Who would think that a urinal would become the most influential work of art of all time? Impossible as it sounds, that’s exactly what happened to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which was awarded the Turner Prize by a poll of 500 art experts in December 2004. Art critics consider it a major landmark of 20th century art.
“The choice of Duchamp’s Fountain as the most influential work of modern art ahead of works by Picasso and Matisse comes as a bit of a shock,” said art expert Simon Wilson. But that’s not surprising since this piece was made by a humorous person and practical joker.
Duchamp was a French artist whose work is associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. In April 1917, he had lunch with American painter Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg in New York City.
After the meal, the three went to J.L. Mott Iron Works, a plumbing supplier located at 118 Fifth Avenue. Duchamp bought a Bedfordshire model porcelain urinal, returned to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, rested the urinal on its back, signed it, “R. Mutt 1917” to conceal his identity, and called his new work Fountain.
The urinal was part of a collection that Duchamp called “ready-mades” or art made from existing objects. The piece was submitted to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists where Duchamp and Arensberg were board members.
Since the organizers earlier proclaimed that all works would be accepted, they had no choice but to accommodate this shocking work of art after a heated debate. However, Fountain was never displayed, forcing Duchamp and Arensberg to resign from the board later.
No one knows what happened to the original work after that. Duchamp biographer Calvin Tomkins believes it was thrown out as rubbish by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. His historic photo became the basis of existing versions of the Fountain that you’ll find in different museums today.