How Duchamp’s Urinal Changed Art Forever

Jon Mann
May 9, 2017 8:08PM

On April 9th, 1917, just over 100 years ago, Marcel Duchamp achieved what was perhaps the most brilliant and absurd art event of the 20th century.

The story is legend. Duchamp, wanting to submit an artwork to the “unjuried” Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York—which claimed that they would accept any work of art, so long as the artist paid the application fee—presented an upside-down urinal signed and dated with the appellation “R. Mutt, 1917,” and titled Fountain.  

The Society’s board, faced with what must have seemed like a practical joke from an anonymous artist, rejected Fountain on the grounds that it was not a true work of art. Duchamp, who was a member of that board himself, resigned in protest.

Is it really art?

Artists and intellectuals surfaced on both sides of the issue, with perhaps the clearest explanation of Fountain’s importance coming from an anonymous editorial believed to be written by the artist Beatrice Wood.

It read: “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—created a new thought for that object.”  Wood, who had followed Duchamp’s work closely, recognized the groundbreaking power of the work.

Alfred Stieglitz photograph of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1917. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


And Duchamp had for years championed the use of “readymades”—existing objects taken from real life and modified or re-contextualized to function as works of art. The idea at hand, of art primarily as a concept rather than an object, is what would make Fountain arguably the most intellectually captivating and challenging art piece of the 20th century.

What is a work of art? Who gets to decide, the artist or the critic? Can a work derive from an idea alone, or does it require the hand of a maker? These questions strike at the core of our understanding of art itself.

The influence of Fountain

Over the past century, Duchamp’s Fountain has spawned myriad offspring and fueled numerous debates: How was the work conceived? What did the artist intend?

Installation view of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1917. Photo by James Broad, via Flickr.

There are even theories about whether Duchamp came up with the work at all—one account has him attributing the work to a female friend who sent him the urinal under the male pseudonym “R. Mutt,” which he then signed on it. Similarly, his famous quip that the only works of art America had contributed to the world were “her plumbing and her bridges” has been tentatively restored to its true author: our erstwhile Duchamp defender Beatrice Wood.

But to try and establish the true authorship of the Fountain is exactly the kind of quixotic undertaking that would have had Duchamp in stitches. Let’s take a moment to recall that Monsieur Duchamp took a urinal, turned it upside down, signed it “R. Mutt,” and submitted it to a salon; the pursuit of truth was decidedly not his quest.

Rather, the unanswered questions that Fountain provoked are precisely what contributed to its conceptual underpinnings and its enduring (and confounding) legacy.

Contemporary artists riff on Duchamp

Among the contemporary artists that have explored these questions by riffing on Duchamp’s work is Mike Bidlo, with his Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917) (2015). Made as an edition of eight works that directly reference Duchamp’s “original,” the work provides a perfect example of the way in which Duchamp exploded everything that came before.

Bidlo’s version is a lovingly handcrafted porcelain copy that he then smashed, reconstituted, and cast in bronze.

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

One recalls the cracks allowed in classic celadon pottery that were believed to enhance its aesthetic value, or the Roman practice of making marble copies of beautiful Greek bronzes that were slated to be melted down to make weaponry to further the Empire—but here, both function in reverse. Bidlo’s work follows Duchamp in depriving his object of both beauty and utility, furthering his challenges to artistic value.

Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (Madonna) (1991), a bronze cast after Fountain, preserves more of the original while pushing its questions of authorship further: To what extent does it matter that a male artist “chose” the work in 1917? To what extent does it matter that a female artist chose to reproduce the work in bronze in 1991?

What unites the artists that have riffed on Duchamp across the century is not only that they recognize the value of the questions it raises, but also that they move forward with the sort of ingenuity and wit that Duchamp’s legacy demands.

Where is Duchamp’s original?

Baroness Von Freytag. Photo by Bain News Service from the United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Claude McKay, 1922. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

That doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t revel in the Unsolved Mysteries-like scenario of Fountain’s mysterious disappearance: To this day, no one knows what became of the “original.” We only have 17 copies that Duchamp created in the 1960s.  Perhaps it was indeed one of his provocative female friends—the names Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Louise Norton have been suggested—who came up with the whole urinal idea in the first place. The nebulous origins of the Fountain only add to its many layers and complexities.

If the genesis and meaning of Fountain remain elusive, it has provided countless artists with something of a starting pistol for the idea of art-as-concept in the 20th century, underscoring the fact that the definition of art itself is up for grabs.

Jon Mann