‘…recognition of the lack of art in art and the artfulness of everything, I think, is probably his most important contribution’ -Robert Rauschenberg
In 1913 Marcel Duchamp created the work 3 Standard Stoppages. He dropped three one-metre pieces of string onto canvas, gluing them where they fell.
The work reverberates throughout twentieth century art as a major moment of departure. Art broke new ground, not only in the labour of the artist but through the act of chance. This development also called into question Art’s ‘grand narrative’ by claiming as much artistic value in a random event, as in a carefully considered Modernist work of art. Art became everything and nothing at once.
John Cage’s compositions can be traced back to 3 Standard Stoppages. Music of Changes used I Ching (the ancient Chinese divination system) to compose and arrange the music, and the seminal 4’33’’ contains no instrumental music but is filled with the ambient orchestra of random noise from our forever in flux auditory environment.
Chance also found an unlikely bedfellow in painting. John Cage describes Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings from 1951 as
‘Airports for the lights, shadows, and particles’
the enamel white of the canvas becomes a petri dish for alien ephemera like dust and light, rather than an aesthetic work.
Gerhard Richter started his Colour Chart series in the 1960s. Initially he used colour swatches from hardware stores creating a kind of readymade painting, as the series progressed the artist employed colours based on a mathematical process that picked colours at random. Through the use of chance Richter disassociates himself from the work, allowing the viewer to find aesthetic beauty in the paintings regardless of artistic intent.
Duchamp inspired many artists to create work with a different language. Like his readymades the application of chance finds ‘artfulness’ not just in the confines of a canvas or a sculpture but also in the environment, in the dripping of paint or the falling of a string.
3 Standard Stoppages, 1913-14, Collection of Craig Robins, Miami, © Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2012, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London.