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Aesthetic Indifference of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain


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Aesthetic Indifference of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

Elisabeth E. Smith (1835-1914)
2012, oil on canvas, 28×28 cm

Aesthetic Indifference of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

Elisabeth E. Smith (1835-1914)

Aesthetic Indifference of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain




Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917 (Part 1)

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917 (Part 2)

William A. Camfield
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917 (Part 3)*

The pressing question at this point is whether these perceptions of a beautiful form, of Madonnas and seated Buddhas, were products of Duchamp's mind and eye or the response of his associates. In my opinion, they were Duchamp's own, but his perceptions were shared by others, and the complex questions of form, intent, and content have hardly been exhausted. Consideration of Fountain in the context of other work by Duchamp and several contemporaries will contribute substantially to answering those questions.

It seems advisable to begin with the acknowledgment that most commentators on Duchamp discount the visual qualities of Fountain, claiming instead that it is either deliberately anti-art or aesthetically neutral-and their arguments are based on Duchamp's own word. In the frequently quoted "Apropos of 'Readymades'" 1961) Duchamp stressed aesthetic indifference:

A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these "readymades" was never dictated by esthetic delectation.

This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste ... in fact a complete anesthesia.[51]

More emphatic still was Duchamp's 1962 letter to Hans Richter, quoted in the latter's Dada Art and Anti-Art:

When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.[52]

Such statements by Duchamp must be taken seriously. On the face of it, who would argue that a challenge to conventional aesthetics was not a part of Duchamp's intent when he submitted a urinal to the Independents-no matter the degree to which he transformed it? At the same time, I am convinced that such statements by Duchamp contain only a partial "truth" even a misleading "truth"-which cannot be adequately assessed without taking his comments seriously enough to consider them critically and in context.

The two statements quoted above stress significantly different considerations, namely, aesthetic indifference and aesthetic challenge, and other comments by Duchamp enlarge our possible responses to the readymades still further. It is also significant that such statements about aesthetic indifference and aesthetic challenge emerge in Duchamp's interviews only in the late 1950s/early 1960s and respond to different conditions, which are explored in a perceptive article by Robert Lebel.[53]

Turning from those late interviews back to the work of Duchamp that preceded Fountain, we &nd not aesthetic indifference but an oeuvre of extraordinary visual and intellectual rigor. And Fountain &ts in that oeuvre. Far from being the product of an impulsive decision to challenge the principles of the Independents, Fountain seems to be expressive of its creator, related to other work by Duchamp and reflective of other art and the culture around him.

One event which must have contributed to Duchamp's concept of readymades was his visit to the 1912 Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne in the company of Leger and Brancusi. Leger later recalled that Duchamp "walked among the motors, the propellers without saying a word. Then suddenly he spoke to Brancusi: 'Painting is finished. Who can do better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?' He was very inclined toward precise things."[54]

Within a year Duchamp did, in fact, almost cease to paint, turning instead to studies for the Large Glass and to his first readymades. The early readymades selected in Paris, for example, the Bicycle Wheel and the Bottlerack, did not possess the sleek lines of airplane propellers, but neither of these two examples appears to have been motivated by visual indifference or anti-art.

In Duchamp's earliest known reference to these two objects, he refers to them simply as "sculpture already made."[55] Duchamp's later comments on the Bicycle Wheel vary from interview to interview, but none sustain an antiart argument. To the contrary, he told Arturo Schwarz:

It had more to do with the idea of chance. In a way, it was simply letting things go by themselves ... to help your ideas come out of your head. To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day.... I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the names dancing in a fireplace.[56]

Schwarz also elicited from Duchamp the acknowledgment that "the wheel must have had a great influence on my mind, because I used it almost all the time from then on, not only there, but also in the Chocolate Grinder, and later in the Rotoreliefs." Still more links to Duchamp's oeuvre have been suggested by other authors,[57] and to all those views I wish to add that the Bicycle Wheel-consciously or not-is effective from a visual or aesthetic perspective. Though composed of two distinct parts (the bicycle wheel and the stool), it exists as a well-proportioned whole, human in its scale and uprightness and Brancusi-like in the dialogue between "base" and "object," which share such features as light, taut, open constructions based on circles and spokes. Could it have been merely by chance, convenience, or practicality that Duchamp selected such a stool for the "base" of the Bicycle Wheel? Can any more appropriate "base" be conceived for it-whether designed by the artist or selected from the world of tables, chairs, benches and whatnot?[58]

Duchamp's claims for visual indifference notwithstanding, some authors have persisted in perceiving the Bottlerack as an object of aesthetic merit that is also intimately linked to Duchamp's thought and work. Robert Motherwell proclaimed that "the bottle rack he [Duchamp] chose has a more beautiful form than almost anything made, in 1914, as sculpture."[59] Ulf Linde sees it as a "kind of torso" and has indicated convincing ties to the Large Glass, while Schwarz-rightly, I think-has underscored "the phallic symbolism of this item" with its "multiplication of the erect phallus-like spikes," which fulfill their function only when they have received and drained bottles.[60] The female element, merely implied by the missing bottles, may actually be central to this object in the form of the passageway through the core of the drying rack.

While there is no way to "prove" such interpretations of the Bottlerack, they are not implausible subjective views forced on the object. To the contrary, such interpretations are consistent with the basic themes and attitudes present in Duchamp's art and notes from such major paintings of 1912 as The Bride and The Passage of the Virgin to the Bride, to the Large Glass and all works related to it. It is not possible here to explore those works and writings. I must instead rely on the knowledge of the reader and indicate that the themes and attitudes I have in mind include (1) the omnipresence of sexuality as a driving but unfulfilled or unfulfilling force - whether male and female are bound together, as in the Large Glass, or fused, as in the Bottlerack; (2) a love of irony, exhibited in the Large Glass, for example, by use of almost exaggerated reason, geometry and quasi-scientific/engineering procedures for seemingly absurd ends; (3) a use of mechanical forms (and manufactured objects) that simultaneously challenge conventional art, recognize the significance of machines and technology in contemporary life, and reinforce the elements of sexuality and irony-employing mechanical forms and procedures, for example, to deal with what are conventionally conceived as the most intimate male/female relationships; and (4) the stimulation of spectator participation via a mental image of the functioning of the Large Glass, or by spinning the Bicycle Wheel or placing a bottle on the drying rack.

The readymades are quite varied and certainly all of them do not conform to the concerns or elements described above - but Fountain does appear to ht those attitudes and, given the preceding course of Duchamp's work for at least four years, the role of indifference or chance seems all the more remote in the selection of the urinal.

Urinals were not a sudden discovery or revelation to Duchamp in 1917. As early as 1914-in The Box of 1914-he had written: "One only has: for female the public urinal and one lives by it."[61] The precise meaning of his comment is obscure, but it associates a female form with an object for a male function - an object, moreover, which involves injection of fluid from a male into a uterine-like shape. It is also tempting to think that the name of the Mott company appealed to him, but regardless of the plumbing manufacturer patronized, contemporary showroom photographs and sales catalogues indicate that Duchamp had choices in the Mott shop between a variety of urinals (Fig. 8), actual fountains, tubs, basins and fixtures of all kinds, some of which suggest anthropomorphic forms that would have been noticed by Duchamp. Many of those objects may be interesting to us today, but -insofar as I can see - few would have yielded to the transformation wrought by Duchamp in the urinal he selected. Later in his life Duchamp vigorously resisted the existence of a personal taste implied by my argument;[62] however, it seems to me that the issue is not so much one of personal taste but of a keen eye and mind which perceive visual properties of very diverse sorts that are recognized as fulfilling aesthetic/intellectual needs. The difference may seem slight, but I think it is significant.

Heavy vitro-adamant urinal, 838-Y from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, Marine Department Catalogue 'Y,' New York, 1902.

Fig. 8 - Heavy vitro-adamant urinal, 838-Y from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, Marine Department Catalogue "Y," New York, 1902.

As photographed by Stieglitz following a long discussion with Duchamp, Fountain quietly exudes sexuality. A masculine association cannot be divorced from the object because the original identity and function of the urinal remain evident, yet the overriding image is that of some generic female form - a smooth, rounded organic shape with flowing curves. This perception of femaleness seems reinforced by Duchamp's comment in The Box of 1914 and by the photograph of his studio with a (the?) urinal suspended from the ceiling - "le pendu femelle." Fountain also abounds in irony-not only in the male/female exchange, but as an object whose hard, chilly surface belies the sensuousness of the form. There is irony, too, in the function, which was changed from a receptacle for waste fluid to a dispenser, a fountain of life-giving water, or, in the eyes of Duchamp's friends, a manufactured object whose function was transformed from serving the dirty biological needs of men to suggesting a serene seated Buddha or a chaste, veiled Madonna. Even the signature participates- scruffy in form in contrast to the pristine elegance of the urinal, and evocative not of Buddhas and Madonnas but of the popular cartoon characters, Mutt and Jeff.

Perception of Buddhas and Madonnas introduces a religious dimension which does not seem commensurate with Duchamp's major concerns, and it may represent the views of Duchamp's friends rather than his own intentions. It should be noted, however, that Duchamp did not censor those observations and that his larger concept of readymades includes all kinds of "givens" beyond the control of the artist - some of which point to the ultimate unknowns and/or mysteries of life which involve a spiritual dimension.[63]

That veiled, mysterious, iconic quality of Fountain is inseparable from the photograph, and the role of Alfred Stieglitz must be considered at this juncture. To what extent did he control the photograph - hence our image of the original Fountain-and to what extent did Duchamp influence Stieglitz's work? Curiously, no negative has ever been found in the Stieglitz estate and Fountain has not figured in publications on Stieglitz- while it always appears in publications on Duchamp. The absence of a negative for Fountain has been a factor in publications on Stieglitz, but it is also a unique, unexpected work in his career at that time, both as subject matter and as a commission. We know Stieglitz emerged from a lengthy discussion with Duchamp proclaiming the aesthetic virtues of Fountain, and it seems reasonable to attribute a significant role in the photograph to Duchamp. Yet, in the final analysis it remains a superb Stieglitz photograph. It was Stieglitz who elected to place Fountain in front of a Marsden Hartley painting with fortuitous visual and intellectual links. Stieglitz also chose to place Fountain exactly at our eye level, bringing it close, magnifying its presence, rotating it slightly on its axis to set up just a touch of tension, and lighting it from above so that it is dramatically isolated against its setting yet also softly veiled, moody and mysterious. Moreover, through his friendship with Picabia, Stieglitz was familiar with the symbolic use of common manufactured items in art, and during that very spring of 1917 he was championing a young photographer, Paul Strand, whose dramatic close-up photographs of common objects were to make a substantial impression on Stieglitz and photography in America. It is generally believed that Picabia and Duchamp were instrumental in the development of Strand's vision, but much is still unknown about the interchange of Duchamp, Picabia, Stieglitz and Strand. It is my hunch that Stieglitz's photo of Fountain will be a significant piece in that puzzle whenever it is worked out.

Constantin Brancusi, Princess X, 1916, marble.

Fig. 9 - Constantin Brancusi, Princess X, 1916, marble.

Whereas Stieglitz contributed to the iconic and vaguely spiritual appearance of Fountain, another artist, Brancusi, may be relevant for its sleek formal properties and sexual suggestions. The exhibition of Brancusi's sculpture at De Zayas's Modern Gallery during the fall of 1916 included both the marble and polished brass versions of Princess X (Fig. 9), which were purchased by John Quinn and Waiter Arensberg respectively during 1917.[64] The brass version was exhibited at the 1917 Independents' exhibition and reproduced in the catalogue as Princesse Bonaparte.[65] Accordingly, Duchamp was surely familiar with both sculptures. Brancusi's sensuous abstraction of the princess into a featureless face, long, curving neck, and full, rounded breasts was too abstract for most critics, although one was offended by the artist's sly incorporation of a phallic form:

We are not of the class that favors drapery for the legs of the piano stool, but phallic symbols under the guise of portraiture should not be permitted in any public exhibition hall, jury or no jury ... America likes and demands a clean art.[66]

It is most unlikely that Duchamp missed the female/male fusion of forms in Brancusi's Princess X. Indeed - the distinctions between Fountain and Princess X notwithstanding-the affinities between these works are sufficient to raise the possibility that Princess X contributed to the conception of Fountain. The interplay of male object and suggestive female form has only recently emerged ill commentary on Fountain, although the androgynous element of Duchamp's work is established in the literature for other objects.[67]

One further witness remains to be called to testify to the particular taste at that moment for objects-both manufactured and handmade-which are characterized by sleek, simple shapes that suggest anthropomorphic forms with sexual connotations. Picabia's mechanomorphic images changed significantly soon after he returned to New York in April 1917, just in time for the Independents' exhibition. The meaning of his earlier drawings had been keyed to the function of the machine forms that he employed, but his drawings of manufactured objects datable from April to June 1917 present suggestive forms and ironic titles similar to what we have encountered in Fountain. One of the drawings, Ane (Ass or Donkey, Fig. 10), represents the propeller of a ship, but its softly rounded blades, radiating from a central shaft with an orifice, evoke generic female forms - and the meaning of this "handmade readymade" seems to involve a risqué bilingual play on its title combined with the form, function, and location of the ship's screw from which it was copied.[68]

Francis Picabia, Ane (Ass or Donkey), 1917, cover for 391, no. 5, New York, June 1917. Location of original drawing unknown.

Fig. 10 - Francis Picabia, Ane (Ass or Donkey), 1917, cover for 391, no. 5, New York, June 1917. Location of original drawing unknown.

Regrettably, Picabia's letters at the time contain no reference to Fountain or to his own works, which I think reflect it and the interests of the entire circle around Arensberg and Duchamp. The situation is not unique. After May 1917, no references to Fountain have been found in the letters or records of anyone associated with the lively debate during April and early May of that year-not even in the records of Arensberg, who supposedly purchased it. It is almost as though all discussion of Fountain was deliberately suppressed. Moreover, the object itself disappeared again and has never reappeared. This second disappearance is doubly mysterious inasmuch as Fountain was supposedly then in friendly hands. Other than the few days it was available for viewing at 291, Fountain was never exhibited, and almost thirty years passed without a publication that included either significant commentary on it or a reproduction of Stieglitz's photograph.

This astonishing silence that descended upon Fountain precluded a discussion of issues it had raised, but those issues reappeared with a vengeance in the context of the tumultuous art scene of the 1960s. It was in the context of such controversial movements as junk sculpture, the "New Realism" of Europe, Pop Art, Minimal Art and Conceptual Art that Fountain again became a center of attraction. Different viewpoints of the readymades abounded, but those who proclaimed Fountain to be an object of anti-art or aesthetic indifference dominated critical opinion, obscuring and displacing the historical conditions of 1917. Duchamp himself confounded critical debate with conflicting comments on the readymades and the authorization of various replicas of them. Indeed the reemergence of the readymades in the 1960s and their critical reception is a phenomenon that merits a study of its own, and a secondary aim of this article is to offer a new perspective on that criticism. For over twenty-five years we have looked back at Fountain with eyes and minds shaped by conditions in the sixties and seventies. In this article I have sought to look at Fountain itself and the context in which it came into being. In that context neither Duchamp nor his friends said anything about anti-art or aesthetic indifference. Duchamp simply referred to Fountain and other readymades as "sculpture"; his friends-probably reflecting his attitude-spoke of pleasing forms with anthropomorphic associations. The comments and conditions of 1917 deserve to reenter our consideration of Fountain: they suggest that we should not ignore the visual properties of other readymades.

* William A. Camfield; "Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917," Dada/Surrealism 16 (1987), pp. 79-86.


[51] Marcel Duchamp, "Apropos of 'Readymades,'" talk delivered by Duchamp as a panel member of the "Art of Assemblage" symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 19 October 1961. Published in Art and Artists, (July 1966), 47, and reprinted in Salt Seller. The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). Duchamp made other comments on the readymades in dialogue with the moderator, William C. Seitz, and panel members Roger Shattuck, Charles R. Huelsenbeck, Robert Rauschenberg and Lawrence Alloway (unpublished but copyrighted transcript of the symposium).
[52] Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), pp. 207-8.
[53] Robert Lebel, "Marcel Duchamp maintenant et ici," L'Oeil, no. 149 (May 1967), 18-23, 77.
Among all the comments of those close to Duchamp in April 1917 I have found only one, never-quoted sentence which suggests something other than the dominant references to the aesthetic properties of Fountain. In The Blind Man (no. 2, p. 12), the poet Mina Loy concludes an untitled and rather enigmatic poetic commentary on Louis Eilshemius with the seemingly unrelated sentence: "Anyhow, Duchamp meditating the leveling of all values, witnesses the elimination of Sophistication." That comment refer to the primitivist paintings of Eilshemius "discovered" by Duchamp at the Independents' exhibition, but it is tempting to associate it with Fountain as well.
[54] Dora Vallier, interview with Fernand Leger, "La Vie dans l'oeuvre de Fernand Leger," Cahiers d'Art 29, no. 3, (1954), p. 140.
The Salon de la Locomotion Aerienne was held in the Grand Palais, Paris, 26 October - 10 November 1912. Guillaume Apollinaire was expressing similar views at about the same time: “... Je pense que le style moderne existe, mais ce qui caracterise le style d'aujourd'hui on le remarquerait moins dans les facades des maisons ou dans les meubles que dans les constructions de fer, les machines, les automobiles, les bicyclettes, les aeroplanes." ("La Renaissance des Arts Decoratifs," L'Intransigeant, Paris, 6 June 1912). The date and circumstances of this event are not firmly fixed. See Dickran Tashjian, "Henry Adams and Marcel Duchamp: Liminal Views of the Dynamo and the Virgin," Arts 51 (May 1977), p. 103.
[55] Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp, 15 January 1916 (Archives of American Arl, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), translated with commentary by Francis M. Naumann, "Affectueusement, Marcel," p. 5.
[56] Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, p. 442.
[57] Some of the more interesting analyses have been published by Ulf Linde, "La Roue de bicyclette," in Marcel Duchamp abcedaire (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1'177), 35-41; Jean Clair, Duchamp et la photographie, 64-74; and Craig Adcock, Marcel Duchamp's Notes from the 'Large Glass' (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press). 102-3. For a summary and commentary on several viewpoints see Francis M. Naumann's catalogue The Mary and WilIiam Sisler Collection (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984), 160-65, and John Moffit's text "Marcel Duchamp: Alchemist of the Avant-Garde" in Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, 23 November 1986-8 March 1987, 257-71, ed. Maurice Tuchman.
[58] Like many students of Duchamp, Harriet and Sidney Janis (,'Marcel Duchamp, Anti-Artist," View 5, no. 1 [21 March 1945], 23) struggled with a dilemma, namely, their recognition that Duchamp intentionally disregarded esthetic results and their personal experience that "a high esthetic quality stamps all that he [Duchamp] touches ....” They concluded that this was "the result, not of intention, but of Duchamp's high degree of sensibility."
At the same time that Duchamp was transforming manufactured objects into readymade sculptures, his friend Brancusi was making furniture for his own studio which he chose to exhibit as sculpture/bases for his sculpture a few years later, most notably the Bench now in the Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Intriguing parallels and differences between Brancusi and Duchamp are explored in the excellent article of Edith Balas, "Brancusi, Duchamp and Dada," Gazette des Beaux Arts 95 (April 1980), pp. 165-74.
[59] Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1957), xvii.
[60] For Linde's comment see WaIter Hopps, Ulf Linde and Arturo Schwarz, Marcel Duchamp. Ready-Mades, etc. 1913-1964, 56. For Schwarz's comments see The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970), 449. Duchamp, confirmed in a letter to Schwarz that his interpretation of the Bottlerack was correct,: but as Schwarz thoughtfully observed to this author, "There are many different levels' of meaning to every single symbolic object. My interpretation does not exclude other interpretations, it merely adds one little piece to the puzzle" (Letter to the author, 26 January 1987).
[61] Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller, p. 23.
[62] In an interview with Katherine Kuh (The Artist's Voice, [New York: Harper & Row, 1960], Duchamp said:
I consider taste-bad or good-the greatest enemy of art. In the case of the Ready-Mades I tried to remain aloof from personal taste .... Of course ... many people can prove I'm wrong by merely pointing out that I chose one object rather than another and thus impose something of my own personal taste. Again, I say man is not perfect ....
[63] In the interview with Katherine Kuh (The Artist's Voice), 901 Duchamp said:
The curious thing about the Ready-Made is that I've never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me .... There's still magic in the idea, ... [a] man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready-made things like even his own mother and father.
[64] For Brancusi's exhibition at the Modern Gallery (New York, 23 October - 11 November 19161, see Marius de Zayas, "How, When, and Why Modern Art Came to New York," Arts 54, no. 8 (April 1980), p. 107, introduction and notes by Francis Mc' Naumann.
[65] The Society of Independent Artists, First Annual Exhibition, Grand Central Palace (New York, 10 April-6 May 1917, no. 167), and illustrated in the catalogue.
[66] W. H. de B. Nelson, "Aesthetic Hysteria," The International Studio (June 1917), ccxxi -ccxxv.
[67] Arturo Schwarz has written extensively on androgyny in Duchamp's work. For a concise account see his "The Alchemist Stripped Bare in the Bachelor, Even," Marcel Duchamp, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), pp. 81-98. Kermit Champa has commented most cogently on Fountain in '''Charlie Was Like That,'" p. 58:
What the Fountain finally constituted more than anything else was the brilliant discovery within the world of the Readymade and the everyday of the perfect Freudian symbol, flagrantly obvious and stimulating once it was discovered, but utterly untranslatable and, as a result, perversely pure. Phallic? Vaginal? It was a man-made female object for exclusive male functions. Yet, who could characterize it precisely?
The masculine assumption of female biological functions in Picabia's La Fille nee sans mere (1915 and Apollinaire's Les Mamelles de Tiresias (1917) are two contemporary works not specifically related to Fountain but relevant to broad themes of artistic production, sexual reproduction, machine products and god-like activity which set a context for Duchamp's contributions. See Katia Samaltanos, Apollinaire: Catalyst for Primitivism, Picabia, and Duchamp (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1984, pp. 72-73.
[68] Ane was the cover for Picabia's magazine 391, no. 5 (New York, June 19171. For a discussion of these images in 391 see William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 104.