Sometimes worn or affixed to garments, the Baroness’s object-sculptures were always resourceful, full of character, and totally absurd. In a letter to artist Sarah Freedman McPherson, Freytag-Loringhoven wrote: “Sarah, if you find a tin can on the street stand by it until a truck runs over it. Then bring it to me.” Her first readymade work was a heavily rusted metal ring, Enduring Ornament (1913), named as a work of art a year before Duchamp created his first readymade, Bottle Rack (1914), though he coined the now-famous term.
The most scandalous theory that surrounds the Baroness is that she is an uncredited collaborator with Duchamp on his famous Fountain
(1917), a urinal signed “R. Mutt” that was first exhibited at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ Salon in New York.
Irene Gammel puts forth a convincing argument of the Baroness’s influence on Duchamp’s artwork in her outstanding 2002 biography Baroness Elsa.
Duchamp must have conspired with others to be able to contribute Fountain
to the salon anonymously, and the Baroness was close friends with him, though he had refused her advances.
A 1917 letter from Marcel to his sister, the painter
, reads: “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. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.” An account from
corroborates that it was a woman who was responsible for bringing a large porcelain urinal on a pedestal to the salon. Stieglitz may have been referring to Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy; even so, she was likely modeled after the Baroness.
The urinal is consistent with the Baroness’s choice of sexual, bawdy, or otherwise “unseemly” subject matter in her other works. Contemporary newspaper accounts reported that Richard Mutt was from Philadelphia, where the Baroness was living in 1917. Although Duchamp stated that he purchased the urinal from J.L. Mott Iron Works, a plumbing store on 5th Avenue, the specific model has never been found in its catalogues from that time period. The sculpture itself disappeared shortly after the exhibition, and the first reproduction of Fountain wasn’t created until 1950, long after the Baroness’s death in 1927.