April 11


The year of revolutions, of which the one which failed in the world of art may have longer-term significance than the one which failed in the world of politics.

118 Fifth Avenue, New York, is today a branch of the clothing retailer GAP. We are in the heart of the Flatiron District, west of Gramercy Park, north of Union Square Park, east of the Church of St Francis Xavier which you would pass if you were coming this way from Greenwich Village or Washington Square. The northern end of the original Manhattan, before they spread out along two sides of Central Park and kept on going Bronxwards.

There are lots of great eating places in the area, but none of them is known to be the one where the American painter Joseph Stella met the wealthy collector Walter Arensberg for lunch on this day in April 1917, and introduced him to a friend who had recently arrived from Europe, a 30-year-old French intellectual who had become famous when he was asked to withdraw his painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" from the 1912 Salon des Ind├ępendants in Paris, and then still more famous when his friend Francis Picabia brought that painting to New York for the Armory Show of Contemporary Art in 1913. He was a man with a penchant for the satirical, and the conviction that Art had been painted out, that there was nothing left to do but challenge its prejudices and preconceptions at the most nihilistic of levels - so trouble probably ought to have been expected. Marcel Duchamp by name, brother of the painter Jacques Villon and the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon.

When lunch was satisfactorily completed, the three went to 118 Fifth Avenue, to what was then the J.L. Mott Ironworks, a plumbing suppliers. Duchamp wanted to buy a urinal, not for personal use, or only allegorically, with the intention of doing to the conventional art world what Gulliver had done to the Empress' bedroom in Lilliput: only he would set it aflame, as well as dousing the existing fires.

He chose a "Bedfordshire" model, in porcelain. Back in his studio he swivelled it 90 degrees, so that it rested on its back, and added a signature that must mean something, though no art critic has yet managed to discern what that might be: "R. MUTT 1917". What was now the world's first "ready-made" work of art, or possibly Art, was given the title "Fountain", and entered, for the massive fee of $6, in New York's equivalent of the Salon des Ind├ępendants in Paris, on whose Board of Trustees he had also been invited to sit.

Duchamp's intention was subversion, though why he chose this event is difficult to understand; the New York "salon" was open to anyone, amateur or professional, so there was plenty of junk already there to choose from - or maybe that was what he was trying to point out. Whatever his reason, he actually failed, because his colleagues on the Board chose not to include what one newspaperman, refusing to write "urinal", had called a "bathroom appliance". Duchamp then arranged for it, and himself, to be photographed by Alfred Stieglitz (note the careful positioning of the artist's body to replicate the urinal; note the careful positioning of the cigarette in the model's mouth; note the remarkable echo of Whistler's painting of his mother - click here), and published the picture, accompanied by an article by an un-named writer who was obviously himself, in the magazine "The Blind Man" the following May.

"Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an 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."

That article probably did more (good or bad as you prefer) than the failure to get the work exhibited. As I said before, Duchamp's aim appears to have been subversion, even revolution, rather more than it was art, or even Art.

Not very long afterwards the urinal disappeared, probably on a skip outside some brownstone construction site in the neighbourhood where Stieglitz dumped it. The one that still tours the world, doing personal appearances at retrospective events, is a replica (actually there are several, all replicas, none of them bought from a supplier of "bathroom appliances", but hand-crafted facsimiles - works, you might very well say, of art, or at least artisanship).

Writing in the Daily Telegraph some decades later, the critic Martin Gayford noted that "Duchamp has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci, as a profound philosopher-artist. But there is also a comparison to be made with Buster Keaton, another handsome deadpan clown whom Duchamp somewhat resembled. He valued humour, telling a New York newspaper that, 'People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we took ourselves very seriously. A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing.'"

Amber pages:

1951:General Douglas MacArthur relieved of his command in Korea

1979: Idi Amin, tyrant of Uganda, overthrown.

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