PRINT October 1988



Dear Client:

Endlessly solved, the case remains endlessly open.

In February 1917, a urinal known as Fountain was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists, in New York City, which rejected it for exhibition, whereupon it was transported to the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, at 291 Fifth Avenue, and photographed in front of an American abstract painting by Marsden Hartley. Shortly thereafter it disappeared.

You have approved an investigation into the appearance, disappearance, and subsequent reappearances of Fountain. Marcel Duchamp, the principal figure in the case, has been dead now exactly twenty years. Even if he were here to bear witness, one still would never know exactly what transpired that spring in New York, or its significance. In addition, the central piece of evidence has never been recovered. Interpretations of it have accumulated, displacing, contradicting, ignoring, and supplementing each other. And the original Fountain, aka a “readymade,” has been continually remade, in reproductions, recuperations, and reinscriptions that have usurped the first urinal. (“The spectator makes the picture,”1 Duchamp said, even as he produced or authorized some 688 replicas and facsimiles.) These subsequent appearances of the urinal further obscure the trail.

In bringing the dossier up to date, then, the undersigned investigators advise that there can be and will be no break in the case. Only, perhaps, further complications.

Let us one more time review the facts and the fictions:

New York, Early Spring 1917
Art patron and collector Walter Arensberg, of Boston and New York, is said by Marcel Duchamp and other witnesses to have purchased a porcelain urinal at the J.L. Mott Iron Works, New York. He is accompanied to J.L. Mott by Duchamp, who has instigated the purchase, and by the painter Joseph Stella. Several weeks later, a “Richard Mutt” of Philadelphia submits a urinal, signed “R. Mutt 1917,” to the Society of Independent Artists for inclusion in their show of modern art at New York’s Grand Central Palace. We presume that these two urinals are one and the same.

New York, April 1917
Disregarding its own policy of open admission, the society rejects Fountain (hereafter “the object"). Mutt is said to be upset, though this turn of events surely does not surprise Duchamp, who is a member of the society and has been instrumental in organizing the exhibition. Duchamp, however, appears to have contrived his role only so as to engineer a disruption of the event, by introducing into it an object that would pose an affront to the public, and would imperil the society’s aspiration to social legitimacy. This “work of art” is not only a porcelain urinal, but one bearing a reference to the period’s famous comic strip characters Mutt and Jeff. The object is taken as an offensive joke.

Collector Arensberg, who is disposed to see it otherwise, confers with fellow society-board-member George Bellows over the propriety of Fountain. According to eyewitness Beatrice Wood, Bellows stands beside the object, under normal circumstances a position known to lead to physical relief. Yet Bellows is instead gripped by a powerful tension. “[He] was facing Walter [Arensberg], his body on a menacing slant, his fists doubled, striking at the air in anger.” Bellows queries Arensberg:

“Do you mean that if an artist put horse manure on a canvas and sent it to the exhibition, we would have to accept it?”

"I’m afraid we would,” replies Arensberg; such is his respect for esthetic modernity.2

The society’s board of directors turns down the object. Fountain has precipitated its first critical disagreement.

Within ten days after the April 9 opening of the exhibition, the object is carried to the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, who photographs it. Fountain has engendered its first likeness and memorialization. Some time later, having sown the seeds of its afterlife, the original urinal disappears—a fate shared, incidentally, by almost all of Duchamp’s original readymades (if the word “original” is appropriate here).

On April 11, Duchamp writes to his sister Suzanne, in Paris, of the object’s succès de scandale, and hints at the existence of a gender/impersonation ruse: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. . . . The committee has decided to refuse to exhibit this thing . . . and it will be a bit of gossip of some value in New York.”3 The identity of the “female friend” has remained unknown, although Duchamp’s own predilection for female surrogates, in his work and in his life, is well documented.

Following the story carefully, The Boston Evening Transcript for April 25 reports that Richard Mutt is contemplating action against the society for refusing the object. “Richard Mutt threatens to sue,” the newspaper states. He “now wants more than his dues returned. He wants damages.”4 Though Mutt’s signature will appear on new urinals for many years to come, its authenticity will be suspect; the Transcript article is the last heard of Mutt himself.

New York, May 1917
In rejecting Mutt’s Fountain, the society had taken him to task for, among other transgressions, his failure actually to make the object. The case is now taken up in an arts magazine called The Blind Man, copublished by Duchamp. Many subsequent investigators have assumed that it is Duchamp who, on a page opposite the Stieglitz photograph, composes this unsigned defense:

“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it.”

The text continues with the assertion that at any rate, “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” This linkage of art with the technological infrastructure is remarked in Duchamp’s adopted country, where a machine-age esthetic will soon begin to develop in newly triumphant styles of art. Captured on film like a 20th-century shroud of Turin, Fountain has begun to exert a talismanic power.

New York, Summer 1917
Fountain is rumored to have been destroyed, smashed by William Glackens, artist of the Ashcan School and board member of the Society of Independent Artists.’ More plausibly, it “simply” vanishes—is purchased by collector Arensberg, who subsequently loses it. (Much later, in 1966, Duchamp will corroborate this version of events.6) Note, dear client, that Arensberg seems to have bought the object twice: once from J.L. Mott, for Duchamp, as a urinal; the second time from Duchamp, for himself, as art.

United States/Europe, 1917–88
Before we lose sight of the original urinal, let us note that persistent efforts have been made to see in it what bazaar merchants sometimes refer to as le plaisir des yeux and scholars call “formal properties.” The very first interpretive text on the object (by Louise Norton, in the issue of The Blind Man earlier mentioned) bears the title “Buddha of the Bathroom,” a metaphor that suggests the repose to be found in the readymade. Scholars since have basked in its beauty. “As a young teacher, I found myself fascinated with the formal properties of Fountain,” a Duchamp historian has written.7 Italian art dealer and Duchamp patron Arturo Schwarz, in a recent conversation with one of the investigators, commented that a 1964 reproduction of the object that he commissioned “is very beautiful to see. . . . It no longer looks like a urinal. It looks like a Buddha or something.”8 The above views veer toward what Duchamp called “the danger of esthetic delectation” that he saw engulfing the readymade. With some ruefulness, Duchamp confessed late in his life that “you can make people swallow anything; that’s what happened [with Fountain].”9

To return to the case, Duchamp resigned from the society in protest over the Mutt affair. It is said that he was last publicly seen with the urinal at the Grand Central Palace, where he and Man Ray caused a commotion by brandishing the object around the vast art-lover-filled galleries. He subsequently claimed (and maintained until his death) that the artist (Mutt) had been a fiction. It’s true that more—many, many more—urinals were made, some inscribed with the same signature of the vanished artist. But each instance failed to reveal any other evidence of R. Mutt. To the experts Duchamp’s transgressions seem plain. “Henceforth [after 1921] he acted like a master criminal,” one art historian has written, “sure enough of his superiority to the forces of law and order to leave his signature behind.”10

Scandal-maker, esthetic seducer, self-described blasphemer, check and securities forger, female impersonator, impostor—Duchamp himself acknowledged his outlaw nature by making a ready-made of himself on a “Wanted” poster. And after 1913 he began executing a series of replicas of his work, elaborately counterfeiting many of his early crimes. It began with The Box of 1914,1913–14, which consists of a standard Kodak photo box containing a photograph of one of his drawings and 16 manuscript notes about it. In 1934 he produced The Green Box, which carries facsimiles of notes and drawings concerning the planning and execution of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, aka the Large Glass, 1915–23. And as we will see, some two decades after the disappearance of Fountain a massive fixation led Duchamp to produce hundreds of copies of the original object and others of his earlier works.

Paris, 1936
At the nadir of his influence as an artist, Duchamp begins work on From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (The Box in a Valise), a cloth-covered cardboard box made to hold 71 miniatures of his previous pieces. Questioned later about this “portable museum,” he will state that “my aim was to reproduce the paintings and the objects I liked and collect them in a space as small as possible.”11

Paris, 1938–40
Duchamp makes a miniature Fountain, Urinal—in white, and 2 3/4 by 1 15/16 by 1 15/16 inches in dimension—as a cast from which to make further reproductions for the portable museum. Rather more round-edged than the larger original, it was at last record in the Lobo collection, Rio de Janeiro.

Paris, 1 January 1941
The publication of The Box in a Valise is announced. Because of the German occupation of France, however, it goes largely unnoticed.

At Sea and in New York, 1941
Travel during wartime is difficult, and Duchamp takes the alias of a cheese merchant to sail from Marseilles en route to New York. He carries with him elements from The Box in a Valise. Once in the United States, he assembles an edition of 20 numbered leather-bound copies, each containing a model of the urinal. At least four additional versions are made hors de séries. At the completion of the edition, then, 25 replicas of the urinal have been created.

New York, the War Years
Authorized by Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and others assemble about 90 more portable museums, bringing the total number of urinals to approximately 115.

New York, 1951
Gallery dealer Sidney Janis reconsecrates Fountain as one of the daddies of Dada, commissioning the first full-sized simulacrum of the object for his “Challenge and Defy” exhibition. After seeing the facsimile, Dada filmmaker and historian Hans Richter reports with melancholy that “no trace of the initial shock remained.”12 It is hung over the door of the gallery, and filled with geraniums. There are now 116 Fountains.

Paris, ca. 1953
A second full-sized facsimile of Fountain is made to be sold at auction for the benefit of a friend of Duchamp’s.13 As to who purchases this facsimile, or even whether the auction ever occurs, no record is kept, or if kept it has been lost. There are now 117 Fountains.

Paris, 1958
A reissue of The Box in a Valise appears—an edition of 30, in a gray cloth-covered case. For this work the miniature reproduction of Fountain from the earlier set is itself reproduced, in a new cast. When the miniatures are shipped from New York to Paris, French customs officials refuse to recognize them as parts of a work of art, and reclassify them as “samples.”14 This betrays a serious lack of interagency coordination: Paris museum officials had decided that Duchamp’s activities were art at least four years earlier, when they acquired their first Duchamp. It is conceivable, however, that the customs officials have information on Duchamp that the museum curators do not.

Paris, 1959
Sixty more versions of the 1958 edition of The Box in a Valise are issued by Duchamp’s step-daughter, Jacqueline Monnier. Fountain, now part of a family enterprise, has begotten 207 progeny.

Stockholm, 1963
Authorized by Duchamp, writer/curator Ulf Linde manufactures a full-sized version of the urinal for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The object is not signed, but “R. Mutt/1917” is stenciled on the lip. 208.

Paris/Milan, 1955–68
Authorized by Duchamp, and with the help of art dealer and scholar Arturo Schwarz, Monnier produces another 100 portable museums, covered in red or green leather per the buyer’s preference. The total: at least 308 Fountains.

New York, 1964
Duchamp issues a lithograph of four readymades including the urinal in an edition of 125. If reproductions in two dimensions are to be counted along with those in three, the sum has reached 434, including the Stieglitz photograph of April 1917.

New York, March 1964
Duchamp makes another 125 lithographs bearing Marcel Duchamp, From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy (The Box in a Valise), 1936–41, portable museum in leather case.

Neuilly, May 1964
Duchamp makes a drawing of Fountain—10 by 7 inches, unsigned. 560.

Milan, June 1964
Authorized by Duchamp, Galleria Schwarz issues 115 hand-numbered etchings, from an engraved copper plate, depicting a roughly sketched Fountain. The etching is called Mirrorical Return. 675 urinals.

Milan, October 1964
Schwarz, with Duchamp’s cooperation, supervises the production of an edition of full-sized replicas of Fountain. First, an architect constructs a steel matrix based on the Stieglitz photograph of the original. A urinal factory near Como is engaged to produce the edition of eight, all signed “R. Mutt 1917,” plus one for Duchamp, plus one for Schwarz. “Marcel Duchamp, 1964” is inscribed in black paint on the back of each object. In his recent conversation with your investigators, Schwarz revealed that “two or three, I’m not quite sure,” additional replicas were also struck, which have subsequently been used in response to requests for exhibition loans—"to the Venice and São Paulo biennials, for example.” Including these two or three surrogates of the facsimiles of the photograph of the original, the count has reached 687 or 688.

As far as we have been able to discover, this is the final total—not including, of course, art-history-book and magazine reproductions, and “homages” made by other artists. Six of the eight Schwarz urinals are sold.

Neuilly, 1 October 1968
Duchamp dies.

New York, April 1988
A 1964 Schwarz urinal that had been acquired by Andy Warhol is sold at Sotheby’s auction house, at a gavel price of $68,750, to an art buyer for Citibank.

Another aspect of the “Readymade” is its lack of uniqueness . . . the replica of a “Readymade” delivering the same message; in fact nearly every one of the “Readymades” existing today is not an original in the conventional sense.
—Marcel Duchamp, 1961

In the past 20 years, the reproductions of Fountain have further proliferated in the textual echoes of critical debate. The case at this point becomes labyrinthine, as critics vie to prosecute the meaning of Duchamp’s original acts.

Duchamp covered his own trail well. He was fascinated by puns and bilingual wordplay—palindromes, anagrams, acronyms, homonyms, double entendres—and these have opened countless routes of inquiry into the meaning of “R. Mutt” that the investigator cannot afford to ignore, though any one of them may be a red herring. Duchamp himself remarked that “Richard” (R. Mutt’s given name) means “moneybags” in French slang, and moreover, “that’s not a bad name for a pissotière.”15 Gloria Moure has remarked the possibility of a play on “rich art.”16 For their part, Jack Burnham and Rosalind Krauss have proposed that “R. Mutt” may be read as a homonym of the German word Armut, meaning “poverty.”17 And George Bauer has singled out as a clue the homonym mot (French for “word") in the name of the plumbing shop where the urinal was purchased, the J.L. Mott Iron Works.18

Other readings have made the identification of “R. Mutt” precisely undecidable. Ulf Linde of Stockholm has pointed out that “R. Mutt” is an anagram of the French Tu m’, the title of Duchamp’s “last painting,” executed in 1918. Rudolf Kuenzli, coeditor of the journal Dada/Surrealism, has noted that “R. Mutt” reads “mongrel art” if one takes the “R.” as the French art and “Mutt” as the American “mutt,” for dog.19 Your own investigators, turning to Larousse, wondered whether “R. Mutt” might be a homonym for the French air mut, or “mute air”—which, perhaps, is all R. Mutt ever was.

A mathematical interpretation has been submitted by one expert witness. Duchamp, according to Craig Adcock, was quite interested in the concept of the fourth dimension as elaborated by French mathematicians Henri Poincaré and Esprit Pascal Jouffret. Adcock observes that the urinal’s “90-degree rotation can be taken as a reference to the flip-flops involved in four-dimensional rotation.”20 Duchamp may have encouraged such thinking by entitling the next-to-last reproduction of the urinal Mirrorical Return, presumably an allusion to the belief that a hypothetical trip into the fourth dimension would result in a kind of mirroring, a “flip-flop” of the self. But the inscription may instead, or may also, refer to the homonymic “miracular” return of the urinal from the oblivion into which it vanished in 1917 to its later proliferation in reproduction.

A question of gender, notably posed by men, has frequently arisen around Fountain. Professor William Camfield of Rice University, Houston, has described the urinal as a “generic female form.”21 Arturo Schwarz has argued for the plural sexuality of the urinal, noting its “autoerotic” symbolism and “hermaphroditic overtones.”22 Maurizio Calvesi of Rome has remarked that if we reverse the signature “R. Mutt” we obtain Mutt-er, the German word for “mother.” This reading brings out the uterine connotations of the urinal, the “fountain” of life.23 And art historian Kermit Champa, of Brown University, Providence, has weighed in for psychoanalysis, reading Fountain as “the perfect Freudian symbol, flagrantly obvious and. . . utterly untranslatable and, as a result, perversely pure. Phallic? Vaginal? It was a man-made female object for exclusive male functions. Yet, who could characterize it precisely?”24

Not philosopher and critic Jean Francois Lyotard, who in 1977 filed a complaint (aptly titled “Plainte”) against Duchamp as the prime agent in the suspicious indeterminacy of all Duchampiana. Lyotard protested Duchamp’s dogmatic elusiveness: “We were had by his hard, sententious line. He asphyxiated us. We can’t say anything more. But see anything? We can’t see anything either.” Lyotard fumed like a cop about Duchamp’s masterly escape tactics: ” ’You won’t get me,’ that’s his idée fixe. ‘It’s me, Marcel,’ Rrose says. ‘I’m Rrose,’ says Marcel.”25

Lyotard proposes an armed response, a kind of low-intensity warfare in which the art viewer, equipped with “a counter-ruse, [spins] a web of inconsistency and nonsense, within, and between, commentary and commented subject, not an abject but an affirmative nonsense.” This is a motherlode of antiunderstanding, says Lyotard: “nonsense as the most cherished treasure. . . . In talking about Duchamp, one would not try to understand and show that one would understand, but rather the opposite: to try not to understand and to show that one did not understand.”26 Echoes of the Lyotard testimony can readily be found: “After having spent a lot of time trying most of the keys cast by Duchamp’s critics and admirers,” reported Yves Arman in 1984, “I realized that maybe the only key is to accept the lack of a key.”27

At about the same time that Lyotard wrote his essay, Thierry de Duve invoked the concept of the énonce circulaire, the “circular utterance” of constantly returning signification—the urinal, which is a sculpture, which is a fountain, which is a urinal, which is—etc. We believe that this circular meaning machine, to accept de Duve’s metaphor, is multidimensionally, endlessly concentric, launching an array of satellite meanings that perpetually threaten to collide. Fountain has been both a work of art and “by no definition a work of art” (according to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917); both “a lovely form” (Walter Arensberg), “a masterpiece in his oeuvre” (William Camfield), and a “time bomb” (Stuart Davis); both “a strong purgative to an age riddled with lies” (Hans Richter) and a “progenitor” of the painting of Warhol and the Pop artists; both an everyday object and an “assimilator” of real objects into sculpture (William Rubin). We have seen that it is a “Buddha“; it is also a “Madonna” (Cam field) and a “torso” (Linde). It is a “right to expression of a whole organic sector of modern activity” (Nouveau Réaliste manifesto of May 1961), a “pact” between artist and viewer (de Duve), and a lawbreaker—a breach of the “invisible set of restrictions” surrounding the Society of Independent Artists show (Anne d’Harnoncourt). The porcelain Fountain is also a crystal ball: Burnham, in a gnostic-cabalistic interpretation of the ready-mades, has claimed that their purpose is “a recreation of a path that looks into the future, outlining a certain trajectory for the fate of modern art and culture in general.”28 Yet Fountain is not solely future-predicting but equally past-affirming. The consummate act in the Modernist process of the “deconstruction of pictorial conventions,”29 it is the white enamel crown of a Modernist tradition that in 1917 already stretched from “Manet to Malevich,” as de Duve put it. From its apparent initial “radicality,” then, Fountain becomes a capstone of “tradition”—antipodal sites, and at the same time one and the same site.

Throughout his life, Duchamp pursued the museumification of his work,30 all the while declining to endorse specific interpretations which that museumification would be sure to generate. In the fifty years after its making he spoke of the urinal when asked, but mainly to retell the tale of its selection. Then, a few years before his death, at the high tide of Pop, when the artist and the readymade were being massively reseen, “remade,” Duchamp was compelled not only to reproduce the object, but apparently also to speak of the remaking, adding his own codicil to the narrative of Fountain. At the close of our investigation, then, we were led to follow Duchamp as he made a final circumspection of the object. In one of his last reproductions of the urinal, Mirrorical Return, he surrounds the etched image of the urinal with three inscriptions: the title phrase in French, “Renvoi Miroirique”; “Un robinet original révolutionnaire” (An original revolutionary faucet); and “Un robinet qui s’arrête de couler quand on ne l’écoute pas” (A faucet that stops dripping when no one is listening to it). Taken together, these phrases historicize the overdetermined fate of the original: Fountain “was” a “revolutionary faucet"; it “is” currently subject to repetitive “mirrorical” reflections; it is ready to be, “will be” (as in the 1930s it had been), turned off when “no one is listening to it.” This is what has happened to the vanished object, the inscriptions seem to murmur. In a last flourish of elusiveness, Duchamp, even as he makes the object reappear in a new wave of facsimiles and images, also declares it as immaterial, lost to inscription. There is something historically accurate, clinically descriptive, but at the same time nothing purposive in Duchamp’s last reflections on the urinal. They disclose nothing about the byzantine teleology of the vanished object, the waves of copies that it provoked; they merely acknowledge that that teleology has been set in motion. We leave our suspect just as he wished, endlessly pursued but never caught.

Respectfully submitted
Edward Ball
Robert Knafo

Edward Ball and Robert Knafo are writers and investigators in the critical division of K & B Art, a New York partnership.



1. Quoted in Dalia Judovitz, “Rendezvous with Marcel Duchamp: Given,” Dada/Surrealism no. 16, the University of Iowa, 1987, p. 187.
2. See Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988, p. 29.
3. Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp, II April 1917, in William A. Camfield, “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917,” Dada/Surrealism no. 16, pp. 71–72.
4. Ibid., p. 68.
5. See Ira Glackens, William Glackens and the Eight: The Artists Who Freed American Art, New York: Horizon Press, 1957, p. 188.
6. See Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971, p. 55.
7. Camfield, pp. 64–65.
8. Authors telephone interview with Arturo Schwarz, New York/Milan, 11 July 1988.
9. In an interview with Sidney Janis, 1953.
10. John Tancock, “The Influence of Marcel Duchamp,” in Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1973, p. 163.
11. Quoted in Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson, 1969, p. 513.
12. Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965, p. 89.
13. See Schwarz, catalogue entry no. 244.
14. See Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, Paris: Belfond, 1985, p. 174.
15. Schwarz, p. 466.
16. In Gloria Moure, ed., Duchamp, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Fundación Caja de Pensiones, Madrid, May–June 1984, p. 180.
17. With Duchamp’s penchant for polysemic wordplay, art sleuths can endlessly unpack the meaning of each title. Camfield does just that, in a marvelous precis on “R. Mutt”: Camfield, p. 88, note 20.
18. George H. Bauer, “Enamouring a Barber Pole,“Dada/Surrealism no. 12, pp. 28–29.
19. See Camfield, p. 88.
20. Craig Adcock, “Duchamp’s Eroticism: A Mathematical Analysis,” in Dada/Surrealism no. 16, p. 153.
21. Camfield, p. 83.
22. Schwarz, p. 467.
23. Maurizio Calvesi, Duchamp invisibile: La coslruzione del simbolo, Rome: Officina Edizioni, 1975, p. 269.
24. Kermit Champa, “Charlie Was Like That,” Artforum 12 no. 7, March 1974, pp. 58.
25. Jean Francois Lyotard, Les Transformaleurs Duchamp, Paris: Edition Galilee, 1977, pp. 13–14, 17. Authors’ trans.
26. Ibid., p. 17.
27. Yves Arman, Marcel Duchamp: Joue et Gagne, Paris: Marvel, and New York: Galerie Yves Arman, 1984, p. 15.
28. Jack Burnham, “The Purposes of the Ready-made,” Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, New York: George Braziller, 1974, p. 75.
29. Thierry de Duve, Nominalisme pictural: Marcel Duchamp, la peinture, et la modernité, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1984, p. 233.
30. In addition to Duchamp’s reproduction of his own work as a “portable museum,” he also, as Rudolf Kuenzli points out, made efforts to shepherd his work into museums of his choosing. Kuenzli, “Introduction,” Dada/Surrealism no. 16, p. I R.