Saturday, April 2, 2011

All This Means Nothing

Fountain is a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp. It is one of the pieces which he called readymades (also known as found art), because he made use of an already existing object—in this case a urinal, which he titled Fountain and signed "R. Mutt". The art show to which Duchamp submitted the piece stated that all works would be accepted, but Fountain was not actually displayed, and the original has been lost. The work is regarded by some as a major landmark in 20th century art. Replicas commissioned by Duchamp in the 1960s are now on display in a number of different museums.

Marcel Duchamp arrived in the United States less than two years prior to the creation of Fountain and had become involved with Dada, an anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement, in New York City. 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 and submitted the piece under the name R. Mutt, presumably to hide his involvement with the piece, to their 1917 exhibition, which, it had been proclaimed, would exhibit all work submitted. 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 and Arensberg resigned from the board after the exhibition.

The New York Dadaists stirred controversy about Fountain and its being hidden from view 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 made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – creating a new thought for that object."

Duchamp described his intent with the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.

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 meaning (if any) and intention of both the piece and the signature "R. Mutt", are difficult to pin down precisely. Later in his life Duchamp himself commented on the name of the alter ego he created for this work: "'Mutt' comes from Mott Works, the name of a large sanitary equipment manufacturer. But Mott was too close so I altered it to Mutt, after the daily cartoon strip Mutt and Jeff. But not even that much, just R. MUTT." If we separate the capital and lowercase letters we get "R.M" and "utt", "R.M" would stand for "Readymade" which is the fountain itself and "utt" when read out loud sounds like "eut été" in French (much like Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.).  Together it means "Readymade once was, 1917". Word games like this are common in Marcel Duchamp's work. Also, in German, Armut means poverty, although Duchamp said the R stood for Richard, which was French slang for "moneybags", which could translate the work to mean "moneybags piss pot," a kind of scatological golden calf.

In December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals. 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".

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