Fountain is a readymade sculpture produced by Marcel Duchamp in 1917: a porcelain urinal signed "R.Mutt" and titled Fountain. In April 1917, an ordinary piece of plumbing chosen by Duchamp was rotated 90 degrees on its axis and submitted for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, the first annual exhibition by the Society to be staged at The Grand Central Palace in New York. Fountain was not rejected by the committee but it was removed from the show area, since Society rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee. Following that removal, Fountain was photographed at Alfred Stieglitz's studio, and the photo published in The Blind Man. The original has been lost.
The work is regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde as a major landmark in 20th-century art. Sixteen replicas were commissioned by Duchamp in the 1950s and 1960s and made to his approval. Some scholars have suggested that the original work was by a female artist rather than Duchamp, but this is a minority view among historians.
Marcel Duchamp arrived in the United States less than two years prior to the creation of Fountain and had become involved with Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Beatrice Wood amongst others in the creation of an anti-rational, anti-art, proto-Dada cultural movement in New York City. According to one version, the creation of Fountain began when, accompanied by artist Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg, he purchased a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue. The artist brought the urinal to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, reoriented it to a position 90 degrees from its normal position of use, and wrote on it, "R. Mutt 1917".
At the time Duchamp was a board member of the Society of Independent Artists. After much debate by the board members (most of whom did not know Duchamp had submitted it) about whether the piece was or was not art, Fountain was hidden from view during the show. Duchamp resigned from the Board in protest. "Fountain", wrote the committee, "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." For this reason the work was "suppressed" (Duchamp's expression).
The New York Dadaists stirred controversy about Fountain and its being rejected in the second issue of The Blind Man which included a photo of the piece and a letter by Alfred Stieglitz, and writings by Beatrice Wood and Arensberg. The anonymous editorial (which is assumed to be written by Wood) accompanying the photograph, entitled "The Richard Mutt Case", made a claim that would prove to be important concerning certain works of art that would come after it:
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, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
In defense of the work being art, Wood also wrote, "The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges." Duchamp described his intent with the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.
In 1918, Mercure de France published an article attributed to Guillaume Apollinaire stating Fountain, originally titled "le Bouddha de la salle de bain" (Buddha of the bathroom), represented a sitting Buddha. The motive invoked for it's refusal at the Independents were that the entry was (1) immoral and vulgar, (2) it was plagiarism, a commercial piece of plumbing. R. Mutt responded, according to Apollinaire, that the work was not immoral since similar pieces could be seen every day exposed in plumbing and bath supply stores. On the second point, R. Mutt pointed out that the fact Fountain was not made by the hand of the artist was unimportant. The importance was in the choice made by the artist. The artist chose an object of every-day life, erased it's usual significance by giving it a new title, and from this point of view, gave a new purely esthetic meaning to the object.
Menno Hubregtse argues that Duchamp may have chosen Fountain as a readymade because it parodied Robert J. Coady's exaltation of industrial machines as pure forms of American art. Coady, who championed his call for American art in his publication The Soil, printed a scathing review of Jean Crotti's Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (Sculpture Made to Measure) in the December 1916 issue. Hubregtse notes that Duchamp's urinal may have been a clever response to Coady's comparison of Crotti's sculpture with "the absolute expression of a—plumber."
Some have contested that Duchamp created Fountain, but rather assisted in submitting the piece to the Society of Independent Artists for a female friend. In a letter dated 11 April 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne: "Une de mes amies sous un pseudonyme masculin, Richard Mutt, avait envoyé une pissotière en porcelaine comme sculpture" ("One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.") Duchamp never identified his female friend, but three candidates have been proposed: an early appearance of Duchamp's female alter ego Rrose Sélavy; the Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven; or Louise Norton (a Dada poet later married to the avant-garde French composer Edgard Varèse), who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain, and whose address is partially discernible on the paper entry ticket in the Stieglitz photograph. However, the fact that Duchamp wrote 'sent' not 'made', does not indicate that someone else created the work. Furthermore, there is no documentary or testimonial evidence that suggests von Freytag created Fountain.
Shortly after its initial exhibition, Fountain was lost. According to Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins, the best guess is that it was thrown out as rubbish by Stieglitz, a common fate of Duchamp's early readymades.
The reaction engendered by Fountain continued for weeks following the exhibition submission. An article was published in Boston on 25 April 1917:
A Philadelphian, Richard Mutt, member of the society, and not related to our friend of the "Mutt and Jeff" cartoons, submitted a bathroom fixture as a "work of art." The official record of the episode of its removal says:
"Richard Mutt threatens to sue the directors because they removed the bathroom fixture, mounted on a pedestal, which he submitted as a 'work of art.' Some of the directors wanted it to remain, in view of the society's ruling of 'no jury' to decide on the merits of the 2500 paintings and sculptures submitted. Other directors maintained that it was indecent at a meeting and the majority voted it down. As a result of this Marcel Duchamp retired from the Board. Mr. Mutt now wants more than his dues returned. He wants damages."
The first reproduction of Fountain was authorized by Duchamp in 1950 for an exhibition in New York; two more individual pieces followed in 1953 and 1963, and then an artist's multiple was manufactured in an edition of eight in 1964. These editions ended up in a number of important public collections; Indiana University Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Canada, Centre Georges Pompidou and Tate Modern. The edition of eight was manufactured from glazed earthenware painted to resemble the original porcelain, with a signature reproduced in black paint.
Of all the artworks in this series of readymades, Fountain is perhaps the best known because the symbolic meaning of the toilet takes the conceptual challenge posed by the readymades to their most visceral extreme. Similarly, philosopher Stephen Hicks argued that Duchamp, who was quite familiar with the history of European art, was obviously making a provocative statement with Fountain:
- The artist is a not great creator—Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object—it was mass-produced in a factory. The experience of art is not exciting and ennobling—at best it is puzzling and mostly leaves one with a sense of distaste. But over and above that, Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: Art is something you piss on.
Since the photograph taken by Stieglitz is the only image of the original sculpture, there are some interpretations of Fountain by looking not only at reproductions but this particular photograph. Tomkins notes that "it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal's gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance madonna or a seated Buddha or, perhaps more to the point, one of Brâncuși's polished erotic forms."
The meaning (if any) and intention of both the piece and the signature "R. Mutt", are difficult to pin down precisely. It is not clear whether Duchamp had in mind the German "Armut" (meaning "poverty"), or possibly "Urmutter" (meaning “great mother”). The name R. Mutt could also be a play on its commercial origins or on the famous comic strip of the time, Mutt and Jeff (making the urinal perhaps the first work of art based on a comic). In German, Armut means poverty, although Duchamp said the R stood for Richard, French slang for "moneybags", which makes Fountain a kind of scatological golden calf.
Rhonda Roland Shearer in the online journal Tout-Fait (2000) suspects that the Stieglitz photograph is a composite of different photos, while other scholars such as William Camfield have never been able to match the urinal shown in the photo to any urinals found in the catalogues of the time period.
During the 1950s and 1960s, as Fountain and other readymades were rediscovered, Duchamp became a cultural icon in the world of art, exemplified by a "deluge of publications", as Camfield noted, "an unparalleled example of timing in which the burgeoning interest in Duchamp coincided with exhilarating developments in avant-garde art, virtually all of which exhibited links of some sort to Duchamp." His art was transformed from "a minor, aberrant phenomenon in the history of modern art to the most dynamic force in contemporary art."
In December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals. Second place was afforded to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and third to Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych (1962). The Independent noted in a February 2008 article that with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and "severed forever the traditional link between the artist's labour and the merit of the work".
Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to "de-deify" the artist. The readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. They represent a Copernican shift in art. Fountain is what's called an "acheropoietoi," [sic] an image not shaped by the hands of an artist. Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger.
The prices for replicas, editions, or works that have some ephemeral trace of Duchamp reached its peak with the purchase of one of the eight 1964 replicas of Fountain for $1.7 million at Sotheby's in November 1999.
Several performance artists have attempted to "contribute" to the piece by urinating in it. South African born artist Kendell Geers rose to international notoriety in 1993 when, at a show in Venice, he urinated into Fountain. Artist / musician Brian Eno declared successfully urinating in Fountain while exhibited in the MoMA in 1993. He admitted that it was only a technical triumph because he needed to urinate in a tube in advance so he could get the fluid through a gap between the protective glass. Swedish artist Björn Kjelltoft urinated in Fountain at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999.
In spring 2000, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, two performance artists, who in 1999 had jumped on Tracey Emin's installation-sculpture My Bed in the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, went to the newly opened Tate Modern and tried to urinate on the Fountain which was on display. However, they were prevented from soiling the sculpture directly by its Perspex case. The Tate, which denied that the duo had succeeded in urinating into the sculpture itself, banned them from the premises stating that they were threatening "works of art and our staff." When asked why they felt they had to add to Duchamp's work, Chai said, "The urinal is there – it's an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it's the artist's choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it."
On January 4, 2006, while on display in the Dada show in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Fountain was attacked by Pierre Pinoncelli, a 76-year-old  French performance artist, with a hammer causing a slight chip. Pinoncelli, who was arrested, said the attack was a work of performance art that Marcel Duchamp himself would have appreciated. In 1993 Pinoncelli urinated into the piece while it was on display in Nimes, in southern France. Both of Pinoncelli's performances derive from neo-Dadaists' and Viennese Actionists' intervention or manoeuvre.
From the 1950s, Duchamp's influence on American artists had grown exponentially. Life magazine referred to him as "perhaps the world's most eminent Dadaist", Dada's "spiritual leader", "Dada's Daddy" in a lengthy article published 28 April 1952. By the mid-50s his readymades were present in permanent collections of American museums.
In 1961, Duchamp wrote a letter to fellow Dadaist Hans Richter in which he supposedly said:
This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered the ready-mades I sought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them, I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.
Richter, however, years later claimed those words were not by Duchamp. Richter had sent Duchamp this paragraph for comment, writing: "You threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their face…," etc. Duchamp simply wrote: "Ok, ça va très bien" ("Ok, that works very well") in the margins.
Contrary to Richter's quote, Duchamp wrote favorably of Pop art in 1964, though indifferent to the humor or materials of Pop artists:
Pop Art is a return to "conceptual" painting, virtually abandoned, except by the Surrealists, since Courbet, in favor of retinal painting… If you take a Campbell soup can and repeat it 50 times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell soup cans on a canvas.
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