Learning the Unruly ABCs of Dada

U is for...
U-Know-What, Unartistic, Unexpected, Unreasonable -- Un-Everything

If there's a single dada object most of us know, it's Marcel Duchamp's store-bought urinal, which in 1917 he entered in a show as a work of art called "Fountain." (He raised a stink when it was rejected. Organizers had boasted they'd accept anything; Duchamp went out of his way to prove them wrong.)

"Fountain" is one of the Duchamp's best-known "ready-mades," a genre invented by the artist that involves the willful appropriation of mass-produced objects, chosen almost at random, as works of fine art. "The choice of these 'ready-mades,' " Duchamp said, "was based on a reaction of visual indifference."

Except that the late version of the urinal on show at the National Gallery is something else again.

In the 1960s, with rising demand from collectors for his trademark work, Duchamp agreed to satisfy it -- in his own contrary way. Instead of sending out for real mass-produced urinals, Duchamp commissioned his new "Fountains" as limited-edition facsimiles of the original, somehow lost in 1917. He had them handmade in porcelain by skilled ceramic craftsmen, so that each was slightly different from the others. All the things that the original "Fountain" mocked and rich collectors love -- fine craft, the mark of a talented maker's hand, ideas of scarcity -- are present in the later version.

"You want a precious masterpiece of art?" says Duchamp's remade ready-made -- "Then that's what you'll get." Though you'd come closer to the original dada gesture by buying the plumbing yourself, then declaring it Duchamp's art.

- Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer


© 2006 The Washington Post Company