FLA -- Writing history is a matter of exclusion. It requires a selection
from all the facts, narratives and other information which possibly
relate to a subject to build a coherent picture of that subject.
Anything which conflicts with this process is excluded from the
history produced. This action is thought to be necessary since it
is a form of simplification whose goal is, ultimately, to produce
an explanation of some past "event," even if this "event" is nothing
more than a chronology. However, in researching a subject like Marcel
Duchamp's now infamous Fountain (1917), it quickly becomes obvious
that there are many different narratives presenting different sets
of facts about the same "event." In writing about Fountain, historians
have selected one or another of these versions and presented it
as The History of Fountain, sometimes mentioning that there are
other versions of the facts, sometimes not. The most compelling
of this histories is by William Camfield. His research, however,
suggests that other versions are as potentially correct as the one
he proposes. By excluding conflicting versions of the story the
result is apparent knowledge about the facts of when and where it
was exhibited; who made it; why. Since all of the "facts" in the
Richard Mutt case are questionable, it seems reasonable to suppose
that there are equally plausible alternative versions of the same
event. This paper will examine the problem of creating a history
of Fountain through an examination of the validity of the different
versions of the facts about Fountain.
Fountain is a men's urinal
turned so that the surface mounted on the wall becomes its base,
and belongs to a broad category of objects called "ready-mades"
which Marcel Duchamp created in New York during the 1910s and '20s.
He divides them into smaller categories based on the degree of alteration
applied to them. It is well-known that Duchamp claimed to select
these objects based on his not having an aesthetic reaction to them;
for him these objects lack aesthetic qualities: this was the sole
criterion he admits for their selection. Fountain likely belongs
to the "ready-made-aided." These are objects to which Duchamp has
made an alteration: to Pharmacy (1914) he has added two small spots
of color at the horizon; the "snow shovel" (In Advance of the Broken
Arm, 1915) and Comb (for dogs) (3 or 4 Drops of Height Have Nothing
to do with Savagery, 1916) both have inscriptions. Fountain belongs
in this grouping both because of the added inscription "R. Mutt
1917" and because of its shifted arrangement (turned sideways).
"R. Mutt" or "Richard Mutt" is believed to be a pseudonym of Marcel
Duchamp  composed out of an association with the Mutt and Jeff
cartoons. Apparently there was no actual R. Mutt.
Today we know Fountain
exclusively through reproduction and the various stories told about
it. Starting with the Box in a Valise, (1934) Duchamp presented
Fountain in conjunction with his other work. The original Fountain
is missing, often listed simply as "Lost." If we believe Charles
Prendergast's account of Fountain, it was broken by William Glackens
as a solution to the question of exhibiting it or not. If this were
the accepted account of Fountain's fate, then it would not be listed
as "Lost" but as "Destroyed." However, this account has several
problems, the first being that Alfred Stieglitz is supposed to have
photographed it after it was rejected by the Executive Committee
of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 where it was submitted
for exhibition. The photograph does exist, and Fountain is clearly
not broken. [It is possible that it was broken, and a replacement
simply purchased and photographed by Stieglitz; this possibility,
however, has problems in relation to other versions of these events,
and is not something ever mentioned by anyone involved. Even
though it reconciles one discrepancy, it creates more problems than
solutions.] In fairness to this version of the story, since Stieglitz
does not list the photograph in his ledger, we cannot know when
it was made.
In 1917 Duchamp had been
in New York for a year, part of a small circle of artists, centered
around Walter Arensberg and involved with a "movement" which would
come to be called "New York Dada." It is from the context of
the period just before the formal inauguration of "New York Dada"
and the Machine Aesthetic that the ready-mades first appear in force.
Duchamp, Picabia and Apollinaire created the Machine Aesthetic in
response to the dominant trends in art just before WWI broke out
in Europe. It was an anti-traditional approach to the subject matter
of art. Duchamp is responsible for its invention with Coffee Grinder
(1911), done as a decoration for his brother's kitchen. The Machine
Aesthetic placed specific emphasis on the industrially produced,
rather than on the singular object d'art produced by an artist.
With his arrival in New York, this different view of industrial
culture coupled with his interest in linguistic play -- puns, palindromes,
etc. -- developed into "New York Dada." Unlike its better known
European counterparts, "New York Dada" was not a theatrical, performative
movement, but rather a series of intellectual games and gestures
not done for the general public (as in Paris, Berlin and Zurich)
but for a very limited group centered around Walter Arensberg, and
of which Marcel Duchamp was a prominent member.
The Society of Independent
Artists developed out of two decades of collaborations between artists
whose work had difficulty being exhibited in New York. (This same
group was responsible for the infamous Armory Show in 1913 which
made Duchamp famous for his Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912.)
The 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition was to be a show
with "No juries; no awards." Arensberg and his circle  were
intimately involved with the creation of the group; Duchamp was
originally the director of the installation of the show, and was
responsible for the by-law which dictated that the show would be
installed alphabetically, with the first letter selected by lottery,
the rest following normally. This kind of ordering is typical
of Duchamp's interests in chance and his objections to virtuosity.
The results, while apparently democratic, very clearly present a
"New York Dada" temperament for confusion and arbitrariness: a show
hung in such a matter would be confusing for the audience since
there would be no obvious system for the arrangement of the works,
and sharp contrasts would inevitably arise between the works themselves
Fountain does not appear
in either of the Illustrated Catalogs12 (there were two, the first
just listing the works, and a second, more comprehensive catalog
that included photographs) nor is it listed in the Supplement13
to the show which listed additional works which arrived too late
for inclusion in the catalog. We know Duchamp was the original Chairman
of the Hanging Committee, resigning shortly before the exhibit opened.
However, only the first -- briefest catalog -- lists him as the
Chairman, the Illustrated Catalog and Supplement list his replacement
-- Rockwell Kent.14 This means that these catalogs were not printed
until after Duchamp had resigned because otherwise they would not
reflect the change in directors. We have been apocryphally told
that Fountain did not appear in these catalogs because it was presented
for the exhibit too late to be included; if that were the case,
then why is it not in the Supplement which lists those works that
arrived too late for inclusion in the catalogs? Why, too, is Duchamp
not listed as the director? He resigned as the show was being hung.
The answer is evident: Fountain, if it was to have been included
in the Catalogs at all, was removed following Duchamp's resignation
at the same time as the revisions were made to the catalogs. Fountain's
absence from them is not likely to be a mistake.
The first issue of The
Blind Man appeared on the same day as the exhibition opened;
the second (and final) issue appeared about a month later. It is
this second issue which presents Fountain to the world, and reproduces
the Stieglitz photograph. (The Stieglitz photograph was commissioned
as an illustration for it.) There are three texts written to accompany
the photograph. These texts include a news-like account of its rejection,
a critical examination of Fountain's aesthetic properties titled
"Buddha of the Bathroom" by Louise Norton, and a prose poem written
in praise of Fountain. It was this issue (and an accompanying letter,
now lost) that provided the basis for a discussion of Fountain by
Apollinaire (1918) where he states it was exhibited.[16 ] This is
a very strange error given the nature of the texts in The Blind
Man. They are explicitly clear that Fountain was not exhibited.
However, there is a possible source of the Apollinaire's error:
the missing letter which we can assume accompanied this magazine,
but have we no direct evidence for its existence; William Camfield,
in researching his authoritative book, Fountain, discovered that
there is a good possibility it was exhibited in Stieglitz's 291
Gallery for a few days during the 1917 show. (this exhibition
may have happened as a result of his photographing it). If that
exhibition did happen, and Apollinaire was told about it, this would
explain his "error" in saying it was exhibited. The mistake
was in where it was exhibited, rather than in saying there was an
exhibition. The problem with this explanation is the same as with
Stieglitz's photograph: there is no evidence it occurred. The only
evidence we have of its presence in Stieglitz's 291 Gallery is a
letter he wrote to the critic Henry McBride stating (a) he had photographed
it and (b) that he still had it in his studio; this is not, however,
the same as exhibiting it. The only place where Fountain would
have been generally visible, then, is Duchamp's own studio. It was
never shown outside the storage closet at the 1917 Society exhibition,
and may not have had any better treatment in Stieglitz's studio.
Even if Fountain was
never "exhibited" anywhere except Duchamp's studio in 1917,
all the stories agree on two points: why it was entered in the Society
Exhibit and rejected from that exhibition. They present two arguments.
The first, based on 'decency' comes to us through Beatrice Wood:
we are told that George Bellows argued it was a gross, indecent
object which should not be exhibited due to its base association
with bathrooms and excreta. Because it was a functional object
(even though rendered non-functional through its placement) it still
carried the connection to other toilets, and thus was not deserving
of the status of Art. The second argument was based on authorship
and comes to us through a variety of sources, including Katherine
Drier; because it was what is now called a "found object," and
thus was not physically made by the artist, the exhibition of it
as an original artwork was unacceptable. Both of these arguments
are generally presented as the reasons that the work was not exhibited
in the 1917 show. Each argument has as its conclusion that Fountain
is not an artwork; thus not exhibitable. The debates which have
developed around it center on this aspect of the discussion, using
it as the means to discuss the identity and nature of art, and the
ways in which we identify artworks. Because Fountain is a urinal,
installing it in an art gallery transforms that gallery into a lavatory
at the same time as the urinal is elevated out of the lavatory to
become a sculpture. This is the problem it presents vis-à-vis discussion
of artworks -- what constitutes the 'art': is it the artist making
the work, the context under which we view the object, or some combination
of both with other, yet-to-be identified, qualities?
The 1917 exhibition from
which Fountain was rejected claimed that there was "no jury; no
awards." Thus any artist paying the fees (membership dues + exhibition
fee) could exhibit an artwork. All of the stories about Fountain
begin with this fact about the Society of Independent Artists. They
then continue: Marcel Duchamp, to test the impartiality of the committee
presented Fountain under the assumed name of R(ichard) Mutt. Why
under an assumed name? Duchamp was a member of the Board of Directors,
he was the director for the exhibition in question; if he had done
it under his own name, it would not have been a test at all. This
requires Duchamp and his work with ready-mades to be essentially
unknown. Hence, the underlying assumption to this element of the
story is that his fellow directors would not have been aware of
Duchamp's other ready-mades, nor of what would be "New York Dada,"
nor its provocative interests. If they were aware of his ready-mades,
they would almost by necessity assume that Duchamp was the author
of Fountain (based on past experience with his other ready-mades).
Clark Marlor reproduces a letter from 1937 which suggests that
the board not only was aware of Duchamp's work, but had shown their
own works in an exhibition with his ready-mades a year prior to
the 1917 exhibition. This is also confirmed by Katherine Drier's
letter to William Glackens reproduced by Camfield. If they had
exhibited with his ready-mades before, they would know Duchamp was
the likely source for Fountain. They knew about Duchamp and his
work; it is also likely they recognized what Duchamp was doing with
Fountain, knowing him as they must have from working with him
on the exhibition.
Such knowledge is further
suggested by an off-hand comment Man Ray makes about his first visit
to the Arensberg circle: "We were invited to an evening at his [Walter
Arensberg's] duplex filled with his collection of moderns. There
was a mixed crowd; Picabia from France, various women and Duchamp
who sat quietly in a corner playing chess with a neurologist. George
Bellows, the painter, walked around with a disdainful and patronizing
air, evidently out of place in the surroundings." At the same
time, because at least George Bellows, and possibly others, who
would object to Fountain's exhibition were in the same social group
with the Arensberg circle they would be exposed to Duchamp and his
thinking, not indirectly, but first-hand. George Bellows' presence
here suggests he was more involved and aware of Duchamp and his
work than Wood would have us believe from her narrative. His suspicion
that "Someone sent it as a joke. Sounds fishy to me." (assuming
that his comments are accurately represented) would be justified
based on his personal knowledge and experience with Duchamp and
the circle which would call themselves "New York Dada." This makes
claims of its submission as a test of impartiality not only implausible,
but makes the insistence that "R. Mutt" was used as an aid in hiding
Duchamp's identity as the real author quite ridiculous. This is
the kind of test which can only be done "cold" -- without warning.
The story of why Duchamp
presented the work becomes questionable. That the committee may
have assumed (rightly?) that he was the artist and not R. Mutt means
that it is also possible they recognized Fountain as a personal
assault on their aesthetics; after all, it is a urinal. That Duchamp
felt (to some degree) Fountain was an insult is reflected in his
comment fifty years later that "I threw the urinal in their faces
and now they admire it for its aesthetic beauty." Fountain is
thus double-edged: when Duchamp and company defended Fountain in
the pages of The Blind Man (1917), it was admired for its aesthetic
properties; years later, when it was accepted as an aesthetic object,
Duchamp emphasizes its functional basis (1960s). It is both aesthetic
and non-aesthetic; as a ready-made Duchamp claims provokes indifference,
possibly a result of both tendencies canceling each other. The presentation
of Fountain as an artwork, then, should be understood not simply
as a test (it is impossible to clandestinely test someone when they
know about the test) but also as an assault. Their rejection of
it as non-art (which ever argument is used, the result is the same)
then is also a response to Duchamp. As Drier's letter attests,
the committee felt that it was not a work presented in "good faith"
-- meaning they felt there was some element of both test and assault
to it, thus reinforcing that aspect of the stories about Fountain
to the exclusion of other possibilities about why Duchamp may have
presented it the way he did.
What happened to Fountain
following its non-exhibition is mysterious; it disappeared. William
Glackens may have broken it (Ira Glackens' Biography of his father);
Marcel Duchamp may have sold it to Walter Arensberg, who then lost
it (Camfield); Katherine Drier comments in a letter dated 13
April that Fountain was stolen, (although a later letter suggests
that Fountain had reappeared)....
William Camfield constructs
an account, based on Beatrice Wood's diary and autobiography, where
the uncertainties appear to vanish in favor of a chronology where
Fountain is hidden before opening day, later found by Duchamp (and
possibly Man Ray) who then sells it to Arensberg and carries it
in triumph out of the exhibition. This version is derived from Beatrice
Wood's diaries, a source which Camfield feels is likely to be the
most accurate since it was written at the time. However, an examination
of the diary entries in question reveals they are little more than
abbreviated listings of events where "Lunch Marcel Duchamp at Pollys.
Home." is typical. A much stronger source for Camfield's version
is later documents written by Wood from memory. His chronology is
a good version of the story since it sets up a series of documented
events which also connects with some of the other, more troubling
facts -- such as Drier's two letters discussing the Richard Mutt
Case and the response the society should take. There is a footnote
which mentions in passing that Wood, however, was closely involved
with the writing and production of The Blind Man, and was one of
the innermost group of the Arensberg circle -- a group with included
Duchamp and his ideas about ready-mades. This is the same group
which comprised the core of New York Dada.
If we understand Fountain
as an object produced within the context of New York Dada -- which
is emphasis on puns, ironies and "inside-jokes" -- we must then
also reconsider the validity of all the writings produced at the
time, including Woods. The entries reproduced by Camfield from her
Diary as evidence for his story are much too brief, reading much
more like an appointment calendar; the longer discussions (he admits)
were produced later, so do not necessarily reflect the actual events
of the moment. Given that Wood was intimately involved with the
Arensberg circle -- primarily Duchamp (she shared his studio) and
Henry Roche -- the group which would become "New York Dada" we should
not consider her autobiography as a necessarily straight forward
or factual account of the events. It is important to remember that
"New York Dada" predated the developments by Tristan Tzara and the
Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The European Dada movement simply
provided a name  for something that developed independently
in America, so understanding it in European terms is an error. To
the extent that it was formally a movement, it was centered in the
works and ideas of the Arensberg circle.
It is important to recognize
that even though (as Camfield notes) Wood has essentially held to
the same story since (at least 1949) all these versions are written
substantially after the fact, that is to say, we do not have a contemporary
narrative of these events written at the time. 1949 is more than
thirty years later, and even within these versions of Wood's narrative,
there are variations. In order to accept Wood as the authoritative
narrative these variations must be played down. However, in reading
her autobiography, one quickly recognizes that she is glossing over
details. She portrays herself as a naive waif with only vague ideas
(and no understanding) of what was happening around her. Such a
view would support her claims to objective description, yet, she
is one of the primary authors for the magazines which define "New
York Dada," writing substantial portions of both issues of The Blind
Man. She was also romantically involved with Henry Roche, and shared
studio space with Duchamp for the entire period -- both before the
"Richard Mutt Case" and after. Her professed unawareness is not
entirely credible. Thus her account is questionable.
does this leave Fountain -- which story are we to believe? The problem
is the same one which started this examination: that what must be
excluded to produce a coherent story telling us "what happened"
is uncertain. The facts we do have lend themselves to alternative
narratives. What the stories surrounding Fountain and its fate agree
on is one final point: the fact that it is missing. And like this
vanished object -- broken, stolen, sold, or otherwise -- we have
a collection of stories about what happened to which are going to
continue to grow since we cannot have an authoritative history without
excluding the contradictions that are an essential characteristic
of the "facts." Instead, what is required in this situation is a
history which includes the contradictions and confusions rather
than attempts to minimize them in favor of a coherent narrative.
This type of history may not be a conclusive one, but it cases such
as Fountain, it does give us a more accurate grasp of the situation
in all its complexities. As this paper demonstrates, the "facts"
of this "event" may not be able to produce a narrative which tells
us the fate of Fountain. What this inclusive history shows is the
contingent nature of the entire historicizing process. If we have
reason to distrust our historical sources and there are contradictory,
unresolvable problems with our "facts," to then arrive at a synthesis
based on an exclusion of evidence is problematic. Which evidence
is valid? The very nature of the stories surrounding Fountain suggest
that what we are examining is not so much a historical object, as
a mythological one. This is not to deny that there is a factual
basis to the stories, but that to treat such an object using normative
exclusionary historical techniques will neither acknowledge the
nature of the event/object being examined, the motives of the people
who are the primary sources, nor Fountain's continuing appeal to
artists, curators, and historians. By excluding conflicting versions
of the "facts," the result is apparent knowledge about when and
where Fountain was exhibited; who made it; why, but in actuality
we only have a partial view of the situation. By including the contradictions,
we have a "story" showing our uncertainty about Fountain, the exhibition
where it wasn't shown, and the people which were involved in the
Richard Mutt Case.
Michael Betancourt is currently a writer
William. Fountain, (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press,
note in the Green Box reads: "Specifications for ‘Ready-mades.’
By planning for a moment to come (on such a day, such a
date, such a minute), ‘to inscribe a readymade’ -- The readymade
can then be looked for . -- (with all kinds of delays).
The important thing then is just this matter of timing,
this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter
what occasion but at such and such an hour. It is a kind
of rondez-vous." in Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp & Co.,
(Paderborn: Terrail, 1997) p. 106.
comb readymade is dated New York, Feb. 17, 1916 11 A.M.
would be a pseudonym along the same lines as those listed
in the wanted poster of 1922 which reads: "WANTED $2,000
REWARD For information leading to the arrest of George W.
Welch, alias Bull, alias Pickens, etcetry, etcetry. Operated
Bucket Shop in New York under name HOOKE, LYON and CINQUER.
Height about 5 feet 9 inches. Weight about 180 pounds. Complexion
Medium, eyes same. Known also under name RROSE SELAVY".
Ira. William Glackens and the Eight, (New York: Writers
and Readers, 1957, 1983, 1990) pp. 186-8.
the arguments consistently made by Duchamp about the selection
being based on indifference, and the emphasis on mass-produced
(hence, essentially multiple, identical objects) if it had
been replaced after being broken, his immediate replacement
of it by another, identical Fountain would strengthen
rather than weaken his case for his process of selection.
Also given that Duchamp was very willing to sign the reproductions
produced in later years as if they were originals, his silence
on it being replaced is extremely inconsistent with his
other actions regarding Fountain.
York Dada" includes the core group of the Arensberg circle
-- which was involved in the Society of Independent Artists
exhibition -- but is formally begun with the publication
of a series of small journals, New York Dada, and
Wrongwrong, in 1920-21. The only reason this gap
exists is that Duchamp spent the period between 1918 and
1920 traveling. Upon his return to New York, Duchamp and
company continued their activities without apparent interruption,
showing the continuity between 1917 and the later "Dada"
activities. See also, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, "Arthur
Cravan and American Dada" in Motherwell, Robert, ed. The
Dada Painters and Poets, second edition, (New York:
G.K. Hall & Co. 1981) pp 13-17.
coming to New York, Duchamp had created the first of the
ready-mades -- the Bicycle wheel, which he left in Paris.
The main group of ready-mades will not start to appear until
after he has been in New York for a few months.
William Glackens, George Bellows and Charles Prendergast.
Ray’s apparent introduction to this group came sometime
during the planning stages for this exhibition, via Duchamp.
see Ray, Man. Self-Portrait, (New York: Little, Brown
and Company, 1963, 1988) pp. 64-65.
Clark S. The Society of Independent Artists: The Exhibition
Record 1917-1944 (Park Ridge: Noyes Press, 1984) p.
Blind Man was a magazine produced by Henry Roche, Marcel
Duchamp and edited by Beatrice Wood for the Society for
Independent Artists. It ran two issues. The second of these
issues is discussed as a Dada magazine by Andre Breton,
"Marcel Duchamp" in Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada
Painters and Poets, second edition, (New York: G.K.
Hall & Co. 1981) pp 207-218, both Fountian and
The Blind Man are included as illustrations on pages
212 and 213 respectively.
Katia. Apollinaire: Catalyst for Primitivism, Picabia,
and Duchamp, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984) pp.
William. op. cit., pp. 33-34.
is also the possibility that Apollinaire was confusing the
exhibition of other ready-mades as a result of Katherine
Drier’s letter with an exhibition of Fountain. This
possibility is suggested by the chronology produced by William
Rubin in Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, (New
York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968) p.199: "Ready-mades
are shown in the Lobby of the Bourgeois Gallery."
may find the photograph of some use -- It will amuse you
to see it -- The Fountain is here too." Alfred Stieglitz
to Henry McBride, April 19, 1917, Archives of American Art,
McBride Papers, microfilm roll 12, frame 445. in William
Camfield, Fountain, (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press,
1989) p. 34.
Box in a Valise (1934) includes a photograph showing three
ready-mades: The Hatrack, In advance of the broken arm,
Rockwell Kent in some versions of this narrative.
Beatrice. I Shock Myself, (San Francisco: Chronicle
Books, 1985, 1988 (revised)) p. 29.
op.cit., pp. 32-33.
op. cit., pp. 36-37.
S. Drier to William Glackens, April 26, 1917, Archives of
the Society Anonyme, Yale University, in William Camfield,
Fountain, (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989)
Beatrice Wood’s telling of an argument between Walter Arensberg
and another Director is inconsistent -- her version stars
alternatively George Bellows or Rockwell Kent -- these men,
along with Duchamp, were the Hanging Committee, and would
be in a position to know Duchamp well.
Man. Self-Portrait, (New York: Little, Brown and
Company, 1963, 1988) p. 64.
Michel and Elmer Petersen, editors. The Collected Writings
of Marcel Duchamp, (New York: Da Capo, 1973).
op.cit., pp. 33-34.
Calvin Tompkins notes, it does not appear in any of the
listings of Arensberg’s collection. Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp:
A Biography, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996)
Francis M.. New York Dada, (New York: Abrams, 1994).
Man.op. cit., p. 87.
op cit., pp. 25-26, in a footnote.
1-3 ©2003 Succession, Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.