This room brings together a key artwork in the Tate Collection – Fountain 1917 by Marcel Duchamp – and a range of materials, films and artists’ quotes that explore how artists use materials and objects.
Since the early twentieth century artists have not felt confined by the media traditionally associated with fine art. Instead they have embraced a range of new materials, exploring a variety of forms and textures, from the precious to the throwaway and from the handcrafted to the mass-produced.
In this display you can examine and touch a wide variety of materials used by modern and contemporary artists. As you explore these substances, consider why an artist might choose them and what associations they bring with them.
Marcel Duchamp Fountain 1917
Fountain 1917, the most famous of Marcel Duchamp’s so-called ‘readymades’, challenges fundamental assumptions about what a work of art can be. It shows no signs of being a unique object, no evidence of the artist’s skill in manipulating materials, and (apart from the signature) no trace of the artist’s hand.
The original Fountain, which is now lost, was a standard porcelain urinal, laid flat on its back and signed with a pseudonym, ‘R. Mutt 1917’. It was purchased from a sanitary ware supplier and submitted in 1917 under the name Richard Mutt to the newly established Society of Independent Artists in New York. Duchamp himself was one of the founders of this society, whose aim was to promote and exhibit all varieties of modern art. Its constitution clearly stated that it would exhibit any work submitted by its members. However, the board rejected Fountain, deeming it indecent and not considering it to be an artwork. Duchamp resigned from the society in protest at this censorship, without letting on that he was involved in ‘Richard Mutt’s’ submission. A few weeks later, an anonymous article defending Fountain appeared in The Blind Man, a dada periodical edited by Duchamp.
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.
Duchamp later explained that he wanted to test out the openness of society to artworks that didn’t conform to conventional aesthetic or moral standards. However, the ramifications of inventing the readymade went even further. He implicitly questioned the role of the artist, and the very nature of the artwork itself. In the early 1920s Duchamp began to focus on playing chess competitively rather than making art. It wasn’t until the onset of conceptual art in the 1950s and 1960s that artists became more interested in his ideas.
The radical freedom embodied in Fountain, and the principal that any object could potentially become a work of art, established Duchamp as perhaps the most influential artist of the twentieth century. The work on display is one of a small number of replicas which Duchamp authorised in 1964, made from glazed earthenware painted to resemble porcelain. It’s based on a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, which has become a key document in recording the work’s existence. In a letter from April 1917, Stieglitz wrote:
The ‘Urinal’ photograph is really quite a wonder – Everyone who has seen it thinks it beautiful – And it’s true – it is. It has an oriental look about it – a cross between a Buddha and a Veiled Woman.
For Duchamp, the production of replicas was in keeping with his idea of the readymade, ensuring that more people would see the works and increasing the likelihood that the ideas they represented would survive.