Who is R. Mutt?

The legacy of R. Mutt, Duchamp, and how conceptual art makes its way to Paris Fashion Week F/W 2017 Shows c/o Virgil Abloh.

March 04, 2017
Photo from Off-White Instagram

On the back of an Off-White™ c/o Virgil Abloh’s FW17 hoodie, which he is showing in his Paris showroom, the text reads:

“In 1917 Marcel Duchamp received a porcelain urinal from a female friend who had purchased the item in a plumbing store and signed it with ‘R. Mutt’, the male pseudonym she had adopted. Duchamp declared the object as a work of art, titled it ‘Fountain’ and submitted the sculpture to the Society of Independent Artists.

By placing an everyday article in a context where its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view, Duchamp created a new though for that object and shifted the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.”

Off-White™ c/o R. Mutt

Richard Mutt has been the subject of controversy and mystery since his name first appeared on an upside down urinal that was submitted—and subsequently denied entry—to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 under the title “Fountain”. Some say that the female friend mentioned above was Duchamp’s friend, the artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. In any case, “Fountain” by R. Mutt (or Marcel Duchamp or whoever it was, as this has, once again, become the subject of controversy: there could have been collaborators or the artist who “created” it might not have been Duchamp at all!)... in any case, it came to disrupt and define the course of art history thereafter. What was born was conceptual art, and what we know today would not be without “Fountain”.
Marcel Duchamp was born in Normandy in 1887. In 1911 he became friends with the artist Francis Picabia. One year later, Duchamp was asked to withdraw “Nude Descending a Staircase” from the Salon in Paris (today it is considered one of the greatest works of art). Disillusioned with the Paris scene, Duchamp left for NYC in 1915. Upon arriving in NYC he would reunite with Picabia, another great artist of the modernist era, whose show at MoMa was a profound, some say revolutionary, success.

Duchamp’s artistic circle at the time included Picabia and Man Ray, and he garnered the patronage of the Arensberg’s of Philadelphia. It was around this time that Duchamp began a series of Ready-mades, or Objet Trouve, whose functions evolved beyond their original purposes, finding a new function that is recognized by, even created by, an “artist”. Artists find meaning in ordinary, everyday objects: objects that can be elevated to the realm of fine art comparable to great paintings and masterpieces of the past as they attain new meaning that is beyond their form.
Story has it (one of the many, it seems) that one afternoon Duchamp, together with friends including Walter Arensberg, went to a J.L Mott Iron Works in NYC and bought a urinal; Duchamp took it home, flipped it over, and signed it R. Mutt (or perhaps his friend and artist Baroness Elsa did). For Duchamp, submitting it to the Society under the pseudonym (a society he co-founded, it’s worth noting), wasn’t to debate whether “Fountain” had any merit as art but whether the Society was willing to allow any artist the right to make this interpretation.

“Fountain” quickly reached dizzying heights of controversy in the art world. When it was denied by the Society, both Duchamp and Arensberg resigned from the board in protest, as all work was to be accepted so long as the artist paid the fee (a fee that was to be returned to R. Mutt). As for the original “Fountain”, proof of its existence remains in a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. The original has been lost—with the prevailing view that Stieglitz threw it out after he photographed it. It is only replicas that are now in the most important institutions in the world. But what is clear is that Richard Mutt and Marcel Duchamp influenced the history of art, introducing a conceptual layer to art that moved away from its formalism and questioned the whole meaning of art in the first place. Suggesting even that art is something that you can piss on, that it should be criticized, that it should provoke.
Courtesy of Nowfashion. A look from Off-White FW17 that sees an absence of logos or writing but reminds us perhaps of other designs from the past.
Courtesy of Nowfashion. A look from Off-White FW17 that sees an absence of logos, a total denim look in a forest, the context for denim changing thus making it
Then we get to Paris Fashion Week 2017, where Virgil Abloh is giving us an art history lesson and introducing Richard Mutt and Marcel Duchamp to those who don’t know them. R. Mutt has even “signed” the invitation to Abloh’s show, as well as the hoodies that are in his showroom. A bag is a “sculpture” and a hoodie is a “hoodie”, by R. Mutt no less. Do we want to buy a piece of this? The answer is probably yes, especially when most of us (who are fans of Off-White) were not around in the ’90s, when Helmut Lang, the forefather of conceptual fashion, was introducing fashion that questioned even fashion—his collaborations with Mapplethorpe and Jenny Holzer come to mind, as do his masking tape bondage dresses and fashion that obliterated our interpretation of fashion to begin with. In any case, R. Mutt is here to stay, and whilst we might not all get a piece of that “Fountain”, we can always get ourselves an Off-White c/o R. Mutt hoodie.

N.B. Rirkrit Tiravanija, the great artist who defies any categorization (though is often attributed as a founder of relational aesthetics movements) cites “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, along with Malevich’s “White on White”, as a seminal work that inspired him to become an artist. He wears golf shoes that are also signed by R. Mutt, though these shoes were made for him and have been a part of his golf uniform for the last two decades.
Photo from Off-White Instagram