Friday, April 17, 2009


1917, Porcelain Urinal
Marcel Duchamp
American, born France (1887-1968)

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a uniquely confounding piece. On the one hand, placed in the context of a gallery, Fountain is validated as a work of art; still the piece does not conform to canonical expectations of how a sculpture should look. The work is ostensibly a porcelain urinal – albeit nonfunctioning – turned ninety degrees on its side. The lone conventionally artistic thing the viewer can discern is the artist’s ‘signature.’ In black paint, Duchamp sloppily scrawled R. Mutt, 1917, effectively completing his visual polemic.

The viewer is further perplexed when he or she learns that Duchamp had no hand whatsoever in the physical manufacture of the urinal itself. One afternoon, following a meeting with Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s friend and patron, and Joseph Stella, a fellow artist, Duchamp went to the J.L. Mott Ironworks factory in Manhattan where he selected the piece from the factory’s inventory. Fountain fits into a cadre of equally esoteric, seminal works dubbed by the artist as ‘readymades.’

Duchamp proved his credentials as provocateur well before leaving France for the United States in 1915. In 1912, Duchamp had submitted a painting entitled Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, to the Salon des Independants. The Salon was an un-juried annual exhibition created by artists in response to the conservatism of the French Academy. Needless to say, the work was ill-understood, and energetically derided. A jurist for the show even asked Duchamp’s brothers to suggest to the artist that he voluntarily remove his work. Indignant, Duchamp nonetheless acquiesced, vowing never to paint again. From that point forward, most of Duchamp’s major works were sculptures and installations.

Duchamp is most often associated with the Dada movement in art – a group of artists who condemned the carnage of World War I by producing mostly illogical works of art. Humor was certainly part of the Dada lexicon, and Duchamp was a master of the pun, the absurd and the sardonic. But Duchamp was far more than the jester that he was often seen to be. Instead, the readymades – so called ‘non-art’ – suggest that he was in fact a keen observer of artistic heritage. With this singular work, Duchamp effectively split western art down its axis, heralding the conceptual, while dispatching the retinal. In his art – a fundamentally visual discipline – Duchamp took the radical and revolutionary step of actually discouraging an aesthetic analysis of his work.

Where Duchamp’s original work ended up is a mystery; the ‘sculpture’ on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one in a series of replicas, authorized by the artist in the 1950s. One spectator was so offended by the reproduction that he even urinated into the piece. Before the guards could restrain him, the iconoclast smashed the copy with a hammer. For Pierre Pinoncelli, the vandal, Duchamp was an idol, and when Duchamp sanctioned the reproduction of his sculpture, he was, according to Pinoncelli, essentially merchandising his work of art. Pinoncelli believed that Duchamp had undermined and diluted his essential point: that Fountain was neither beautiful, nor precious. Instead, the piece argued for a novel understanding of the basic tenets of art. Duchamp’s appreciation of the conceptual over the visual had major implications for the rest of modern art. Fountain – and Duchamp’s other readymades – has since enabled the great works of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and more contemporaneously, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, just to name a few.

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