28 July is the anniversary of the birth of Marcel Duchamp, widely seen as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Fountain from 1917 is the most famous of his readymade sculptures, and is often named as an icon of twentieth-century art. Duchamp took ordinary mass-produced objects (ready-mades) and presented them in the gallery; the fact that he said they were works of art made them works of art. The (now lost) original Fountain was a standard urinal laid on a plinth flat on its back. It was signed with one of Duchamp’s pseudonyms, “R. Mutt 1917”. The Fountain in the Tate Collection is one of a small number of replicas which Duchamp authorised in 1964, based on a photograph of the original by Alfred Stieglitz. The idea for Fountain came from a discussion between Duchamp and the collector Walter Arensburg and the artist Joseph Stella. Following this conversation, Duchamp bought a urinal from a plumbers’ merchants, signed it and submitted it to an exhibition organised by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Duchamp and Arensburg were both on the Society’s Board of Directors, which was bound to accept all members’ submissions. However the rest of the board who (most of whom did not know that the piece was Duchamp’s), refused to exhibit Fountain. Duchamp and Arensburg, resigned from the board in protest. An article published at the time, thought to have been written by Duchamp, argued:
“Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows. Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object.”
Choosing the object is itself a creative act, cancelling out the useful function of the object makes it art, and its presentation in the gallery gives it a new meaning. This move from artist-as-maker to artist-as-chooser is often seen as the beginning of the movement to conceptual art, as the status of the artist and the object are called into question. At the time, the readymade was seen as an assault on the conventional understanding not only of the status of art but its very nature - is this art? what is art?- something Duchamp himself became associated with throughout his career.