The Origins of Trash Art

Found Art and Junk Art – Bucking Tradition

This article covers the origins of trash art, which can be seen in the found art and junk art movements. The thoughts here inform the discussion about trash art in the next article. This article is the first in a two-part series.

Moshed Fountain (Second Realm, 2021)

Duchamp and Found Art

In 1917, French artist Marcel Duchamp entered a work into an exhibition put on by the Society of Independent Artists.

Fountain (1917), Duchamp’s entry, is considered the first piece of Found Art; it was not well received at the exhibition. In fact, Duchamp found that his piece — a urinal purchased on April 2, 1917, and signed with the pseudonym R. Mutt — hidden from view.

Other artists besides Duchamp were creating Found Art before the genre formed a movement in the 1950s.

Picture with Light Center (Kurt Schwitters 1919)

German artist, and celebrated dadaist, Kurt Schwitters was known for his collage works such as Picture with Light Center (Bild mit heller Mitte) (1919), which was created after World War I as a hopeful piece that shows “how destruction can feed creation: how bits of advertising, scraps of newspaper, wood, garbage, and urban debris could all be collaged together into something new and beautiful.”¹

Schwitters’ art was informed by many things: his process, philosophy, and lifestyle. He referred to all of this as merz. One of his most remarkable pieces was Merzbau (1923–1937), which was destroyed in Allied bombing raids during World War II. Merzbau was Schwitters’ home and studio, which he has transformed into an immersive collage piece created from found objects.

Robert Rauschenberg’s work is considered to be the first example of Pop Art, and his use of found objects and abstract painting created beautiful pieces such as Bed (1955) and First Landing Jump (1961). The use of discarded objects and other detritus is the foundational shift from found art to junk art.

Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960) was an installation piece made from bicycle parts and other discarded objects: it was designed to self-destruct and there are only remnants left today. It’s representative of a full transition: from junk to a complex installation piece back to its essential components after self-destructing.

César Baldaccini utilized a hydraulic press to crush found objects in order to create his sculpture work. Compression Ricard (1962) is one of the most famous examples of this work. These junked cars and other components were transformed into free-standing sculptures.

The Progression of Trash Art

The progression of Trash Art is considered to start with Duchamp and the artists working with Found Art in the early 20th century; Picasso and other dadaists working with collage furthered the Found Art tradition; the Junk Art Movement in the 1950s; and the works that used the traditions from both to create a new wave of Trash Art.

A Thousand Years (Damien Hirst, 1990)

Trash Art is often controversial in nature. Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990) is created from: glass, steel, silicone rubber, painted MDF, Insect-O-Cutor, cow’s head, blood, flies, maggots, metal dishes, cotton wool, sugar and water.² Hirst used a cow’s head as the integral component for this piece, and maggots that hatch into flies emerge from one part of this module into the other, which contains the cow head on the floor and a bug zapper above.

Discarded, recycled materials are repurposed, and these components are used to create a piece that evokes strong feelings from viewers.

Trash Art has taken on a new meaning in digital media. Artists working in this genre often take existing digital images to create collages or to use found images as a canvas.

Artists working in this genre tend to overlap the philosophies behind Junk Art and Glitch Art, which is “the practice of using digital or analog errors for aesthetic purposes by either corrupting digital data or physically manipulating electronic devices.”³

Michael Betancourt’s The Kodak Moment (2013) uses screentest footage of silent film actress Mae Murray. The video is glitched and fragmented, but the original music and artifact noise in front of the film is intact.

With more artists working in digital media, the genres of Found Art, Junk Art, and Glitch Art are taking on a new frontier. You can read Part II of this series: “A Short History of NFT Trash Art: An Emerging Digital Genre”, which gives an overview of the digital innovation in the NFT Trash Art movement on Ethereum.

Notable Artists: Found, Junk, & Trash Art

Before 1950s Movement

Celebrated Junk Artists