Marcel Duchamp, whose birthday it is today (1887), created the most influential piece of art of the 20th century- Fountain (pictured above), signed “R. Mutt,” created when he was 29. It is a urinal and was placed upside down on a pedestal in the middle of an exhibition space in 1917. In a bathroom, it was simply a urinal. In a gallery, why isn’t it art?
Fountain was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in New York, for exhibition. The society was a group of avant-garde artists who wanted artists to be able to exhibit without jurying or prizes. The artists paid a yearly membership fee and a small fee for each exhibition. At the first show in April of 1917, Duchamp submitted Fountain for exhibition. It was denied entry (by a small margin) into the show and Duchamp resigned as a board member of this group (of which he was a founder). Since the piece was signed R. Mutt, the committee did not know it was entered by Duchamp. The irony is that the intention of this group of artists was to break out of the gallery system and traditional way of looking at art and at their very first exhibit it became clear that they weren’t as avant-garde as they thought– that paradoxically the exhibition was indeed not open and that there was, in fact, implicit “jurying” even though they had all made a commitment to not do so. During this first exhibit of the Society of Artists, the Fountain sat behind a screen, effectively censored by the committee. The photograph of the urinal above was taken by Stieglitz and published in the Avant Garde magazine, The Blind Man. The original Fountain was lost soon after. (Duchamp had reproductions made of the Fountain in 1950, 1953, 1963, and a series of eight in 1964.)
There are several stories concerning the origin of the concept of the Fountain. One is that Duchamp, accompanied by the artist Joseph Stella and the art critic Walter Arensberg, literally bought the “Bedfordshire model” from the J.L. Mott Ironworks on Fifth Avenue, brought it to his studio, turned it upside down, put it on a pedestal, and signed it. The other story has Duchamp receiving this as a sculptural gift from an unidentified artist friend. Some art historians claim it could be either the baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (an intriguing Dadaist sound poet) or Louise Norton who wrote about the Fountain in the Blind Man. In her article she said, “Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.” Hence conceptual art was born.
Duchamp said his purpose with the piece was “to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.” Duchamp had made what he called “ready-mades” before, since 1913 in fact, but the Fountain was the first ready-made he attempted to exhibit publically. He had defined a ready-made object as “a work of art without an artist to make it.” Context is everything.
So in commemoration of Duchamp’s birth and his impact on the world of art and how we see the world, we must remember the real message here–to push the envelope, move beyond the expected, take risks, not take anything for granted, not be afraid to be irreverent to tradition, and think outside of the box. These are the secrets to a creative and generative life.