His first object combining everyday items, Bicycle Wheel (1913), came about not just because he wanted to finish with the idea of creating “works of art” but because he asked himself, why should they be static? Later, he would speak of the pleasure it gave him in the studio, seeing it spinning, like watching flames in a fireplace. He had no intention of exhibiting it. His sister Suzanne had cleared this and another readymade, Bottlerack (1914), out of his Paris studio after he sailed to New York in 1915, just before she received his letter “gifting” her Bottlerack, his first pure, unaltered “readymade”, a name he had realised perfectly fitted this (by then unfortunately discarded) object.
Fountain was the only readymade to make a public splash (two others had been exhibited in New York in 1916 but nobody noticed). Duchamp and a small group of friends orchestrated a campaign to test the much trumpeted claim at the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917 that anyone could exhibit a work on payment of a small fee – no jury and no prizes. A white porcelain urinal was submitted signed by “R. Mutt”. After a heated argument in the committee on the eve of the exhibition, it was rejected, and then “suppressed”. Duchamp (who had resigned from the committee in protest, but without admitting he was the culprit) and friends found it behind a curtain and took it to the studio of the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who duly photographed it, lit so that it resembled a Madonna, or perhaps a Buddha.
This photograph, which had the caption “Fountain by R. Mutt – the Exhibit refused by the Independents”, appeared in the little magazine The Blind Man, edited by Duchamp, his friend the writer Henri-Pierre Roché (later author of Jules et Jim) and their friend Beatrice Wood, together with the first and only published justification of a readymade – at least of this readymade, because each one is different and has a different raison d’être. An unsigned text (by Wood) outlined the objections to Fountain; some claimed it was immoral, vulgar, others that it was plagiarism – a plain piece of plumbing. Fountain, the text stated, is neither; it didn’t matter that Mr Mutt hadn’t made it with his own hands. “He CHOSE it… created a new thought for that object.”
Another of Duchamp’s women friends – Louise Norton, whose telephone number was on Fountain’s label, just visible in the magazine’s photograph – contributed an equally brilliant text, Buddha of the Bathroom, pointing out that an innocent imagination could perceive the beautiful simplicity of its outline, while for others its curves could recall the “long, round nudity” of Cézanne’s ladies – and that Mr Mutt might have been joking, and serious. (Duchamp undoubtedly had female accomplices, but the recent claim that Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an eccentric poet, was responsible for Fountain is wholly inaccurate.)
The Fountain incident points to Duchamp’s interest in and sympathy with the highly feminine and feminist character of the avant-garde in New York at the time. In subsequent accounts of this icon, the aspect of gender is often overshadowed by its relationship to a machine aesthetic. In an opaque note that Duchamp published in a tiny edition in The Box of 1914, he wrote “– one only has: for female the public urinal and one lives by it.”
Fountain’s eroticism is highlighted when brought into connection with the Surrealist object, whose links with the readymade were vital but multi-layered. The first formulation for an object in the context of Surrealism was André Breton’s proposal to fabricate objects encountered in dreams, and to put them into circulation to grate against and undermine the utilitarian things that surround us. Objects with no obvious purpose but which had a psychological or sexual charge or irrational meaning could surreptitiously enter the “real” world. This idea fired Dalí’s imagination and in 1931 he presented the idea of “objects that function symbolically” – to be made from readymade materials, trailing their everyday use but diverted by unlikely conjunctions to become erotically provocative. They were also to move, or at least to suggest movement. He cited Giacometti’s Suspended Ball (1930-31) as inspiration, which differed, he wrote, from the Surrealist object only in that it was still a sculpture, made by hand. Had he known of it, it is likely he would have mentioned Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, the original long lost, and no replica exhibited until 1951. However, he would have known of Duchamp’s Why not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921), a birdcage filled with what appear to be sugar cubes and a thermometer.