It's a rare thing to celebrate the centennial of a prank. But that is exactly what the Philadelphia Museum of Art is doing with its small exhibition "Marcel Duchamp and the Fountain Scandal," on view through Dec. 3 in the Anne d'Harnoncourt Gallery 182.
It happened exactly a hundred years ago today, April 9, 1917, at the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. To encourage expressive freedom, the show had no jury and no standards. Everything submitted would be exhibited, in a show organized alphabetically by the names of the artists. Many artists participated, some of them well-known. But the main thing that is remembered from the show is a piece that managed, despite the principled permissiveness of the show's organizers, to be rejected.
It was called Fountain and bore the signature "R. Mutt 1917." It was, in fact, an ordinary urinal, apparently purchased over the counter from a supply house. It was delivered to the show by a woman, but she was not R. Mutt. The submitter of the offending work, most — but not all — scholars agree, was one of the show's organizers, Duchamp.
He promptly quit the society. The work was taken away, first to the great photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz to be photographed, and then to Duchamp's studio, where he hung it from a door frame.
Duchamp and some of his friends also devoted an issue of their little art magazine, the Blind Man, to a discussion of the work and its implications. If you page through a facsimile in the exhibition, you can see that there were differing opinions on the meaning of the work, but all agreed it could be shown. Perhaps the most novel and radical assertion was that whether or not R. Mutt worked on the object with his hands was unimportant. "He CHOSE it."
The Art Museum show, which is in its permanent Duchamp gallery, uses its unparalleled collection of Duchamp's work to retell this story. Most of what curator Matthew Affron has added to the core Duchamp works that are always on display is archival material. There are photographs and information about the cast of characters, a time line, and, most valuably, the facsimile of the Blind Man that viewers can browse. It does not deal with the work's impact on subsequent artists.
At its center is a copy of Fountain that Duchamp created in 1950, when the art dealer Sidney Janis presented him with a urinal Janis had purchased in a Paris flea market. Duchamp signed it "R. Mutt 1917." It has the distinction of being the first full-scale copy of the work, though many others came later.
This oldest copy is not at all identical to the original seen in Stieglitz's photo, which is exhibited next to it. This show is largely about how Duchamp recycled his own work. As with most of what Duchamp did, what's on display here isn't visually interesting, but it does make you think.
One question it does raise, though, is where is the scandal? The Society of Independent Artists show went on just fine without Fountain. The newspapers weren't interested in its rejection. Beyond Duchamp's coterie, there was silence. Duchamp himself seems to have lost interest in it for two decades.
This was in marked contrast to the shock and outrage Duchamp provoked in 1913, when his cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) was exhibited in New York's groundbreaking Armory Show. Editorialists fulminated. Cartoonists burlesqued. And others wondered, "Where's the nude?" (The painting is also at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
In an interview 50 years later, Duchamp recalled: "I found it very pleasant because my aim was not after all to please the general public. The scandal was exactly in my program, you might say." Fountain was clearly another attempt to provoke, but the scandal didn't really take off. Shortly thereafter, the original urinal disappeared and has never been seen again.
Fountain was what Duchamp called a "readymade": an ordinary object presented not so much as a work of art as an object of contemplation. The pop artists of the mid-20th century taught us to see the beauty of banal, mass-produced objects and images. Duchamp didn't care about beauty; he used the banality to provoke.
When Fountain first came to be, Europe was in the third year of the worst war anyone had ever seen, a bloody stalemate that reached across the continent. Great empires — the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, the Russian, and the German — were collapsing or on the verge. It was easy to see good taste as a vestige of an aristocratic system that fully deserved to collapse.
The Dada movement, with which Duchamp has been associated, was a noisy, rude, and often nihilistic reaction to a botched civilization. Though the urinal was a very familiar object, putting it on display in an art exhibition was intended as an attack on conventional propriety.
Now, we are used to far cruder provocations — and in September, the Guggenheim Museum installed a fully functioning solid gold toilet by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan in one of its restrooms. ("It's hilarious, and who wouldn't want to pee on art?" a first-day visitor named Rachel told the Guardian.)
Duchamp had a further ambition — to claim for artists the right to define what is worth seeing, exhibiting, and believing. In his own practice, he proclaimed that one of the things artists did not have an obligation to do is produce paintings and sculpture, the things most people think of as art. Thus, he opened the door for installation artists, conceptual artists, and much of what we see in museums today.
Fountain reappeared in Duchamp's work in the mid-1930s, when he created his first Box in a Valise, a sort of portable museum-in-a-box that contained miniature copies of all the major works in his career. The urinal here could not be a readymade; he worked with a ceramist to make a miniature. A 1966 version of the box is in the Art Museum show.
The show doesn't really tell us why Duchamp returned to Fountain. It does show us, though, that Duchamp spent much of his later life selling copies of his earlier work, something that was paradoxically easier to do, as he hadn't made most of them in the first place.
Fountain has come to seem a signature American work. Like the scarlet letter, or the great white whale, it seems an obvious symbol. But its meaning remains ambiguous and elusive. Maybe it doesn't really mean anything at all.
Yet it has, slowly, over time, become increasingly influential. It's a fixture of the modern imagination.
AT THE ART MUSEUM
Marcel Duchamp and the "Fountain" Scandal
Through Dec. 3 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, until 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.
Admission: Adults, $20; students and youths 13-18, $14; children 12 and under, free.
Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.