This year we celebrate the 130th birthday of artist and chess aficionado, Marcel Duchamp who was born on July 28, 1887. It’s also the 100th birthday of Duchamp’s infamous readymade sculpture, “Fountain” — a urinal that Duchamp signed and dated with the pseudonym “R Mutt 1917.” Duchamp submitted the work to show in the April 10, 1917 exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists in New York. He also coughed up a $6 entry fee. The piece was rejected and Duchamp rose to champion his readymade works in print and through sometimes haunting photography, but a short time after the exhibition, the sculpture disappeared. Here’s The Daily Beast with more on that mystery…
But at some point after the pissoir-turned-artwork was photographed, the original porcelain Fountain was lost forever.
While many think it was accidentally thrown out shortly after it was created, with Phaidon even suggesting the dirty deed might have been done by Stieglitz himself, an article on the Tate website suggests the piece survived into 1918.
They cite photographs taken that year of a urinal hanging in Duchamp’s studio and suggest that it was disposed of sometime after those images were taken. While Duchamp eventually made eight replicas, it is largely through Stieglitz’s photograph that the piece went the 20th century equivalent of viral.
The loss of Fountain in no way affected its impact on the art world. Duchamp’s invention of readymades was an influential movement that would ultimately inspire the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and many more.
It has also been the subject of more than a little merrymaking by artists. Brian Eno, Pierre Pinoncelli, Kendell Geers, and Chinese performance artists Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi have tried (many successfully) to pee in the reproduced urinals on display over the years. In 2006, artist Pierre Pinoncelli also attempted to attack the Pompidou Center’s Fountain with a hammer.
The original Fountain may be lost, but its memory and legacy very much lives on, as does the spirit of its cheeky creator.
Ahead of the official centennial of the Fountain on April 9, a secret quickly spread through the art world. Several museums around the globe were honoring the artist’s legacy by giving visitors who said the magic words free entry to their collections. All they had to do was approach the front desk and declare that they were “R. Mutt.”
Here’s a great BBC documentary about Dada and Surrealism, including the big splash made by Duchamp and his “Fountain…”