Duchamp, Fountain, photograph by Alfred stieglitz from Blindman
No. 2, 1917
© 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris
MIAMI, 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.
Where 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
||Camfield, William. Fountain, (Houston: Houston
Fine Art Press, 1989).
||A 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.
||The comb readymade is dated New York, Feb. 17,
1916 11 A.M.
||This 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".
||Glackens, Ira. William Glackens and the Eight,
(New York: Writers and Readers, 1957, 1983, 1990) pp. 186-8.
||Given 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.
||"New 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.
||Before 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.
||Including William Glackens, George Bellows and
||Man 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.
||Marlor, Clark S. The Society of Independent
Artists: The Exhibition Record 1917-1944 (Park Ridge: Noyes
Press, 1984) p. 3.
||ibid., p 6.
||ibid., p 6.
||ibid., p 6.
||The 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
||Samaltanos, Katia. Apollinaire: Catalyst for
Primitivism, Picabia, and Duchamp, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research
Press, 1984) pp. 100-102.
||Camfield, William. op. cit., pp. 33-34.
||There 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."
||"You 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.
||The Box in a Valise (1934) includes a photograph
showing three ready-mades: The Hatrack, In advance of the broken
arm, and Fountain.
||or Rockwell Kent in some versions of this narrative.
||Wood, Beatrice. I Shock Myself, (San Francisco:
Chronicle Books, 1985, 1988 (revised)) p. 29.
||Camfield, op.cit., pp. 32-33.
||Marlor. op. cit., pp. 36-37.
||Katherine 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) pp. 32-33.
||While 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.
||Ray, Man. Self-Portrait, (New York: Little,
Brown and Company, 1963, 1988) p. 64.
||Wood, op.cit., p29.
||Sanouillet, Michel and Elmer Petersen, editors.
The Collected Writings of Marcel Duchamp, (New York:
Da Capo, 1973).
||Camfield, op.cit., pp. 33-34.
||As 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,
||Naumann, Francis M.. New York Dada, (New
York: Abrams, 1994).
||Ray, Man.op. cit., p. 87.
||Camfield, op cit., pp. 25-26, in a footnote.
— Michael Betacourt is currently a writer