Sunday, December 7, 2014

Between Icons and Abstraction: The Russian Art that Westerners Don't Know


Western art enthusiasts have selective knowledge of Russian painting.  When we think about Russia's contributions to art history, we tend to think about modernists like Kandinsky and Malevich, or else perhaps we think of Russian icons, which are recognizable to us but poorly understood.   We are also familiar with the socialist realism imposed during Stalin's Soviet regime, though it is usually dismissed as insignificant.  We are far less familiar with the art and artists that thrived in the centuries between the icons and the modernist iconoclasts.  Many painters who are cherished by Russian museum-goers are unknown to the international art world.  On a recent trip to Moscow, I was lucky to learn a little bit about these Russian masters.  Here I will focus on works in the The State Tretyakov Gallery, which may be the best place to view paintings that are entrenched in the Russian canon.

Pavel Tretyakov (right) was a merchant who began amassing an art collection in the mid-19th century.  In 1892, he donated his collection to Russia, and it remains the crown jewel in a city that hosts many superb museums.  The Tretyakov Gallery has a spectacular collection of icons, as well as a gallery for contemporary art, added in the 1980s.  By default, I would have gravitated to these historic bookends, but, with the encouragement and patient instruction of Russian friends, elected to spend time with the paintings created in between  The Gallery includes works spanning 1,000 years, but the lion's share date from the 18th and, especially, the 19th centuries--works by those who lived during or shortly before the life of Pavel Tretyakov.  His was a cutting edge collection.

The work is no longer cutting edge, but it is easy to see how it  excited and provoked viewers in the final century of Tsarist Russia.  We see a succession of styles-- neo-classicism, romanticism, social realism, and forms of symbolism--which recapitulate the artistic breakthroughs in Western art.  These works are, to that extent, accessible to Western visitors, and it is exciting to discover talented artists who were working in these familiar idioms.  At the same time, there are ways in which these artists clash with Western taste.  Jaded as we are, certain forms of narrative realism have been given second-tier status in our canons.  Likewise for history paintings and genre paintings, which once had an exalted status.  The Western canon has transformed with shifting trends, and artists who experienced great fame in their lifetimes have been relegated to footnotes because of the subjects they preferred to paint.  The Russian canon includes works that prevailing Western tastes might resist, but it is rewarding to spend time with them.  These works are masterful in execution, and they are a window into Russian history.  They also shed light on the Russian modernist painters who so admire.


Let's begin our tour in 1784 with Ivan Argunov's austerely composed Portrait of an Unknown Peasant.  Argunov was a serf who began as an icon painter but went on to develop a style that helped to define Russian portrait painting.  He trained painters who taught in the newly established Imperial Academy of the Arts, but retired from painting shortly after this portrait was made, in order to perform duties for his master's family.  As we can see here, he adopted neo-classical formalism in his work, showing the influence of continental styles, but his careful attention to traditional Russian dress shows that he is firmly grounded in the local culture.  It is also noteworthy that he chose to paint a peasant (or at least a woman in peasant dress) is such a stately fashion.  Russian art is noted for its dignified portrayals of the poor and working classes.  Argunov's own humble roots are proudly proclaimed with this gesture, which forecasts times when high art will become accessible to all.

Vladimir Borovikovsky was another artist who began as an icon painter at the end of the 18th centery.  Born to a Cossack family in Ukraine, he went on to a distinguished career as a portrait painter, perfecting a style known as sentimentalism.  Argunov's interest in peasant attire reflects a sentimental spin on classical forms, but Borovikovsky takes this farther, softening his lines in a way that shifts from the geometrical ideas of classicism to a sweeter form of idealization. His Portrait of M.I. Lupukhina (1794) is a perfect example.  It has the tender allure of a Grueze painting, without drifting, as does Grueze, into the saccharine.  He also manages to integrate his subject with the natural surroundings, an organicism that signals the Romantic styles that would soon follow.

Romanticism comes out more fully in the early 19th century, with the work of Karl Bryullov, an academy professor who spent time in Germany and Italy.  The Tretyakov collection includes several Bryullov canvases, including The Rider, a portrait of a woman on a horse, with a child and two dogs. Bryullov's neoclassical training is evident in the poised formality of the female figure at the center, but the horse on which she sits bucks wildly, evincing the Romantic ideal of untamed nature.  The architectural details also impart a classical feel, but the blood red cloth visible on the interior, and the foreboding forest in the background reveal Bryullov to be a Romantic.



Bryllov's most famous painting, the Last Days of Pompeii, confirms this designation.  It hangs in St. Petersburg, but a small study can be seen at the Tretyakov (above right).  Here, tormented figures writhe beneath a crimson sky.


The Tretyakov collection also includes a masterpiece by Bryullov's follower, Konstantin Flavitsky, titled Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress at the Time of the Flood.  Tarakanova claimed rights to the throne during the reign of Catherine the Great and was imprisoned in St. Petersburg.  According to one legend, depicted here, she died when the prison was submerged during the flood of 1777.  Flavitsky captures the moment as floodwaters pour into her cell.  His chiaroscuro, dramatic staging, and deference to nature's power captures the spirit of Romanticism.


A detail reveals that a rat is climbing on the the Princess' bed, clinging, like her, for its dear life.


Other academy professors perfected the art of genre painting.  Vasily Pukirev's Unequal Marriage is
a compelling example.  Here a young woman endures a wedding ceremony with a man many decades her senior.  Though somewhat comedic, the picture is a powerful indictment of economic disparity.  Pukirev himself was born poor, and the woman he loved was forced by her parents to marry an elderly man with better finances and a higher social station.  Another Pukirev--Artist's Atelier--can be seen at the top of this post.


Both Bryullov and Pukirev create narratives in their paintings.  They use a single moment to tell a story.  Narrativity finds its consummate realization, however, in the work Vasily Surikov.  Famous for grand canvases, teaming with figures in action, Surikov is among the most celebrated painters in Russia.  Here I've reproduced his Morning of the Streltsy’ Execution, a lavishly detailed canvas that depicts soldiers en route to the gallows in Red Square.  The Streltsy were a military unit that was originally assembled by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.  In the 17th century, they tried to rebel against Peter the Great, and were brutally tortured and killed.  The executions did not take place next to St. Basil's church, as depicted here, but Surikov uses the church to represent the overwhelming power of the state against insurrection.  Though officially a history painting, it delivers a political message.  The exact content of that message is somewhat opaque.  The Streltsy are depicted as fearless, but beaten, with weeping women clinging to them and crowd of dejected onlookers; this evokes empathy.  But Peter looks downward from his horse with stately repose and stern confidence; there is no attempt to demonize him, and Surikov may have believed that history was on his side.  This ambivalence is best expressed by a figure in the center of the canvas--a soldier perched higher than Peter in the picture plane, wearing a military coat that resembled Peter's,  indicating that he is a member of Peter's victorious army.  But this figure is also hunched forward, and carries a candle, which evokes mourning, and his coat is unbuttoned exposing his long white shirt, which exactly mirrors the attire of the fallen rebels.  If the figure is among the victors, then why does his posture convey defeat?  Perhaps Surikov is telling us that the Streltsy rebellion was both right and wrong: right to challenge the standing Tsar, but wrong to advocate his replacement with another dictator.  A rebellion with the right spirit but the wrong cause.


A related theme is depicted by Ilya Repin, another one of Russia's most revered history painters.  He depicts Peter the Great's half-sister Sophia, whose rule he had quashed in order to become Tsar.  The full title is: Tsarina Sophia in 1698, a Year after her Confinement to the Novodievitchi Convent, at the Time of the Execution and the Torture of All her Servants.  Repin depicts the deposed ruler as defiant; she is an immovable pillar with crossed arms and fiery eyes, which stare directly at the viewer.  An innocent-looking child appears in the shadows behind her, and the window on the right reveals one of the Streltsy hanging from a noose.  Repin is commenting on Peter's brutality, but Sophia was also ruthless, as this depiction suggests with her malevolent gaze.  Is Repin telling us that both leaders were bad?


An answer is suggested by another Repin painting: his portrayal of Ivan the Terrible, Russia's most infamous Tsar.  In this scene, the turbulent ruler has just murdered his son, Ivan Ivanovich, in a fit of rage.  Ivanovich had been groomed for succession, and, after the filicide depicted here, the throne went to Ivan the Terrible's other son, Feodor, who wasn't fit to rule, leading the country into troubled times.  The painting is chilling.  The murderous monarch clings to the bloodied head of his son, with eyes staring madly into space--horrified by his own actions.  The son, in a bewildered trance as he nears death, rests his hand on his father's arm, as a baby might when cradled in parental arms.  The composition is horizontally decided between the wall of the dusk-black room and the blood-red rug below.  Father and son form a black and white mass in the center--they are yin and yang caught in the spotlight.  Together Repin's paintings serve as an indictment of despotism and forecast the coming revolution.


Repin also painted a magisterial portrait of Tolstoy, which can be seen at the Tretyakov.  The two had much in common.  In 19th century Russia, they were perhaps the most famous figures in their respective arts.  They were both populists, who felt compassion for the common people, despite coming from privileged backgrounds.  They were also friends.


There are other superb literary portraits in the Tretyakov collection, including a handsome portrait of Puskin by Orest Kiprensky, and a somber and statuesque Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov.


Perov was the artist counterpart to Dostoyevsky, just as Repin was a counterpart to Tolstoy.  He developed a style called critical realism that focused on the life or ordinary people, especially the working poor.  He breaths life into his subjects, and captures them at moments of hardship or peril.  One poignant example is The Last Journey, which depicts a coffin on a horse-drawn sled during a harsh winter snow.  A mother hunches over to guide the struggling house, and two mournful children sit next to the cheap wooden box containing their father.  This is not just loss; it is desperation.  Who will sustain the family now?  Like Dostoyevsky, Perov has a grim view of the human condition.  This painting was inspired by a poem called Red-Nosed Frost, by another literary giant, Nikolay Nekrasov.  Here is a translation of the opening stanzas (altered to preserve rhyme):

An old roan horse is stuck in the snow
Two pairs of frozen shoes lay
The edges of a mat-covered coffin show
Projecting from the wretched sleigh

An old woman in mittened hands
Has gone down to prod on the horse
On her eyelashes hang icicle strands
From the cold, of course

Perov's paintings might be passed over as maudlin genre scenes contrived to pull at our heartstrings, but, when juxtaposed with the literary works of Dostoyevsky and Nekrasov, we can see him as more of a philosopher, struggling with the hardship of his age--hardship that would soon lead to political upheaval.


Surikov, Repin, and Perov were all members of an artist group called the Peredvizhniki (or Itinerants), who broke off from the academy and began mounting touring (or itinerant) exhibitions.  This gave them greater freedom in both style and content.  The Itinerants also included a number of nature painters, who are highly esteemed by Russian art lovers.  The most iconic painting  in this category is Ivan Shishkin's Morning in a Pine Forest (popularly known as three bears, even thought there are four).  Bears are a popular symbol in Russia, and this painting has been endlessly copied and reproduced.  We shouldn't let its mass appeal distract from its technical achievements.  Like the impressionists, Shishkin developed innovative ways of painting light.  Notice his skillful treatment of fog, and the way the morning sun penetrates the leafy canopy.


Where Shishkin is a master of the forest, Ivan Aivazovsky is a master of the sea.  Born to Armenian parents in Crimia, Aivazovsky was one of the most prolific painters in the history of art, with some 6,000 paintings to his name.  Most of these are seascapes.  Like Turner, he uses the sea to create deeply expressive works, with crashing waves as stormy skies externalizing the tumult of the soul.  Like Turner, too, he can also be viewed as a pioneer of abstraction, though I'm not sure he has this reputation in Russia.  Among the Aivazovskys at the Tretyakov, I was most impressed by one showing a sea that bisects the canvass into two tonal planes.  The sea is calm at first glance, but rising waves and a dark cloud suggest that a storm is brewing.


I was also taken with a seascape by Nikolay Dubovskoy, which contrasts murky still water with a billowing cloud formation that spreads across the sky like a floating duvet, which portends either comfort or doom.


The most memorable landscape at the Gallery belongs to another artist, Arkhip Kuinji.  His Night on the Dniepr is a remarkable work that shows moonlight reflecting on a river.  The painting is mostly a black field with light forming an abstract play of forms.  Most striking is the iridescent quality of the light.  One of my Russian friends commented that the painting is impossible to reproduce, because no photo can capture the effect.  Kuinji originally exhibited the work in a dark room; it astonished those who saw it.


Though officially a member of the Peredvizhniki, Kuinji is a counterpoint to painters like Perov.  Rather than depicting the horrors of human life, he retreats to nature and renders it otherworldly.  Another striking example--Elburs, a Moonlit Night--is displayed above.

Departures from realism became more common as the 19th century drew to a close.  In 1890, Nikolai Ge, a veteran of the Peredvizhniki, painted What Is Truth?, which depicts a confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus.  Conservatives charged Ge with blasphemy because his Jesus is cast in shadow, looking frail and gaunt next to the magisterial Pilate.  Bulgakov must have had this painting in mind when he has Pilate say:

"Why did you, a vagrant, stir up the crowds in the marketplace by talking about truth, when you have no conception of what truth is?  What is truth?..."The truth is, first of all that your head aches, so badly, in fact, that you're having fainthearted thoughts about death.  Not only are you too weak to talk to me, but you're even having trouble looking at me.  That I, at this moment, am your unwilling executioner upsets me.  You can't think about anything and the only thing you want is to call your dog, the only creature, it seems, to whom you are attached.  But your sufferings will soon end, and your headache will pass."

Ge's painting qualifies as realist, in some sense, but it can also be compared to Viennese expressionism and other fin de siecle movements that began experimenting with expressive distortions of the human  form.


The flight from reality is far more pronounced in the work of the symbolist painter, Mikhail Vrubel.  Vrubel rejected the naturalism of the Peredvizhniki and developed a distinctive style that uses unnatural colors, like the post-impressionists, and articulated brushstrokes, like Cezanne.  Thematically, he is more like Redon, though his work could not be mistaken for any of these figures in the French pantheon.  It is entirely his own.  Vrubel had a Polish Father and a Danish mother, but he was decidedly Russian, and the Tretyakov Gallery has an impressive collection of his work, including monumental paintings and decorative arts.  Among Vrubel's most famous images is his Seated Demon, created in the same year as Ge's What is Truth? It is based on Mikhail Lermontov' poem, The Demon.  Here is Francis Storr's translation of the opening:

A spirt fallen from the realms of light
Above this dim world winged his weary flight,
For memories came crowding thick and fast
Of vanished splendours and delights long past. —
How erst, a Cherub bright, he loved to race
With fiery comets through the fields of space;
No mists could blind, no clouds his progress bar,
He followed knowledge on from star to star.

Vrubel's work abandons the realism that had dominated Russian painting for well over a century.  The other painters I have discussed aimed for greater retinal accuracy.  The neoclassical painters idealize, the Romantic painters dramatize, and the critical realists indulge in simplifying selectivity to portray human hardship, but each school tries to impress viewers by painting what might be characterized as photographically realistic details.  The late 19th century saw a break from this throughout Europe, and Russian art exhibits this pattern as well.  Vrubel's figures are certainly recognizable, but he is also doing something else: he is painting paint.  His work draws attention to the painted surface and thereby opens space for the next generation of artists who will give up on conventional representation and paint colors and forms (see another example below).  Vrubal would live long enough to see the very beginning of this revolution before dying of syphilis in 1910.


As someone familiar with the art of Western Europe, my visit to the Tretyakov Gallery was both exciting and challenging.  Exciting because I was able to learn about painters who are manifestly superb, and can be compared favorably to their Western counterparts.  Russia is known in the West for its 19th century music and literature, but deserves equal recognition for visual arts from that period.  Thus, strolling through the Tretyakov is a revelation.  It is also a challenge, because certain aspects of this art run counter to trends we have come to value.  Much of the art can be described as illustrational (tending to look like illustrations in picture books), narrative, sentimental, and designed for mass appeal.  Much of the work is also political, and hence focused on as much on message as form.  All five of these feature can be seen in Perov's "Troika" below--a famous Russian painting that a Western art enthusiast might be (too) quick to dismiss.  When paintings like this went out of vogue in the West, we began to neglect past painters who produced them.  Our art history books often tend to neglect history painters, genre painters, and, to some degree, landscape painters, despite the prominence in the past.  We have rewritten art's progression as an Oedipal series of stylistic innovations, in which each generation invents new ways of seeing, with little emphasis on what is seen.  We favor artists who shocked ordinary viewers, and were more interested in challenging status quo in the art world than challenging the ruling elite.


Through this lens, Russian art in unlike Western art, concerned as it is with recounting episodes in Russian history or revealing the plight of those who suffered under Tsarist rule.  But these features are also worthy of celebration.  In the Western canon, too little is political, and art becomes a commodity for those in power, rather than a voice for the powerless.  At least that was the case before the 20th century.  Moreover, one can look past content and appreciate stylistic features of the Russian masters.  They too were engaged in a process of constant innovation in ways that parallel, but never merely ape artistic breakthroughs in the West.


For those who are familiar with Russian icons and avant garde, the neglected centuries in between are also instructive in another way:  they provide a missing link.  Recall that Argunov and Borovikovsky began as icon painters.  The Tretyakov has a magnificent icon collection, including some by Andre Rublev--the most famous icon painter of all (celebrated in Tarkovsky's film, the best biopic ever made about an artist).  The flat surfaces of these old masterworks (above) contrast with the illusionistic realism of the work I have been discussing, but there are also features in common -- a solemnity, for example, and an attention to form.  One can view some of these pictures as icons come to life.  Compare Repin's sinewy portrait of Ivan the Terrible or Ge's gaunt Jesus to the Rublev below.


Rublev's icons also have a formal integrity that gets recapitulated throughout Russian art.  Repin's Ivan is, once again, a case in point.  Viewed in terms of its formal qualities, it is an exercise in graphic minimalism.   I also mentioned the formal excellence of Kuinji and the bisected canvas of Aivazovsky, where geometry takes center stage.  Such sensitivity to geometry may originate in icon painting, and it culminates in the constructivists, like Malevich and Popova.  I compare a Popova painting from the Tretyakov to an icon below.  Though manifestly reacting against retinal realism, the Russian constuctivists are also borrowing from their aesthetic history.


The flipside of minimalism is visual complexity.  In church settings, icons are often presented crowded together on great walls.  Some of the 19th century painters, like Surikov and, later, Vrubel, create large paintings that are very difficult to parse.  This too suggests continuity with older traditions.  These contrast with Malevich-style minimalism, but the find an analogue in Russia's best known modernist: Kandinsky.  Kandinsky actually began his career making illustration in the folk style, with costumed figures, spired buildings, and dense forests.  The visual complexity of his early abstract paintings can be understood against this background.  Whereas Malevich distills art into monolithic geometric forms, Kandisnky offers lyrical organicism, with decentralized compositions that dazzle and confound the eyes.  The reflect two sides of the Russian legacy in art.  Here is a Kandinksy with a painting from the Tretyakov icon collection.



There is much more to say about Russian modernism, but my goal here has been to share the lessons I learned about Russian art that proceeds these the modernists, who are already well-known in the West.  This earlier art has been neglected, and the Tretyakov Gallery offers a welcome education.

Addendum on Nonconformist Art

Before closing, I want to mention that the Western neglect of Russian art does not end with the advent of modernism.  We have also neglected most of the Russian art that came after the modernists.  The Western narrative about Russia has it that Stalin ended the era of experimentation, when he mandated a shift to socialist realism.  There is much truth to this, but the spirit of experimentation and political resistance is irrepressible Russia.  Unsurprisingly, many artists continued to make avant grade innovations in Soviet times, without state sanction.  These "nonconformists" forged underground movements, mounted apartment exhibitions, and staged impromptu performances. (Right: "Glasnost" screened onto an issue of Pravda by artist/poet Dimitry Prigov, 1988.)

While visiting Moscow, local friends kindly arranged for me to see a private collection of this hidden art.  The collection is hosted by the Russian State University for the Humanities, and tours can be privately arranged.  It was amassed by Mikhail Alishbaya, one of the best heart surgeons in Russia and an incredibly prolific medical author.   Alishbaya buys art that he loves with no intention of making a profit.  He has mounted many exhibitions, and works to raise awareness about nonconformist art.  When I visited, he was giving a personal tour, and his passion was manifest (I am grateful to Katya Fedotova for arranging the tour and telling me about Alishbaya).   I learned about artists who were violating aesthetic norms imposed by Stalin, both during his regime and on through the end of the soviet period.  This art picks up where Malevich left off, and it also gestures back to the earlier traditions that we have been exploring.


One example is Vasily Sitnikov, who was arrested by authorities in 1941, and interned in a psychiatric institution under insufferable conditions until the end of the war.  The painting above, from 1940, gestures at the constructivst tradition, while also recalling 19th century landscape painters, such as Kuinji.


The next example was was created by Olga Potapova in 1961.  For American viewers, it may evoke abstract expressionism, but the painterly style likely owes a debt to Vrubel.


A 1971 photograph by Francisco Infante can also be seen in the collection.  Born to a Spanish father, and raised by his Russian mother, Infante made important contributions to land art, placing mirrors in natural settings.  Still active today, his work merges the aesthetics of Malevich with earlier landscape artists, such as Shishkin.


By the late 1960s, a group who called themselves the Conceptualists was emerging.  One member of this group is Pyotr Belenok, who developed a an innovative method that combined abstract brushwork with collage elements.  The example here, from 1968, is typical.  It wittily unites Russia's legacy of abstraction with the prior traditions of figuration; abstract forms are reinterpreted as cataclysmic meteorological events. Belenok participated in the infamous bulldozer exhibition in 1974.  This was a public display of art that was demolished by soviet authorities, giving rise to international outrage and (some) recognition outside of Russia.  Belenok died at age 53 in 1991, but he was able to witness new freedoms that he had fought for.


Visually the work of the the Moscow Conceptualists bears little resemblance to the art considered above, but they share something important in common.  In the 19th century, Russian art was used as instrument of social criticism; though officially recognized, it challenged the absolute power of the Tsar.  The art of the Conceptualists is also an art of protest.  It belongs to a long tradition that spans from the Peredvizhniki to perestroika, and from Pukirev to Pussy Riot.  This spirit of resistance is part of what makes Russian art so compelling.  If we limit our purview to icons and constructivists and ignore this long tradition, we will  miss one of the most important lessons we can learn from Russian painters: works of art can make contributions to the craft while remaining socially significant.

Dedication

I dedicate this post, with gratitude, to my friends in Moscow who patiently exposed me to the art the I have described here: Andrey Mertsalov, Artem Basedin, Masha Ananina, Eugene Loginov, and Katya Fedotova.  They taught me most of what I shared above.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pilfered Pissoire? A Response to the Allegation that Duchamp Stole his Famous Fountain


On November 1, I posted a short animated film paying tribute to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, the urinal that he allegedly purchased as a readymade in 1917.  The film tells the standard story: Duchamp purchased the the urinal at J.L. Mott Iron Works, a plumbing store on New York's 5th Avenue; he then signed it with the pseudonym, R. Mutt, and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists as a prank to test whether they would honor their policy of exhibiting any submission to the exhibition; the work was rejected on the grounds that it was vulgar and not created by an artist; in protest, Duchamp resigned from the board of the Society; then members of his circle published articles in a short-lived art journal called The Blind Man denouncing the Society's decision to reject the piece (a photo from that issue appears below).  The urinal, which was soon dubbed Fountain, is now regarded as a major work of art.  Indeed, a decade ago, it was selected as the most influential work of the 20th century.


Two days after I posted my little film recounting this story, an art historian, Glyn Thompson, and a  museum-director-turned critic, Julian Spalding, published an article claiming that Duchamp stole credit for Fountain from a female artist.  Several people who saw my film sent me links to the article.  Was I wrong to credit Duchamp?  Had I unwittingly promoted the 20th century's greatest art heist?

The allegation that Duchamp stole credit for Fountain is not new.  It was, spurred by a letter that Duchamp wrote, which was rediscovered in 1982.  The authors of the new article have written about it in the past, and it was most systematically advanced in a superb book by Irene Gammel, which I will come to shortly.  But this time, thanks to electronic media, the article went viral (by artworld standards) and has been picked up by numerous other sources, alleging that Duchamp was a thief and a fraud.  Here I take up that charge.  The allegations are based on evidence that deserves attention, but, in the end, I think there is overwhelming reason to think that Duchamp is largely responsible for Fountain.  We can better serve women artists from the period by celebrating the work that that they are known to have produced.


Let's begin with the letter that sparked the controversy, which was unearthed by Francis Naumann, a gallerist and editor of the authoritative English volume on Duchamp's correspondence.  The letter was written by Marcel Duchamp in New York to his sister Suzanne in France a few days after the urinal was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists (see facsimile, above, from the Archives of American Art).  The crucial passage reads:

One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculptureit was not at all indecent--no reason for refusing it. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.  I have handed in my resignation and it will be a bit of gossip of some value in New York.

So here, we have Duchamp telling his sister in a private letter that he was not responsible for Fountain.  He gives credit to a "female friend."  This is a striking discovery.  When the Fountain scandal broke in 1917, rumors quickly credited Duchamp with the piece, and within a few years that was the official story.  Duchamp claimed responsibility until the end of his life in 1968.  He made numerous reproductions, conducted interviews about the piece and posed with it in photographs (below).  Did Duchamp lie to the public?  Did he steel authorship from someone else?  And who is the "female friend" he mentions?


After the letter was discovered, many art historians tried to ignore it, or explain it away.  The most detailed study of Fountain is written by William Camfeld, who knew of the letter, but claimed that Duchamp has mislead his sister to cover up his own responsibility in the midst of the controversy.  Francis Neuman, who discovered the letter, gave credit to Louise Norton, a writer and translator who was close to Duchamp, and Gammel gave credit to a remarkable artist named Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.  Glyn Thompson also credits Baroness Elsa, as she is known, in her scholarly work, though she gives Norton a role as well.  Spalding joins the chorus of Elsa supporters in a recent book, and this, of course, is the thesis of his new article with Thompson.

I don't think either Louise Norton or  Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven are responsible for Fountain. I want to take up the case for each in turn.  Then I will suggest that credit belongs largely to Duchamp.

Louise Norton was a friend of Duchamp's in New York.  She went on to be an important translator (I read her version of Rimbaud when I was a teen).   She was in close contact with Duchamp at the time, and a couple of facts connect her directly to Fountain.  First of all, she is the author of one of the articles defending Fountain in The Blind Man, titled Buddha of the Bathroom.  Second, the American modernist painted Charles Demuth explicitly implicated Norton in a letter that he wrote to an art critic and journalist, Henry McBride, announcing the scandal.  He told McBride that a urinal had been submitted to the the Society and rejected, resulting in Duchamp's resignation.  In a postscript he added that, if McBride wanted more information, he should call Duchamp or Richard Mutt.  He gave phone numbers for each: the first was indeed Duchamp's, and the second, attributed to Mutt, belonged to Norton!  Norton may also have filled out the necessary paperwork for the submission.  The urinal is signed "R. Mutt, 1917," which is gender-neutral, but the submission card says "Richard Mutt," hence Duchamp's remark that the piece was delivered under a male pseudonym.

The evidence is circumstantial, however, and I am not convinced.  Five years after the Fountain scandal, she married avant grade composer Edgar Varese, and the two remained in contact with Duchamp long after.  There was no animosity, even though Duchamp spent decades claiming authorship, and Fountain-scholar William Camfeld reports that Norton denied responsibility for the work.  There is also no record of any other works of this kind in Norton's name, and she was not a visual artist.  She had no personal motivation to create a scandal at the Society and had no pattern before or after of stirring up controversy in such ways.

It is also questionable whether Norton's article, Buddha of the Bathroom, best expresses the significance of Fountain (excerpt on left).  She emphasizes the artist's imagination and compares it to Buddha statues, thus drawing attention to traditional aesthetic merits: creativity and beauty.  She tries hard to establish its status as art, rather than affirming it as a piece of anti-art, lacking in aesthetic qualities, which was the interpretation that Duchamp advocated.  If she was the author, then not only has Fountain been misattributed--the concept that it is supposed to exemplify has also been been misdescribed.  Had Nelson been responsible, one might expect her to protest both points.  She did not.  Indeed, just weeks after the scandal, Duchamp wrote an article in the journal RongWrong (see cover and except below) poking fun at the scholarly pretensions of her defense of Fountain in The Blind Mind.  Under Duchamp's urging, Fountain became known as an example of anti-art, and Norton never claimed authorial rights to weigh in on its interpretation.

What, then, are we to make of Demuth's letter?  One telling detail is that Demuth does not credit Ricahrd Mutt with the piece in his letter.  Rather, he says "A piece of sculpture, called "A Fountain." was entered, by one of our friends, for the Independent Exhibition."  This is constant with the hypothesis that Norton, aka Mutt, submitted Fountain, but it doesn't imply that it was submitted by the artist who came up with it.  Demuth mentions "Richard Mutt" in his letter, but does not connect the dots by saying that Mutt was actually responsible for the work.  Rather, he says, Mutt (or rather, Norton) can provide information about the work.  This makes it clear that he, Norton, and Duchamp were all in on the joke, and he was giving McBride a lead to dig deeper, but McBride never called.

This brings us to the next candidate, who is currently the favorite among scholars and bloggers: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (right).  Irene Gammel's magisterial biography has done much to establish that Baroness Elsa was among the most extraordinary and creative personalities in the world of dada.  Her story is both colorful and tragic.  She was born in Germany in 1874, but fell in love with an author named Felix Paul Greve, who faked his own death and fled to America to escape debt.  She followed, and when the relationship ended she married a German baron in New York, who died shortly there after.  Baroness Elsa developed a repletion for her outrageous exploits.  She created extraordinary outfits: a birdcage with a live canary as a necklace, spoons as earrings, curtain rings as bracelets, tomato cans as a bra, a dress affixed with dozens of tin toys, coats affixed with kewpie dolls or cancelled postage stamps, and a hat made from a birthday cake with burning candles on top.  She was also a poet, and made art from trash.  Her admirers included literary luminaries, such as Djuna Barnes and William Carlos Williams (whom she later terrorized), as well as local artists.  She developed a fascination with Duchamp, who rebuffed her with polite indifference (her painting of Duchamp with two of his readymades appear below).  She eventually moved back to Europe and died, destitute, in Paris in 1927.  The cause was asphyxiation from a oven, and might have been a suicide.
Gammel argues that Baroness Elsa devised Fountain, and she builds an impressive case.  For one thing, the Baroness was living in Philadelphia at the time the urinal was submitted, and the submission forms at the Society Independent Artists claimed that Richard Mutt resided in Philadelphia.  The Baroness was also given to scatalogical humor as evidenced by here poems.  Here is an except from a poem called Kindly in Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazos's authoritative compilation Body Sweats (p. 86, I tried to preserve the odd punctuation and spelling):

And God spoke kindly to my heart [...]

He said =:
"I made--
the foreparts
and the hinderparts--
I made the fart's--(f--
I made the hearts-- --
I am grand master of the arts!

The Barronness also collected stray dogs, including, we can presume, some mutts.  The name also suggests a German pun: R. Mutt sounds like the word for poverty in German, and the Baroness was poor.  The urinal was also delivered just after America declared war on Germany, and Glyn Thompson suggests that it might have been a political statement.


The best evidence linking the Baroness to Fountain is sylistic.  She wrote her poems in capital letters that resemble the words "R. Mutt: on the urinal.  I included an example from her poem Kindly above.  Moreover, and the urinal itself is similar to another piece which has been credited to her, and dated from around the same time: a twisted iron plumbing trap that has been mounted on a miter box and dubbed God (below).  The buddha-lke form of urinal, and the connection that both have to plumbing, suggests that both may have originated from the same hand.  Gammel rightly suggests that Fountain is more like this piece in form than it is like some of Duchamp's familiar readymades (e.g., a bicycle wheel and a snow shovel).  Moreover, the urinal model has never been found in extant catalogues from Mott Iron Works, suggesting that it might have been procured elsewhere.  With all this evidence, Gammel concludes that Baroness Elsa deserves credit.  Gammel suggests that Demuth took the piece up from Philadelphia for her, since he was commuting back and forth a the time.  Thomspson suggests that the Baroness sent the urinal to Louise Norton and had he submitted it to the Society.

I must admit, I would love this story to be true.  Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is one of the most captivating personas in 20th century art.  Perhaps more than any one, she made her own life into an artwork--she became the living spirit of dada.  She also spoke frankly about sex, and openly subverted the demure gender roles that remained from Prussian and Victorian times.  She was a pioneer of performance and provocation (there's a great book on this theme by Amelia Jones). Still, I don't think she can be credited with Fountain.  The evidence is circumstantial, and I don't think it holds up when compared to the evidence implicating Duchamp (which I present below).

Let's begin with the the fact that the Baroness lived in Philadelphia and R. Mutt was listed as a Philadelphia artist on the application.  This could easily be a coincidence.  The anonymity, which was so crucial for the prank, required naming an unknown artist; a Philadelphia address would convey that the artist was not part of the local art scene.  Moreover, the Baroness was hardly the only artist in Philadelphia.  Charles Demuth, who is believed to have in been on the joke, commuted there regularly.

Now consider allegation that Baroness Elsa would be more likely than Duchamp to indulge in scatalogical humor.  This is probably true, but Duchamp was certainly no prude--much of his work from the needs has sexual content, and there is a photograph of him taken around 1916 seated on a toilet (reproduced on p. 186 of Calvin Tomkins's authoritative biography and below) -- not to mention the RongWrong cover image reproduced above.


The alleged German pun in the name on the work (R. Mutt as Armutt) is also a bit of a stretch.  What is the link between poverty and the urinal?  How does this theme connect to the prank being played on the Society of Independent Artists?  And why would she direct an opaque anti-war message to the Society of Independent Artists, as Thompson suggests?  And why would she expect them to notice a German pun?  Neither is there much to make of the Baroness's affection for dogs.  Had she identified so strongly with these creatures, one might have expected canine pseudonyms to crop up elsewhere in her work.  Duchamp's own explanation of the name (admittedly years later) is that Mutt was a play on Mott Iron Works, where he claimed to purchase the piece, and also an allusion to the character Mutt from the cartoon Mutt and Jeff, which was immensely popular.  Mutt (below) is a dimwitted character who had first appeared as "A. Mutt" in a California newspaper, which soon went into syndication.  Confirmation of this association comes from a letter by Katherine Dreier to William Glackens, to Society board member who voted to reject Fountain, just after incident (quoted by Camfield and reprinted here):

Richard Mutt caused the greater part of the confusion my signing a name which is known in the newspaper word as a popular joker.  "Mutt and Jeff" are too famous not to make people suspect if their name is used the matter is a joke.

To my mind, this explanation of the name is more plausible than the cryptic pun attributed to Baroness Elsa.  At the very least, nothing about the name can establish her as author.


The strongest evidence linking the Baroness to Fountain is stylistic.  One argument concerns her use of capital letters.  An examination of her handwriting, however, suggests persistent stylistic differences.  The "R" on the urinal, has a curved leg, and the Baroness consistent makes Rs with a straight leg that points outward rather than down.  She also regularly doubled the vertical line of her Rs.  Even more strikingly, her Ms are uniformly curved, as if they were lowercase, in contrast to the angular M on Fountain.  Cutting and painting from the the poem that I mentioned above, I've reconstructed what her R. Mutt would look like, if she didn't alter her handwriting entirely (below)--nothing like the one on urinal:


So we are left with one piece of evidence: the Baroness sculpture, God.  Like Fountain, God is comprised of plumbing parts, and it was made around the same time.  There are, however some difficulties.  We do not know for sure when it was made, and it could have been assembled after Fountain as a kind of homage.  It was also long attributed to the artist Morton Schamberg, who took the first photo of the piece and was famous for making paintings inspired by machines.  The work is admittedly unlike Schamberg's--he was primarily a painter--but it is also aesthetically different from the Baroness's known sculptures, which tend to be made of multiple parts with delicate hanging elements, rather than monolithic forms (see her sculptural portrait of Duchamp below).  Thus, attribution remains a matter of scholarly debate.  The work also differs from Fountain in a crucial respects: it is made from a used and somewhat battered plumbing part, as opposed to Fountain, which is pristine.  Also, it is mounted, rather than free standing, and it seems to be positioned in it's original orientation, rather than capsized like Fountain.  It is neither signed nor dated, much less ostentatiously so.


It is also worth noting that the there were numerous artists at the time who were taking an aesthetic stance towards industrial and manufactured objects.  Scahmberg, who died in 1918 of influenza, made many machine paintings as did Suzanne Duchamp.  Man Ray took photos of kitchen tools as portraits, and Francis Picabia drew a young woman as a spark plug (examples of each, below).


There were also others making art from found objects and trash.  Practitioners included Mina Loy, who was close to Duchamp, and Alfred Stieglitz, who took the famous photo of Fountain for The Blind Man.  In an exhibit that Stieglitz curated in 1915, he included an insect nest along side a Picasso and an African reliquary figure (below).


Without a decisive link or overwhelming stylistic convergence, the evidence for the Baroness is shaky at best.  It's not even clear that Duchamp would refer to her as a friend when writing to his sister, since their relationship was rather one-sided; she was infatuated, and he was indifferent.  He mentions her only twice in his many letters, as far as I know--once conveying a message, by way of Man Ray, to Tristan Tzara, and then again, some years later, misreporting the year of her death by a decade.  Would he really have taken such delight in one of her pranks and resigned from an art Society on her behalf?

There is also another piece of evidence against the Baroness in a letter that Alfred Stieglitz wrote his lover Goergia O'Keeffe at the time.  (A 1917 drawing by O'Keeffe appears on the right.)  Stieglitz reports, "There was a row at the Independent--a young woman  (probably at Duchamp's instigation) sent a large porcelain urinal on a pedestal to the Independent" (reprinted in a book of correspondence between the lovers, p. 135).  By prevailing standards, the Baroness was not young; she was in her mid-40s.  Norton, on the other hand, was 26.  This adds further support to the conjecture that Norton delivered the urinal.  Crucially, there is no mention of Norton conspiring with the Baroness.  They were not even close.  Instead, Stieglitz attributes the prank to Duchamp.

Perhaps the main strike against the attribution to the Baroness is her silence on the matter.  The Baroness was quite vocal and she wrote a memoir, which Djuna Barnes planned to use as the basis of a biography.  In it, she rails against her former lover, Felix Paul Greve, for steeling ideas from her, but she never makes such a charge against Duchamp.  She was also desperate for money and begged friends for donations, trumping up her importance, but never used Fountain's notoriety to advertise her worth.  Neither did she mention it when writing critically about Duchamp, which she was fond of doing.  Indeed, she ridicules him for using plumbing fixtures.  On p. 227 of her book, Gammel quotes a letter that Baroness wrote to a journal editor, in which she complains that Duchamp, "came to this country--protected--carried by fame--to use his plumbing fixtures--mechanical comforts."  Gammel is unmoved by this attribution because in the same letter the Baroness says of Duchamp "I am he." Gammel interprets this as an cryptic effort to take credit for Fountain, but that strikes me as an unwarranted interpretation.  The full passage reads, "He merely amuses himself. But--I am he--not yet having attained his height--I have to fight."  Here the Baroness seems to be expressing artistic kinship and stating rightly that she is worthy of fame.  More to the point, she seems to be dismissing the urinal as a mere amusement, in contrast to the serious work she is doing.  Hardly an effort to reclaim credit.


This brings us to Duchamp.  What reason is there to think he is responsible for Fountain?  First, he took credit for decades, while many of those close to the events were still alive.  Indeed, Fountain is one of just 3 three-dimensional Readymades that he recreated in the various editions of his Boîte-en-Valise (detail above), which is intended as portable museum containing his most important works.  Duchamp had been making readymades since 1913 (when he made the bicycle wheel), and he had a collection of them on display in his studio.  There are two photos of Fountain other than the one made by Stieglitz, and both show it suspended in Duchamp's studio along side other readymades that are known to be his.  The photos are undated but must be from around the time of the exhibition, and probably just before, since the original urinal was lost a short while after.  No signature is visible in the photos, which may reflect the viewing angle, but could also imply that they were taken before the work was signed. (Here I am indebted to the extraordinary scholarship of Rhonda Roland Shearer and her collaborators at the online Duchamp journal, Tout-Fait.)


There is also a private correspondence between Katherine Dreier and Walter Arensberg, two members of the Society of Independent Artists, at the peak of the controversy.  Arensberg, who was extremely close to Duchamp and bequeathed his collection to the Philadelphia Museum, defended Fountain by directly comparing it to Duchamp's readymades.  Dreier was unconvinced and voted for its rejection.  When Arensberg was outvoted, he, like Duchamp, resigned from the society.  This suggests that he was in on the joke too, and conspiring with Duchamp.  Dreier tried unsuccessfully to convince Duchamp to rejoin the Society, but he refused, suggesting that his resignation was both premeditated and important to him.  Despite that, he had a long-lasting professional relationship with Dreier.  She was an important patron, and ally in the art world.  Here is her abstract portrait of him, painted a year after the incident.


Arnsberg's resignation adds further support to the premeditation hypothesis.  Calvin Tompkins claims that Arensberg purchased the urinal with Duchamp, along with Joseph Stella.  If Arensberg was in on it, he and Duchamp may have had antecedent reason to expect a rejection.  They would have been privy to the attitudes of the other board members, and they might have recognized an enduring allegiance to high modernism, with little tolerance for radical departures from standard (albeit abstract) painting and sculpture.  Duchamp may have been plotting a prank for some time.  Weeks earlier, he had promised to exhibit a piece in the Society's exhibition, but never delivered.  He said it would be called "Tulip Hysteria Coordinating"--an absurd title, suggesting he was devising a way to ridicule the Society.  He may even have planned to submit a readymade, since around this time he was coming up with absurd titles for those works, such as his snow shovel, called "In Advance of the Broken Arm," which he urged his sister not to interpret in a cubist way.  The fact that Duchamp excitedly tried to drum up controversy about the Fountain affair is consistent with his efforts to ridicule cubism; he was still famous for his Nude Descending a Stairway, no. 2, but had shifted dramatically away from that style, and was denouncing painting--both his own and those of others.  He made his own final painting one year after the Fountain, and it was a commission for Dreier.  He used the elliptical title Tu m', which is believed be short for "tu m'embetes" (you bore me), or something nastier.  The most interesting thing about the work in this context is that it shows the shadows of Duchamp's readymades encroaching, as if to announce that these works will be the dearth blow to painting.  An unsubtle message to Dreier, suggesting his personal investment in the Fountain episode.  Here is a reproduction of the work and photo from 1918 of it handing in Dreier's home.



The attribution of Fountain to Duchamp is corroborated by Beatrice Wood, a close confident of Duchamp who was involved in the affair and wrote an editorial about Fountain for The Blind Man.  In her memoir, Wood provides the most detailed eye-witness account on record, and she credits Duchamp without a hint of uncertainly or reservation.  (Below is a work by Wood from some years later, showing three women standing triumphantly on top of a man who vaguely resembles Duchamp; source here).


In addition, there is a curious error that was repeated a couple of times in contemporary discussions of Fountain.  Recall that the signature reads "R. Mutt."  In at least two places, this name is misreported.  An April 11 article for The Sun (presumably penned by Demuth's contact McBride) indicates that the urinal was signed (below) J.C. Mutt.  Another letter, with a remarkably early date of April 5, 1971, from Carl van Vechten to Gertrude Stein describes Fountain scandal and reports the signature as saying "R.J. Mutts." What's curious is that both of these errors transform the single first initial into two, and both add a J.  This may suggest that the name was learned by word of mouth, and that there were errors in verbal reporting, which misrepresented the signature in the direction of "J.L. Mott"--the plumbing supply story that Duchamp would later describe as the source of the name.

(It is also tempting to speculate that Duchamp had a further more subtle pun in mind when he devised the name.  The letters in RICHARD MUTT can be rearranged to spell TTIR DUCHAM, which is a phonetic approximation of the name his friends used for him at the time, Totor Duchamp--with the final p unpronounced in French.)

All this points to Duchamp, but what really convinced me in the end was a piece of physical evidence: the handwriting on Fountain.   Duchamp normally wrote in a flowing cursive, but he had regularly signed his paintings in capital block letters.  I have included here a copy of one of those signatures, from a painting in 1911:


Several features stand out.  Unlike the Baroness, Duchamp always used angular capital Ms and they have distinctive feature: the lines expand outward instead of coming down vertically.  That is also true on Fountain signature.  Duchamp also has distinctive Rs.  Notably, the leg of the R curves slightly before coming down.  That is true on Fountain.  I cut and pasted letters from Duchamp's signature to form the name "R. Mutt."  There are no T's in his signature, so I used the the bases of his E and L in Marcel, along with the vertical lines in the date of the work '11.  The result is uncanny:


Though I made no adjustment for letter scale, the compiled signature is remarkably close to the signature on the urinal, and neither resembles the handwriting of Baroness Elsa.  For direct comparison, I display all three here: the original, the Baroness version, and Duchamp's.  To me this is decisive refutation of the claim that she devised the work, and decisive confirmation of Duchamp's authorship.


Why, then, all the doubt?  Two puzzles were mentioned, and both need to be addressed.  First, there is the fact that Mott Iron Works does not include the urinal in extant catalogues, casting doubt on his claim that it was purchased there.  This can be easily dismissed.  Mott Iron Works (and Trenton Potteries, whose wares they sold) had many different models.  In a catalogue printed a four years before the exhibit, they show some models that are extremely close to the one submitted to the Society of Independent Artists.  One of these may actually be the same (p. 355 and below, lower right).  The pattern of drainage holes is a good match to the one seen hanging in Duchamp's studio (below left and upper right) and the ones he created for the Boîte-en-Valise (see end of this blog).  Even if were not a perfect match (as I think it is), it wouldn't be strange to suppose that, by the year of the Exhibition, the model had evolved slightly.  The similarities plainly refute the long-time allegation that Fountain could have been acquitted at the Mott's.


The biggest puzzle concerns Duchamp's letter to his sister (his portrait of her, from Sonata, appears below).  Why would he lie about his own authorship in a private correspondence?  The standard answer strikes me as right, but incomplete.  Duchamp writes his sister at just the time when the American press was publicizing the story.  It was crucial for the narrative that the submission be attributed to an unknown artist.  Critics reply to this by asking why Duchamp would need to conceal his identity is a private letter.  Here, I think, we can find an answer in a detail that is often neglected.  Just before Marcel Duchamp tells Suzanne that a female friend sent in urinal, he writes, "Tell this detail to the family: The Independents have opened here with immense success."  Thus, this is not just a private letter.  It is a letter he wants broadcast to his family of prominent and well connected artists.  Perhaps he was hoping that they would spread the word in Europe.  To Duchamp's disappointment, the brouhaha died down quickly, but at the time he was writing, he might have imagined that it could blossom into a giant scandal.  It was premature to reveal his identity, even to those he knew best--recall that even among friends in New York, like Stieglitz, Duchamp was merely suspected to be the author of the work.  He hadn't come out to anyone except perhaps his co-conspirators: Norton, Demuth, Arensberg, Stella, and Wood.  Suzanne, of course, soon learned that Fountain was being attributed to Duchamp.  She never mentioned the letter to any one, which is mostly simply explained by the assumption that Duchamp disclosed his secret to her soon after.


To summarize, I suspect that Duchamp, in conversation with some close art-world friends, purchased the urinal, brought it to his studio, signed it, and asked Louise Norton to deliver it.  After its rejection from the Exibition, he had Charles Demuth contact the press to drum up publicity, and he sent a letter to his artist family in Europe hoping to do the same.  It was a publicity stunt, but also a dramatic way of driving home a point that his readymades were intended to convey: we should abandon the old idea of artist as mythic creator along with the pretentions of modernism.  In a post-modern spirit, he gives up authorial agency and breaks the barrier between high art and lowly, mass produced crafts.  He also abandons aesthetic aspirations and the Salon system, which for decades had played a powerful role in dictating the next big thing.  Given this post-modern interoperation of the work, debates about who is really responsible are a bit silly (including this contribution).  There is a sense in which Fountain was both a collective effort and the effort of no one.  It was a sign that the art-word's excesses has become a kind of excrescence, ready to be flushed away.

Before closing, I want to return to a serious matter, which underlies much of the present debate.  The effort to re-attribute Fountain stems from something important and real: the systematic erasure of women from the history of art.  In some sense, the Fountain story is part of that, since people closely involved, like Norton and Wood, often go unmentioned in the usual narrative (something I'd taken into account in my short animated film).   Fountain was more an event than an object, and they were both key players, since their Blind Man articles were part of the event.  The issue of The Blind Mind that immortalized the work, had the letter P.B.T on the cover, referring to Pierre Roché (a sculptor who helped create the journal), Beatrice Wood, and Duchamp (whose nickname was Totor in those days).  This serves as a reminder that Ducahmp's exploits were not done in isolation, but depended on the joint efforts of of inventive collaborators.

The debate about Fountain offers a welcome opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women artists in and around the dada movement.  Several books on these artists have appeared in recent years, but we are only at the early stages of a corrective (for example, here).  Some of these woman have gradually obtained overdue attention.  Among Europeans, art enthusiasts are coming to know Sophia Teuber, Emma Hennings, and, especially, Hanna Höch.  In Marcel Duchamp's cohort, a number of important artists have already been mentioned: Elsa von Freytag-Longinghoven, Beatrice Wood, Katherine Dreier, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Mina Loy.  Here is an example of Loy's work (source).  Duchamp was enthusiastic about her work and curated an exhibition of her Bowery-inspired assemblages in the 1950s.


We also mustn't forget the contributions of Suzanne Duchamp.  Among other accomplishments, Suzanne should be credited as a collaborator on several of Marcel's readymades.  In a letter on January 1916, Marcel wrote to her in France, he asked her to sign and inscribe a bottle rack, which he'd left in his studio.  Three years later, he gave her a wedding gift after she married his close friend Jean Crotti that consisted of a geometry book and instructions to suspend it outside her house until it was ravaged by the elements.  She took a photo documenting its destruction, and also painted it.  A modified version of the photo, with added geometrical figures, appears in Marcel's Boîte-en-Valise.  I reproduce all three:


Other female artists active in New York include Juliette Roche, Clara Tice, and Florine Stettheimer, a friend of Duchamp's who now has an enormous polyptych hanging in the Metropolitan Museum.  A detail, depicting MoMA and the Met, appears below.


We should also bear in mind that the dichotomizing search for women artists must proceed with caution.  It's a disservice to forever list "woman artists," as if the term "woman" were a qualifier.  We should also recognize a spectrum of sexualities.  Within the orbit of dada, there were artists who were gay (including Demuth and Gertrude Stein), bisexual (including Djuna Barnes and Höch), and transgender or otherwise resistant to such simple binaries of sexual identity.  Duchamp himself adopted a female persona, Rrose Selavy, in the early 1920s, and, three weeks before the Fountain scandal, he wore women's clothing to an inaugural party for The Blind Man.  It has even been speculated that the "female friend" he mentions to Suzanne was his female altar ego.


The New York art scene of the 1910s is far more diverse than standard art history books would have us believe, and that diversity expands if we look to those who were on the margins, or entirely outside the inner circles of the art-world.  Rather than battling over Duchamp's legacy, we can spend effort bringing attention to the works that are known to have been created by artists who have been neglected without warrant.  What makes the Baroness Elsa great is not that she was Duchamp, but that she was herself, and resoundingly so.