Home > Feature > “Fountain” At 100: An Interview With William Camfield

“Fountain” At 100: An Interview With William Camfield

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1917. Photo by Alfred Steiglitz

 

“That which is appreciable by the intellect is at all times superior to that which is visible to the outward senses.”
Philo of Alexandria, 1st century AD

 

It is April 9, 1917.

A new, glistening white porcelain “bathroom fixture” rests unpeacefully on a pedestal in the Grand Central Palace in New York after an undisclosed person mysteriously placed it there two days prior. It is a Panama model 839-Y men’s urinal manufactured by J.L. Mott Iron Works. It is turned on its side, on what would normally be the back of the fixture. On its lower edge, scrawled in black paint, is the clumsy signature and date “R. Mutt 1917.”

It is never exhibited. Out of approximately 2,500 reported works in a non-juried, all-works-accepted art show, it is the only submission that is not accepted, and it is the only art work removed from “the greatest exhibition of painting and sculpture in the history of the country.”

Tumult.

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Dr. William A. Camfield (Bill) is the world’s foremost authority on Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Originally from San Angelo, TX, he has lived in Houston with his wife Virginia (Ginny) since 1964, when he was recruited, fresh out of Yale, by John and Dominique de Menil to teach art history, first at the University of St. Thomas, then at Rice University. He retired in 2002.

I have known Bill casually for more than two decades. He is an exceedingly thoughtful man. His cheerful, modest, soft-spoken manner belies his fiercely determined intelligence. I was pleased that he agreed to speak with me about the artwork that changed everything. I caught up with him on February 24th at his home where this interview took place.

l-r: William Camfield and Michael Galbreth

 

PART 1: BILL’S EARLY YEARS AND EDUCATION

Michael Galbreth: Bill, I’ve been studying your book Fountain since last year and there are many things I would like to talk with you about Duchamp and “Fountain.” One of the reasons I came to your book was because of re-reading Thomas McEvilly’s The Triumph of Anti-Art from 2005.

Quite a bit of that book pertains to Duchamp and the idea of “Where does art go after this?” And it does seem that “Fountain” was the beginning of that question, “Where do we go from here?” But before we talk about Duchamp and “Fountain,” I wanted to ask about you first, and try to understand your personal history and relationship with Duchamp. You were born in San Angelo, Texas, right?

William Camfield: Yes, San Angelo, Texas.

How in the world did you get from San Angelo, Texas and end up doing a show about Duchamp at the Menil Collection? 

(laughing) Well, from San Angelo my family moved to El Paso where I went to high school. And it was there that I had a substitute teacher who showed us, the students, some photographs of a cubist painting by Picasso, and probably some surrealist work. And I’d never seen anything like that! And I said to myself, “That’s art? Where did that come from?” The next year I went to Princeton University. I was interested in history and art. I did some art as I was growing up, and I had some facility as an artist, and I discovered that something called art history existed as a department at Princeton University. So I said, well, I’ll try that. I fell in love with art history.

And I continued to be interested in Cubism, and especially modern art. Back then I thought that at some point I might do something about Picasso or something about Cubism, or Juan Gris. But in the course of my studies I discovered Francis Picabia. And about that time an interesting book came out about Cubism. It was a wonderful book — Christopher Gray’s book on Cubism.

I think it was published in 1959, something like that. Gray dismissed Duchamp and Picabia as Cubists. He just set them aside declaring that they were not worth consideration in his book, they’re really not Cubists. And I was offended! I thought to myself, “I like what they’re doing! And, yes, they’re not Cubists, that’s true, but I like what they’re doing!” So by then I decided I was going to be an art historian and I would focus on Duchamp and Picabia, and well, that’s how I got started. But then I changed my mind and decided I would not focus on Duchamp after all because it turned out that Robert Lebel published a book on Duchamp at that time, in 1959.

Robert Lebel’s 1959 book on Duchamp

So I said to myself, okay, hell, it’s not Duchamp. It’s going to be Picabia who I would focus on. And that worked out fine. I was at Yale at the time and the teacher there was George Heard Hamilton. Have you come across any of his writings?

No. The only Hamilton that I know is Richard Hamilton, the artist.

No, not him. George is deceased now but he was really a major author in modern art history.

George Heard Hamilton

This would’ve been in the early ‘60s when you were at Yale studying with George Heard Hamilton? 

Yes. That would’ve been early ‘60s. I told George I was going to do my work on Picabia and he said, “No, no, no! It’s too complicated! You don’t want to get into that!” But I decided Picabia is it. Duchamp’s gone, I can’t do that. So I told George that Picabia was my next interest and that’s who I wanted to do my work about. So George reached over and he picked up the telephone, dialed it, and said, “Marcel, I have a young man here who wants to write on Picabia. Will you talk to him?” And this was Marcel Duchamp.

Oh!

He knew Marcel because George was also the Director of the Katherine Drier Foundation.

Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp

George had a close relationship with Marcel. He could just pick up the phone and say, “Marcel!” So, because of George’s friendship with Duchamp and because I was a student of George’s, the next week I was talking to Marcel Duchamp. And Marcel was a great help with my studies about Picabia.

Wow. That’s unbelievable.

Yes. And how I got from San Angelo, Texas to studying about, writing about, and eventually meeting Marcel Duchamp is all good luck.

I’m guessing that the first time that you even knew anything about Duchamp you would’ve been in high school in El Paso, right?

No, I don’t think I knew anything about Duchamp in high school. I think I discovered Duchamp when I went to Princeton. That was all by chance too. This is the way that I got to go to Princeton: There was a business executive in El Paso who was a vigorous Princeton graduate. He urged bright athletes and top scholars to go to Princeton, and that is how I got there. So it was after I arrived at Princeton when I discovered Duchamp.

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PART 2: RETURN TO TEXAS AND MEETING JOHN AND DOMINIQUE DE MENIL

 

William Camfield with Dominique de Menil

MG: You went to Princeton for your undergraduate degree, then you went to Yale for your masters degree, and then you also got your PhD at Yale, correct? And after you received your PhD from Yale you moved back to Texas?

WC: I came back to Texas, yes.

To teach at St. Thomas University in Houston?

Yes, at St. Thomas. But you see, I grew up in Texas, and my family was here, and although I’d spent time at Princeton, and then the army, then Yale, I decided to go back to Texas and spend some time with family. And George Hamilton knew about my intentions to move back to Texas, and he thought it was kind of crazy, but…

He thought it was crazy to move to Houston?

Yes, he thought I was crazy to move back to Texas. At the time there wasn’t much in the way of art history in Texas even though I scoured.

When I was at Yale someone came to the Art History department saying they were trying to hire somebody to teach art history in Texas. George Hamilton called me to his office to meet Jermayne MacAgy, a museum director and art historian who was teaching and organizing exhibitions in Houston for the University of St. Thomas. MacAgy said the program was flourishing, but they needed an art historian. A short time later, she asked us meet some people in New York City. So, Ginny and I went to New York City a week or two later. We thought we were going to meet some rich Texas family that had a little pied-à-terre or something in New York. But they had a six-floor townhouse on the East side! (laughing) It was John and Dominique de Menil.

Dominique de Menil and Jermayne MacAgy

Wow. And that’s when you met John and Dominique? 

Yes, that’s when we met them. We were really impressed with them and we liked them as individuals. They said, “Come down and look at the University of St. Thomas.” But nobody had heard of University of St. Thomas! They said, “We know you’re going to Texas and we’ll pay for the whole trip! So, go to Dallas, and go to Austin, go to Houston… wherever. But come look at this little university.”

And so we did. We visited the University of Texas, we visited Rice, we went to SMU and so forth. But we were very discouraged by all of them. Art history really didn’t exist in Texas at the time. For example, there was only one person at the University of Texas who taught art history!

There still is! (laughing)

(laughing) No, there are good people and a real serious department there now. The person who was at the University of Texas back then actually went out in the summer and made slides to teach with and she paid for it with her own money! Texas didn’t provide anything! It was that bad. She wouldn’t even quote to me what the salary was at the University of Texas because it was so embarrassing. She said if she did no one would come. (laughing) And it was pretty much the same all throughout Texas. That’s changed now.

John and Dominique de Menil at University of St. Thomas, 1965 

So anyway, we came here to Houston and the University of St. Thomas, and we really liked it. And we liked John and Dominique, and it was obviously a very strange situation, but we thought, “Well, we’ll come for three to five years just to see.” And we did. And that worked out very well too.

After four or five years we went to see John and Dominique to say that we had enjoyed Houston but we had some good job offers and were thinking about leaving. They were very disappointed, and the next morning Dominique called and said, “Bill, you and Ginny come and have dinner with us tonight.” So, we went. At dinner John and Dominique said, “As you know (and we did know) things are not going so well at St. Thomas with us for a variety of reasons. We have decided we really can’t make our future here at St. Thomas. It just won’t work. We’re talking with Rice University. Will you reconsider leaving Houston? Will you go with us to Rice?” We decided to give it a day to think it over because it had been a difficult decision to make.

Well sure, you had your family and other considerations besides professional ones…

Yes. We had decided that we were leaving, but then, after our meeting with John and Dominique, we decided, “Okay, we’ll stay. We’ll give it another try.” And so we’re still here.

Dominique de Menil and William Camfield

When would that have been, late ‘60s? 1968 or 1969?

Yes, around 1968.

You were at Rice until you retired?

I think I retired in 2002. I’m not sure; I’ll have to check that.

So back then there was not only very little art history in Texas, but I bet there was not a whole lot known about Marcel Duchamp or Francis Picabia either.

No, but you probably know that John and Dominique did bring Duchamp here to Houston.

Yes. When was that?

1967 or 1968, I think.

Wow. He did a lecture, right?

He gave a talk and met with the students. But the Menil’s efforts at St. Thomas didn’t flourish in some respects.

Why not?

Andy Warhol and William Camfield at the University of St. Thomas, May 1968

The Menils had difficulties at St. Thomas because of modern art in general. They brought in artists not admired by some patrons of the University. Andy Warhol, for example, was viewed as a problem. The Menils also urged more ambitious university efforts for funding and for scholarship.

Did John and Dominique know Walter Hopps at that time? Were they familiar with him? Because the famous Duchamp show in Pasadena, California was in the early ‘60s, right?

Yes. I don’t know if they knew Walter then. I think probably they did…

Marcel Duchamp and Walter Hopps at the opening reception for “Marcel Duchamp: A Retrospective Exhibition,” Pasadena Art Museum, October 8 – November 3, 1963. (photos by Julian Wasser)

That would’ve been when Walter was still doing Ferus Gallery around that time, which was a fairly notorious time in L.A. Walter carried his notoriety with him. (laughing)

[Clarification: Walter Hopps founded the Ferus Gallery with the artist Ed Kienholz in 1957, and remained until 1962, when he became the Director of the Pasadena Museum of Art, now the Norton Simon Museum.]

What an amazing time it was when John and Dominique, and you, and Walter, and for a time, Thomas McEvilley, all of those people were here in Houston, of all places. It seems odd, in some ways. How do you get those people all in one place at one time?

Well, I’m not sure exactly, but John and Dominique had a lot to do with it. They had good connections, and they were smart, and generous, and determined, and they went after people.

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PART 3: MENIL EXHIBITION, MEETING MARCEL DUCHAMP

MG: Okay. Before we get into the particulars of the piece, “Fountain,” and your visit and discussion with Duchamp himself, I wanted to talk about the show at The Menil Collection and how that came about. The reason I called you to do this interview was because I was reading your book about Duchamp’s “Fountain” that was published in conjunction with the show of the same title at the Menil in 1989, right?

WC: Yes, 1989.

William Camfield’s book “Marcel Duchamp: Fountain” ©1989 Menil Foundation, Inc.

[Clarification: Although published in 1989 by Fine Art Press, Houston, the book “Marcel Duchamp: Fountain” was produced to accompany the exhibition of the same title at The Menil Collection on the occasion of the centennial of Marcel Duchamp’s birth in 1887. Exhibition dates: December 23, 1987 – October 2, 1988]

Can you talk about how this thing came about? This show and book was organized because of the centennial of Duchamp’s birth in 1887, right? Is that the reason for it?

No, I don’t know about that. I had already been working on Duchamp and Picabia for some time. All of this came about because of my art history class at Rice University. I’d really fallen in love with Duchamp’s work and with his readymades, so I had a class about him. It was a wonderful class. And the art history department decided that they wanted a seminar — and they asked me if I would do a seminar on Duchamp. So, we did the seminar and it had a lot to do with Dada but especially with Duchamp. And we decided to have a special class, one special class devoted to just Duchamp. There were six or eight people in the class and we spent the whole time studying Duchamp and this book came out of that. It followed that.

Art and Art History Department, Rice University (1987). Pictured: Basilios Poulos, William Camfield, Karin Broker, Edward Wilson, Peter Brown, Richard Wilson, Mary Barnes, Patricia Toomey, Brian Huberman, Neil Havens, John Hallam, Marion Grayson, Ann Arnett, Marla Wells, Chester Bolerf, Rachel Dvoretzky, Katherine Brown, Geoffrey Winningham, and Walter Widrig

I decided go ahead and write a book about Duchamp and “Fountain.” And the students were crucial to my decision to write this book, and they encouraged me and told me that I needed to go ahead to do this. They said, “No, we’re into this. You need to go ahead and do it.” So I did.

And the show at the Menil came about from a casual phone conversation I had with Walter Hopps. Walter called one day and and in the course of our conversation he asked me what I was working on. And I told him that I was working on a book about Duchamp and “Fountain.” And he said, (mimicking the voice of Walter Hopps) “Well, hell, Bill, that’s what I’m working on!” So that’s how the show at the Menil happened.

(laughs) I can hear Walter now. You talked about your contact with Duchamp and how that happened. Can you tell me again how that came about?

Oh, yes. That came about because I told George Hamilton that I was going to deal with Picabia. So George picked up his telephone and called Marcel in New York and said, “Will you talk to this guy?” And I think it was just a week later that I was in Duchamp’s studio office in New York City. It actually started not fully with Picabia. I was doing some writings on La Section d’Or — the Golden section — and the exhibition “The Golden Section” in 1912, and I was doing an essay on Juan Gris, but I was also into Duchamp and Picabia. I was working, initially, on La Section d’Or exhibition and that led quickly to Duchamp and Picabia. And Marcel was wonderful. He was as he comes across in everything. He was a very smart, thoughtful, open, helpful person. And he went through my long list of people and questions, etc., and we had a good conversation. And that followed with subsequent conversations that dealt with Duchamp himself, and with Picabia. When I started working with Marcel on Picabia, and although he didn’t say a thing about it, he must’ve written letters or made telephone calls to Europe because I went to Europe in 1962 and a number of people, when I met with them, said, “We knew you were coming because Marcel said we should talk.” He had really helped to set me up already. I had names and addresses and so forth, but he helped me get in some doors.

Wow. That’s pretty amazing. Did you ever ask Duchamp about his own work, his individual works in the course of the conversation about Picabia?

Yes, but he didn’t seem to like to talk a lot about that. I never asked him, for example, about the “Fountain.” Or if I did I don’t think that it got anywhere.

He was just reticent, for whatever reason. He was a fairly secretive person, generally, wasn’t he? Is that just the way he was? Or it was a strategy?

I think it was more of a strategy. He was very open with me in talking about Picabia and other artists. In fact he was very spirited sometimes, talking about La Section d’Or, etc. And one of the things that got him to New York City was his distress with some things in Paris. Some of his works had been rejected by some of the Cubists like Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. They couldn’t tolerate what Duchamp was doing, and he was still angry about that.

Still?

He was still angry about that.

Still? Even then?

Even then! (laughing)

There wasn’t a pretense, he was still…

He was still chapped about that.

Was this about the famous “Nude Descending A Staircase”?

Yes, exactly.

Really?

He was still hot.

That’s interesting. I would’ve thought differently. Even with his personality, his so called indifference, or feigned indifference, he still held that close to him?

He did. He did.

He must have had the same feeling about “Fountain” because in the same way as “Nude Descending…” that was also famously kicked out.

Yes.

Audio excerpt (“He was still chapped about that”):

 

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PART 4: FOUNTAIN AND THE SOCIETY OF INDEPENDENTS EXHIBITION

MG: For the sake of our audience, who may or may not know the details of the “Fountain,” can you piece together how this thing came about? How the famous “Fountain” which I consider one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century in some ways, or it’s grown to be that, how did it even happen?

WC: (pause) I don’t think I have an answer for that.

Do you think it was just done on a lark, as a prank or something?

Oh, no. No.

Do you think it was preconceived and thought about prior?

I think he thought very carefully about “Fountain” and that he was going to do it. I have no evidence for that. I think, in a way, that goes back to his distress over the censorship by the Cubists about “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the fact that he had been rejected. That piece had been rejected! They would not have that painting in La Section d’Or. They would not have it! So, he was going to test the independence of this “Independent” group. And why exactly he chose that, I don’t know. But he was already doing readymades.

Duchamp’s apartment/studio, circa 1917

 

Right. He had already done the shovel piece “In Advance of a Broken Arm,” and the “Hat Rack,” maybe? And the “Bottle Rack”…

Yes, the “Bottle Rack.” I guess he’d done the “Bottle Rack” already.

And I think he had already done the “Bicycle Wheel” by then, but I don’t think he ever really thought of that as artwork. It was just something that moved. That’s the way he described it, you know, just like a fireplace, or something like that.

Yes.

A curious guy…

I think he had an intellectual and visual interest in the “Bicycle Wheel,” as well.

Duchamp’s apartment/studio, circa 1917

Yes, I don’t have any doubt… This show, that involved the “Fountain,” was organized by the Society of Independent Artists, right? And it was formed, I think, in 1916?

Yes, 1916.

It was organized by Walter Arensberg and a number of people, including Duchamp, and then it was held at this place in New York, called the Grand Central Palace? Is that right? What was that, do you know?

No, I don’t really know about that. It was in some sort of… no, I can’t really describe it.

Grand Central Palace, New York, 1936

[Grand Central Palace, located near Grand Central Station, was New York’s main exposition hall from 1911 until 1953 when it was demolished. Much like today’s convention centers, it hosted all kinds of events and displays including car shows, boat shows and flower shows.]

MG: I’ve never really heard it described by anyone. But there was something like 1,200 artists who exhibited?

WC: Supposedly 1,200 artists.

That’s not a small number.

No, it’s not.

Even today.

I doubt that, but it’s supposedly 1,200 artists and 2,500 works, or something like that.

That’s enormous!

Huge.

Exhibition view, Grand Central Palace, American Society of Independent Artists, 1917

That’s enormous! I can’t think of anything comparable. James Surls used to do the Big Show at the original Lawndale, if you recall — an open show, or whatever. And I know that because I hung a number of them when we were students there, and it was literally anything you could bring in and it would go up at Lawndale. It didn’t matter, the nature of it. That’s the same thing with the Independents show. You paid the fee, and you registered, or something. And then, as long as you paid the fee, your piece was in, right?

Right.

And then this piece showed up, mysteriously…

Mysteriously. No details about that.

Now, who… This is a urinal. And it’s about 20 to 40 pounds. It’s not a small thing.

No.

Conjecture: since you are the detective of detectives, who do you think carried that thing in?

I do not know. I have no idea.

And no one would say that you talked to?

No one would say. And I don’t know if I asked Duchamp about that, but he, uh… Anyway, I have no idea.

There’s still some controversy about if Duchamp actually did the thing. He did it, right? That’s been disclaimed, correct?

No controversy with me.

Right. So there’s no doubt then?

No doubt.

Beatrice Wood was part of the whole thing. Was Picabia?

(l – r) Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Beatrice Wood (1917)

I don’t think so.

In spirit, maybe?

(laughs) In spirit, maybe.

Because those two guys were really…

They were really close.

Yes. And they were not unknown in New York at the time. There were articles in the news…

They were known.

Yes, yes, and sort of carrying on.

Yes, the Armory Show made them well known. And of course, Picabia had been in New York and Duchamp had been there for a while. And he was charming. People liked him.

Is this Picabia or Duchamp?

Well, I’m talking about Duchamp now. People really liked Duchamp. Picabia may have been a little more controversial.

Yes, yes. Apparently, all the women – whoever they were – fell for Duchamp in one way or another. That’s the legend of it.

Well, that’s what we hear.

Yes, yes. Well, good for him. (laughs)

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp by Edward Steichen, 1917.

MG: When this piece was done, this “Fountain,” this men’s urinal, it seems to me, even though you’ve written about its aesthetic appeal, its purposeful, aesthetic appeal, it seems to have something fundamentally different than the shovel, or the “Bicycle Wheel,” or any of those other readymades in the sense that it’s a bit on the profane side, you know, in the sense that it pertains to bodily function. It was… Well, people found it insulting, right?

WC: (laughs) Yes.

That’s one the reasons that there’s no way it could go in the show because it was obscene, I guess, or thought of as obscene.

Some people obviously thought that.

And then you have this… in fact, I wrote it down. This is Walter’s quote: “He employed the trivial or disreputable.” In other words, a shovel, or a bottle rack, wouldn’t be considered disreputable, like a urinal.

No.

It’s decidedly different. And then, on top of that, he signed it in big, black letters in sort of a grotesque, sloppy way — R. MUTT — in reference to a cartoon character, from the famous Mutt and Jeff.

Mutt and Jeff, yes.

And then you have this profane… Well, they say, maybe, in some way, people think about it as a profane object. Then, on top of that, it’s signed anonymously by a fictitious cartoon character.

Yes.

There’s not a lot of… I don’t know how you would characterize this thing. It was pretty shocking, at the time, right?

Yes. Or amusing. Or shocking, obviously. (laughs)

There’s absolutely nothing like it that I can think of up to that time. It seems like a breaking point to me, if it were to be considered a serious thing. So that everything after that, it seems like the dam broke, intellectually, after that piece. But then it was forgotten for decades. How did that happen?

It was forgotten?

Yes, forgotten! For decades too.

Well, it’s an interesting observation. I don’t know if it was ever really forgotten. Maybe it didn’t make headlines, etc., but I don’t think any of the people who were there at the time forgot about that work. I think it was still in their minds. I have no documents to prove that, but it did just disappear. Are you suggesting that because it was a bathroom fixture, and because he did sign it, that there’s something unusual about…

Well, it’s all conjecture. But having done a number of things myself, I can only surmise the sort of mindset he may have had at the time. First off, it was just five years after his being kicked out of the Salon des Indépendants show.

Yes.

He must’ve been still angry in 1917 so that the gesture of taking something that would be almost clearly known to be offensive, and he says, “Well, here. Take this. I’ll show you.” Surely, there must’ve been some aspect of getting back at things, maybe? Or no? It’s all conjecture, I suppose.

That could be. That could be. But still, the way it was photographed and presented, it is a riveting object. The R. MUTT stands out (laughs) in contrast to that, as another dimension to it. I’ve never struggled with that, intellectually. I’ve just been more neutral in this, just taking it as it is. Because I see it as a wonderful contrast between the elegance of the object and the sort of scruffiness of the signature and the reference to Mutt and Jeff. I’ve always assumed that that was accepted, that was part of his intention.

Well part of the aesthetic after it was published, and I can’t remember the magazine …

“Blind Man.”

Yes, “Blind Man.” And it was published on the cover of “Blind Man,” which was a fairly well known publication, at least in the New York art circles, no?

Well, I don’t know.

More underground?

There are only two issues of that and I think it was probably only known in the arts community, in general. I don’t think it was anything you could buy on the newsstand or see reported.

The Blind Man, issue No. 2, May, 1917, cover

The Blind Man, issue No. 2, May, 1917, page 4. University of Iowa Libraries, International Dada Archive

Well, “Fountain” wasn’t a casual gesture because, number one, the object, the physical object takes some attention. It’s got some weight and you have to deal with the thing. And somehow or another it was removed from the Exhibition Hall under mysterious circumstances again?

Yes.

And then it was taken over to Alfred Stieglitz’s studio to be photographed, right?

Yes.

There was a lot of effort to at least document it. It wasn’t just a throwaway thing.

No.

It was considered important, in some respect, right?

Yes. So then what happened to it?

What did happen to it?

I have no idea. (laughs)

And no one knows?

No, and apparently we’ll never know. It’s long gone.

MG: Do you think Duchamp made quick work of the thing and got rid of it on purpose? Because it wasn’t conjectured in your book. Arensberg and a number of people were attributed to having taken it, right? And then somehow it just disappeared.

WC: Right.

And I think, in your book, you talked about how the Arensberg’s moved to California where it was potentially lost in transit. That’s one hypothetical which would make sense if a moving company was moving something, and they misplaced a men’s urinal. I could see that happening.

( l. to r.) Louise Arensberg, Walter Arensberg, Marcel Duchamp, 1936 photo by Beatrice Wood, Beatrice Wood papers, Smithsonian Institution

Still, it’s curious that it just disappeared because the Arensberg’s would still want it. And they’d want to know about that.

They should, you would think. So, what happened to it?

I have no idea to offer on that.

Strange. And the “Bottle Rack” and the shovel all met the same fate, in some ways. They all sort of went “Poof!” right? So they only exist in…

They only exist in photographs.

And in replicas, which Duchamp started making again in the 1960’s?

Yes.

And why did he do that? Why do you think he started remaking the things?

“Fountain” (1964) Milan Reproduction, 4/8, private collection. photo by Gagosian Gallery

Interesting question. I’m not sure, but I think that he was concerned about some of the writings and publications about the readymades that had transpired in the 1930s and the 1940s. I think, and I’m simply guessing here, that he wanted to reopen that and resist some of those interpretations.

Do you think he was trying to correct the record or at least steer the dialogue to how he wanted the things to be thought of?

I don’t know if I could say that. There was never anything that he said when we were together that indicated something like that. I didn’t push him about that.

Right, right. But could you glean anything from anyone else? Because, again, the “Blind Man” publication is associated with the image, and in it was an explanation of the piece. Was that by Beatrice Wood? Who was that by?

I think, Beatrice Wood, probably.

“The Blind Man,” issue No. 2, May, 1917, pages 5-6. University of Iowa Libraries, International Dada Archive

[Clarification: Two articles about “Fountain” appeared in “The Blind Man” (see above). “Buddha of the Bathroom” was authored by Louise Norton, not Beatrice Wood. Many speculate that the preceding unattributed editorial, “The Richard Mutt Case,” was actually written by Duchamp himself.]

MG: So there was some effort to explain the thing and to say what it was about. I think it was called, “Buddha of the Bathroom.”

WC:  Yes, “Buddha of the Bathroom.”

It had a new title assigned to it that associated its shape with a sitting Buddha, right?

Yes. The Buddha reference comes from several sources, and it’s clear that there were contacts known to them about people who were Indian and other people interested in Buddhist objects and things of this sort. That was representative in the enclave of people around them, so that was not a wild idea just pulled out of nowhere.

But he had nothing to do with Zen.

Not that I know of.

I seem to recall a later conversation, many years later, with John Cage who was curious when he sat down and talked with Duchamp and thought for sure that a lot of his ideas came from Zen Buddhism, like Cage’s did. But Duchamp denied it. Duchamp said, no, I have nothing to do with Zen Buddhism, although there’s that direct reference to Zen and Buddhism in the “Blind Man.” But he had nothing to do with Zen or anything that anyone could tell.

I have nothing to add on that.

Would you consider the piece one of the more critical works of the 20th century or just lumped in with a lot of things? How would you place “Fountain” within the hierarchy of art, if there were such a thing?

Well, for me, it’s an absolute milestone in the way of looking at the world around one and perceiving visual, moral, intellectual elements that are crucial. And the way he said it, he called it art, or whatever. We’re much more open to “Fountain” these days now. But I think it’s an absolute milestone in opening our eyes to that, and our minds to that, and I’m still stuck there. Are you concerned about some of the things going on now in today’s world?

“Art or Junk?”, National Enquirer, 1986

MG: Well yes, in fact. Let’s take a look at this. This is an article that appeared in the National Enquirer in 1986 that you reference in your book about “Fountain.” This is a little filler article about the way artists are portrayed, oftentimes, in popular media: “Oh, look what these crazy artists are doing!” and “Look at how much money people are paying for these things!” And also “Is it art at all?” The title, “Art or Junk?” is still a question today, right? And even though the question is used as a headline as just something to grab your attention in something like the National Enquirer, it’s still a serious question, isn’t it? What do you think? Do you think it’s resolved?

WC: It’s not a question for me, but it’s still not resolved out there. I think these questions will continue, for sure. But it’s not a question for me, you know. I’m sorry. I can’t go beyond that. These questions still exist out there. This article appeared in 1986, you say? It’s 2017 now. I’m sure that’s still a valid question in the eyes of so many people.

It’s one thing to talk about the ideas behind “Fountain,” but the thing existed. It was carried around, it was signed, it was photographed and seen… So there was a physical manifestation. I suppose what this leads to is a final question: At the time that Duchamp did “Fountain,” and now that this is 100 years since the work, including exhibitions, any number of essays and books… Do you think he knew what he was doing then?

Do I think that he knew what he was doing?

Yes. At the time, do you think he knew of all the ramifications or all the ideas about “Fountain” prior to when it was carried into the exhibition hall? Or do you think the ideas about it have grown, and that the ideas about it grew in his mind too?

(long pause) Basically I think that he… that he was happy with that object and what he had done with it. Whether or not the idea of it and his thoughts about it grew or changed in his mind afterwards, I don’t know. But I think he was “all together” at that time with that work. Although he wasn’t necessarily pleased about how it was written about later, he was relatively gentle about those things. But I think he knew what he was doing right then and I don’t think it changed for him.

Because this year, 2017, is one hundred years since that controversy. I was just curious if your ideas had changed about the thing since the show at Menil, and all your writings, and just thinking about it, including what’s going on today.

No, I don’t think my mind has changed. I’m still very fond of my past experience with “Fountain.” And I know there’s a lot going on in the art world these days, but I still stay focused on what I’ve seen, and read, and studied earlier about Duchamp. (long pause) No, I won’t go beyond that. I haven’t changed my ideas about Duchamp. You won’t change me on that! (laughing)

(laughing) Good! We’ve settled on an agreement!

Audio excerpt (“Did Duchamp know what he did?”):

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William A. Camfield, February 24, 2017

William “Bill” Camfield came to Rice University in 1969 as an Associate Professor of Art History. Prior to coming to Rice, he taught at the University of St. Thomas (1964-69) and came to Rice when Dominique and John de Menil left the sponsorship at St. Thomas and proposed moving those activities to Rice University.

He served as acting chairman of the Rice University Art Department in 1970-72 and again in 1999-2001. He became a full professor in 1977 and became the Joseph and Joanna Nazro Mullen Professor of Art History in 1980. He taught courses on European and American art and art history, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. He has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, American Philosophical Society and ACLS.

He has published books on Frank Freed, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia and numerous articles. He received his B.A. in Art History in 1957 from Princeton University, and his MA (1961) and Ph.D. (1964) from Yale University.

Dr. Camfield retired from his teaching position at Rice in 2002.

He is currently working on the catalogue raisonné of Francis Picabia.

 

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“Can one make works which are not works of art?” – Duchamp, 1913

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Marcel Duchamp: Fountain, William A. Camfield with introduction by Walter Hopps, ©1989 The Menil Collection and Houston Fine Art Press. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same title at the Menil Collection on the occasion of the centennial of Marcel Duchamp’s birth in 1887. Exhibition dates: December 231987 – October 2, 1988

Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, Calvin Tomkins, ©2013 Badlands Unlimited, Brooklyn, New York.

Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, edited by Rudolf Kuenzli and Francis M Naumann, ©1990, MIT Press.

The Triumph of Anti-Art, Thomas McEvilley, ©2005, McPherson and Company, Publishers.

 

Links

Before the Menil: On the Emergence of Houston’s Counterculture” by Miah Arnold, OffCite, published September 21, 2012

Interview with Duchamp by George Heard Hamilton

Interview with William Camfield, 1997

An Overview of the Seventeen Known Versions of Fountain”, Cabinet Magazine, Issue 27, Fall 2007

———————————

 

Michael Galbreth was born in 1956 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in Nashville, Tennessee.  He is most well known for his work as part of the duo The Art Guys with Jack Massing. He lives in Houston, Texas.

 

 

also by Michael Galbreth
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6 Responses

  1. david sokolec

    I think you should have spent more time on new facts which seem to disprove Duchamp was the originator of “Fountain”, but instead basically stole it from Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven. In an article in The Art Newspaper Mr Camfield is, in fact, cited as one whose investigations seem to prove Duchamp knew he could not have done what he said he did. I first read about this in El Pais but the facts also appeared in The Art Newspaper. This appropriation would be in keeping with Duchamp’s style. I fell in love with Nude Descending a Staircase when I was 12, but this current adulation for him seems out of all proportion for this old prankster .http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Did-Marcel-Duchamp-steal-Elsas-urinal/36155.

    1. Duchamp is the artist of “Fountain.” I recommend reading William Camfield’s book “Fountain” (see above) which is the most extensive document about it. It addresses these speculations about other artists and dispels all doubts. Everyone associated with the event of the Independents show confirm that Duchamp was the artist. The object, along with other readymades – the snow shovel “In Advance of the Broken Arm” and “Hat Rack” – may be seen hanging in Duchamp’s studio in the photograph above.

  2. This is a wonderful conversation. I have always admired Bill’s willingness to simply say,”I don’t know” occasionally in reply to a question. That is a quality that frames the breadth of what he clearly does know. He is willing to leave some things as conjecture and other things as completely unknown. That void is a space where ideas, opinions, questions, and endless conversations have room to exist. Incidentally, if anyone is interested, he can go to the MFAH archives and read the transcript of Duchamp’s talk delivered in Houston during his show there in 1965. It’s well worth viewing. I recently asked Bill, coincidentally, a day before this article was published, about the notion that Florine Stettheimer either made “Fountain” herself or had a part in its inspiration. The conjecture has been around for a few years. It is founded on the curious pun in the sound of the German word “Armut” (poverty). Bill didn’t give it much credence, even though, to me, the play on words would have fit beautifully with Duchamp’s sense of humour.

  3. Don Quaintance

    Just a footnote about Walter Hopps’s motivation for the “Fountain” show at the Menil. For some time Hopps had in mind commemorating the centennial of Duchamp’s 1887 birth. But the rush of the grand opening the museum in June of 1987— not only the installation of the permanent collection but three shows of John Chamberlain, Warhol’s “Shadows,” and Texan Ben Culwell—complicated matters. Determined not to miss the birth anniversary year (in addition, coincidentally, to the 70th anniversary of the creation of “Fountain”), Hopps opened the “Fountain” show in December 1987. The “Fountain” book lingered though and was finally published in 1989.

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