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 sculpture; it 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.
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.
Body Sweats (p. 86, I tried to preserve the odd punctuation and spelling):
And God spoke kindly to my heart [...]
He said =:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.