The Branner-Spangenberg Gallery’s current juried group exhibit, “Found Object/Readymade” (June 24-August 6; opening reception, June 24, 1:00-5:00 P.M.; closing reception, August 6, 1:00-4:00 P.M.) commemorates the one-hundredth anniversary of R. Mutt’s “Fountain”, an unembellished urinal submitted by Marcel Duchamp to the Society of Independent Artists for its first anniversary exhibition in New York (the piece was rejected notwithstanding Duchamp’s payment of the entrance fee; he resigned as a Society board member in protest).
Though not the first “readymade”, and arguably not even conceived by Duchamp (other versions of its origin point to the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhofen, a Dada artist and poet, or to Louise Norton, a painter of western landscapes), “Fountain” is clearly the best known: in 2004, a group of five hundred selected British art world professionals voted it as the most influential artwork of the twentieth century. Though the original was probably thrown out in the trash (a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz exists), Duchamp authorized a small number of reproductions. One sold for $1.7 million at a 1999 Sotheby’s auction, at least three different artists urinated in others — performance pieces suggesting a shortage of imagination. In any event, Duchamp’s focus was to shift the focus of art from physical manipulation to intellectual interpretation.
The Branner-Spangenberg exhibit contains a plethora of works by twenty different artists, ranging from pieces departing little or not at all from single appropriated objects to large and complex works containing multitudes of found or cast-off artifacts [disclosure: the exhibit contains a piece by the undersigned]. Overwhelmingly, it can be safely proposed that the artists seek aesthetic content in the transformation of familiar or utilitarian objects.
But what is it that makes an everyday object a work of art? Adapting the scientific theories of his early twentieth century contemporary, Henri Poincare’, Duchamp accepted any interpretation of his art as the property of the person formulating it. Nonetheless, the Duchampian urinal as such can’t really be repeated or improved upon. It’s likewise hard to imagine an endless succession of new and different readymade objects acquiring the same venerated status in the annals of art history. Considering that as a readymade it was preceded by his earlier “Bottle Rack” (1914) and “Bicycle Wheel” (1913; it had the added bonus of arguably being the first kinetic sculpture), is “Fountain”’s iconic status simply a matter of its off-color aspect? To paraphrase, is it a kind of scatological golden calf [Jerry Saltz, “Idol Thoughts: The Glory of Fountain, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Moneybags Piss Pot’”, The Village Voice, 2006-2-21].
Duchamp’s intent with the readymade was to discourage aesthetics. Tellingly, however, it’s hard to avoid the association between “Fountain” and a veiled figure or. Brancusi sculpture [cf., e.g., Tompkins, Duchamp: A Biography, p. 186]. Many people will find these visual associations even if their minds tell them that Duchamp did not have the same things in mind and — notwithstanding Duchamp’s intent to grant the validity of viewer interpretations — that they are somehow missing something. The full spectrum of work at the Branner-Spangenberg exhibit likewise suggests that the surgical excision of aesthetics is impossible.
In his advice to artists, Leonardo da Vinci suggested studying the shapes made by the elements on the surfaces of old walls. In lieu of adverting to the usual placeholders of his (Leonardo’s) time — paintings of battle scenes, Christ entering Jerusalem, Hell, or perhaps the portrait of some magnate or noblewoman — one could find newness and beauty in the hiddenness of everyday objects. Now that Dada has become neo-Dada, and even that transformation is arguably in the rear view mirror, the art of readymades and found objects has come to epitomize a way of seeing, a dusting-off of anything that is too familiar, a reminder to pay attention and eschew the blinders of dogma. Even the most monumental started with its own Fountain.