Issue 27 Mountains Fall 2007

Readymade Remade

Leland de la Durantaye

A man walks into a room. He is elderly. The room is white. He pauses for a moment, glances around, moves towards the far wall. He begins to relieve himself in a urinal. A few hours later, the sixty-four-year-old retired seed merchant Pierre Pinoncelli is arraigned on charges of vandalizing a work of art valued at more than three million dollars.

The story of the seed merchant’s arrest began more than seventy years earlier. On a spring day in 1917, the twenty-nine-year-old French artist Marcel Duchamp left his studio on West 67th Street on a peculiar errand. Accompanied by art collector Walter Arensberg and artist Joseph Stella, Duchamp went to the J. L. Mott Iron Works at 118 Fifth Avenue in New York City, made a few polite inquiries, and then asked for a single white porcelain urinal. Duchamp then took his new purchase back to his studio to begin work.

There was nothing strange in an artist personally selecting his raw materials. Michelangelo was famous for spending long hours in the legendary marble quarries of Carrara-. It was recounted that he could feel a tremor of future form in the rough-hewn blocks. Once the marble was quarried and carted back to his studio in Florence, Rome, or wherever else he happened to be working, he would spend still more time examining the stone, watching and waiting before at last taking up hammer and chisel. Once begun, his work was long, hard, and physically exhausting—one of the reasons that Leonardo da Vinci looked down upon it, dismissing sculptors as being much like workmen, and rating their manual labor considerably lower than the more intellectual cosa mentale that was, for him, painting. Michelangelo cared nothing for such distinctions, and over the course of thousands of hours of arduous work, covered from head to foot in marble dust, he feverishly sought to liberate his vision from the rough stone until what remained before him was a work such as his Pietà, the Redeemer and the Mother who immaculately conceived him, who loved him and lost him, the world’s sorrows concentrated into a crushing burden which she held with sunken head and outstretched arms—and which a vandal would one day attack with a hammer in St. Peter’s.1­

Half a world and a half-millennium away, the young Duchamp proceeded differently. He may have looked long and hard at the matter before him, may have listened with passionate intensity to the white porcelain, wondering how to make it live, how to hold a mirror up to nature and culture, how to make it speak to its age, how to tell the truth of its strange times. But whatever the nature and extent of his deliberations, his physical activity was minimal. The urinal that emerged from­ Duchamp’s studio was much the same one that had entered it. The slight but crucial difference lay in the special signature it bore on its side: “R. Mutt 1917.” The rough pseudonym Duchamp chose was also a suggestive one. Mutt was only a letter away from the name of the initial producer of the object, Mott.2­ Being a work with a less-than-exalted artistic pedigree, Duchamp found appealing the name’s mongrel associations, ones particularly alive to him through his reading of “Mutt and Jeff” comic strips, as well as from one of dogs’ favorite activities: urinating (to mark their territory). These low-cultural notes were accompanied by a high-culture critique. When heard with ears trained in the language with the most lofty tradition of aesthetic reflection—German—“R. Mutt” sounds less like a name and more like an indictment. When spoken aloud, it sounds exactly like Armut, German for “poverty.” Perhaps Duchamp’s “R. Mutt” wanted to remind spectators of the poverty that surrounds us, and alongside of which art might seem like a craven escape. Or perhaps the poverty was of a less literal sort: a poverty of imagination and invention, a poverty of possibility for today’s artists with the Leonardos and Michelangelos of the past crowding the horizon, filling minds and museums, and making all later work seem poor in their blinding light. When later asked, Duchamp laconically replied that R. stood for “Richard,” which could have meant a great deal—richard is French slang for a wealthy man—or nothing at all.

Marcel Duchamp taking a break from his chess match with Eve Babitz at his retropective at the Pasadena Art Museum, 1963.

There was, however, a further element to the game of the name—and a more practical one. Not only did Duchamp not want to sign his own name, but he could not. The urinal he had purchased was destined for the immense 1917 Independents art show to be held in the Grand Central Palace and funded by a host of wealthy New York patrons (including Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, and Archer M. Huntington). It was to be the largest exhibition ever held in America and would present 2,125 works of art by 1,200 artists. It was to stretch over nearly two miles and was double the size of the legendary 1913 Armory show where Duchamp had attracted so much interest with his Nude Descending a Staircase. It was announced that every artist was welcome to exhibit at the Independents show so long as the entrance fee ($6) was paid. Buoyed by his recent success, the young Duchamp was on the show’s board of directors, and it was widely rumored that he would submit a Cubist painting, a successor to the work that garnered so much interest at the Armory show, to be titled Tulip Hysteria Coordinating. This work never arrived.

Two days before the scheduled opening, R. Mutt’s urinal was quietly delivered to the Grand Central Palace with the required membership fee and a title: Fountain. Put to this extreme test, the Independents’ board of directors refused it. The ground given was that it was, in the words of the president of the board, “by no definition, a work of art.” Duchamp immediately resigned in protest.

Shortly after the show opened, Mutt’s Fountain was discovered in a corner of the Palace (no return address had been given for the work). It was unceremoniously removed and soon found its way to a prominent New York gallery where Alfred Steiglitz took a photograph of it that would soon make its way around the world. Duchamp was revealed to be the real R. Mutt, and the surrounding scandal brought the young artist still more fame. He had taken the viewer out of the traditional museum space and led him next door (to the restroom). Duchamp became a hero for his generation of artists, and an icon for those to follow. From its lowly standing point, Duchamp’s readymade urinal asked difficult questions about how context affected content, about how the art of the present should relate to the art of the past, about humor and seriousness, about the relation of creation to criticism, and about the nature of artistic artifice. As every philosophically minded art lover from Plato to the present has remarked, works of art are things, but they are not things like other things in our world. A painting is not like a person even when it is of a person; and a sculpture is not like a chair, even when the sculpture is a chair. Kant noted that art was a purposeful activity but that it had no definable purpose; for works of high art, this purposelessness was like the natural world, and great works of art seemed so integral and complex that they almost ceased to seem made, their artifice disappearing into their art. Duchamp stood at a crossroads of artifice. The movement had begun in the previous century when the subtle mastery of Ingres and the salon artists had ceded to the wild works of such figures as Gauguin and Van Gogh. Whereas the salon painters of the mid-nineteenth century employed brushes made of sable fur because they left finer traces of their passage, painters at the end of the century no longer strove to conceal such artifice, no longer covering the tracks of brushstrokes and going so far as to use tools as rough as Van Gogh’s palette knife.

Duchamp’s work was a quantum leap forward in this radical lineage. By the time of his death in 1968, his readymade urinal was the century’s most famous piece of free-standing art and had been exhibited around the globe. It had changed the way that people thought about the cloistered space and unspoken rules of the museum, as well as about ideas of disinterested appreciation and aesthetic judgment. It was the precursor of much to come. Without Duchamp’s readymade urinal, a great many things are difficult to conceive of, from Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” of the 1950s such as Monogram (an Angora goat girdled with a tire atop a canvas), to Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings” of the late 1970s (made by urinating on a copper surface). The course taken by conceptual and minimalist art movements is equally difficult to imagine without Duchamp’s cosa mentale, just as are the brilliant and irreverent hijinks of Maurizio Cattelan (such as his stealing an exhibit from a gallery in Amsterdam and presenting it as his own). But, along the way, something had gone missing: the readymade urinal itself.

Duchamp’s iconic invention left the world as strangely as it had entered it. It simply disappeared. The exact circumstances remain a mystery, but in all probability the original was discarded as a urinal—a fitting, and, for a urinal, noble death. It is here that the chain of events leading to the arrest of a French seed merchant began to tighten. As interest in the work grew despite its disappearance, Duchamp responded with a surprising decision: he authorized a series of “replicas,” first in 1950 for an exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, and ending with an edition of eight that he put up for sale. [See pages 28–29 for the complicated history of Duchamp’s various Fountain reproductions.]

When Pierre Pinoncelli walked into a white room in Nîmes in 1993, he knew he was not in the bathroom; he knew the urinal in front of him was marked as Duchamp’s Fountain, and he also knew it was not the Fountain refused by the Independents in 1917. Pinoncelli was not only a seed merchant; he was also an artist. He revered Duchamp and his reverence fueled his disappointment with Duchamp’s decision to replicate the original readymade. For him, in reissuing and reproducing Fountain—in merchandising and franchising it—Duchamp had betrayed it. Feeling that the punishment should fit the crime, Pinoncelli took matters into his own hands. He peed into the false idol, and before the guards could overpower him, he produced a small hammer from his pocket and gave the urinal a single sound whack.

The French courts saw this incident in relatively straightforward fashion. For them, Pinoncelli had vandalized the property of the state—and the property he vandalized was particularly valuable. For his part, Pinoncelli found the charges “narrow-minded.” When Pinoncelli was given the occasion to explain his act in court, he pointed out that what he had attacked was a fake, was not Duchamp’s urinal—or R. Mutt’s or J. L. Mott’s. It was not the original it pretended to be (an ironic position for a work that prided itself on its lack of originality). When asked about his first gesture, Pinoncelli offered a laconic (and Scholastic) explanation: “The invitation to urinate is offered ipso facto by the object (L’appel à l’urine est en effet contenu ipso facto).” Of his other act, he said, “My hammer blow was that of the auctioneer’s gavel coming down on a new work of art.” When the prosecution accused him of “vandalism,” he was indignant, claiming that, on the contrary, he had added value to the work. The other “fakes” were faceless replicas, but this one now had a history and was thus immeasurably more valuable than before. Pinoncelli declared that he would welcome remuneration from the French state but did not require it. The defense rested.

The French government was not amused and convicted Pinoncelli of “damaging a monument or object of public utility.” The formula contained more irony than its legislators could have ever suspected as it managed to touch upon both sides of the readymade’s singular being: both its iconic, monumental aspect—the part worth millions of francs—and the “public utility” for which the object had first been designed. (I assume that if I am ever caught by the French authorities damaging a urinal—let me stress for legal reasons that this is in no way my intention—my charge will be: “damaging an object of public utility.”) Pinoncelli was ordered to pay a hefty fine and placed on probation. He refused to pay and a group calling themselves “The Friends of Pierre Pinoncelli” stepped forward on his behalf to raise the necessary funds. In the meantime, Pinoncelli got back to work.

This work had long ceased to be that of a seed merchant. Pinoncelli had definitively dedicated himself to “happenings.” Combatting the society of the spectacle required that he advance on numerous fronts. In 1967, he had squirted the Minister of Culture and national icon André Malraux with red paint. Changing weapons, in 1975 he held up a bank in Nice with a sawed-off shotgun, asking for, and escaping with, ten francs (he said he was going to just ask for one franc, but the inflation of the period was so high that he changed his mind at the last minute). Inspired not only by Guy Debord but also the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, Pinoncelli continued his activities. It is said that for a time Diogenes lived naked in a barrel. In Lyons, Pinoncelli took up and then let fall the toga of the Greek philosopher. He soon grew tired of the barrel and stood next to it until he was arrested for exhibitionism. He continued to plan new happenings in his studio in Saint-Remy (his neighbor complained to the local authorities after he painted a mural on his wall, clearly visible from her garden, of Mickey Mouse giving her the finger). When Christmas time came, he stood outside an elegant department store in Nice dressed as Santa Claus. As happy children massed round him, he opened his sack of toys, emptied them on the sidewalk, and began to smash them to bits, declaiming a lesson all the while to the spectacle-loving children about the commercialization of affection. (Moments later, the tide of public opinion turned, and Pinoncelli, still dressed as Santa, was chased down Nice’s streets by a group of irate capitalist parents, a spectacle if French society ever saw one). Most radically, in Cali, Colombia, in 2002 Pinoncelli chopped off the end of his left pinky finger with an axe to protest the violence tearing the country apart (his finger tip is in the Cali Museum of Art).

But alongside all this iconoclastic activity, Pinoncelli’s obsession remained Duchamp’s readymade urinal—a “holy grail,” as he called it on one occasion, “a great white whale” as he called it on another. And so with Ahabian single-mindedness, he continued to pursue his quarry. On 4 January 2006, Pinoncelli visited Paris’s Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou Center. The exhibition was a crowded one. He walked up to Fountain (if it could speak, it would have screamed at his approach) and slid into the dark waters of recidivism.

After a modified repeat performance—he only hit it with a hammer this time—the French government was even less amused than it had been the first time around. The director of the museum, Alfred Pacquement, denounced Pinoncelli as a “vandal” and claimed his trespass was “just as serious” as Laszlo Toth’s 1972 attack on Michelangelo’s Pietà. Pinoncelli’s arguments remained the same as before, and he lost in the same fashion, this time forced to pay 200,000 euros in “moral damages” to the French state (calculated as a percentage of the work’s total worth) and, more curiously, an additional 14,352 euros for material damages. Pinoncelli continues to claim that, once more, his act of “creative destruction” has increased the worth of the work and has stated that if the French authorities remained blind to this fact, the English need not. In an article published, appropriately enough, in The Independent, Pinoncelli told John Lichfield that he hoped the directors of Tate Modern would offer to exchange their Fountain for the French one. He also announced that he was retiring.

What is today’s student of art to make of such a series of events? Perhaps Pinoncelli is a monomaniacal, toy-smashing, self-mutilating vandal. Perhaps he is an artist. Perhaps he is both. How are we then to understand his repeat attacks on Duchamp’s not-so-singular Fountain? The question is difficult because of the spectacular status of the object in question. Two years after the Independents show, Duchamp produced a work entitled L.H.O.O.Q.—this time under the pseudonym Rrose Sélavy. L.H.O.O.Q. was a reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with a handlebar mustache and pointed beard painted on it, and with its title written at the bottom. When spoken aloud, L.H.O.O.Q. becomes the French sentence, “Elle a chaud au cul,” “She’s horny.” Asked in an interview, “What is a readymade,” Duchamp’s first response was to laugh. When this laughter subsided, he gave an example: Mutt’s Fountain. Asked to expand upon the matter, he turned to other possibilities for readymades. He noted that there was the “assisted readymade” (ready-made aidé), and gave as an example his mistreated Mona Lisa. And then he offered a final variation, what he called a “reciprocal readymade” (readymade réciproque). He said that this would be a work of art used as an everyday, readymade object, such as “using a Rembrandt as an ironing board.” The readymade took an everyday mass-produced object and treated it as art. The assisted readymade took a mass-produced reproduction of a work of art and made it into a unique commentary on that work. The reciprocal readymade took a unique work of art and treated it like a mass-produced utilitarian object.

I mention this because it seems that the best way to understand Pinoncelli’s acts is in Duchamp’s terms: as part of the natural history of the readymade. One might claim that by being reproduced for commercial purposes, Duchamp’s fountains had lost their readymade authenticity, their unique identity, and that what Pinoncelli did was to dynamically infuse one of the replicas with just this. Thanks to Duchamp’s commercial reproductions, the work had descended to the level of the first unmade readymade; Pinoncelli arguably returned it to the level of a readymade. Might we not also see Pinoncelli’s acts as an assisted readymade—one in much need of aid? In L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp not only offered a radical interpretation for the enigmatic smile (lascivity), he drew a mocking moustache and beard around its lips. But, of course, it was not the actual Mona Lisa, not the singular and irreplaceable Mona Lisa, that Duchamp playfully defaced, but a readymade reproduction of that work. Which is precisely what Pinoncelli did to Duchamp’s Fountain—he did not deface the original; he defaced a reproduction, albeit a valuable one. And, finally, did Pinoncelli not go a step farther than Duchamp in effectively creating a reciprocal readymade? He did not take a Rembrandt and use it as an ironing board, but he did take a work of art—worth as much as a Rembrandt—and used it as an object of everyday utility—as a urinal—which, aptly enough, it was. Pinoncelli remade a readymade that at the same moment, depending on one’s viewpoint, was also an assisted readymade and a reciprocal readymade. An artistic trifecta.

  1. For more on Laszlo Toth’s acts, see Steven Goss, “A Partial Guide to the Tools of Art Vandalism,” available here.
  2. There is debate as to whether Mott was the producer or distributor of the urinal, as historians have been unable to find a urinal in Mott’s product catalogue that matches the urinal shown in Stieglitz’s photograph. The urinal may have been produced by a manufacturer that distributed its wares through Mott.

Leland de la Durantaye is assistant professor in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Alongside of his scholarly work, he has written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Review, Rain Taxi, Bookforum, and the Village Voice. His book, Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov, was published by Cornell University Press in 2007.

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