Junk Art of the 20th Century

August 16, 2016

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure is a saying that is easily applied to the eclectic world of junk art. The wide range of variations that the found objects, discarded pieces are used for, form an interesting and long-lasting element of creativity that was born out of rebellion and a desire to demonstrate that art could be made out of anything. And by anything, this form of production literally means anything as it often employs materials that are for most of us considered as trash. It is the celebration of different materials and the freedom to proclaim that art is born out of a context rather than the rules tradition has put on us that junk art and its authors celebrate. The range of materials is so wide and whatever may come to your mind while reading these lines, we would say that at one time or another was used or will be used by the movement that literally transforms the old into innovative, the rubbish into gold.

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Pablo Picasso - Goat Skull and Bottle. Image via s556.photobucket.com

Early History of Junk Art

In order to briefly describe the history of junk art we need to take a step back and mention its predecessor, found art, as junk art is considered as a branch of a long-lasting tradition that was formed by the rebellious Dada movement and its most celebrated authorsMarcel Duchamp. Re-defining the idea of what art is, Duchamp as a pioneer of one of the most influential avant-garde movement and thoughts, proclaimed that art is the context and that it could be made out of manufactured objects that the author found himself. Referring to his work as ‘readymade’ Duchamp named a urinal a Fountain and so was the history of junk art born. Various authors of the 20th-century adopted Duchamp’s ideas, and we have a number of examples in a range of mix-media works that employed discarded and found pieces. Such is the case with the works of Man Ray and Francis Picabia, the collage works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque during the Synthetic Cubism phase, sculpture pieces of Vladimir Tatlin, know as the father of Russian Constructivism, the works of Jean Arp and of course the Arte Povera authors from Italy.[1]

But, the moment that Junk Art was considered as a movement is marked in the 1950’s and in the experimental work of Robert Rauschenberg, which he named his combines. The British art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway in fact coined the term in 1961, describing the sculptures, paintings, or mixed-media production, made from scrap metal, broken-up machinery, objects pulled out of the rubbish, rags, waste paper and other found resources.

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Left: Robert Rauschenberg - Bed. Image via www.pinterest.com / Right: Arman - Home Sweet Home. Image via astrofell.wordpress.com

Most Important Junk Creatives

Possibly the most celebrated names linked with the desire to use the every day and to demonstrate that art is everything is, of course, the above mentioned Robert Rauschenberg and his combines. One of his most famous works is the Bed where the creatives used, some believe, his own bed, worn out pillow and sheets and dripped the paint, in the style of abstract expressionism and Jackson Pollock. This form of production is in a sense at the border of found art and junk art. The difference lies in the fact that the materials used for the production of junk art are discarded objects, sometimes pulled out of trash,  and none other than the French-born American author Arman (Armand Fernandez) knew how to use unwanted and found objects the best. Known for his fantastic assemblage pieces and some of the most interesting art repetitions formed with the use of found gas masks or even revolvers that are glued together, this author raised the idea of junk art as valuable and both artistically and conceptually important. Along with these two names, and the names mentioned in the above paragraph, we cannot avoid the production of the Marseilles authorCesar, who has built his name with the reputation for the creation of sculptures out of car parts.[2]

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Left: Bihari Subodh Gupta - Bucket / Right: Bihari Subodh Gupta - Very Hungry God. Images via blog.aaobihar.com

The Controversy and the Politics of Junk Art

At the core of this eclectic and often considered as banal, ordinary, and in the service of the everyday creativity, lies the desire to breathe a fresh life and purpose into waste objects. These creatives consider the whole process as important as the final displayed object. The search, the building, the welding, the naming, and displaying are all equally important for the junk art movement and today various contemporary authors use junk to help form the original idea of aesthetics that is quite far away from the aesthetic ideas in the past. Important as the art that raises questions concerning the materials used, or important for raising the question of trash itself, today many consider this form of production as necessary or as a part of a process. Raising eyebrows for sure was the group known as Young British Artists, which in the 1990’s has helped to further establish the production that is made of the very personal, disturbing, and intimate objects. This relates to the works Damien Hirst and his A Thousand Years artwork that was made from a decomposing cow’s head, maggots, and flies. Another member of the group Tracey Emin exhibited her own unmade Bed with sweet-stained sheets and personal items such as stained underwear.[3]

The magic of junk and left pieces has motivated creatives since the 20th-centrury to use the abandoned and discarded objects helping them to create and build a brunch inside the contemporary art production that is constantly rising. The variety of pieces across a number of art disciplines, from the traditional painting and sculpture to the installation works and conceptual work, or even jewelry, creates, as mentioned above, an innovative artistic language and notion of beauty. Often rejected by the public but praised by the public museums and art critics, junk art is an important movement that is both playful, imaginative but at the same times a comment on our society and the mass production of ‘ things’ which these artists use and re-use and possibly help to slow down the suffocation of over production.

Editors’ Tip: Art and the Politics of Trash

Praised by many as a book that brings to the surface the politics of our trash and comments on a highly interesting junk art production the book presents the re-use of rubbish within our eco –conscious and globalized society. Focused on telling the different stories hidden inside the abandoned materials, along with the key moments in history and cultural development, the text is an exploration of inspiration trash has on a number of artists and at the same time it explores the hidden context of wealth and trash. “Gillian Whiteley's well-researched contemporary art history is an important and scholarly book on the fresh aesthetics of eco-art. Trash, junk and what we discard are the real markers of our civilization. Whiteley sheds light on the artists who are tackling the growing landscape - the mountains and monuments of trash - of our contemporary culturee.” Holly Crawford, Ph.D., Director AC Institute, NYC


  1. Anonymous, All About Junk Art, iml.jou.ufl.edu, [August 22, 2016]
  2. Anonymous, Junk Art: Definition and Meaning,Encyclopedia of Visual Education, [August 22, 2016]
  3. Anonymous, Found Object,Wikipedia, [April 11, 2016]

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Damien Hirst - A Thousand Years, detail. Image via pictify.saatchigallery.com; Tracey Emin - Bed. Image via christies.com

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