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Some Aesthetic Decisions that Changed Art History

By Suzanne Cohen

One hundred years ago, on April 9, 1917, Dada artist Marcel Duchamp forever changed the nature of art when he submitted Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt” for the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York. The exhibition was an open call to artists in which any submission would be shown. Duchamp, who was on the Society’s board, tested the limits of the organization’s guidelines by anonymously submitting what would become his most famous readymade. The subsequent rejection of Duchamp’s Fountain by the organizers ignited a controversy that continues today about the definition of art and who gets to pass judgment on it.

NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale celebrates this landmark 100th anniversary with the show “Some Aesthetic Decisions: Centennial Celebration of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.” On view through Sept. 3, it includes works by Duchamp, Cory Arcangel, John Baldessari, Sophie Calle, Judy Fiskin, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Koons, Jorge Pardo, Francis Picabia, Julian Schnabel, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker and other artists in a variety of mediums that address issues of beauty, value and judgment.

Works in the exhibition that directly address the mythical Fountain include Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Duchamp’s original that was published in the periodical The Blind Man, No. 2 in 1917. Stieglitz, a major proponent of the avant-garde, also was on the board of the Society of Independent Artists and resigned along with Duchamp and other prominent members over the controversy. Stieglitz’s photograph contributed to the debate concerning Duchamp’s aesthetic intentions. As Duchamp’s original readymade Fountain was lost, or perhaps destroyed, soon after the Society of Independent Artists exhibition, the Stieglitz photograph is the only known photographic record of this piece. The photograph’s dramatic lighting and composition heighten the formal elegance of the urinal and consequently contradict Duchamp’s aim to create a polemic about the distinctions of taste and aesthetics. The exhibition also includes Levine’s bronze sculpture, Fountain (Buddha) (1996), which was modeled on the Stieglitz version, demonstrating its influence on how Duchamp’s Fountain is perceived. The original, itself, is represented in “Some Aesthetic Decisions…” as one of the miniature objects in his retrospective in a box–Boîte-en-Valise (Box-in-a-Valise) (1941-1961).

Another work that revisits Duchamp’s legacy is Mike Bidlo’s Fountain (2015). It is a reconstituted, smashed, handcrafted porcelain urinal cast in bronze that illustrates one account of the missing Fountain in which the original was purportedly smashed by artist William Glackens, then president of the Society of Independent Artists. At the time of the exhibition, Glackens was frustrated by the controversy about whether to exhibit the work. Glackens’ son, Ira, reported that the shattering of the work solved the dilemma. This account has been discredited by some scholars, however, and the disappearance of the original still remains a mystery.

Among the exhibited works are 25 photographs by the Los Angeles-based Judy Fiskin from her series Some Aesthetic Decisions (1990), which inspired the exhibition’s title. The series of photos aestheticize objects, architecture and interiors that do not conform to conventions of elevated taste.

The exhibition addresses the multiple issues Fountain raised regarding aesthetics, including the act of making value judgements, the difference between taste and aesthetics, and whether everyone has the capacity to be receptive to the aesthetic condition of works of art. Works in the exhibition that are key to these issues include John Baldessari’s photographic book Choosing Green Beans (1974), which depicts the randomness of aesthetic judgment; Sophie Calle’s The Blind (1986), a series of photographs in which she asked individuals blind from birth to describe something beautiful, which she then photographed; Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Soap Pads Box, Heinz Tomato Ketchup Box, Campbells Tomato Juice Box and Del Monte Peach Halves Box, replicas of commercial packaging that question the valuation of art; and Jeff Koons’ sculptures, Balloon Dog (Blue) (1994-2000) and Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny) (1979), which combine fine craftsmanship with kitsch subjects. Julian Schnabel’s alteration of a thrift-store portrait of a girl that with minimal intervention by the artist transforms the Sunday-painting portrait into one of his best-known works.

Other works in the show include Jorge Pardo’s handcrafted wooden palette and modernist-designed furniture that question the nature of the aesthetic experience; the pioneering conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s discourse on aesthetics in neon, An Object Self-Defined (1966); Rachel Lachowicz’s 1992 row of urinals cast in red lipstick, which delivers a feminist take on Duchamp’s readymade; Richard Pettibone’s paintings of photographs of Fountain; Richard Phillips’ recent paintings based on Gerhard Richter’s highly valued work;  Miami artist Tom Scicluna’s neon sign, Interest in Aesthetics, a critique of the use of aesthetics in Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance on homelessness; the French collaborative Claire Fontaine’s lightbox highlighting Duchamp’s critical comments about art juries; Cory Arcangel’s video Apple Garage Band Auto Tune Demonstration (2007), which tweaks the concept of aesthetics in the digital age; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs Four Water Towers (1980), which reveal the potential for aesthetic choices within the same typological structures; and works by Elad Lassry and Steven Baldi, who explore the aesthetic history of photography.

The democratization of aesthetic judgement is reflected in a 1994 project by the Russian-born conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, in which they enlisted a poll service in several countries to widely survey the public about that characteristics that would constitute the best, and worst, painting. The artists created paintings for each country incorporating the top answers for the best and worst workmanship. A portfolio of prints of these works incorporating the survey results are part of the exhibition.

“Some Aesthetic Decisions: Centenary Celebration of Marcel Duchamps Fountain” is on view through Sept. 3 at NSU Art Museum. 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. | www.nsuartmuseum.org.

Suzanne Cohen is an arts writer based in Orlando, Fla.