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Jones Fountain: Summary of a Piece Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain has and continues to inspire a vast quantity of writing, theories, and arguments among audiences and critics who all seek, it seems, to justify the opinions they have already formed of it through after-the-fact rationalization. In itself and in its history it is a remarkable piece - one could say a remarkable object though it has been a multitude of objects, similarly revolving around a fixed set of ideas - it is not difficult to see how it can occupy the attention of so many different people. But why does it occupy our attention so, what is it about this mystifying creation that captures us? Its genesis does not seem to contain the answer, quite the contrary. As Thierry de Duve puts it: Duchamp's most celebrated readymade, perhaps his most celebrated work, is an object that has disappeared, that practically no one has seen, that never stirred up a public scandal, about which the press at the time never spoke, which never figured in the catalogue of the Independents' Show but made it into a discreet Salon des refuses, and whose very existence could be doubted were it not for Steiglitz's photograph. This readymade is known only through its reproduction. <1> When one finally considers what would seem to be Duchamp’s personal motivations for choosing such a piece and reproducing it with his other works, the artist’s intent and common impression of the piece seem to be grossly misaligned. How can a modern artistic work become so well known and continue to be so poorly understood? The answer lays, perhaps, in the power of the readymades to force audiences to come to grips with them on their own terms. No other simple explanation seems to sufficient to explain the process that Fountain underwent during the course of the 20th century. The story of Fountain begins with the 1917 Independents exhibition. This exhibition was put on by the newly formed Society of Independent Artists, a selfproclaimed democratic society for the advancement of the art of its members. Membership
Fountain was voted out of the exhibition by a small margin less than an hour before the it opened on April 9th. Arensberg and the handful of others who may have known about it succeeded in . Despite Duchamp’s claims in a letter to his sister on April 11th. “It is indecent! ” roared Bellows. MUTT and the date. nor did it feature in the catalogue. they went to the J. together with an envelope bearing the fictitious Philadelphia address. Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella. taking out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead. <8> Duchamp.L. both Duchamp and Arensberg immediately resigned. turned it upside down.” gently answered Walter. <2> Though the Independents exhibition was the biggest art exhibition ever to be put on in America. that his resignation would be “gossip of some value in New York” and generate a reasonable amount of press interest. the name R. and the work’s title: Fountain.” Bellows said hotly. the entrance fee has been paid.<6> Hastily assembling a meeting of the board of directors. provides an account of a conversation concerning the urinal between Arensberg and George Bellows: “ We cannot exhibit it. <3> In fact. Immediately. of which only ten were available. very little was publicly known about Fountain. <5> Beatrice Wood. including Duchamp and Arensberg. in the pages of her autobiography. during a conversation between Duchamp. “ We cannot refuse it. Two days before the official opening. <7> In response. “That depends on the point of view. this object was delivered to the Grand Central Palace. and painted on the rim at the lower left. in large black letters. 1917. suppressing a grin.” added Walter.” its most famous piece was never actually exhibited.could be obtained by the payment of “the initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars ” and all such members were to be allowed to showcase their work in the April 1917 exhibition. according to Duchamp. billed as “more than two miles of art. Mott Iron Works and purchased a porcelain urinal of his choosing. <4> Duchamp took it back to his studio. Fountain wasn’t even conceived until shortly before the exhibition.
Mutt’s piece. thanking him for handling the situation so well and going on to say that. I feel so conscious of Duchamp’s brilliancy and originality. Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited. as a reconciliatory gesture on behalf of the society. as well as Fountain’s first public appearance. must have had Duchamp’s approval before its publication. The next month. regardless of the author. apologized and asked him to return to the board of directors. in my judgment. Mr. giving it the appearance of “anything from a Madonna to a Buddha. Duchamp met with Alfred Steiglitz and asked him to photograph it. The very fact that he does not try to force his ideas on others but tries to let them develop truly along their own lines is in essence the guarantee of his real bigness. The urinal was situated and lit such that a veil of shadow fell across it. William Glackens.a magazine that Henri-Pierre Roche. but his absolute sincerity. Even his friend Katherine Drier in a personal letter to Duchamp expressed surprise that he would take the matter so personally and as a director of the Society of Independent Artists. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Mutt’s fountain: - . What were the grounds for refusing Mr. ”<11> The issue also contained the following unsigned editorial that. In preparation for the issue. are found in the second issue of The Blind Man . and Duchamp put together to celebrate the Independents’ opening. Beatrice Wood. The Richard Mutt Case They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit. or at the very least to explain to her the value in R.<10> A hint of the beginning of the magical aura that Fountain would eventually inspire can be found in Drier’s letter to Glackens. would always make me want to listen to what he has to say. as well as my own limitation which cannot immediately follow him. with pleasing results.<11> More interpretations. invited Duchamp to host a joint lecture with Richard Mutt to discuss his Readymades and Mutt’s Fountain.keeping their secret quite well.
<14> It was 1938 when Duchamp first made miniature replicas of urinals to put in his Box. in 1945. reprinting Steiglitz’s photograph and containing an article by Harriet and Sidney Janis called “Marcel Duchamp: Anti-Artist. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges. Seven years later. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. . As for plumbing. ” <16> It is at this point that the critical analysis of Duchamp begins to develop the notions that would eventually decide Fountain’s fate to be considered an example of Dada/Anti-Art and as such merely an historical relic of the artistic course of the 20th century. presumably significantly reducing its distribution and contributing to its coming obscurity. her father warned her that she might go to jail “if such filth went through the mail” and this second issue was hand delivered. a plain piece of plumbing. Some contended it was immoral. Mr. He took an ordinary article of life. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral.1. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows. it was plagiarism. Whether Mr. vulgar. 2. that is absurd. no more than a bath tub is immoral. a collection of miniatures of all his work to that point. owing to Roche and Duchamp not being citizens. <15> It appears that this was perhaps also the first point at which Duchamp publicly took credit for Fountain. creating a furor over his life and work that secured him gallery space for shows around the world in the decades before his death. This anti-art reputation also endeared him to the artists of the late fifties and particularly the sixties. He CHOSE it. <13> After this brief period of minor notoriety. Others. placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object. that is absurd. <12> As Beatrice Wood was the official publisher of The Blind Man. Fountain went essentially unmentioned for approximately thirty years. View ran an issue devoted entirely to Duchamp. Now.
Duchamp signed the urinal “R. a fourth version of Fountain was manufactured by Arturo Schwarz. These duplicates were crafted much . it seems unlikely that Duchamp would find it suitable to authorize reproductions of what would have been little more than a souvenir of American prudishness. ” Clearly Fountain continues to occupy a more significant role in Duchamp’s mind than merely a piece of anti-art. as Duchamp said. Sidney Janis asked for a replica for display in a New York exhibition called “Challenge and Defy. Mutt 1917 ” and gave it back to Janis.For these exhibitions. Duchamp heartily agreed. including Fountain. which Janis did. and in an exhibition of these objects in Pasadena. In 1950. many of which had been lost. Not only was he averse to repeating himself. but both he and the culture had changed. If Fountain had been nothing but a Dada prank. Lacking the same form as the original. I suspect that duplication of the 1917 image and installation were no longer viable options for him in the 1950s.” Unable to find a suitable urinal. <19> The following year. Duchamp asked Janis to look for one in an upcoming trip to Europe. along with a number of other readymades. California later that year. this version was exhibited mounted right side up and lower to the floor where. he signed them. Ulf Linde asked Duchamp’s permission to create a reproduction of Fountain for an exhibition in Stockholm. he began reproducing and authorizing reproductions of his readymades. there were three full-size replicas of Fountain made or authorized by Duchamp during his lifetime. <18> In 1963. “little boys could use it. no corrections were needed for Fountain since it was a legitimately found urinal. The image produced by Steiglitz and Duchamp in 1917 embodied aesthetic and anthropomorphic qualities which were no longer of central importance in the 1950s. Though some corrections were made on the other readymades that Linde had reproduced. purchasing a urinal at a flea market outside of Paris. Camfield puts it well: Whatever Duchamp’s intentions may have been. <17> All in all.
<20> In many ways. particularly his readymades.more professionally than the previous reproductions . Still.drawings and blueprints for each readymade were created and each were signed by Duchamp in approval. reminding us that much sculpture is never unique but rather comes from a cast. He refused to agree with the Pop Art mantra of “liking things ” instead he stressed the aesthetic indifference of his choices. evident in this quote with regard to the readymades “The fact that they are regarded with the same reverence as art probably means that I have failed to solve the problem of trying to do away entirely with art. preferring instead the modern sculpture tradition of a limited edition. in fact nearly every one of the “readymades ” existing today is not an original in the conventional sense. Calvin Tomkins provides a particularly well phrased and revealing quote with regard to the era of Dada in his biography of Duchamp. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste… Another aspect of the “readymade” is its lack of uniqueness… The replica of a “readymade” delivers the same message. Differences do exist. a very different beginning from the machine-made original. . and indeed this fourth Fountain seems to approach the original more closely than any of the others. He was very pleased with the final products. ” <21> He also often said that the goal of his life was to eliminate art. ” <22> Such statements readily explain why the Dadaists had been so eager to have him on their side and why critics in the 1960s were eager to relegate him to the anti-art sphere. in interviews. reinforced the connection between his reproduced readymades and sculpture. particularly in the fact that this replica was literally a handcrafted sculpture. however. he declined offers to mass produce readymades. In a 1961 interview conducted by Pierre Cabanne he said: A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these “readymades ” was never dictated by esthetic delectation. Duchamp. Duchamp encouraged the anti-art perception of his work.
“but it was in the same spirit. he must start from ready-made things like even his own mother and father… As even Fountain in the most simple interpretations can be seen as a bawdy receptacle with feminine qualities for the deposit of a male’s fluids. These views sufficiently interested the usually tacit Duchamp to encourage Linde to publish them.” Duchamp said. it’s still a mixing of two ready-mades.” he said.In later years. Duchamp wanted to make it clear that what he and his friends were doing in New York during those same years was different. Perhaps the most promising interpretation of the meaning of the readymades was put forth by Ulf Linde. much has been surmised by those few who are intimately familiar with his writings and ways of thinking. Let’s say you use a tube of paint. ” What was the difference? “You see. (and to be fair. like Rabelais or Jarry. as shown in their writings at the time. There’s still magic in the idea. Duchamp never seems very far away from the sexual concept of mother and father. So man can never expect to start from scratch. But there are small explanations and even certain general traits we can discuss. In an interview with Katharine Kuh. Even if you mix two vermilions together. Duchamp seemed still to have something rather different in mind. he said The curious thing about the Ready-Made is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition that fully satisfies me. male and female. though he wouldn’t give the secret away so easily. While he never explicitly defined the full meaning of his works. so I’d rather keep it that way than try to be exoteric about it. “They were not just writing books. ” <23> While most viewers saw Fountain as either a Pop Art kind of statement about the beauty in everyday objects. a goal . there must have been more to that interpretation than he later let on ) or as an anti-art gesture. they were fighting the public. You bought it and used it as a ready-made. the dadas were really committed to action. you didn’t make it. And when you’re fighting you rarely manage to laugh at the same time. “It wasn’t Dada. if Duchamp’s friends from the 1917 Independents exhibition and The Blind Man felt the same.
Specifically. but rather for its place in 20th century history as a relic of modern art.” a function in the Bachelor section which “ends the series of bachelor operations” and is described in Duchamp’s notes as being related to the “Sculpture of drops (points)…each drop acting as a point and sent back mirrorically to the high part of the glass to meet the 9 shots ” Those 9 shots are the shots related to the previously mentioned commands from the Draft Pistons in the Bride’s realm. <24> While they go into great detail concerning Duchamp’s Large Glass. Again to quote Camfield’s excellent phrasing and to show the variety of interpretations not mentioned in this paper: At this point we have made our way through interpreters of Fountain who . the ‘product’ would run out the hole which faces the spectator. Fountain is revered not for the manner in which it falls into Duchamp’s astonishingly complex and intricately designed oeuvre. The concept of “mirrorical return” in this passage from the notes was associated by Linde with the 90 degree rotation of Fountain so that “if anybody tried to use it in the normal way. A selection from Camfield’s description will give an impression of the kind of interpretation that so intrigued Duchamp: Finally. or as any variety of new things including a cabalistic occult object. often considered his magnum opus. when asked if he had a reason for aligning the readymades in a certain manner.” adding that it was something to the effect of “readymade talk of what goes on in the Glass. it will very nearly suffice to say that Linde related the function of many of the readymades to the mechanisms and processes that Duchamp details in the Glass.that was never fully realized. he responded “Yes. Interpretations continue to abound that place Fountain as the causal work that moved art from a visual experience to a conceptual one. 1963. Linde associated the urinal with the “splash. and the latter would have to suffer the experience of a ‘mirrorical return. of course.’ ” <25> Duchamp seems to have put this or a similar explanation to use in his gallery arrangements of his readymades. ” <26> Still. at his first solo retrospective exhibition in the Pasadena Art Museum.
It is also clear that the very same “bigness ” that Katherine Drier referred to. contributed to the charismatic mystery of most of his work. historians and art lovers going back to pore over his notes. It also seems to keep putting money in publisher’s pockets. Camfield 30 10.- tremble before the magic of this fetish-like object disdain it as bad art caress its sensuous form reject it as anti-art view it as a revelation of occult knowledge proclaim it as a political manifesto hail it as an ingenious revelation of art as philosophy. Camfield 21 5. and perhaps there is something in the romance of the self-affirming nostalgia of the art relic that gives sustenance to these musings. interviews and works.the hope of finding a new connection. Camfield 25 7. This mystery . Buskirk/Nixon page 117 2. Camfield 32 11 Camfield 35 . Camfield page 19 3. which caused Duchamp to let others develop their own ideas. Camfield 27 8. Perhaps the sheer effort of justification is what causes these objects to become so important. Camfield 29 9. or seeing deeper complexities in his pieces . Tomkins p180 4.seems to keep critics. Camfield 32 11. and find it overflowing with n-dimensional relationships <27> It seems clear that it is the enigmatic nature of Duchamp’s reasoning that causes people to fall all over themselves in justifying such difficult works as the readymades. Tomkins 181 6. Notes 1.
12 Camfield 37-38 13 Camfield 37 14 Camfield 62 15 Camfield 69 16 Camfield 74 17 Camfield 81 18 Camfield 77-78 19 Camfield 89-91 20 Camfield 91-94 21 Camfield 96 22 Camfield 97 23 Tomkins 192-193 24 Camfield 105 25 Camfield 104-106 26 Camfield 109 27 Camfield 140 .
The Duchamp Effect. New York. 1996 . Henry Holt and Company.Bibliography Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon. Marcel Duchamp: Fountain. Duchamp: A Biography. MA 1996 William Camfield. The Menil CollectionHouston Fine Art Press 1989 Calvin Tomkins. Cambridge. MIT Press.
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