This article was originally published in the June 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
The Trenton City Museum is helping to mark the centennial of one of the early 20th century’s most radical approaches to art marking, the readymade — or using everyday objects to create artistic statements and advance new ideas about art itself.
The idea is forever connected to French-born American artist Marcel Duchamp and his 1917 “Fountain.” The fountain, in turn, is connected to Trenton, where a small TCM exhibit is on view.
As the TCM notes:
Marcel Duchamp rejected retinal art — art intended only to please the eye — in favor of art intended to serve the mind. He created the “Fountain,” a urinal displayed on its side, so removing it from its useful function, and signed it R. Mutt — a play on the name of the J.L Mott showroom in New York where he found the piece.
The Trenton manufacturer, J.L. Mott Iron Works, manufactured iron pieces from the utilitarian — stoves and ranges and hot-air furnaces — to the decorative — candelabra, statuary and garden seats. They also manufactured bathroom fixtures including porcelain-covered cast iron bathtubs, but the urinal itself was made by a different Trenton company — Trenton Potteries Company — TEPECO.
‘He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view.’
Duchamp entered his piece, which he called a Readymade, into the Society of Independent Artists exhibit at the Grand Central Palace in New York — a non-juried show that was supposed to accept every piece entered. On April 9, 1917 the Society rejected Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” saying it was not art, causing a scandal and engendering much debate in the art world. Duchamp’s piece continues to cause debate 100 years later.
The original work was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz for an avant-garde magazine. The photographs were published along with an essay that defended the work saying, “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.”
The original “Fountain,” a piece from the Trenton Potteries Co. Bedfordshire line was lost or destroyed but later achieved renown from Stieglitz’s photographs and some 15 replicas that were made. The work is regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde, as a major landmark in 20th-century art.
In the display of “Fountain” memorabilia is an actual Trenton-made fountain — a water fountain.