How a Urinal Changed Art History: The Duchamp Fountain

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Mike Bidlo, Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917), 2015 © Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York

On April 9, 1917, the trajectory of art history changed forever. Then Chanry-Robert-Marcel Duchamp perverted the course of the 20th century art scene with one scandalous act.

This article is about how a single urinal revolutionized the status quo in art history.

The most controversial work in the world

Installation view of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917 © James Broad

One day, Duchamp wanted to present a work from the post-war period to the salon of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Duchamp wanted to test their claim that they would accept any work of conceptual art.

On April 9, 1917, he presented them with an inverted urinal, signed and dated “R. Mutt, 1917” with the name “Fountain”. The Board of the Society rejected The Fountain and did not recognize it as a work of art as such. Duchamp, himself a member of this council, resigned in protest.

“Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others” , Leo Tolstoy.

What is a work of art? Who decides: the artist, observer, buyer or the critic? As for the Duchamp exhibition specifically, artists and intellectuals came out on both sides of the debate.

Duchamp has championed the use of readymade art. Ready-mades are already existing objects, taken from their everyday context and rethought by artists through the prism of their work.

Fountain’s influence in the century after its first appearance was great. The work of conceptual art has spawned many descendants and caused much controversy. It is still coated in gossip and mystery. There have been several theories about how Duchamp came up with the work.

In one of his messages, he attributes the work to his girlfriend, who sent him a urinal under the male pseudonym “R. Matt.” But it must be remembered that the first thing Duchamp took the urinal, turned it over, signed “R. Matt” and sent to the salon. The search for truth and accuracy was certainly not his first goal in his process.

Maurizio Cattelan, America, 2016 © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Contemporary artists continue to be inspired by Duchamp’s work. For example, a representative of modern art Mike Bidlo, with his Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917) (2015)is among them. Bidlo’s version is a handcrafted porcelain copy that he then fractured, rebuilt and cast in bronze.

Another artist inspired by Duchamp is Maurizio Cattelan in his piece of toilet called “America 2016” exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The piece of conceptual art caused widespread controversy, as its title denoted the artist’s orchestrated meaning of equating America’s value with that of a golden toilet bowl.

What unites the artists who have poked fun at Duchamp for a century is not only that they recognize the value of the questions he raises, but that they interpret Duchamp’s destructive nature towards the art world as a way forward.

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