It was 1917, and New York’s hippest art promoters were mounting a new kind of exhibition–
“The idea was that any artist could submit a work of art along with an entry fee, and this work would be shown,” explains Jenny McComas, curator of European and American art at Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art. “There would be no judging, no quality control so to speak.”
They weren’t bargaining on this French prankster coming along.
“Duchamp, I guess, decided to test the limits of the jury free concept,” McComas suggests.
The art world’s original enfant terrible, Marcel Duchamp had just arrived from Paris—
“When Duchamp stepped off the boat in New York in 1915,” McComas elaborates, “he was already a bit of a celebrity.”
For viewers who had no preparation for what they were going to see, it was, you know, a shock!
And that was because, she explains, a painting by Duchamp had been a lightning rod for the indignation fueled by the biggest show of European modernism to hit American shores two years earlier. One critic in The New York Times had decried Duchamp’s cubist tour-de-force Nude Descending a Staircase as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”
“Cubism presented a fundamentally new way of presenting and perceiving the world” McComas asserts. “And it took some getting used to. So, in an artistically conservative country, which is what the US was at the time, for viewers who had no preparation for what they were going to see, it was, you know, a shock!”
But they hadn’t seen the half of it. If visitors to the Armory Show in 1913 had gotten their feathers ruffled by Duchamp’s oil painting, what exactly would they make of his submission to the Society of Independent Artists annual exhibition four years later?
“He submitted Fountain, which is a porcelain urinal which is turned on its back and signed with a pseudonym, R. Mutt,” McComas explains.”
If the Society was really saying that any works of art were going to be accepted for this exhibition, then why not put up a urinal?
“He was interested in kind of pushing the boundaries,” co-curator and graduate assistant Andrew Wang explains. “If the Society was really saying that any works of art were going to be accepted for this exhibition, then why not put up a urinal?”
Modernism’s Ne Plus Ultra
It turns out the all-comers policy had its limits after all. As one of the organizers of the Society of Independent Artists annual exhibition, Duchamp got to observe the selection committee in action, as they evaluated R. Mutt’s submission–
No one knew that Duchamp was actually the mastermind behind this piece,” McComas reminds us. “And of course as you might expect the other directors of the society didn’t know what to make of this. Their immediate reaction of course was that this is not a work of art, it clearly was not made by the artist, and they thought indeed it was not only vulgar but perhaps even immoral. So it was decided that although this was a jury free exhibition, they would have to reject this piece, and they thought they would send it back to Mr. R. Mutt of Philadelphia with a statement to that effect, that ‘We’re sorry, but this is obviously not a work of art so it cannot be in our show.’.
He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view, and created a new thought for that object.
So the work was not actually exhibited. However the rejection of the piece from the exhibition gave rise to a bit of controversy. Before revealing that he was the author of Fountain, Duchamp decided to write up a defense of poor Mr Mutt and this was published in an art journal called The Blind Man. Writing as Marcel Duchamp, he wrote, “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not, 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, and created a new thought for that object.
So here we have the basis for conceptual art, the rejection of the importance of craftsmanship that had really underpinned Western art for hundreds of years. The idea that it’s the artist’s choice and intellectual motivations that take precedence above all.
After Duchamp’s hoax was revealed, it didn’t automatically change the rules of the game. The photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz made a picture of Fountain that was circulated among the cognoscenti, who continued to encourage Duchamp as he anointed a series of industrially made items as his “readymades.”
Factory Made, Artist Anointed
“And it was in 1916 that he coined the term readymade,” says McComas. “This was a term that was in use at that time in the United States to designate a factory produced item to distinguish it from something handmade.”
“This is actually one of my favorite readymades,” suggests Wang, indicating a delicate glass ampule in another case in the exhibition. “That would have been used for holding certain kinds of liquid medication.
Duchamp bought the vial at the drugstore, sealed up the openings, and labeled it.
“Incised on the side,” Wang continues, “you can see it says ’50 cc of Air de Paris.'”
A container of Parisian air. Like the emperor’s new clothes, you have to take his word for it. The object’s contents were literally immaterial; its value emerged in his gesture of calling it art. So he wasn’t too precious about it—
“The original broke and he just asked someone to run down to the local pharmacy and pick up a new one,” Wang recounts, “and he just melted the edged to create a brand new one.”
Along with the glass vial and the urinal, Duchamp designated a snow shovel, a bottle drying rack, a a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool, and eight other commercially produced objects, minimally modified, as art works. But, like L’Air de Paris, the original readymades no longer exist.
“In all of the literature it just says, they were lost,” Wang explains. “There isn’t much of a backstory to a lot of them. And I think it makes sense that they were lost. They could easily be confused with some random object that maybe a janitor just decided to move. You never know.”
Since the original objects themselves were not as important as the idea of them, Duchamp made numerous miniature replicas over the years, which he packaged up in these sorts of traveling salesman’s kits he called “boîtes-en-valise.”
“The readymades weren’t things that he made himself,” Wang explains, “but these [boîtes-en-valises] were things that he made of things that he didn’t make himself but called his own work. That sounds kind of confusing.
Tradition was based on logic and reason, and what logic and reason got the early twentieth century was a lot of war.
Inside the boîtes, among many other reproductions of his works, was a tiny dollhouse-sized urinal, for example, that Duchamp crafted out of ceramic–although the original was mass-produced. Turning the idea of originality, or authenticity, into a lark.
“The readymades are a slap in the face to the art world as an institution,” Wang asserts. “It’s constantly questioning why are things the way they are, and who’s in control of these things?”
In their rejection of traditional artistic values and their embrace of the absurd, Duchamp’s readymades—created during the first world war–can be seen as participating in a broader artistic response to it.
“Tradition,” Wang explains, “was based on logic and reason, and what logic and reason got the early twentieth century was a lot of war. And after witnessing the consequences of these traditional values based off of logic and rationality, the artists reacted, and really tried to move away from tradition altogether.”
Hence the rejection of the values of craftsmanship, and originality. The preeminence of the idea behind the art–as portable as one of Duchamp’s handy attaché cases–that you can fold up and take with you if you’re suddenly displaced.
A New Generation Finds Its Forebear
But it would be decades before the replicas at the Eskenazi Museum were made.
“It wasn’t until 1964 that this larger scale authorized replica edition was produced,” McComas explains. “It was an idea spearheaded by an art dealer in Milan, Arturo Schwarz, who worked with Duchamp.”
They made eight authorized sets in all. The fact that Duchamp had a renaissance in the 60s may not have been accidental–
I haven’t found a single artist post-Duchamp who really operates outside of his sphere of influence.
“The readymade replicas were produced during the era of pop art,” McComas notes, “when the idea of mass-produced objects had again gained currency among artists–if we think of Andy Warhol for example. The idea of replication as well was an important element of pop art. So there’s almost a give and take between Duchamp and the pop artists. Duchamp became the mentor almost after the fact to the Pop artists.”
The pop artists weren’t the only ones paddling in Duchamp’s wake. In the installation Fountain at 100, McComas and Wang have arranged the readymades next to works by Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, and Louise Nevelson, among others, to illustrate Duchamp’s legacy.
“I was first introduced to Duchamp by a professor of contemporary art,” Wang observes, “and he said that we were living in the Age of Duchamp. And it took a really long time for me to understand what that meant but when you really think about it, it’s Duchamp who’s the precursor to conceptual art, and performance and all of these things that we hadn’t really seen before in such provocative types of formats. I haven’t found a single artist post-Duchamp who really operates outside of his sphere of influence.”
IU’s Eskenazi Museum of Art is the only museum in the United States with a complete set of all thirteen readymades reproduced in the 1964 Edition. The readymades—along with works in their artistic lineage–are on view in the installation Fountain at 100, on view in the first floor gallery of Western art through May 7th, 2017.
Fountain At 100
An exhibition commemorating the centennial of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. The show includes Duchamp's other readymades and a number of modern works informed by them, including pieces by Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, and Lucas Samaras.
Indiana University Eskenazi Museum of Art, 1133 East Seventh Street, Bloomington, IN 47405
Through May 7, 2017