Junk Art
Definition, Meaning, History of "Found Art" like Ready-Mades.

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ee: Art Definition, Meaning.

Junk Art: Definition & Meaning

Throughout the 20th-century, as part of the modernist revolt against the use of traditional materials in fine art and the consequent desire to demonstrate that "art" can be made out of anything, artists have been creating sculpture, assemblage, combined paintings/sculptures and installations from an ever-widening range of unusual objects and materials. Exemplified by the 1950s work of the experimental Texan-born artist Richard Rauschenberg, the name "junk art" was first coined by the British art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway (1926-90), in 1961, to describe artworks made from scrap metal, broken-up machinery, cloth rags, timber, waste paper and other "found" materials. Traceable to early 20th-century art by Picasso, Duchamp and Schwitters, junk art has analogies in Dada, the works of Alberto Burri (1915-95) and later Arte Povera artists from Italy, Spanish artists like Antoni Tapies (b.1923), and the Californian Funk art movement. It is also seen as a sub-species of "found art", and is sometimes referred to as "trash art". Its identifying mark, however, remains the use of banal, ordinary, everyday materials.

Exmaple of Junk Art

Very Hungry God (2006)
By contemporary artist Sudobh Gupta.
Skull constructed from kitchen utensils,
pots and pans.

Heureka (1966) by Jean Tinguely.
Modernist sculpture which consists
of steel wheels, metal bars, pipes,
and various electric motors.

For a guide, see: Art Types.

For painting/sculpture made
by artists outside mainstream,
see: Outsider Art.
For works by mental patients
see: Art Brut.

For a general guide to
non-representational art,
see: Abstract Art.
For geometric abstraction,
see: Concrete Art,
or Non-Objective Art.

For important dates, see:
History of Art.
For a chronological guide
see: History of Art Timeline.

Early History of Junk Art

If one excludes the controversial claim that the 3 million year old Makapansgat Pebble (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) represents the world's oldest piece of junk art (in this case an objet trouve or "found object", chosen for its resemblance to a human skull), the first junk artist was Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). He began creating works of art (mostly sculptures) from trash and other urban waste products. His specialty was the "ready-made" - a mass-produced article, chosen at random, isolated from its usual context and presented as a work of art. Examples of readymades by Duchamp (a series of found objects) include: Bicycle Wheel (1913, ready-made, metal, painted wood, Pompidou Centre, Paris), In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915, Yale University Art Gallery), and Fountain, (1917, Replica, Tate Gallery, London).

Another pioneer junk artist was the Hanover Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whose unique contribution to modern art was his "Merzbau" - an intricate mixed-media sculpture made from paper, cardboard and other rubbish, that meandered through his house, eventually filling it completely.


Cubist collages - created by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) during their Synthetic Cubism phase - were another precursor of junk art. Examples of Picasso's composite works include his sculptures: Guitar (1913, sheet-metal and wire, Museum of Modern Art MoMA); Glass of Absinthe (1914, painted bronze with absinthe spoon, Museum of Modern Art NY).

Also in Paris during this time, was the Ukrainian-born artist Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), who went on to pioneer Constructivism, and the Russian artist Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine (1888-1944) whose sculpture Symphony No 1 (1913, painted wood, cardboard and crushed eggshells, Museum of Modern Art MoMA) resembles a junk sculpture of Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964). Other pioneers of this form of art include Henri Laurens (1885-1954), see his Construction, Small Head (1915, wood, polychrome iron sheeting, George Pompidou Centre); the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943), see her work The Guard (1918, painted wood, metal fixtures, Museum Bellerive, Zurich, Germany); the Romanian Marcel Janco (1895-1984), see his Mask (1919, paper, cardboard, string, pastels, George Pompidou Centre, Paris); and the German painter and sculptor Jean Arp (1886-1966) - see Shipwreck Victim Kit (1920-1, Private Collection).

Junk Art Becomes a Movement

Despite the efforts of the above pioneers, along with those of inter-war artists Marcel Jean (1900-93), Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Andre Breton (1896-1966) - see their respective works Spectre of the Gardenia (1936, plaster head, painted cloth, zippers, film strip, Museum of Modern Art NYC); Object (1936, stuffed parrot, silk stocking remnant, cork ball, engraved map, Museum of Modern Art NYC); and Poem-Object (1941, Museum of Modern Art NYC) - junk art did not coalesce into a movement until the 1950s, when artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) started to promote his "combines" (a combined form of painting and sculpture), such as Bed (1955, MoMA, New York) and First Landing Jump (1961, combine painting, cloth, metal, leather, electric fixture, cable, oil paint, board, Museum of Modern Art NYC).

Meantime, other sculptors began to explore the use of urban detritus and other unusual materials, including the influential American sculptor David Smith (1906-65) - see his Hudson River Landscape (1951, welded steel pieces, Whitney Museum of American Art); the Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto (b.1923) - see his Untitled (1960, wood, metal pieces, nails, Museum of Modern Art NYC); the French textile sculptor Etienne Martin (1913-95) - see his Coat (Dwelling 5) (1962, fabric, rope, leather, metal, tarpaulin, George Pompidou Centre); the Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely (1928-1991) - noted for his self-destructing Homage to New York (1960, MoMA, NY) an example of his brand of kinetic art; and the Bulgarian Christo Javacheff (1935-2009) - see his work Package on a Table (1961, table stacked with wrapped up objects, George Pompidou Centre).

Celebrated Junk Artists

A famous exponent of Junk art, as it matured during the 1960s, was the French-American artist Arman (Armand Fernandez) (1928-2005) who became known for his extraordinary assemblages of debris and waste items, such as Home Sweet Home (1960, gasmasks assemblage, George Pompidou Centre), Nail Fetish (1963, pile of revolvers glued together, Private Collection), and Accumulation of Sliced Teapots (1964, Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis). Another noted exponent was the Marseilles artist Cesar (1921-98), who made his artistic reputation with sculptures constructed out of car parts, such as Compression Ricard (1962, compressed automobile parts, George Pompidou Centre).

Other notable junk artists included the Indiana-born sculptor John Chamberlain (b.1927), whose works included Untitled (1964, painted steel with chrome, Nice Museum of Modern Art), Untitled (1968, sheet metal, National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome) and Koko-Nor II (1967, Tate Collection London); the English photographer and sculptor Joseph Goto (1916-94); the American Richard Stankiewicz (1923-83), noted for his witty Middle Aged Couple (1954, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago); and the sculptor and film-maker Bruce Conner (1933-2008), noted for his spooky constructions made from broken dolls and old stockings.

The range of objects and other contemporary junk materials employed within the genre is well illustrated in the works of Joseph Beuys (1921-86), such as Eurasia Siberian Symphony (1963, panel, chalk drawing, felt, fat, hare, painted pole, Museum of Modern Art NYC); Ed Kienholz (1927-94), such as Back Seat Dodge '38 (1964, truncated Dodge automobile, resin, paint, fiberglass, clothing, chicken wire, beer bottles, plaster, Los Angeles County Museum of Art); Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930-2002), such as her Monster of Soisy (1963, paint, various objects, metal frame, George Pompidou Centre); Marisol (b.1930), such as her Woman and Dog (1964, wood, plaster, synthetic polymer, taxidermied dog head, and miscellaneous items, Whitney Museum of American Art).

British Junk Art

During the 1990s, the art group known as the Young British Artists (YBAs) made extensive but controversial use of found "objects" and other junk. Damien Hirst (b.1965) exhibited a range of such artworks including A Thousand Years (1990, Saatchi Collection), made from a decomposing cow's head, maggots and flies. Tracey Emin (b.1963) exhibited My Bed (1998, Saatchi collection), consisting of her own unmade bed with sweat-stained sheets, and other highly personal items such as stained underwear.

The popularity of what is now seen as a type of contemporary art with a more modern sense of aesthetics, is so great that junk objects are beginning to appear in many different types of art, including painting, sculpture, assemblage, installation and conceptual art.

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