013), p. 263.

One thought on “Modernisms, Vessels and the Birth of Conceptual Art

  1. Pingback: Modernism, vessels and the birth of conceptual art | Sarah Core

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