THE RICHARD MUTT CASE:
LOOKING FOR MARCEL DUCHAMP'S FOUNTAIN

Michael Betacourt

 

MIAMI, FLA -- Writing history is a matter of exclusion. It requires a selection from all the facts, narratives and other information which possibly relate to a subject to build a coherent picture of that subject. Anything which conflicts with this process is excluded from the history produced. This action is thought to be necessary since it is a form of simplification whose goal is, ultimately, to produce an explanation of some past "event," even if this "event" is nothing more than a chronology. However, in researching a subject like Marcel Duchamp's now infamous Fountain (1917), it quickly becomes obvious that there are many different narratives presenting different sets of facts about the same "event." In writing about Fountain, historians have selected one or another of these versions and presented it as The History of Fountain, sometimes mentioning that there are other versions of the facts, sometimes not. The most compelling of this histories is by William Camfield.[1] His research, however, suggests that other versions are as potentially correct as the one he proposes. By excluding conflicting versions of the story the result is apparent knowledge about the facts of when and where it was exhibited; who made it; why. Since all of the "facts" in the Richard Mutt case are questionable, it seems reasonable to suppose that there are equally plausible alternative versions of the same event. This paper will examine the problem of creating a history of Fountain through an examination of the validity of the different versions of the facts about Fountain.

Fountain is a men's urinal turned so that the surface mounted on the wall becomes its base, and belongs to a broad category of objects called "ready-mades" which Marcel Duchamp created in New York during the 1910s and '20s. He divides them into smaller categories based on the degree of alteration applied to them. It is well-known that Duchamp claimed to select these objects based on his not having an aesthetic reaction to them; for him these objects lack aesthetic qualities: this was the sole criterion he admits for their selection.[2] Fountain likely belongs to the "ready-made-aided." These are objects to which Duchamp has made an alteration: to Pharmacy (1914) he has added two small spots of color at the horizon; the "snow shovel" (In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915) and Comb (for dogs) (3 or 4 Drops of Height Have Nothing to do with Savagery, 1916)[3] both have inscriptions. Fountain belongs in this grouping both because of the added inscription "R. Mutt 1917" and because of its shifted arrangement (turned sideways). "R. Mutt" or "Richard Mutt" is believed to be a pseudonym of Marcel Duchamp [4] composed out of an association with the Mutt and Jeff cartoons. Apparently there was no actual R. Mutt.

Today we know Fountain exclusively through reproduction and the various stories told about it. Starting with the Box in a Valise, (1934) Duchamp presented Fountain in conjunction with his other work. The original Fountain is missing, often listed simply as "Lost." If we believe Charles Prendergast's account[5] of Fountain, it was broken by William Glackens as a solution to the question of exhibiting it or not. If this were the accepted account of Fountain's fate, then it would not be listed as "Lost" but as "Destroyed." However, this account has several problems, the first being that Alfred Stieglitz is supposed to have photographed it after it was rejected by the Executive Committee of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 where it was submitted for exhibition. The photograph does exist, and Fountain is clearly not broken. [It is possible that it was broken, and a replacement simply purchased and photographed by Stieglitz; this possibility, however, has problems in relation to other versions of these events, and is not something ever mentioned by anyone involved.[6] Even though it reconciles one discrepancy, it creates more problems than solutions.] In fairness to this version of the story, since Stieglitz does not list the photograph in his ledger, we cannot know when it was made.

In 1917 Duchamp had been in New York for a year, part of a small circle of artists, centered around Walter Arensberg and involved with a "movement" which would come to be called "New York Dada."[7] It is from the context of the period just before the formal inauguration of "New York Dada" and the Machine Aesthetic that the ready-mades first appear in force.[8] Duchamp, Picabia and Apollinaire created the Machine Aesthetic in response to the dominant trends in art just before WWI broke out in Europe. It was an anti-traditional approach to the subject matter of art. Duchamp is responsible for its invention with Coffee Grinder (1911), done as a decoration for his brother's kitchen. The Machine Aesthetic placed specific emphasis on the industrially produced, rather than on the singular object d'art produced by an artist. With his arrival in New York, this different view of industrial culture coupled with his interest in linguistic play -- puns, palindromes, etc. -- developed into "New York Dada." Unlike its better known European counterparts, "New York Dada" was not a theatrical, performative movement, but rather a series of intellectual games and gestures not done for the general public (as in Paris, Berlin and Zurich) but for a very limited group centered around Walter Arensberg, and of which Marcel Duchamp was a prominent member.

The Society of Independent Artists developed out of two decades of collaborations between artists[9] whose work had difficulty being exhibited in New York. (This same group was responsible for the infamous Armory Show in 1913 which made Duchamp famous for his Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912.) The 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition was to be a show with "No juries; no awards." Arensberg and his circle [10] were intimately involved with the creation of the group; Duchamp was originally the director of the installation of the show, and was responsible for the by-law which dictated that the show would be installed alphabetically, with the first letter selected by lottery, the rest following normally.[11] This kind of ordering is typical of Duchamp's interests in chance and his objections to virtuosity. The results, while apparently democratic, very clearly present a "New York Dada" temperament for confusion and arbitrariness: a show hung in such a matter would be confusing for the audience since there would be no obvious system for the arrangement of the works, and sharp contrasts would inevitably arise between the works themselves as hung.

Fountain does not appear in either of the Illustrated Catalogs12 (there were two, the first just listing the works, and a second, more comprehensive catalog that included photographs) nor is it listed in the Supplement13 to the show which listed additional works which arrived too late for inclusion in the catalog. We know Duchamp was the original Chairman of the Hanging Committee, resigning shortly before the exhibit opened. However, only the first -- briefest catalog -- lists him as the Chairman, the Illustrated Catalog and Supplement list his replacement -- Rockwell Kent.14 This means that these catalogs were not printed until after Duchamp had resigned because otherwise they would not reflect the change in directors. We have been apocryphally told that Fountain did not appear in these catalogs because it was presented for the exhibit too late to be included; if that were the case, then why is it not in the Supplement which lists those works that arrived too late for inclusion in the catalogs? Why, too, is Duchamp not listed as the director? He resigned as the show was being hung. The answer is evident: Fountain, if it was to have been included in the Catalogs at all, was removed following Duchamp's resignation at the same time as the revisions were made to the catalogs. Fountain's absence from them is not likely to be a mistake.

The first issue of The Blind Man[15] appeared on the same day as the exhibition opened; the second (and final) issue appeared about a month later. It is this second issue which presents Fountain to the world, and reproduces the Stieglitz photograph. (The Stieglitz photograph was commissioned as an illustration for it.) There are three texts written to accompany the photograph. These texts include a news-like account of its rejection, a critical examination of Fountain's aesthetic properties titled "Buddha of the Bathroom" by Louise Norton, and a prose poem written in praise of Fountain. It was this issue (and an accompanying letter, now lost) that provided the basis for a discussion of Fountain by Apollinaire (1918) where he states it was exhibited.[16 ] This is a very strange error given the nature of the texts in The Blind Man. They are explicitly clear that Fountain was not exhibited. However, there is a possible source of the Apollinaire's error: the missing letter which we can assume accompanied this magazine, but have we no direct evidence for its existence; William Camfield, in researching his authoritative book, Fountain, discovered that there is a good possibility it was exhibited in Stieglitz's 291 Gallery for a few days during the 1917 show.[17] (this exhibition may have happened as a result of his photographing it). If that exhibition did happen, and Apollinaire was told about it, this would explain his "error" in saying it was exhibited.[18] The mistake was in where it was exhibited, rather than in saying there was an exhibition. The problem with this explanation is the same as with Stieglitz's photograph: there is no evidence it occurred. The only evidence we have of its presence in Stieglitz's 291 Gallery is a letter he wrote to the critic Henry McBride stating (a) he had photographed it and (b) that he still had it in his studio; this is not, however, the same as exhibiting it.[19] The only place where Fountain would have been generally visible, then, is Duchamp's own studio. It was never shown outside the storage closet at the 1917 Society exhibition, and may not have had any better treatment in Stieglitz's studio.

Even if Fountain was never "exhibited" anywhere except Duchamp's studio[20] in 1917, all the stories agree on two points: why it was entered in the Society Exhibit and rejected from that exhibition. They present two arguments. The first, based on 'decency' comes to us through Beatrice Wood: we are told that George Bellows[21] argued it was a gross, indecent object which should not be exhibited due to its base association with bathrooms and excreta.[22] Because it was a functional object (even though rendered non-functional through its placement) it still carried the connection to other toilets, and thus was not deserving of the status of Art. The second argument was based on authorship and comes to us through a variety of sources, including Katherine Drier[23]; because it was what is now called a "found object," and thus was not physically made by the artist, the exhibition of it as an original artwork was unacceptable. Both of these arguments are generally presented as the reasons that the work was not exhibited in the 1917 show. Each argument has as its conclusion that Fountain is not an artwork; thus not exhibitable. The debates which have developed around it center on this aspect of the discussion, using it as the means to discuss the identity and nature of art, and the ways in which we identify artworks. Because Fountain is a urinal, installing it in an art gallery transforms that gallery into a lavatory at the same time as the urinal is elevated out of the lavatory to become a sculpture. This is the problem it presents vis-à-vis discussion of artworks -- what constitutes the 'art': is it the artist making the work, the context under which we view the object, or some combination of both with other, yet-to-be identified, qualities?

The 1917 exhibition from which Fountain was rejected claimed that there was "no jury; no awards." Thus any artist paying the fees (membership dues + exhibition fee) could exhibit an artwork. All of the stories about Fountain begin with this fact about the Society of Independent Artists. They then continue: Marcel Duchamp, to test the impartiality of the committee presented Fountain under the assumed name of R(ichard) Mutt. Why under an assumed name? Duchamp was a member of the Board of Directors, he was the director for the exhibition in question; if he had done it under his own name, it would not have been a test at all. This requires Duchamp and his work with ready-mades to be essentially unknown. Hence, the underlying assumption to this element of the story is that his fellow directors would not have been aware of Duchamp's other ready-mades, nor of what would be "New York Dada," nor its provocative interests. If they were aware of his ready-mades, they would almost by necessity assume that Duchamp was the author of Fountain (based on past experience with his other ready-mades). Clark Marlor reproduces a letter[24] from 1937 which suggests that the board not only was aware of Duchamp's work, but had shown their own works in an exhibition with his ready-mades a year prior to the 1917 exhibition. This is also confirmed by Katherine Drier's letter to William Glackens reproduced by Camfield.[25] If they had exhibited with his ready-mades before, they would know Duchamp was the likely source for Fountain. They knew about Duchamp and his work; it is also likely they recognized what Duchamp was doing with Fountain, knowing him as they must have[26] from working with him on the exhibition.

Such knowledge is further suggested by an off-hand comment Man Ray makes about his first visit to the Arensberg circle: "We were invited to an evening at his [Walter Arensberg's] duplex filled with his collection of moderns. There was a mixed crowd; Picabia from France, various women and Duchamp who sat quietly in a corner playing chess with a neurologist. George Bellows, the painter, walked around with a disdainful and patronizing air, evidently out of place in the surroundings."[27] At the same time, because at least George Bellows, and possibly others, who would object to Fountain's exhibition were in the same social group with the Arensberg circle they would be exposed to Duchamp and his thinking, not indirectly, but first-hand. George Bellows' presence here suggests he was more involved and aware of Duchamp and his work than Wood would have us believe from her narrative. His suspicion that "Someone sent it as a joke. Sounds fishy to me."[28] (assuming that his comments are accurately represented) would be justified based on his personal knowledge and experience with Duchamp and the circle which would call themselves "New York Dada." This makes claims of its submission as a test of impartiality not only implausible, but makes the insistence that "R. Mutt" was used as an aid in hiding Duchamp's identity as the real author quite ridiculous. This is the kind of test which can only be done "cold" -- without warning.

The story of why Duchamp presented the work becomes questionable. That the committee may have assumed (rightly?) that he was the artist and not R. Mutt means that it is also possible they recognized Fountain as a personal assault on their aesthetics; after all, it is a urinal. That Duchamp felt (to some degree) Fountain was an insult is reflected in his comment fifty years later that "I threw the urinal in their faces and now they admire it for its aesthetic beauty."[29] Fountain is thus double-edged: when Duchamp and company defended Fountain in the pages of The Blind Man (1917), it was admired for its aesthetic properties; years later, when it was accepted as an aesthetic object, Duchamp emphasizes its functional basis (1960s). It is both aesthetic and non-aesthetic; as a ready-made Duchamp claims provokes indifference, possibly a result of both tendencies canceling each other. The presentation of Fountain as an artwork, then, should be understood not simply as a test (it is impossible to clandestinely test someone when they know about the test) but also as an assault. Their rejection of it as non-art (which ever argument is used, the result is the same) then is also a response to Duchamp. As Drier's letter[30] attests, the committee felt that it was not a work presented in "good faith" -- meaning they felt there was some element of both test and assault to it, thus reinforcing that aspect of the stories about Fountain to the exclusion of other possibilities about why Duchamp may have presented it the way he did.

What happened to Fountain following its non-exhibition is mysterious; it disappeared. William Glackens may have broken it (Ira Glackens' Biography of his father); Marcel Duchamp may have sold it to Walter Arensberg, who then lost it (Camfield)[31]; Katherine Drier comments in a letter dated 13 April that Fountain was stolen, (although a later letter suggests that Fountain had reappeared)....

William Camfield constructs an account, based on Beatrice Wood's diary and autobiography, where the uncertainties appear to vanish in favor of a chronology where Fountain is hidden before opening day, later found by Duchamp (and possibly Man Ray) who then sells it to Arensberg and carries it in triumph out of the exhibition. This version is derived from Beatrice Wood's diaries, a source which Camfield feels is likely to be the most accurate since it was written at the time. However, an examination of the diary entries in question reveals they are little more than abbreviated listings of events where "Lunch Marcel Duchamp at Pollys. Home." is typical. A much stronger source for Camfield's version is later documents written by Wood from memory. His chronology is a good version of the story since it sets up a series of documented events which also connects with some of the other, more troubling facts -- such as Drier's two letters discussing the Richard Mutt Case and the response the society should take. There is a footnote which mentions in passing that Wood, however, was closely involved with the writing and production of The Blind Man, and was one of the innermost group of the Arensberg circle -- a group with included Duchamp and his ideas about ready-mades. This is the same group which comprised the core of New York Dada.

If we understand Fountain as an object produced within the context of New York Dada -- which is emphasis on puns, ironies and "inside-jokes" -- we must then also reconsider the validity of all the writings produced at the time, including Woods. The entries reproduced by Camfield from her Diary as evidence for his story are much too brief, reading much more like an appointment calendar; the longer discussions (he admits) were produced later, so do not necessarily reflect the actual events of the moment. Given that Wood was intimately involved with the Arensberg circle -- primarily Duchamp (she shared his studio) and Henry Roche -- the group which would become "New York Dada" we should not consider her autobiography as a necessarily straight forward or factual account of the events. It is important to remember that "New York Dada" predated the developments by Tristan Tzara and the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.[32] The European Dada movement simply provided a name [33] for something that developed independently in America, so understanding it in European terms is an error. To the extent that it was formally a movement, it was centered in the works and ideas of the Arensberg circle.

It is important to recognize that even though (as Camfield notes) Wood has essentially held to the same story since (at least 1949) all these versions are written substantially after the fact, that is to say, we do not have a contemporary narrative of these events written at the time. 1949 is more than thirty years later, and even within these versions of Wood's narrative, there are variations.[34] In order to accept Wood as the authoritative narrative these variations must be played down. However, in reading her autobiography, one quickly recognizes that she is glossing over details. She portrays herself as a naive waif with only vague ideas (and no understanding) of what was happening around her. Such a view would support her claims to objective description, yet, she is one of the primary authors for the magazines which define "New York Dada," writing substantial portions of both issues of The Blind Man. She was also romantically involved with Henry Roche, and shared studio space with Duchamp for the entire period -- both before the "Richard Mutt Case" and after. Her professed unawareness is not entirely credible. Thus her account is questionable.

Where does this leave Fountain -- which story are we to believe? The problem is the same one which started this examination: that what must be excluded to produce a coherent story telling us "what happened" is uncertain. The facts we do have lend themselves to alternative narratives. What the stories surrounding Fountain and its fate agree on is one final point: the fact that it is missing. And like this vanished object -- broken, stolen, sold, or otherwise -- we have a collection of stories about what happened to which are going to continue to grow since we cannot have an authoritative history without excluding the contradictions that are an essential characteristic of the "facts." Instead, what is required in this situation is a history which includes the contradictions and confusions rather than attempts to minimize them in favor of a coherent narrative. This type of history may not be a conclusive one, but it cases such as Fountain, it does give us a more accurate grasp of the situation in all its complexities. As this paper demonstrates, the "facts" of this "event" may not be able to produce a narrative which tells us the fate of Fountain. What this inclusive history shows is the contingent nature of the entire historicizing process. If we have reason to distrust our historical sources and there are contradictory, unresolvable problems with our "facts," to then arrive at a synthesis based on an exclusion of evidence is problematic. Which evidence is valid? The very nature of the stories surrounding Fountain suggest that what we are examining is not so much a historical object, as a mythological one. This is not to deny that there is a factual basis to the stories, but that to treat such an object using normative exclusionary historical techniques will neither acknowledge the nature of the event/object being examined, the motives of the people who are the primary sources, nor Fountain's continuing appeal to artists, curators, and historians. By excluding conflicting versions of the "facts," the result is apparent knowledge about when and where Fountain was exhibited; who made it; why, but in actuality we only have a partial view of the situation. By including the contradictions, we have a "story" showing our uncertainty about Fountain, the exhibition where it wasn't shown, and the people which were involved in the Richard Mutt Case.


[1] Camfield, William. Fountain, (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989).
[2] A note in the Green Box reads: "Specifications for ‘Ready-mades.’ By planning for a moment to come (on such a day, such a date, such a minute), ‘to inscribe a readymade’ -- The readymade can then be looked for . -- (with all kinds of delays). The important thing then is just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour. It is a kind of rondez-vous." in Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp & Co., (Paderborn: Terrail, 1997) p. 106.

[3] The comb readymade is dated New York, Feb. 17, 1916 11 A.M.

[4] This would be a pseudonym along the same lines as those listed in the wanted poster of 1922 which reads: "WANTED $2,000 REWARD For information leading to the arrest of George W. Welch, alias Bull, alias Pickens, etcetry, etcetry. Operated Bucket Shop in New York under name HOOKE, LYON and CINQUER. Height about 5 feet 9 inches. Weight about 180 pounds. Complexion Medium, eyes same. Known also under name RROSE SELAVY".

[5] Glackens, Ira. William Glackens and the Eight, (New York: Writers and Readers, 1957, 1983, 1990) pp. 186-8.

[6] Given the arguments consistently made by Duchamp about the selection being based on indifference, and the emphasis on mass-produced (hence, essentially multiple, identical objects) if it had been replaced after being broken, his immediate replacement of it by another, identical Fountain would strengthen rather than weaken his case for his process of selection. Also given that Duchamp was very willing to sign the reproductions produced in later years as if they were originals, his silence on it being replaced is extremely inconsistent with his other actions regarding Fountain.

[7] "New York Dada" includes the core group of the Arensberg circle -- which was involved in the Society of Independent Artists exhibition -- but is formally begun with the publication of a series of small journals, New York Dada, and Wrongwrong, in 1920-21. The only reason this gap exists is that Duchamp spent the period between 1918 and 1920 traveling. Upon his return to New York, Duchamp and company continued their activities without apparent interruption, showing the continuity between 1917 and the later "Dada" activities. See also, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, "Arthur Cravan and American Dada" in Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets, second edition, (New York: G.K. Hall & Co. 1981) pp 13-17.

[8] Before coming to New York, Duchamp had created the first of the ready-mades -- the Bicycle wheel, which he left in Paris. The main group of ready-mades will not start to appear until after he has been in New York for a few months.

[9] Including William Glackens, George Bellows and Charles Prendergast.
[10] Man Ray’s apparent introduction to this group came sometime during the planning stages for this exhibition, via Duchamp. see Ray, Man. Self-Portrait, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1963, 1988) pp. 64-65.

[11] Marlor, Clark S. The Society of Independent Artists: The Exhibition Record 1917-1944 (Park Ridge: Noyes Press, 1984) p. 3.

[12] ibid., p 6.
[13] ibid., p 6.

[14] ibid., p 6.

[15] The Blind Man was a magazine produced by Henry Roche, Marcel Duchamp and edited by Beatrice Wood for the Society for Independent Artists. It ran two issues. The second of these issues is discussed as a Dada magazine by Andre Breton, "Marcel Duchamp" in Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets, second edition, (New York: G.K. Hall & Co. 1981) pp 207-218, both Fountian and The Blind Man are included as illustrations on pages 212 and 213 respectively.

[16] Samaltanos, Katia. Apollinaire: Catalyst for Primitivism, Picabia, and Duchamp, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984) pp. 100-102.

[17] Camfield, William. op. cit., pp. 33-34.

[18] There is also the possibility that Apollinaire was confusing the exhibition of other ready-mades as a result of Katherine Drier’s letter with an exhibition of Fountain. This possibility is suggested by the chronology produced by William Rubin in Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968) p.199: "Ready-mades are shown in the Lobby of the Bourgeois Gallery."

[19] "You may find the photograph of some use -- It will amuse you to see it -- The Fountain is here too." Alfred Stieglitz to Henry McBride, April 19, 1917, Archives of American Art, McBride Papers, microfilm roll 12, frame 445. in William Camfield, Fountain, (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989) p. 34.

[20] The Box in a Valise (1934) includes a photograph showing three ready-mades: The Hatrack, In advance of the broken arm, and Fountain.

[21] or Rockwell Kent in some versions of this narrative.

[22] Wood, Beatrice. I Shock Myself, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985, 1988 (revised)) p. 29.

[23] Camfield, op.cit., pp. 32-33.

[24] Marlor. op. cit., pp. 36-37.

[25] Katherine S. Drier to William Glackens, April 26, 1917, Archives of the Society Anonyme, Yale University, in William Camfield, Fountain, (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1989) pp. 32-33.

[26] While Beatrice Wood’s telling of an argument between Walter Arensberg and another Director is inconsistent -- her version stars alternatively George Bellows or Rockwell Kent -- these men, along with Duchamp, were the Hanging Committee, and would be in a position to know Duchamp well.

[27] Ray, Man. Self-Portrait, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1963, 1988) p. 64.

[28] Wood, op.cit., p29.

[29] Sanouillet, Michel and Elmer Petersen, editors. The Collected Writings of Marcel Duchamp, (New York: Da Capo, 1973).

[30] Camfield, op.cit., pp. 33-34.

[31] As Calvin Tompkins notes, it does not appear in any of the listings of Arensberg’s collection. Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) pp.182-183.

[32] Naumann, Francis M.. New York Dada, (New York: Abrams, 1994).

[33] Ray, Man.op. cit., p. 87.

[34] Camfield, op cit., pp. 25-26, in a footnote.

— Michael Betacourt is currently a writer

Back