Thursday, May 17, 2012

More on the Questionable Authorship of a Certain Urinal

I was a practicing artist for 15 years. During 10 of those years I worked at the LA Municipal Art Gallery, a 10,000 square foot venue that exhibited a never-ending parade of contemporary art. I was relatively young and didn't have the self-confidence to give voice to the questions in my head, a running monologue that told me that a lot of what I was seeing and hearing smacked of The Emperor's New Clothes. I stood mutely by in a prolonged state of bewilderment.

Fountain by R. Mutt
Photo: Alfred Stieglitz
I left painting and the art world behind and fled to New York to do other things. But that nagging voice wouldn't leave me alone. It was, and still is, a driving force in my opening Offramp Gallery and writing this blog. I'm still looking for answers.

It is in that spirit that I find myself semi-obsessed with the topic of my last post, Duchamp's Urinal? Maybe Not!, in which I wrote about research that questions the authorship of the iconic urinal. In his short book on contemporary/conceptual art, Con Art - Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can, British art critic Julian Spalding cited two sources that had "proved beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt" that the urinal was not Duchamp's. I was able to find and write about one of his sources, Irene Gammel's Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity--A Cultural Biography. I was not able to track down the work by Spalding's other source, Dr. Glyn Thompson.

The day after I published the post, I received an email from Dr. Thompson, directing me to the "missing" evidence and giving me permission to publish and link to a shortened version of it. Click here to read Thompson's essay. Like Gammel, Thompson makes a very convincing case for Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, not Duchamp, being the artist behind the urinal. Thompson addresses what I call the "smoking gun" letter to his sister where Duchamp clearly states the urinal was submitted by a female friend, evidence that has been dismissed by other scholars who speculate that Duchamp was lying to his sister as part of a larger ruse:

". . . set against the style and content of every other letter of Duchamp's which has been preserved there are no grounds whatsoever for doubting that he was telling his sister the truth, especially given the trivial nature of an event which would, in his opinion, make no sense to anyone outside the hot-house of the New York avant-garde."

Fountain 1917; 1964 artist-authorized
replica made by the artist's dealer,
 Arturo Schwarz,based on a photograph
by Alfred Stieglitz. Porcelain,
360 x 480 x 610 mm. Tate Modern, London.
No one knows the whereabouts of the original urinal. It disappeared shortly after its one and only public appearance. The ones we see enshrined in museums today are from the edition of eight replicas that Duchamp commissioned in 1964, some 47 years after the initial appearance and almost as many since he had stopped making "retinal" art. Some of them have sold for astronomical prices.

A couple years ago I was at MOMA in New York looking at an exhibition of conceptual works from the museum's permanent collection. One piece consisted of an ordinary vertical window shade laid out on the floor. There was some explanatory text saying that the artist had had an epiphany of sorts as he removed the blind from an empty studio and carried it across the hall to his studio and placed it on the floor exactly like it was displayed at MOMA. The piece was titled "The Middle of the World." Really? (I suspect marijuana was involved.)

My BS sensors were on high-alert when I caught the eye of a sophisticated looking gentleman across from me viewing the same piece. As our eyes met, we both rolled them upwards in a gesture of shared incredulity and walked away.

Sometimes a window shade is just a window shade. Sometimes a shark in a tank is just a shark in a tank. Sometimes a "masterpiece" in a museum is just a replica of a found object of questionable origin.

You could argue that Duchamp's ready-mades, whether the urinal was his or not, made us look at art differently and made us question centuries of conventional art wisdom and that it was a good thing, opening the door to whole new ways of creating art. But what does it say when museums and collectors spend millions of dollars for replicas of that found object half century later and a cult of worship develops around it? Aren't they then institutionalizing a baser set of values than those Duchamp brought into question in the first place?

Upcoming at Offramp Gallery

May 19, 2012
Joe Santarromana: The Rememberers
Special Screening: 7pm
(the Gallery and Blog Store will open at 6pm)

May 6 - June 3, 2012
Chuck Feesago: Retention
Closing Reception & Artist's Talk: Sunday, June 3, 2-5pm

May 6 - June 3, 2012
Closing Reception & Artist's Talk: Sunday, June 3, 2-5pm
June 24 - August 5, 2012
Lou Beach: Stories & Pictures
Opening Reception: Sunday, June 24, 2-5pm


  1. Why is the authorship so important? Especially since there really is no way to know for certain. The Baroness did "author" a number of readymade pieces (The plumbing piece called "God" for example) but I think the whole point was to negate authorship as one of the most enduring bourgeois fictions of creativity.

  2. If authorship of Duchamp's works matters to the Duhamp industry it matters - and boy, does it matter the vested interests of the Duchamp industry: ever heard of Intellectual Property, Moral Rights or Copyright ? By the way, what is your source for the view that " the point was to negate authorship as one of the most enduring bourgeois fictions of creativity"? Not Duchamp, who made sure every one of the owners of one of his works knew who made it.

  3. The following excerpt from Thompson's essay are worthy of reading again...

    "This proposed reattribution of the urinal to Elsa's authorship would not seem gratuitous in the face of another miscarriage of justice only recently rectified by Francis Naumann, the misattribution of Elsa's authorship of God to Schamberg. Both, we can now suggest, were the result of Elsa having been written out of the 'official' history of the boy's club, Dada - or rather, of never having been written-in in the first place."

    Jane, I am glad you are semi-obsessed with this topic!!!