No Jury, No Prizes, No Plumbing Fixtures
April 3, 2017
Between 1917 and 1944 the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. By joining the SIA and paying a nominal fee, thousands of artists—from famous painters to Sunday painters—were able to exhibit their work in enormous shows in New York City. The brainchild of a diverse group of idealistic modern artists, including William Glackens, Walter Pach, and Marcel Duchamp, the SIA was one of many attempts to revolutionize how art was exhibited in the United States in the early 20th century.
The SIA shows were proudly open exhibitions, with no jury and no prizes, a policy modeled on French precedents. But this openness found its limit early on, when in 1917 Duchamp submitted Fountain, a porcelain urinal rotated and signed R. Mutt. The Society’s leaders decided not to display the work, causing an infamous kerfuffle in the art world. The scandal, which is the focus of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, triggered a fissure in the group, with Duchamp and some of his supporters withdrawing from the Society. However, the SIA survived, improbably and often on the brink of bankruptcy, for 27 years, becoming a New York institution and hosting the work of more than 6,000 artists.
Over the years, artists exhibited all sorts of unusual works at the SIA: a painting of a reclining woman bedazzled with actual jewels, a sculpture that incorporated a live caged pigeon (it was set free on opening night), and a painting so blasphemous that the exhibition director landed in court for showing it. Nonetheless, this artist-run organization is best known for the one work it didn’t display, and opinions differ as to why the organizing committee voted not to display Fountain.
By 1917 Duchamp had been in New York for two years and befriended many American artists and collectors. (Note this etching, by John Sloan, of the two artists and other friends celebrating atop Washington Square Arch. It was made in January of 1917.) Duchamp was among the founders of the SIA, and at least some of his associates were familiar with his latest work. Members of the committee had exhibited alongside Duchamp when he showed two “ready-mades”—ordinary objects selected, titled, and placed on display by Duchamp—in a group show at the Bourgeois Gallery in 1916. Walter Pach, another founder of the SIA, had reviewed this show for Harper’s Weekly, describing Duchamp as “one of the most original and brilliant thinkers of our day.” It seems unlikely, then, that the SIA’s organizers were stunned by Duchamp’s radical concept that found objects could be art if an artist designated them as such. So why not exhibit Fountain?
According to a 1937 letter—of which a final copy and a hand-written draft are preserved in the Museum’s archives—it was the specific content of Fountain that caused consternation among the organizers. For the SIA, Duchamp hadn’t chosen a hat rack or a shovel, or merely a “porcelain plumbing fixture” (as Alfred Barr Jr. delicately characterized Fountain in a MoMA catalogue), but a urinal. The directors feared that showing a urinal in a public space opened the group to charges of indecency, undermining the Society just as it launched its first exhibition. In their words: “[Duchamp] could not, as we felt, be permitted to place in the exhibition an object which by its nature would have aroused such disgust and resentment among the members and visitors of the Society as to endanger the continuance of the work which had been undertaken and has been carried on steadily ever since.” Public decency was a serious matter in New York in the Anthony Comstock years of the early 20th century. In 1906 representatives of the Art Students League had been arrested for distributing indecent material when the school reproduced life studies in the course catalogue.
The letter about Duchamp’s Fountain—signed by SIA president John Sloan but composed by Walter Pach—was written two decades after the scandal of 1917, when they felt the story had been misrepresented by Alfred Barr Jr. in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. Doubtless Pach remembered things in a favorable light for the SIA, but it is worth reading the letter to grasp his perspective. Indeed, the SIA’s leadership felt so strongly about their point of view that they demanded “all possible rectification of the wrong idea” disseminated in MoMA’s catalogue. And when they realized that the Museum was ignoring them, the SIA turned their story over to a press agent, in hopes of stirring up some sympathetic news coverage, but she failed. The legend of the Fountain scandal outlived the SIA by decades and remains one of the most beloved origin stories of modern art.*
Researching the SIA records (part of the John Sloan Manuscript Collection at the Delaware Art Museum) has yielded some fascinating items, like this series of letters, many of which are now available online thanks to the Museum’s partnership with the Delaware Heritage Collection.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art
*Scholars, including Francis Naumann, Laurette McCarthy, and William A. Camfield, have explored Duchamp, Pach, the Fountain scandal, and the context for these SIA letters in far greater depth than I can do justice to in a blog post.
Support for this exhibition was provided by the Sansom Foundation and the Hallie Tybout Exhibition Fund.