Almost exactly 100 years ago to the day, Marcel Duchamp conceived of a shocking work of art that packed some big ideas into a seemingly simple porcelain package.
The influence of Fountain remains strong today, though the original work disappeared soon after it was conceived.
Before it would go on to leave its imprint on the history of art, Duchamp’s notorious urinal was more than just a provocative piece of art. It was also a test, one that his colleagues in the Society of Independent Artists failed spectacularly.
In 1915, Duchamp and his crew of cubist and modernist painters decamped from Europe to New York, a city that was still in its infancy when it came to the arts.
They were excited to form a community that rejected the elitism and censorship of the art world on the continent and instead embraced democratic and judgement-free ideals.
To this end, they founded the Society of Independent Artists and committed to staging one show a year that would present every piece submitted by its member artists in a forum that was completely neutral—there would be no judges, no prizes, and works of art would be displayed alphabetically according to the artists’ last names.
Ahead of the very first exhibition to be held on April 10, 1917, a piece in The New York Times spelled out the guidelines: The Society of Independent Artists “agree also that there should be one exhibition each year where artists of all schools can exhibit together—certain that whatever they send will be hung and that all will have equal opportunity.” The only requirement was a $6 submission fee.
As preparations for the first exhibition got underway, Duchamp, then 29, had a conversation with collector Walter Arensberg and fellow artist Joseph Stella that inspired his idea to present an ordinary urinal as a piece of art.
This wasn’t the first “readymade” that Duchamp had made. The artist had invented the concept a couple years earlier to describe his process of conscripting ordinary manufactured objects and displaying them as works of art.
His first such piece, Bicycle Wheel, was created in 1913 and involved a bike wheel that was turned over and mounted sticking straight up out of a white wooden stool. In 1915, In Advance of a Broken Arm simply involved a snow shovel that was hung from the studio wall and declared a piece of art by that name.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the readymade as “arguably the century’s most influential development on artists’ creative process.”
For Fountain, Duchamp purchased the subject of his piece from a plumbing supplier, J.L. Mott Iron Works, and arranged it lying on what would be considered its back. To truly test the egalitarian principles of the Society of Independent Artists, he signed what was now its bottom left corner with the inscription “R. Mutt 1917” and submitted it as that fictitious member’s contribution to the inaugural exhibit.
Lest this act be taken as an entirely earnest endeavor, Duchamp was also known for his grand sense of humor.
The name he chose for his artistic nom de plume exemplifies this. After the gig was up, he revealed that the “R” stood for Richard, in reference to a French slang word that meant “moneybags,” and “Mutt” was a play on the name of the company who sold him the bathroom fixture and a reference to the comic strip “Mutt and Jeff.”
As Jerry Saltz noted in the Village Voice, he essentially signed the piece “moneybags piss pot.”
It turns out that even in an organization founded on democratic ideals, censorship was alive and well. R. Mutt’s Fountain was roundly rejected and barred from the show on the grounds of indecency. “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,” read the statement the exhibition’s board issued.
Duchamp had his answer, and he resigned from the society post haste (although his name still appeared as a director in the catalog for the event), boldly declaring that “the only works of art America has given (the world) are her ‘pluming and her bridges.’” His $6 were returned.
In the art journal co-edited by Duchamp, The Blind Man, an anonymous editorial appeared soon after that argued for the value of this piece—and that of all readymades—as works of art. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.”
But the decision was final. When the doors of the Chelsea space opened on April 10, Fountain had been unceremoniously hidden away where it couldn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the visiting New York public.
Duchamp wasn’t done yet, though, and after rescuing it, he decided to commission Alfred Stieglitz, by then a well-known photographer in New York, to photograph the piece.
Stieglitz rather enjoyed the project. On April 23, 1917, he wrote a letter in which he mentioned the work and commented, “The ‘Urinal’ photograph is really quite a wonder–Everyone who has seen it thinks it beautiful–And it’s true–it is. It has an oriental look about it–a cross between a Buddha and a Veiled Woman.”
But at some point after the pissoir-turned-artwork was photographed, the original porcelain Fountain was lost forever.
While many think it was accidentally thrown out shortly after it was created, with Phaidon even suggesting the dirty deed might have been done by Stieglitz himself, an article on the Tate website suggests the piece survived into 1918.
They cite photographs taken that year of a urinal hanging in Duchamp’s studio and suggest that it was disposed of sometime after those images were taken. While Duchamp eventually made eight replicas, it is largely through Stieglitz’s photograph that the piece went the 20th century equivalent of viral.
The loss of Fountain in no way affected its impact on the art world. Duchamp’s invention of readymades was an influential movement that would ultimately inspire the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and many more.
It has also been the subject of more than a little merrymaking by artists. Brian Eno, Pierre Pinoncelli, Kendell Geers, and Chinese performance artists Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi have tried (many successfully) to pee in the reproduced urinals on display over the years. In 2006, artist Pierre Pinoncelli also attempted to attack the Pompidou Center’s Fountain with a hammer.
The original Fountain may be lost, but its memory and legacy very much lives on, as does the spirit of its cheeky creator.
Ahead of the official centennial of the Fountain on April 9, a secret quickly spread through the art world. Several museums around the globe were honoring the artist’s legacy by giving visitors who said the magic words free entry to their collections. All they had to do was approach the front desk and declare that they were “R. Mutt.”