Il dépend d’un point de regard invisible, étant donné la nature même du regard – Voyage au pays de l’autre côté [Autour de Marcel Duchamp] – I – Curious affinities and strange genealogies: Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade – Allan Antliff

Il dépend d’un point de regard invisible, étant donné la nature même du regard – Voyage au pays de l’autre côté [Autour de Marcel Duchamp] – I – Curious affinities and strange genealogies: Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade – Allan Antliff

Il dépend d’un point de regard invisible, étant donné la nature même du regard – Voyage au pays de l’autre côté [Autour de Marcel Duchamp] – I – Curious affinities and strange genealogies: Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade – Allan Antliff


Marcel Duchamp smoking in front of Fountain [Duchamp Retrospective, Pasadena Art Museum, 1963 | Image source:]


Il dépend d’un point de regard invisible, étant donné la nature même du regard – Voyage au pays de l’autre côté [Autour de Marcel Duchamp] – I – Curious affinities and strange genealogies: Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade

In December, 2004 the Guardian Weekly ran a short news item, “Urinal Comes Out on Top”, announcing a survey of 500 artists, curators, critics and dealers had determined “a humble porcelain urinal–reclining on its side, and marked with a false signature–[is] the world’s most influential piece of modern art, knocking Picasso and Matisse from their positions of supremacy.” [1]

The item in question was Fountain, an industrially-produced urinal which French artist Marcel Duchamp signed” R. Mutt” and submitted on April 9, 1917 for inclusion in a large-scale exhibition of modern art–the Independents Exhibition–in New York City. Fountain was the latest in a series of industrially-produced items–“readymades”–Duchamp purchased following his arrival in New York in 1915. How and why it “came out on top” is an interesting story.

At its point of origin, the urinal was a mockery of Cubism, a movement Duchamp had participated in, but abandoned just before the outbreak of World War 1. The Cubist aesthetic was based in the main on the metaphysical speculations of the then world-famous French philosopher, Henri Bergson. Briefly, Bergson argued the conventional scientific view of the world based on the standardized measurement of time, Newtonian physics, and Euclidian geometry, was a intellectual formulation invented to serve our utilitarian needs. In Time and Free Will (1889), Creative Evolution (1907) and other widely read works, he constructed an alternative to this utilitarian, rationalizing worldview. Whereas Newtonian physics assumed matter was solid and inert, Bergson speculated that matter was actually energy in an unending condition of flux and interpenetration. The quantitative division of time epitomised by the clock, with its standard units of seconds, minutes, and hours was also done away with. Time’s passage was actually qualitative: each moment was different from the last, as was the condition of matter itself in its unceasing evolution. In the course of our day-to-day lives we routinely suppressed this knowledge out of necessity, however artists, potentially, had a role to play in this regard. Bergson singled them out and invited them to throw off the rationalist shackles to reveal the reality that lay hidden behind the veil. [2]

Consider Tea Time (1911) a portrait by Jean Metzinger reproduced in Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes’ aesthetic codification, Cubism (1912). Following Bergson, The Cubists understood this painting as an exercise of profound sympathy in which the artist had captured the sitter’s unique personality through a process of intuition attuned to the life force of the subject, right down to her material dynamism. To quote Gleizes and Metzinger, by circumnavigating the intellect Metzinger created a “sensitive passage between two subjective spaces” in which the personality of the sitter was reflected “back upon the understanding of the spectator.” [3] As such, Tea Time was a unique expression of a unique moment in the creative evolution of both artist and subject.

In their pre-war polemics, the Cubists celebrated their art as the product of an intuitive, anti-intellectual, and qualitative experience of reality. Duchamp’s readymades were similarly indebted to Bergson, albeit in a far more ironic way. The readymade idea was derived from an early study, Laughter (1900), where Bergson analysed humour as a recuperative response to moments of disjuncture, when manifestations of living, organic, qualitative being get mixed up with the inorganic, quantitative, and lifeless. The mind grasps this absurdity not through intuition, but intellectually. When a living being is transformed into something that is lifeless and mechanical, laughter is the release that affirms the realities underlying our misapprehension.

In a key passage, Bergson characterized the type of being that is the antithesis of a living entity as “ready made” and “mechanical.” “The attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body,” he wrote, become laughable in “exact proportion as bodily movement reminds us of the rigid, ready-made, mechanical qualities” we associate with machines. [4]

Regarding Duchamp’s Fountain from this perspective, we have an item submitted to a modern art exhibition that was, paradoxically, art-less, mass-produced, and lacking in emotion, empathy, or originality–in short, a complete inversion of Bergson’s conception of qualitative being, which the Cubists evoked to rank their aesthetic as the penultimate expression of intuition in French art.

But the implications of the readymade go beyond refuting Cubist values as such. The readymade can also be interpreted as a general attack on early 20th-century art’s culturally elitist function through the disruption its discursive support–the aesthetic judgements that led to an art work’s designation as “art.” The readymade corroded art’s ontological viability by bringing the public and their subjectivity into play as generative components in the formation of both the “artist” and the “art” work. [5] In one gesture, Duchamp blasted away the art world’s institutional parametres: the primacy of the art object; the discerning role of the critic; the taste of dealers; the selective sanction of collectors; and the hierarchical ranking of museum curators.

Which brings me back to 1917 and the “the world’s most influential piece of modern art.” It often goes unnoted that the opening of the New York Independents Exhibition on April 10th was preceded by America’s entry into World War 1 four days earlier. Duchamp was opposed to that war–he had fled France in 1915 to escape it. However, many of the Independents Exhibition’s directors were nationalists. And, with a war on, they decided to promote their show as a patriotic event, arguing that a display of modern art free of judges and juries encapsulated the democratic values America was “fighting to make the world safe for.” [6]

The Independents was supposed to be juryless, but when the directors unpacked Duchamp’s Fountain the day before the opening, they balked at exhibiting it. One can well understand their reasoning: equating this industrially produced pissoir with a work of art would sully every other artwork on display and turn the cultural patriotism of their ultra-democratic exhibition into a mockery.

Following the rejection, Duchamp orchestrated a brief controversy in the newspapers during which the hypocrisy of the directors’ censorious ways was made clear. [7] As for the readymade urinal, it only survives in a photograph: the object was thrown out after it had served its purpose.

That was the first time around for Fountain. The second time around circumstances were completely different. In the early 1950s Duchamp was again living in New York, where he had sought refuge during World War 2. At the time there was renewed interest in his work, thanks in part by his peripheral participation in the activities of the exiled Surrealists. More importantly, however, Duchamp was becoming historical. His World War 1-era productions, including a few small readymades, had figured prominently in a retrospective exhibition, “Twentieth Century Art from the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection,” at the Art Institute of Chicago in fall, 1949. [8] The art world took notice, and in early 1950, the New York art dealer Sydney Janis asked Duchamp to “authorize” a substitute 1917 urinal for purposes of an exhibition he was putting together called “Challenge and Defy: Extreme Examples by 20th Century Artists, French and American.” [9] It is worth noting that this exhibition was a commercial event showcasing Janis’s holdings. Duchamp was evidently amused by the idea and gave Janis the go ahead to pick out a urinal and sign it R. Mutt, with the stipulation that the replica be mounted very low to the floor so that “little boys” in need of relief could use it. [10]

Sensing an opportunity, others were soon after him as well for replicas to fill gaps in various Duchamp-related exhibitions. Duchamp went along with it, and fake original readymades started sprouting up like mushrooms. [11]

However the “authorized readymade” free-for-all came to an abrupt halt in 1964, when Duchamp signed a contract giving Italian art dealer Arturo Schwartz exclusive rights to Duchamp’s pen. No more free signatures, but so what? Ever the optimist, in a letter to an American collector seeking the master’s signature for a bottle rack he had retrieved from a dump, Duchamp responded: “I have just signed a contract with Arturo Schwartz authorizing him to make an edition (8 replicas) of all of my few readymades. . . . I have therefore pledged myself not to sign anymore readymades to protect his edition. But signature or no signature, your find has the same “metaphysical” value as any other readymade–it even has the advantage of no commercial value.” [12]

Commercial viability aside, the rapid incorporation of Duchamp-sanctioned readymades into the contemporary art market inspired a number of younger artists to emulate him with their own “readymade” productions: Jasper John’s Painted Bronze (ale cans) (1960), for example. A new label, “neo-Dada,” was to be coined to sum up the accelerating departure from conventional painting and sculpture-making on the part of Duchamp’s latter-day acolytes. Neo-Dada grew to encompass a wide grab bag, from Robert Rauschenburg’s junk-collage “Combines” to Niki de Saint Phalle’s shotgun-produced “Tir” paintings. [13]

And so, the anti-art readymade, circa 1917, was bronzed and sold off. In an interview for Calvin Thomkins’s 1962 study of Duchamp’s influence–The Bride and the Bachelors–Rauschenberg went so far as to assure readers that Duchamp had never intended the original readymades as mere “gestures’: Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1914), for example, was “one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture” he’d ever seen. [14]

Eventually, Duchamp himself grew irritated. In a letter to Dadaist Hans Richter, he wrote, “This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered the readymades I sought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” [15]

“Aesthetic beauty” was, for Duchamp, the handmaiden of the commercial art system that, working hand-in-glove with the cultural nationalism of World War 1, had fatally compromised modern art. He had deployed the readymade to attack this state of affairs, but now artists were recuperating it in a quest to ‘make it big.’

And there was nothing Duchamp could do about it. Beating a retreat, in 1961 he ended a talk at the Museum of Modern Art asserting “I don’t want to destroy art for anybody else, but for myself, that’s all.” [16] Thereafter he seems to have been content, at least publically, to acknowledge and celebrate the ways in which his ‘legacy’ was escaping his control. Anti-art as art? Why not.

The truth of the matter is that, by the 1960s, aesthetic beauty as a criteria for art was on the way out, as was the convention of the art work ‘as such’. What passed as art-making was undergoing an immense sea change, and Duchamp’s readymades, which seemed to anticipate many issues contemporary artists were raising, looked (in retrospect) immensely significant.

Accordingly, hostile critics such as Clement Greenberg blamed Duchamp for opening the pandora’s box. In a polemical essay, “The Counter Avant-Garde” Greenberg wrote that the readymades had displaced the activity of making high quality art in favour of conceptual ‘questioning’ of what art is. And now artists were debasing their profession by dragging in everything–urinals, etc.–for consideration. “Conceptualist art in all its varieties,” Greenberg fumed, is “making a last desperate attempt to escape from the jurisdiction of taste by plumbing remoter and remoter depths of sub-art–as thought taste might not be able to follow that far down.” [17] Duchamp be damned, the critic still triumphed!

Greenberg, however, was swimming against the stream. By the dawn of the 21st century, an avalanche of curious affinities and strange genealogies had given Duchamp credit for pretty much everything; “Happenings, Fluxus, Neo-Dada, Minimalism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Performance Art” form a partial list. [18] A sampler of the gymnastics fueling this remarkable range of influence is Arthur Danto’s genealogy from Andy Warhol’s silk-screened multiple Brillo Boxes (1964) to Duchamp’s readymades. Danto argues that, philosophically-speaking, both point toward art’s reliance on a context to function as “art” [19] The anti-art agenda goes down the memory hole and –“presto”–up pops Warhol, freshly buttered with an historical pedigree not of Duchamp’s making.

Indeed, the readymade’s politics have been ‘disappeared’ many times over by those proclaiming “affinity” with Duchamp. Perhaps the penultimate example is the late 1970s collaborative tribute organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Alberta College of Art: Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades etc./Marcel Duchamp: A European Investigation. The National Gallery displayed Arturo Schwartz copyright authorized readymade replicas (Fountain, 5th Version, October 1964, Milan) while the Alberta Collage of Art amassed “Duchampian” work by living artists (Gabor Attalai, Red-y made Coat Hanger). [20] This coming together of successfully commodified readymades and aspiring art seeking commodification begged the question, where would it end?

Well, it didn’t. In the 1980s the readymades were turned from objects of emulation to objects of critique from which to make a statement . . . artistically. Among a myriad of examples, we have Maureen Connor’s witty series of replica readymade Duchamp bottle racks (Untitled, 1989) sporting items of female clothing by way of “questioning and attempting to transform and make fluid the identity of an already existing object”: i.e., readymade = art = Duchamp = male. [21] And, in a more banal postmodern mode, Sherrie Levine’s bronzed Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp, A.P.) (1991) which now “introduces” visitors to the permanent collection of the Walker Art Centre in Indianapolis. The accompanying descriptive panel reads in part:

“What’s so special about a copy of a famous work of art? If you compare Levine’s Fountain with Duchamp’s sculpture, you’ll notice that it’s not an exact copy. Most notably, Duchamp’s piece was an actual urinal, turned upside down and unaltered except for his signature. He believed he could transform such mass-produced, everyday objects into artworks merely by proclaiming them so. He called these works «readymades.» In contrast, Levine’s Fountain is a contemporary urinal cast in a precious metal–bronze, the traditional material for casting sculpture. Polished to a brilliant shine, this work is no longer a common, store-bought object but something quite unique. Levine’s Fountain is placed at the entrance to the permanent collection exhibition galleries as a hint at the changes that have taken place in art over our century. Moreover, this sculpture shows that today’s artistic innovations continue to be built on the achievements of the past.” [22]

Echoing Levine’s positioning (after Marcel Duchamp) at the Walker, in 1994 October Magazine served up an entire “roundtable” — Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Martha Buskirk, Alexander Alberro and Thierry de Duve – to mull over Duchamp’s artistic legacy. In a telling consensus, Duchamp’s selection process for the readymades was proclaimed by de Duve to be “the modern formula for aesthetic judgement” and, in that light, characterized by Krauss (presumably with a straight face) as “baptismal.” [23]

Baptismal? Certainly, numerous blessings have been bestowed upon artists, collectors, critics, and the like since the 1950s by way of driving a stake through the historical heart of the readymades. But then, what does history matter to “the world’s most influential piece of modern art” or its many replicas?


Allan Antliff



  1. Charlotte Higgins, “Urinal Comes Out on Top,” Guardian Weekly December 17-23, 2004: 20.
  2. Mark Antliff, Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993): 37-66.
  3. Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger quoted in ibid.: 48.
  4. Henri Bergson, Laughter trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: MacMillan and Co., 1913): 133-34.
  5. Allan Antliff, Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics and the First American Avant-Garde Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001): 90.
  6. I discuss the politics of the exhibition in my forthcoming book, Critical Engagements: Art and Anarchism from the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
  7. Anonymous, “His Art too Crude for Independents, New York Herald, April 14, 1917: 6.
  8. Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Amsterdam: Ludion Press, 199): 167-68.
  9. Ibid., 168.
  10. Ibid., 168.
  11. Naumann discusses the proliferation in Ibid., 208-240.
  12. Ibid., 255.
  13. Susan Hapgood, ed. Neo-Dada: Redefining Art, 1950-62 (New York: Universal Publishing, 1994): passim.
  14. Calvin Thomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors reprint (New York: Viking Press, 1965): 236.
  15. Marcel Duchamp to Hans Richter, November 19, 1962; quoted in Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw Hill, 1965): 207-208.
  16. Marcel Duchamp cited in Naumann, 221.
  17. Clement Greenberg, “Counter-Avant-Garde,” Marcel Duchamp in Perspective Joseph Mashenk (Englewood Clffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1975): 133. The aesthetic argument has lately been renewed by Donald Kuspit in The End of Art, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 14-39.
  18. Jason Gaiger, “Interpreting the readymade: Marcel Duchamp’s Bottlerack,” Frameworks for Modern Art, Jason Gaiger, ed. (London: Open University, 2003): 99.
  19. Ibid., 97.
  20. Marcel Duchamp, Readymades, etc./Marcel Duchamp: a European Investigation exhibition catalogue (Calgary: Alberta College of Art, 1979), passim.
  21. Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art (London: Phaidon, 1998): 401.
  22. Object label: Descriptive text for Sherrie Levine, Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.) (1991). [accessed November 12, 2005].
  23. Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Martha Buskirk, Alexander Alberro and Thierry de Duve, “Roundtable,” The Duchamp Effect: Essays, Interviews, Roundtable (Boston: MIT Press, 1996): 213.

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