R. Mutt: Fountain



Fountain is a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp. It is one of the pieces which he called readymade (also known as found art), because he made use of an already existing object—in this case a urinal, which he titled Fountain and signed “R. Mutt”. It was submitted to an art show as an act of provocation, but was lost shortly after this. It is a major landmark in 20th century art. Replicas commissioned by Duchamp in the 1960s are now on display in museums.


Marcel Duchamp had arrived in the United States less than two years previous to the creation of Fountain, and had become involved with Dada, an anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement, in New York City. Creation of Fountain began when, accompanied by the artist Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg, he purchased a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J.L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue. When the urinal was in his studio at 33 West 67th Street, he turned it 90 degrees from its normal position, and wrote on it “R. Mutt 1917”.

Duchamp was a board member of the Society of Independent Artists and submitted the piece under the name R. Mutt, presumably to hide his involvement with the piece, to their 1917 exhibition, which, it had been proclaimed, would exhibit all work submitted. After much debate by the board members (most of whom did not know Duchamp had submitted it) about whether the piece was or was not art, Fountain was hidden from view during the show. Duchamp and Arensberg resigned from the board after the exhibition.

The New York Dadaists stirred controversy about Fountain and its being hidden from view in the second issue of The Blind Man which included a photo of the piece and a letter by Alfred Stieglitz, and writings by Beatrice Wood and Arensberg. In defense of the work being art, Wood wrote “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Duchamp described his purpose with the piece as shifting the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.

Shortly after its initial exhibition, Fountain was lost. In the 1960s, Duchamp commissioned reproductions to be made of the piece.


Of all the works in this series of readymades, Fountain is the most famous because the symbolic meaning of the toilet takes the conceptual challenge posed by the readymades to their most visceral extreme. But like the use of the word “Dada” for the art movement, the meaning (if any) and intention of both the piece and the signature “R. Mutt” are difficult to pin down precisely. Mutt and Jeff was a popular contemporary comic strip. It is not clear whether Duchamp had in mind the German “armut” (meaning poverty), but he did state that the initial “R” stood for “Richard”, which is slang in French for “moneybags”. It is also suggested that R. Mutt is a play off R. Mott, the company that produced the Paris sewer pipes. It is also possible that he derived the name from Mott Iron Works, a plumbing fixture company based in The Bronx, which manufactured the urinal that Duchamp used.


In December 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British artworld professionals. Jerry Saltz wrote in The Village Voice in 2006: ‘Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to “de-deify” the artist. The readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. They represent a Copernican shift in art. Fountain is what’s called an “acheropoietoi,” [sic] an image not shaped by the hands of an artist. Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger.’

Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)

Fountain (1917)


On display: USA: Indiana University Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art ; England: Tate Modern London (Duchamp-authorized recreations).

This story is copy-pasted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp) including the image: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at his 291 gallery after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. The exhibition entry tag can be clearly seen.

Epilogue: Marcel Duchamp bought a new urinal from the J.L. Mott Iron Works. So it’s not a recycled one. But with his R.Mutt signed Fountain he showed the world that there was more to an everyday functional object, than it’s designed first use or it’s end-of-life-use a.k.a trash. Since this website is all about reusing items: I considered that the inventor of the readymade couldn’t be absent here on Superuse. (SB/Jb)

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Toon Verberg