The centennial anniversary was celebrated this year for one of the most famous modernist artworks that no one alive today has ever seen. I am referring to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, an ordinary urinal turned upside down and signed R. Mutt. The non-existent artwork was never on public display anywhere. It was entered into a non-juried exhibit organized by the Society of Independent Artists, and that is part of the joke; that the artist was free to submit anything. The organizers of the exhibit were not amused, and left the object behind a curtain, out of public view. Alfred Stieglitz got possession of it (no original Duchamp readymades were ever sold), took a famous photograph, and eventually threw it out. The artwork exists entirely as a story (replicas were made in the 1960’s).
Artworks often contain narratives, but the less that a readable narrative is contained within a work, the more the narrative shifts to being about the work. A narrative contained in a work is subject to comparison with the object; interpretations change over time but always refer back to the object. In the presence of the artwork, the viewer is free to accept or reject any narrative told by others and to spin their own. Artworks where the narrative is about the work often require the now ubiquitous wall plaque to tell the story that the work fails to convey and the curatorial interpretation controls the narrative. The interpretations of the Fountain have supplanted the object and are now an intellectual readymade. Would we be able to freshly react to it if it still did exist or would we remain forced into the dialogue created by its defenders?
The narrative, the myth of Fountain, is that the organizers of the show, conservative gatekeepers, rejected the work, perhaps unable to understand this radical gesture. But the Society was a pretty radical group, including Walter Arensberg, Katherine Dreier, Albert Gleizes, John Marin, Walter Pach, Man Ray, and Joseph Stella. These were Duchamp’s friends, supporters and fellow travelers in discovering new possibilities for art. Pach, who organized the 1913 Armory show, introduced Duchamp to Arensberg, who became Duchamp’s most important patron and would eventually collect every existing Duchamp artwork (a small feat, considering the artist’s limited output). Could it be that this avant-garde group simply did not think Duchamp’s stunt was all that clever, or worth muddying their own serious attempts to pull resistant American audiences into the modernist conversation? The legitimacy of modern art was still in question; they did not want the integrity of their work defended by the argument “it is art because I say it is.”
The famous dogma regarding the readymades is that anything an artist calls art, is art. Duchamp’s own corollary to that, less frequently referred to, is that it doesn’t mean the work is any good, and that the audience and posterity will ultimately make that decision, not the artist. The argument for the importance of the readymades is based on the influence they exerted on later artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg and composer John Cage, and via these artists Duchamp continues to attract a cult- like following. But what did these artists think about the master? Here is Johns in 1968: “The ‘Urinal’ [a famous ‘readymade’ art-work of Marcel Duchamp] signed R. Mutt, is played as an art object, and then as the opposite of a legitimate art object. And it vacillates back and forth. Well perhaps that is a nice thing, but I don’t know. I find Duchampianism a bore. It’s very adolescent. I was very much excited by it when I was a teenager. My tradition is quite different. My conscious tradition is through Constantin Brancusi and Brancusi just strikes me as an infinitely wiser and infinitely more talented, an infinitely stronger figure than Duchamp. I think I could have done my work if Duchamp had not lived. I could not have done my work if Brancusi had not lived.”
The Brancusi myth also relies quite a bit on stories; the rugged, bearded Romanian, platonic-primitive, with friends in high society. But the Duchamp myth puts the story before the artworks, and that is why his following has certain cult- like attributes; the stories need not be true if they answer to the needs of the narrative arc. The Duchamp and Brancusi narratives are facets of the larger narrative of modernism, another true story that is often intricately twined with myth and error or willfully distorted by all manner of bias. It is best that these narratives be seen, not as true or false, but simply as stories, and subject to all of the dramatic enhancements that make a story interesting. We can correct the facts and are free to tell our own versions.
In the heyday of Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, one man could, and in Barr’s case did, affect the way the story of modern art was told. His modernism creation myth exerted a powerful influence and an equally powerful reaction. It is ridiculous to reject one academic dogma only to replace it with another; but that is what happened, and in some quarters continues till this day.
Every artist, and every art viewer, will eventually construct their own canon, consisting of the artists they are most drawn to. But museum directors and curators continue to control the conversation by deciding what works the public sees. Though MoMA is slow to challenge its own linear interpretation of modernism, museums like the Met and the Whitney, and smaller regional museums, are doing an excellent job at filling out the recent history of art by prominently displaying once neglected artworks. Not only is the viewer left to the task of rating and ranking, they are left to decide if that approach is even necessary.
The Whitney recently had a show of painter Archibald Motley, a black painter who not only was handicapped by race, but had the added misfortune of being a figurative painter in an age of abstraction; his career petered out in the 1950’s and he supported himself painting shower curtain designs. His work speaks for itself, and will continue to, now that he has been inserted into the public view.
Maine viewers were recently treated to the remarkable works of Florine Stettheimer, at the PMA. Those works and many more are now part of a larger show at the New York Jewish Museum. Stettheimer suffered professionally from self-inflicted wounds; she chose to not pursue a public career. Her works have long had a cult following, Warhol was a fan, but she is now experiencing a mainstream moment at a time when there is a great deal of contemporary painting that forms a natural dialogue with her work (Nicole Eisenman and Kerry James Marshall come to mind but there are so many more).
Stettheimer was part of Duchamp’s social circle and she painted him on a number of occasions. It is in fact a delicious irony that as large as Duchamp still looms in the modernist canon, (with Stettheimer, even now, inhabiting a lower tier) in Stettheimer’s paintings, it is Duchamp cast in a walk- on role. In one such painting, Picnic at Bedford Hills, the women outnumber the men and it is Duchamp doing the cooking, tending the lobster pot, while Stettheimer, her sisters, and sculptor Elie Nadelman wait for lunch. Another painting, La Fete a Duchamp, depicts two stages of the same party, and in one, Duchamp waves from a roadster driven by Francis Picabia.
In spite of Duchamp’s misunderstood reputation as being anti-retinal, in 1946, two years after Stettheimer’s death, he helped organize a retrospective at MoMA (he was credited with the role of Guest Director). Duchamp’s public statements were designed to be provocative; in private he admired and befriended a number of painters of all styles. It is noteworthy that the MoMA show was intentionally attempting to secure Stettheimer a place in the canon. But then Jackson Pollack happened and America preferred the cowboy in a trance myth to the cultured urbanite narrative.
Now that artists like Stettheimer, Motley and others are part of the conversation, their stories and the stories surrounding them will be forced into a variety of narratives. But the artworks exist, and they are now on public view. We can spin our own stories out of our encounters with the paintings. Duchamp and his posthumous mythographers no longer control his story. He will now also be remembered as a red haired androgyne, ready to serve lunch to other artists who are paying no attention to him. This does not change the standard narrative, but modifies it and adds color. To be faithful to the Duchampian ethic of destructive renewal would actually mean rejecting the standard narrative, writing a new one. Jasper Johns, in his rejection of Duchampianism, was doing just what the master would have him do.
It is not for us, but for posterity, to decide whether Duchamp gets demoted and Stettheimer promoted. But however the story gets told, we now have vivid full color illustrations provided by Stettheimer. But did Duchamp look like that? I will answer the question the same way Picasso answered the critique of his Gertrude Stein portrait: He will!