Recycled Art: History & Materials

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Art can be made out of many things, including discarded materials and trash. In this lesson, explore the history of recycled art and learn how some artists make new work from old stuff.

What Is Recycled Art?

We all have trash. Think of everything you do during the day that generates empty boxes, bottles, plastic wrap and other things you throw away. But did you know you can use such stuff to make art?

Recycled art is creative work that's made from discarded materials that once had another purpose. This includes anything from old plastic toys and vehicle tires to scraps of cloth and building supplies. Artists who make recycled art take those materials and make them into something new. You might sometimes see it called 'junk art,' but that term is a bit limiting. Something that is being recycled isn't necessarily junk.

Bicycle sculpture made from tin cans and sheet metal
sculpture made from tin cans

At its heart, recycled art is about repurposing and reusing materials. There's no limit to what kinds of materials can be used. Recycled art can be large or small. It can be two dimensional or three dimensional.

But what's the history of recycled art?

History of Recycled Art

The idea of reusing old materials to make art isn't new. Early American settlers used bits of fabric from flour sacks and old clothing to make patchwork quilts. During World War I, soldiers in the trenches sometimes took spent artillery shells and carved images on them to make artwork. In both cases, people used available scraps from objects that had served another purpose to create new, original works of art.

Examples of trench art from World War I
Trench art from World War I

Recycled Art: Early 20th Century

The early 20th century was pivotal in the development of recycled art. Around 1912, artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) invented a process called collage, where he pasted together bits of paper, photos, newsprints and small objects to form a new image. Picasso also made sculptures from bits of wood and other scavenged materials.

A few years later, artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) used found objects to create art. Found objects are objects made for other purposes that find their way into art. Duchamp was part of an art movement called Dada that emerged in reaction to the horrors of World War I. Dada confronted the viewer's expectations and challenged ideas about art. Duchamp used bicycle tires, wooden furniture and even a ceramic urinal from a bathroom in his sculptures. Sometimes he merged them together, but in the case of the urinal, he signed a name to it and exhibited it as it was. He chose mass-produced objects, things recognizable and available to everyone. His idea? That art could be deemed 'Art' by the artist's will. It didn't have to be an elaborate oil painting or a sculpture carved from marble.

Marcel Duchamp, artwork made from a ceramic urinal
Duchamp fountain

Recycled Art: 20th and 21st Centuries

In the 1950s and 1960s, artists such as Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) created large artworks that gained the term assemblages because they incorporated found objects like tires, street signs and taxidermy animals and juxtaposed them with painted surfaces and bold slashes of color. Rauschenberg called his works combines to describe the combination of objects and materials in unexpected ways. Into the 1970s and 1980s, American sculptor John Chamberlain ( 1927-2011) used twisted automobile parts to make towering sculptures. He called the materials he worked with 'junk' but transformed them into colorful, bold artwork.

Today, many artists work in a manner that could be called recycled art. For example, German artist Isa Genzken (1948- ) uses a wide variety of industrial materials, including cast concrete panels and steel sheets, as well as objects like slot machines, photographs, doll parts and mannequins. From them she creates large artworks, some of which take up entire rooms.

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