Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal Celebrates its 100th Anniversary

A 29-year-old Frenchman shocked the New York art scene 100 years ago. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, an icon of modern art, will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through December 3. Curator Matthew Affron talked to us about the exhibition.

France-Amérique: What is your objective for the Marcel Duchamp and the Fountain Scandal exhibition?

Matthew Affron: We wanted to showcase what may well be the biggest scandal in the history of modern art. Fountain was the first mass-produced object to be featured in an art exhibition. We tried to portray the reflection that generated this work, and the imaginative capacities of the public to understand its message. The original urinal was lost at the end of 1917, and so our exhibition offers a number of certified copies, photos and various miniatures dating back to the late 1930s — including those created for Box in a Valise (La Boîte-en-valise), a leather suitcase Duchamp transformed into a portable cabinet of curiosities.

What made Fountain such an iconic work?

Just imagine it: The Society of Independent Artists, of which Duchamp was a member, held its first modern art exhibition in 1917. Based on an event by a French society of the same name, the exhibition aimed to showcase avant-garde artists. For a six-dollar ticket, anyone could exhibit their work with no aesthetic restrictions. Duchamp decided to anonymously create Fountain, a urinal bearing the imaginary signature of a certain “R. Mutt.” The Society of Independent Artists refused the object, deeming it “immoral and vulgar” and too removed from accepted artistic codes. Their decision sparked a profound reflection in the art world on the very definition of creation.


Society of Independent Artists, New York, 1917. ©Philadelphia Museum of Art

What legacy has Duchamp left today?

Duchamp developed the artist’s toolbox by including day-to- day objects. Assemblage and collage are now very popular techniques using materials based in reality — pieces of plastic or newspaper cuttings, for example — to create an abstract world. Artists are now quick to employ daily objects in their work. Scott Gundersen uses corks, Margaret and Christine Wertheim portray plastic trash, and Coille Hooven’s works include porcelain tableware. It’s funny to think a urinal sparked this new movement 100 years ago!

Marcel Duchamp and the Fountain Scandal
From April 1 to December 3, 2017
Philadelphia Museum of Art

  • “For a six-dollar ticket, anyone could exhibit their work with no aesthetic restrictions. Duchamp decided to anonymously create Fountain, a urinal bearing the imaginary signature of a certain “R. Mutt.” ”
    Since society, the SIA had no obligation whatsoever to show anything he submitted. Try reading the catalogue: that would be start, but you’ve a long way to go..

  • Related