Marcel Duchamp - Fountain (1917)

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Fountain is Duchamp’s most notorious ‘readymade’ which he presented for exhibition to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. Despite its ordinary, functional and rather mundane appearance, Fountain has been described as one of the most influential art works of the 20th century.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is an extraordinarily influential French artist who is probably most famous for his ‘Readymades’ – ordinary manufactured objects, which with small additions and reorientations, were presented for exhibition. He also produced, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), between 1915 and 1923 and despite having announced that he had given up art he spent the last twenty years of his life working secretly on an installation titled Etant Donnés, which is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp was also a writer, experimental film maker and chess player.

Fountain is Duchamp’s most notorious Readymade which he presented for exhibition to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. Despite its ordinary, functional and mundane appearance, Fountain has been described as one of the most influential art works of the 20th century. Arturo Schwarz suggests that the creation of a Readymade is more complex than just choosing and signing an everyday object (Schwarz, 2008, p.125). He states that the objects were decontextualized and displaced by changing the angle from which they are viewed and by isolating, divorcing or removing them from their normal surroundings. The addition of a title or renaming is crucial, ‘displacement from the ordinary logical context was achieved by renaming the object, the new title having no obvious relationship to the object as ordinarily understood’, (Schwarz, 2008, p.125). There are a set of manoeuvres that separate and distinguish the everyday object from its art counterpart.

Duchamp purchased the urinal from a plumbing supplier at 118 Fifth Avenue, New York (J.L. Mott Ironwork Company). By turning it on its side and placing it on a pedestal, he altered the viewer’s perception of this familiar manufactured object. With his signature, he undermined traditional notions of craftsmanship and authorship, and distorted conventional rules regarding the value and definition of art. He also challenged the way art galleries and institutions deemed it their prerogative to decide what art was and was not.

Duchamp was a founder and promoter of the newly established Society of Independent Artists. The constitution stipulated that they were bound to accept all members’ submitted artworks, however they made an exception for Fountain, believing it to be indecent and unable to be considered art.

“The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art”
Statement issued by the board of the Society of Independent Artists. 1917.

The board issued a statement defending its position: ‘The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not in an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art’ (Tate, n.d.). The story of Fountain is complicated – it was infamously photographed by Alfred Steiglitz in April 1917, shortly after which it was lost. In 1934 Andre Breton, a leading Surrealist poet, wrote an article about Duchamp, including substantial references to the Readymades and to Fountain.

Fountain gained notoriety as critics argued over its significance and during the 1950s and 60s replicas of the Readymades were made as museums and galleries put together exhibitions and collections of Duchamp’s work.
For example in 1964 Galleria Schwarz reproduced a limited edition of 8 Fountains; working with Duchamp and drawing on Steiglitz’s photograph. These were signed and dated and information including the title, dates of the original and the replica, Duchamp’s signature, the edition number and the publisher, were added to the base. This further fuelled debates concerning uniqueness and authorship which were originally initiated in 1917.

Duchamp suggested that the making of art is a relational event involving the artist and the viewer. He completed his 1957 lecture entitled, The Creative Act with the proposition that, ‘All in all the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in to contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act’, (cited in Sanoiullet and Peterson, 1975, p.138). Duchamp’s critique of the authority of the author aligns with later essays by Roland Barthes (Death of the Author, 1967) and Michel Foucault (What is an Author, 1969). If the viewer’s interpretative response is extended to include production then we can view Fountain as the starting point for a new set of creative responses. Like a game of Chinese whispers Fountain was a creative response to a manufactured urinal, which in turn is the starting point for subsequent appropriations and interventions. Julian Jason Haladyn in his essay On “The Creative Act” discusses how the creative act isn’t finished once the artist has completed the work: ‘For Duchamp, the artist cannot be responsible for what becomes of the artwork – how it may be interpreted or understood, whether it is appreciated or not – once it is sent out into the world, not unlike the idea that a medium such as paint or marble is not responsible for a painting or sculpture produced out of its materials (Haladyn, 2015).

Duchamp purposely wanted to test people’s beliefs about art, choosing a urinal to deliberately stir controversy and outrage, ‘I was drawing people’s attention to the fact that art is a mirage.’ (Tate, n.d.). Fountain still lives as a replicated version and continues to stir debates about “what is art?”

Lucy Howson and Jill Howitt April 2016.
Sanouillet, M. and Peterson, E. (1975) The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Thames and Hudson.

Schwarz, A. (2008) ‘The Philosophy of the Readymade and of its Editions’, in Mundy, J.(ed.) (2008) Duchamp Man Ray Picabia, London, Tate Publishing.
Haladyn, J.J., (2015) On “The Creative Act”, [online] Available at: http://toutfait.com/on-the-creative-act/ [accessed 16th March 2016]
The Tate, (n.d.), Marcel Duchamp, [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573/text-summary [accessed 22nd March 2016]