One of the oldest clichés in the art world since the dawning of the 20th century is of someone standing in front of a Modernist work and proclaiming, in some iteration or another, “my kid could make that. Why is that art?”
The emergence of abstract, geometric and conceptual art changed the way the West views visual fine arts — and some of that seismic transformation can be laid at the feet of one man: Marcel Duchamp.
That is the foundation of the exhibit at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, “Some Aesthetic Decisions: A Centennial Celebration of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain.’ ”
As background, “Fountain” was Duchamp’s submission of a sculpture, an actual porcelain urinal, to an experimental exhibition in 1917, 100 years ago. He signed the piece as the unknown “R. Mutt.” It was rejected as smut. But it would become his most famous work, along with spearheading the form of “readymade” art, when artists turn everyday objects into their own sculptural pieces. All of this would go down in art-history lore (including the fact that the urinal went missing almost immediately afterwards, never to be found).
There is mystery, a bit of hijinx and a radical intellectual underpinning to this urinal. The exhibition explores the various way “Fountain” reverberated on the future of art, but the visitor is advised to hone up on this background by really reading the accompanying texts, on the meaning of the works that are on display, or you might just miss the whole point.
However, that does not equate with heavy lifting — there is a lot of wink wink to the pretentions of the art world here, from Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel and John Baldessari among many others.
To start, Duchamp’s original urinal is not here. What is here is Modernist photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz’s stylized 1917 photo of the urinal, placed in front of a painting by Marsden Hartley. It has become an entirely different image from what one might imagine the first stark readymade looked like. But we don’t know.
Some speculate that the rejection of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” its disappearance and the subsequent obsession with it could have been a PR stunt. If so, it worked. Duchamp and Stieglitz, contemporaries and friends, were pushing the boundaries of how we viewed art. It was no longer just a painted scene within a frame, but something transformed by the artist making a decision on how and what to show.
Duchamp would go on to suggest that taste is a product of cultural dictates, according to the curator and the director of the museum, Bonnie Clearwater. So for instance a urinal is not in its essence an ugly or pleasant image, it just is what it is. Of course Duchamp did not choose another object from a bathroom, a bathtub or sink, so he did realize the power of a reciprocal of human waste; he even called it a fountain. His act of making a sculpture from a toilet changed artistic aesthetics forever, as this show reveals.
Says Clearwater: The exhibition “concentrates on the work of a selection of artists whose intellectual pursuits and questioning of the nature of art led them to make their own discoveries concerning aesthetics, value judgements, the relationship between the art work and the viewer, and the role reproduction plays in increasing or diminishing a work’s aura.”
A “reproduction” that will immediately stand out are three red urinals lined up on a wall, public restroom style. These wax and fiberglass pieces from Rachel Lachowicz, 1992, are painted with red lipstick — a not-so-subtle take on putting lipstick on a pig. Aside from the incredible Stieglitz photo, which beautifies and mystifies the original R. Mutt-signed piece, there are several other urinals in the show.
One in bronze and titled “Fractured Fountain (Not Duchamp Fountain 1917),” from Mike Bidlo, 2015, references one of the theories about “the end” of Duchamp’s piece, that it was smashed by an art-world notable.
Likely the most familiar art sits on its own white table and takes reproduction to a new level. It’s Warhol’s “Brillo Soap Pads Box” from 1964. As Clearwater points out, there is more to this than meets the eye. The Brillo box is not in fact a readymade or found object — Warhol crafted it out of plywood and silkscreened the imagery. He used the primary colors popular in modern 1960s graphic design; he printed “New!” in the corners, because everything post-war America had to be new — but he also let the ink drip to intentionally leave a human touch, an imperfection, on what otherwise should be a perfect prefabricated box of soap pads.
Julian Schnabel did pick out a found object, a tacky painting of a young girl in uniform he bought at a thrift store, and added his own paint strokes, including blacking out the girl’s eyes. He is playing with the idea of what makes something “fine art” and what is junk, and the value we place on each one. If an artist choses an object (or pedestrian painting) and turns it into a work that may be shown in museums and sold for millions, where do we actually place value? These are fascinating dialogues raised in this exhibit.
In the following room, what happens with appropriation is amazingly dissected in Corey Arcangel’s sound piece. He has taken Jimi Hendrix’s famous guitar solo of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, filled with awkward twangs and atonal tweaks — and run it through Apple’s GarageBand Auto Tune, which automatically erases those awkward sounds, leaving it a new, but almost emotionless reproduction. In this room also are works by Kara Walker, Mike Kelley and yes, aesthetically lovely book pages from John Baldessari, called “Choosing: Green Beans.”
The two walls covered by photographs from the great French conceptual artist Sophie Calle might leave the most profound impression. What makes something beautiful, what makes something aesthetically pleasing in art, or in life? Calle asked numerous people born blind at birth about what they thought, and the results are somewhat predictable, as they relate to what others have told them — Duchamp’s idea that we view all art within cultural confines. They describe starlit skies, snow-capped mountains, Christmas decorations, green fields — scenes they have never seen.
As for the object that rarely has been seen and is the basis for the exhibit, the “Fountain,” Clearwater has a theory. “My belief is that it had to disappear, it’s part of the mystery. How do you keep it alive? ... With a desire to see an original that we’ll never see.”
Before you leave, wonder over to another exhibit, “Josie Bedia Fieldwork: Selections from the de la Cruz Collection and the Artist,” to take in the notebook sketches of Africa from one of Miami’s most intriguing artists and cultural archeologists.
If You Go
What: ‘Some Aesthetic Decisions: A Centennial Celebration of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain’
Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, One E. Las Olas Blvd.
When: Through Sept. 3