Thesis Extract: On Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’

The following text is extracted from a late draft (not quite the final draft but, I hope, getting there) of my Ph.D. thesis. It is taken from the introduction and though my research has changed a lot since I wrote the first iteration of this section, it provides some bedrock for the project, I think.


Speculations made at the conclusion of my Masters study into the status of Marcel Duchamp’s authorised reiterations of Fountain led me to consider my practice in terms of the discourse that surrounds reproduction and copying. I proposed that, by commissioning an edition of replicas of the readymade, Duchamp introduced a further layer of critique through its extension.1 The narrative of Fountain is well known: A urinal was bought to be shown at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917 and was ‘suppressed’ before being photographed by Duchamp’s friend Alfred Steiglitz and promptly lost, though it had been sold to collector Walter Arensberg.The Stieglitz photograph was published shortly afterwards in The Blind Man magazine.Accompanying the image was a short written defence of the work, generally believed to have been written by either Duchamp or a collaboration between him and/or others.After a period of relative obscurity, Fountain was seized upon in the late 1950s by the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (and others) as a precursor to their own work which was concerned with reintroducing vernacular objects into art practice. This lead to a wider reappraisal of the importance of Fountain (and other readymades) and eventually to demands from museums for replicas of the now iconic work.

In 1960 Swedish curator Ulf Linde commissioned replicas of the Bicycle Wheel and Fresh Widow readymades. Linde sought, and was granted, Duchamp’s approval of these copies in 1961. Arturo Schwarz, an Italian art dealer, was then commissioned by Duchamp in 1963/4 to produce a more comprehensive edition of the readymades.

The Tate Gallery’s catalogue entry for the work acknowledges the complex (and subordinate) status of the object it holds as Fountain by referring to its date as ‘1917, replica 1964’.In art historical terms the replicas are seen as little more than a footnote. It is the gesture of selection and appropriation and the Blind Man defence that are generally seen to constitute constitute the work.6

T.J. Demos draws attention to Duchamp’s ambivalence towards the status of the first Fountain when compared with the reiterations:

Duchamp would later deflect criticism of later reauthorisations of readymades in the 1960s by denying the existence of any problem: the readymade’s very significance ‘is its lack of uniqueness … the replica of a ‘readymade’ delivering the same message’.7

Duchamp may be the most significant artist known primarily through copies or replicas, rather than original works. If Fountain (as a work, not merely as an object) is seen ‘through’ either the post-war replicas or the gesture that created them they – the replicas – are revealed as furthering what began in 1917.Duchamp uses the editions to question ideas of authenticity, notwithstanding their ‘authorised’ status. That they are not simply stand-ins for what has been lost becomes a critique stemming from a paradox: Fountain is now rarer and yet more numerous than the original. Duchamp’s appropriation of a commercial object from the milieu of mass-produced plumbing supplies and placing it in another realm – that of art – confers a new status on the object. The nominated object, similar to its peers but through nomination transformed into an art work, was lost and, after many years, a limited edition of ten copies, made from a bespoke mould on a temporarily interrupted production line, was commissioned from a specialist fabricator.9 Consequently, there are now more of these objects than the original Fountain, yet they are much rarer than the lost work’s mass-produced peers.10

This is not to suggest that Duchamp planned what unfolded from Fountain.11 His approach to making work was unlike that of most of his contemporaries. In a series of moves and gambits – the chess analogies are irresistible – he improvised and found ways to exploit changing conditions as they arose – seeing opportunity in difficulty – and was alive to extending and rethinking his work rather than simply repeating or memorialising it.12 Between 1935 and 1940 he oversaw the painstaking manufacture of a portable museum of much of his work to date: the Boîte-en-Valise. This piece, containing small replicas of his works, predates the editions of readymades and contains commissioned objects and images that were hand-coloured by Duchamp himself.13 Demos sees the Boîte-en-Valise as ‘[fending] off threats of dispersion.’ 14 The multiplicity of the Boîte – over three hundred sets were made, requiring the manufacture of in excess of 22,000 components – allows for a dissemination of his corpus as well as adding to it, holding collection and dispersion in tension.15 We see his work through his work. Duchamp extended his works through acts of revivification, making something new from the extant.

1 Extension: The furtherance of an art work through reiteration. Works like Fountain become more open-ended and less closed, revisiting, repurposing, and resulting in the possibility of critique through a new perspective.
Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson, 1971 pp. 54–5. tr. Ron Padgett, Ed. by Robert Motherwell. [Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp, Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1967.]
‘The Richard Mutt Case’, The Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p. 5.
A footnote in Appropriation has the citation as follows: ‘Written by either Beatrice Wood, H. P. Roché, or Duchamp, or collaboratively.’ Appropriation: documents of contemporary art London: Whitechapel Galley, 2009. p. 26. (Accessed 12 August 2015).
Appropriation: When an object (or an image of an object), often vernacular in character, is represented in the context of an art work (as part or whole). The object is generally still recognisable with the artist typically exploiting the frisson of placing something in an unfamiliar or inappropriate setting. The act of appropriation is generally concerned with the significance of the appropriated thing / image (such as the myriad uses of commercial art and consumer goods references in Pop Art), but can also open up questions relating to authorship, such as is found in the ‘rephotography’ of Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine.
T. J. Demos, The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge MA , MIT Press, 2007 p. 51. This contains a quote from ‘Apropos the Readymades’ taken from The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Boston MA, Da Capo Press, p. 142.
I am indebted to Helen Molesworth’s account of the afterlife of the readymades in her chapter ‘Duchamp: By Hand, Even’ from the book Part Object Part Sculpture. Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, 2005. pp. 183–8.
Peer Object: An object made in the same way as another object, regardless of the process by which it is made. Two hand-carved bowls based on a shared blueprint would be peer objects, as would two cars made on the same production line or two Big Macs. The appellation ‘peer object’ does not indicate either mass-produced or bespoke objects, but is an indication of the process by which they are made.
10 An article in Cabinet magazine identifies the ‘Seventeen Known Versions of Fountain’. Issue 27, Fall, 2007. Available online: (Accessed 27 July 2015).
11 It is possible that he did not even instigate the work in the first place. While preparing this introduction an exhibition questioning Duchamp’s authorship of the first Fountain opened in Edinburgh. It is claimed by scholars Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson that Duchamp stole the credit for Fountain from Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She died in 1927 and by then, they claim, the art world associated the work with Duchamp through his defence of it. Duchamp wrote in a letter to his sister that ‘One of my female friends, who had adopted the pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture’ Marcel Duchamp, Affectionately, Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, ed. by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, Ghent: Ludion Press, 2000, p. 47. For my analysis, it makes little difference – and may even augment it – as Duchamp’s authorised set of replicas are still a problematic coda to a complex work, regardless of who made the first move. ‘Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?’ The Art Newspaper, Issue 262, November 2014, pp. 59.
12 In addition to the authorised editions of readymades, there are also replicas of Duchamp’s La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even) or ‘Large Glass’ and his final piece Étant Donnés was reconstructed for a major show at Tate Modern, London, in 2008. The full title is, in French: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage, with the English translation being: Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. The three replicas of the Large Glass are in Stockholm (made by Ulf Linde in 1961), London (1966, lower panel remade 1985), and Tokyo (1980). The originals of both of these works are held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His last painting, Tu m’ (1918), is a ‘sort of résumé’ that includes painted shadows of the Bicycle Wheel and Hat Rack readymades and a passage formed by his Three Standard Stoppages. Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 60.
13 Duchamp’s careful engagement with each element of this piece is well documented. Pontus Hulton, et al., Marcel Duchamp: Works and Life / Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy 1887-1968, London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Entries in this extensive review of Duchamp’s life and works relating to the Boîte-en-Valise detail the artist’s close attention in both the making and selling of the boxes. The following are the dates of those entries (it should be noted that the entries are arranged by day, starting in mid-May, regardless of year): 22nd May 1938 / 23rd June 1941 / 24th June 1938 / 25th June 1937 / 25th June 1941 / 5th July 1942 / 10th July 1983 / 14th July 1938 / 16th July 1940 / 21st July 1942 / 22nd July 1942 / 1st August 1942 / 20th August 1936 / 26th October 1942 / 22nd November 1939 / 4th December 1942 / 30th December 1940 / 5th January 1942 / 7th January 1941 / 17th January 1941 / 26th January 1942 / 11th February 1942 / 17th February 1937 / 23rd February 1941 / 5th March 1935 / 8th March 1938 / 9th March 1942 / 26th March 1942 / 30th March 1942 / 19th April 1941 / 21st April 1941 / 24th April 1941 / 14th May 1942.
14 Demos, The Exiles Of Marcel Duchamp, p. 56.
15 Demos, The Exiles Of Marcel Duchamp, p. 48.

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