This spring will mark a very important anniversary for art historians, especially those interested in Marcel Duchamp. Around this time 100 years ago, the French artist, widely regarded as one of the founders of conceptual art, infamously took a prefabricated porcelain urinal, signed it "R. Mutt 1917," and submitted it for exhibition to the Society of Independent Artists. The title he chose for the work was Fountain.
In doing so, Duchamp was looking to push the rigid boundaries of what academics at the time were defining as art. The object had remained unchanged, save for Duchamp's signing, exemplifying the idea of the readymade – a non-art object presented “as is” in a gallery context. Duchamp had, almost by accident, created the framework by which all postmodern art is made.
Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, knows the impact of Fountain well. She and the museum have put together the show “Some Aesthetic Decisions: A Centennial Celebration of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain” to re-examine the seminal work and attempt to answer some age-old questions about the nature of art. The subject of why Fountain is art will be addressed in Clearwater's talk preceding the exhibition's opening.
“Duchamp's readymade shifted the viewer's experience of an artwork from that of passive gazing to being an active participant in the work's function,” Clearwater says. “The viewer's thoughts and reaction are essential to completing the creative act. This relationship between the viewer and the artwork applies to the experience of all art, not just conceptual art."
Essentially, Clearwater says, Fountain is a work in two parts: the porcelain urinal itself and the viewer's reaction to it in a gallery space. By signing the urinal, Duchamp presented a premade object as his artwork. "With this gesture, Duchamp created a new thought about the found object and redirected the consideration of the artwork from a visual experience to an equally pleasurable cerebral experience,” Clearwater notes.
She notes that although Duchamp's subversion of artistic form might have been welcome, the fact that he employed a urinal to do so was not. "It was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists on grounds of being indecent rather than for lacking artistic merits," Clearwater explains. "Its status as an artwork was never in question among his peers,"
Duchamp remained anonymous during the controversy, letting others defend his work. "There were two camps of defenders: those who thought the artist was directing the viewer to discover beauty in even the most mundane, mass-produced objects, and those who recognized that the brilliance and originality in the work was a result of the artist's act of choosing the object in the first place and giving it a title," Clearwater says. In doing so, Duchamp imbued it with a declaration of intent that is the signature of conceptual art. "It redirected the spectator's focus to experiencing the work through the intellect or imagination rather than sight alone."
Duchamp's influence is far-reaching, but he is far from the only artist to toy with preconceived notions about art. The exhibition will also present works from a slew of well-known artists, including Andy Warhol and Kara Walker.
"Warhol's Brillo box initially looks like the same gesture as Duchamp's Fountain, but his choices distinguish it from his predecessor's readymades," Clearwater says of the relationship between the two famous works. "Warhol could have used a store-bought Brillo box as a readymade, but instead he chose to have his own boxes constructed out of wood, on which he silkscreened the Brillo box design on the surface. He could have controlled the printing process to ensure each print was uniform, but he allowed the ink to drip and splatter. As a result, each box is unique."
Clearwater posits that although Duchamp chose a urinal for Fountain explicitly because of his desire to be anti-aesthetic, Warhol chose to ape Brillo for its "tasteful graphics" not unlike the minimalism prevalent in modern art. "The graphics on Warhol's box even announced it was 'new,' which was a virtue in post-World War II consumer culture and the avant-garde," she explains. "All the decisions Warhol made in the creation of the Brillo box gave it its meaning and significance."
Other artists on display have adapted the idea of the readymade for their own work. Julian Schnabel used found surfaces and thrift store paintings as the canvases for his paintings. Kara Walker plays deliberately with notions of "arts and crafts" when creating her instantly recognizable compositions of cut-out silhouettes. "Walker chose to use a craft associated with the late 19th-century American South and elevate it to high art in her pieces," Clearwater says. "The works recast derogatory stereotypes of African-Americans in new configurations of racial and gender power structures."
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But the original readymade, Fountain, still has a broad reach. "Most of all, it opens up the possibilities for artists to consider the multitude of aesthetic decisions that may lead to new thoughts concerning the nature of art," Clearwater says. "I also would add that while Fountain created a new thought about art, it is important to recognize that it is not the only way to think about art, especially from the perspective of non-Western cultures or art that preceded the Renaissance."
Though Fountain is only one piece in the canon of art history, it still holds up as one of the funniest and most surprising.
Bonnie Clearwater's talk, “Why Is This Art?” precedes the opening reception of “Some Aesthetic Decisions” at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 13, at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5500; nsuartmuseum.org. The exhibition runs through September 3.