Duchamp’s Fountain: A Urinal as a Work of Art

Duchamp's Fountain, surrounded by work influenced by it by the artists Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo. Duchamp's Fountain, surrounded by work influenced by it by the artists Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo.

2023 will mark 110 years since Marcel Duchamp changed the world’s perception of art by submitting a signed urinal, entitled Fountain, to the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York. In so doing he questioned what constitutes art through his exciting, absurd, subversive anti-art. And he attacked traditional thinking about artistic processes in an act of artistic rebellion that is still felt throughout the art world today.

Alongside Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp is regarded as one of the great artists who would help to define revolutionary developments in “fine art” in the early 20th century. But, while his revered contemporaries would focus on the content of the art, Duchamp was considerably more conceptual in his approach.

Not only did Marcel Duchamp have a seminal influence on the development of conceptual art, but the French artist has also had an immense impact on 21st-century art. But by the commencement of World War I Duchamp had abandoned the ideals he shared with his contemporaries, and rejected their work as “retinal art” (which he said was only intended to please the eye). Instead, Duchamp had far greater plans. He wanted art to serve the mind, so he delved into Dadaism and the found objects that he would later submit as art; these would come to be known as his “readymades”.

It wasn’t always this way for Duchamp. His early art works aligned most closely with the Post-Impressionist style, as he searched for the approach that would eventually come to define him. Somewhat ironically, in his youth Duchamp was a dedicated follower of the same fashion that he would later come to disregard.

Duchamp cited the work of Symbolist painter Odilon Redon as an early influence. Redon’s approach to art was not outwardly anti-academic, but quietly individual. While Duchamp’s artistic style didn’t follow that of Redon, the Symbolist painter’s anti-establishment approach clearly had an impact on the young Duchamp, and by 1913 his sense of rebellion was clear for all to see.

Marcel Duchamp – Bride.

Marcel Duchamp – Bride. Sold for $80,500 via Christie’s (November 2010).

It was his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 that first provoked Duchampian controversy when it was exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. Americans of the time, more accustomed to depictions of nature in art, were appalled by the modernist style. The New York Times art critic, Julian Street, wrote that the work resembled “an explosion in a shingle factory”. It was even rejected by the Cubists as being “too Futurist”. The uproar made Duchamp an established name in the United States, where his other works from the period, Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train (1911–12) and Bride (1912) have also became highly prized.

In search of his own style, Duchamp would begin a journey in which he would detach himself from retinal art. In fact, he left painting all together and started work as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève where he studied math and physics, before moving to New York.

Going Dada

Marcel Duchamp would eventually find an artistic home among the Dadaists. They “rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality, and intuition” according to Dona Budd’s The Language of Art Knowledge. Born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I (Duchamp avoided the draft owing to a heart murmur) Dadaism laid the groundwork for abstract art and performance art, and provided prelude to Postmodernism.

Duchamp’s rejection of preconceived notions of what constitutes art found a place in Dadaism, and together with his close friends Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, they produced the first Dada magazines in New York in 1917, titled The Blind Man and Rongwrong. It would seem that Duchamp’s fondness for irrational art and his desire to reject reason had begun to take shape years earlier, as the idea of readymades had developed in 1913 when he placed a bicycle fork with a wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool. “I enjoyed looking at it”, he said, “just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace”.

The purpose of these everyday objects was to use them as a tool to question the very notion of what constitutes art and its adoration, which Duchamp described as “unnecessary” in an interview with BBC TV in 1966.

Replica of the 1914 Marcel Duchamp sculpture Bottle Rack, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the 1914 Marcel Duchamp sculpture Bottle Rack, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago (Wikimedia Commons).

The bicycle wheel isn’t considered the first official readymade; instead that accolade goes to Bottle Rack (1914), which is (exactly as you might expect) a bottle-drying rack signed by Duchamp. This was followed by In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), a snow shovel (also referred to as Prelude to a Broken Arm), and five years later Duchamp revealed his famous reproduction of the moustachioed Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q, a title that serves as a multilayered sexually suggestive pun in French).

Urinal as Art

But it was his Fountain readymade that would garner the most attention and controversy. While it wasn’t warmly received by audiences and critics at the time, its influence would steadily grow over the years. By 2004, it was named the most influential modern art work of all time in a poll of 500 art experts, who placed it ahead of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962).

The piece itself followed Dada principles; it rejected the reason and logic behind what constitutes art. It was a standard urinal that was presented on its back for exhibition purposes rather than standing upright, and was signed and dated under the pseudonym R. Mutt, 1917. Its positioning was described in an anonymous Blind Man article so that “its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view,” implying that the urinal’s rotation was linked to Duchamp’s interest in seeing things from a new perspective. Explaining his artistic choices to the BBC, Duchamp said: “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.”

Unlike his previous readymade items though, Fountain differs in that it was signed under the pseudonym R. Mutt. It’s an unusual name, and this would later give rise to suggestion that the work was not actually Duchamp’s. However, despite the suspicion and the name’s comical sound, Duchamp explained the origin of the name and its association to Fountain.

“Mutt comes from Mott Works, the name of a large sanitary equipment manufacturer,” he said. “But Mott was too close so I altered it to Mutt, after the daily cartoon strip ‘Mutt and Jeff’ which appeared at the time, and with which everyone was familiar. Thus, from the start, there was an interplay of Mutt: a fat little funny man, and Jeff: a tall thin man… I wanted any old name. And I added Richard [French slang for money-bags]. That’s not a bad name for a pissotière. Get it? The opposite of poverty. But not even that much, just R. MUTT.”

Fountain was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917. Duchamp chose the salon to exhibit Foundtain because it boasted an unjuried entry process. They claimed they would accept any work of art, as long as the application fee was paid. Duchamp was keen to test the liberal nature of the submission process. His pseudonym helped him do this as he didn’t want to compromise existing relationships with society board members (of which he was one).

Critical reception

Reaction to Duchamp’s submission was decisive. Faced with an apparent practical joke from an anonymous artist, the society’s board shied away behind on on their preconceived notions of art. They rejected Fountain on the grounds that it was not a true work of art. Duchamp immediately resigned from the board in protest after hearing the news that they would effectively be censoring an artist’s work.

Despite the rejection, Fountain garnered considerable attention – the majority of it far from receptive. Seeking to clarify their position and in response to press interest, the society’s board issued a statement defending its decision: “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.”

Duchamp's Fountain, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, featured in Blind Man.

Ducham’s Fountain, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, featured in Blind Man.

Not everyone derided the artwork though. An anonymous editorial in the Blind Man attested. “Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows. Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain 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.” Duchamp later said that he approved of the article, which Beatrice Wood claimed in her 1992 autobiography to have written.

The infamy surrounding the piece made it a sensation, but surprisingly the Fountain itself was nowhere to be seen and the original disappeared from view. Photographs, believed to date from 1918, show Fountain hanging in the doorway of Duchamp’s studio, but its location has remained a mystery ever since. It’s possible that it was even thrown out in 1918 when Duchamp left New York for Buenos Aires!

This casual treatment of a now significant work of art was magnified as Duchamp’s profile in art circles began to rise dramatically throughout the ’50s and ’60s. As a result, Duchamp authorised replicas of Fountain in 1950 and 1963, while a further replica was included in the inaugural displays of Tate Modern, upon the museum’s opening in 2000.

Pseudonymous Mystery

Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 21 June 1917, New York City (Wikimedia Commons)

Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 21 June 1917, New York City (Wikimedia Commons).

Much like the mystery surrounding the origin of the original piece, some mystery also surrounds Duchamp’s use of a pseudonym. “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; it was not at all indecent – no reason for refusing it,” he explained in a letter to his sister Suzanne on 11 April 1917. “The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing. I have handed in my resignation and it will be a bit of gossip of some value in New York.”

Despite the suggestion of a mystery, Duchamp’s reputation remained intact and he spawned a series of admiring imitators. Mike Bidlo’s Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917) (2015) is a handcrafted porcelain copy, which he smashed, re-built, and cast in bronze, while Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (Madonna) (1991) is an accurate bronze cast, which honors the original while also asking questions of gender and whether it matters that a female artist chose to reproduce the work.

In terms of its advancements in conceptual art, Fountain provided the foundation for likeminded artists and styles to bloom, including Andy Warhol and Pop Art, Robert Morris and Minimalism, as well as Sol LeWitt and Conceptualism. Similarly, the popular installation artist Jeff Koons and the found objects of his works from the 1970s have their roots in the found element of Duchamp’s readymades, while Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa opened the door for a new wave of appropriation artists like Penelope Umbrico and Anne Collier.

Commercially, Fountain is as highly prized as it is critically. On 17 November 1999, a version of Fountain was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, for $1,762,500. Similarly, Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (Madonna) in bronze achieved $446,500 for edition 5/6 in November 2008, and by May 2012 edition 2/6 sold for $962,500 at Christie’s New York.

Interviewed in 1964, Duchamp said part of his reason for choosing a urinal was because he thought it had the least chance of being liked, “I was drawing people’s attention to the fact that art is a mirage. A mirage, exactly like an oasis appears in the desert. It is very beautiful until, of course, you are dying of thirst. But you don’t die in the field of art. The mirage is solid.”

Perhaps Fountain’s greatest achievement, though, is redefining and reshaping what art can be. This is an astonishing achievement that very few people throughout history can claim to have done – in any field. Some artists change expectations of a style of painting or sculpture, some artists create a new aesthetic or genre, but Duchamp blew the hinges off what for centuries had been accepted worthy of the label “art”. The doors of perception had been flung open and art would change from that very moment.

Duchamp changed art with Fountain; he was the first person to successfully treat it primarily as a concept rather than an object, making Fountain arguably the most intellectually captivating and revolutionary art pieces of the 20th century.