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Plumbing Duchamp’s Urinal: How Erudite Art Historians Piss on Simplicity

When pondering the meaning of enigmatic artworks, critics and scholars often mix factual knowledge with leaps of interpretive imagination, conveyed through highfalutin verbiage.

Thus it was when Francis Naumann, art historian and gallerist, expounded on the significance of Duchamp’s commissioned knockoffs of his own game-changing 1917 “Fountain”—the unpretentious object that unleashed a stream of pretentious rhetoric.

Here’s one of the readymade’s remakes—one of eight commissioned by the artist from the Galleria Schwarz, Milan, in 1964:

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1917/1964, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
©Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp

On the occasion of “Fountain’s” centennial, SFMOMA last Sunday tweeted a video of Naumann’s conversation some years ago with Michael Taylor, the curator and Duchamp expert. In that clip, Naumann proffers a convoluted, cerebral explanation of why Duchamp authorized the replicas.

By contrast, a video clip that I had watched (full transcript here) while taking a break in SFMOMA’s Interpretive Gallery last summer (during my perusal of the reopened, expanded museum for this Wall Street Journal article) suggested a much simpler, more prosaic explanation for the readymade replicas, provided by the late, legendary curator and museum director, Walter Hopps:

Screenshot of Walter Hopps from SFMOMA video

Here’s Naumann’s theory:

He [Duchamp] lived his entire life insisting upon that fact that he didn’t want to repeat himself. And if he went out and found eight new urinals, that’s exactly what he would have been doing.

But if you accept the concept of a readymade, which by 1964, quite a few people in the know, including young artists like Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg, certainly had, if you go that far that you accept the idea that an artist can make a work of art by simply choosing it and adding his signature, then that caused you to change your definition of art.

What Duchamp forces you to do in 1964 is to accept another definition of Duchamp…, because…now you have to accept that he’s done the exact reverse…by having a manufacturer in Italy, craftsman, hand-craft an object—the same thing that artists always did for centuries before—and then make it look like a manufactured object.

If you think about it, this is artifice, this is trompe l’oeil, this is an illusion.

Maybe Naumann thinks too much. This is how Hopps, who claimed he had come by his information “firsthand,” disposed of the matter. He was responding to a comment by Robert Rauschenberg, who confessed that what “always confused me about Duchamp” was his “put[ting] out editions of readymades that are not ready made.”

Screenshot of Rauschenberg from SFMOMA’s video

Hopps: One way he was going to have some money coming in for his widow were those [Galleria] Schwarz editions. The income for those were all slated to go to Teeny [the nickname of Duchamp’s wife]. And it was for a nice reason, too, Bob: He didn’t want her to have to sell one-of-a-kind things she still owned in order to survive….He wasn’t producing art to sell. And nobody had any normal work to earn money. So he had to be very inventive about how he could survive.

Rauschenberg: Well there’s the poetry—a sup-poetry [a pun on “support”].

At that point, SFMOMA’s former director, David Ross, chimed in:

That’s the poetry, right. But it’s also practical…because that was economically what was necessary. There wasn’t anything intellectualized about it; it was just what you had to work with.

Another practical aspect was left unmentioned: The original “Fountain” is said to be lost. At least the artist-sanctioned replicas survive.

In the knock-off spirit, Francis Naumann Fine Art on Monday opened Marcel Duchamp Fountain: An Homage (to May 26), with riffs by various contemporary artists on the iconic bathroom fixture that (in Naumann’s words) “resulted in changing the very definition of art.”

This one took Duchamp’s pranksterism several steps further:


Peter Saul
Urinal Descending a Staircase, 2017

an ArtsJournal blog