Tag Archives: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

It has also, Bogost notes in his article, occasioned an art show (Note: Links have been removed),

… part of “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” an exhibition of prints recently shown [Februay 13 – March 5, 2019] at the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of New York’s contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer.

The catalog calls the show a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal,” a move meant to spotlight, and anthropomorphize, the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it’s the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.

If they hadn’t found each other in the New York art scene, the players involved could have met on a Spike Jonze film set: a computer scientist commanding five-figure print sales from software that generates inkjet-printed images; a former hotel-chain financial analyst turned Chelsea techno-gallerist with apparent ties to fine-arts nobility; a venture capitalist with two doctoral degrees in biomedical informatics; and an art consultant who put the whole thing together, A-Team–style, after a chance encounter at a blockchain conference. Together, they hope to reinvent visual art, or at least to cash in on machine-learning hype along the way.

The show in New York City, “Faceless Portraits …,” exhibited work by an artificially intelligent artist-agent (I’m creating a new term to suit my purposes) that’s different than the one used by Obvious to create “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” As noted earlier, it sold for a lot of money (Note: Links have been removed),

Bystanders in and out of the art world were shocked. The print had never been shown in galleries or exhibitions before coming to market at auction, a channel usually reserved for established work. The winning bid was made anonymously by telephone, raising some eyebrows; art auctions can invite price manipulation. It was created by a computer program that generates new images based on patterns in a body of existing work, whose features the AI “learns.” What’s more, the artists who trained and generated the work, the French collective Obvious, hadn’t even written the algorithm or the training set. They just downloaded them, made some tweaks, and sent the results to market.

“We are the people who decided to do this,” the Obvious member Pierre Fautrel said in response to the criticism, “who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.” A century after Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art [emphasis mine] by putting it in a gallery, not much has changed, with or without computers. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

A bit of a segue here, there is a controversy as to whether or not that ‘urinal art’, also known as, The Fountain, should be attributed to Duchamp as noted in my January 23, 2019 posting titled ‘Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain’.

Getting back to the main action, Bogost goes on to describe the technologies underlying the two different AI artist-agents (Note: Links have been removed),

… Using a computer is hardly enough anymore; today’s machines offer all kinds of ways to generate images that can be output, framed, displayed, and sold—from digital photography to artificial intelligence. Recently, the fashionable choice has become generative adversarial networks, or GANs, the technology that created Portrait of Edmond de Belamy. Like other machine-learning methods, GANs use a sample set—in this case, art, or at least images of it—to deduce patterns, and then they use that knowledge to create new pieces. A typical Renaissance portrait, for example, might be composed as a bust or three-quarter view of a subject. The computer may have no idea what a bust is, but if it sees enough of them, it might learn the pattern and try to replicate it in an image.

GANs use two neural nets (a way of processing information modeled after the human brain) to produce images: a “generator” and a “discerner.” The generator produces new outputs—images, in the case of visual art—and the discerner tests them against the training set to make sure they comply with whatever patterns the computer has gleaned from that data. The quality or usefulness of the results depends largely on having a well-trained system, which is difficult.

That’s why folks in the know were upset by the Edmond de Belamy auction. The image was created by an algorithm the artists didn’t write, trained on an “Old Masters” image set they also didn’t create. The art world is no stranger to trend and bluster driving attention, but the brave new world of AI painting appeared to be just more found art, the machine-learning equivalent of a urinal on a plinth.

Ahmed Elgammal thinks AI art can be much more than that. A Rutgers University professor of computer science, Elgammal runs an art-and-artificial-intelligence lab, where he and his colleagues develop technologies that try to understand and generate new “art” (the scare quotes are Elgammal’s) with AI—not just credible copies of existing work, like GANs do. “That’s not art, that’s just repainting,” Elgammal says of GAN-made images. “It’s what a bad artist would do.”

Elgammal calls his approach a “creative adversarial network,” or CAN. It swaps a GAN’s discerner—the part that ensures similarity—for one that introduces novelty instead. The system amounts to a theory of how art evolves: through small alterations to a known style that produce a new one. That’s a convenient take, given that any machine-learning technique has to base its work on a specific training set.

The results are striking and strange, although calling them a new artistic style might be a stretch. They’re more like credible takes on visual abstraction. The images in the show, which were produced based on training sets of Renaissance portraits and skulls, are more figurative, and fairly disturbing. Their gallery placards name them dukes, earls, queens, and the like, although they depict no actual people—instead, human-like figures, their features smeared and contorted yet still legible as portraiture. Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, for example, depicts a torso that might also read as the front legs and rear haunches of a hound. Atop it, a fleshy orb comes across as a head. The whole scene is rippled by the machine-learning algorithm, in the way of so many computer-generated artworks.

Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, one of the AI portraits produced by Ahmed Elgammal and AICAN. (Artrendex Inc.) [downloaded from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/ai-created-art-invades-chelsea-gallery-scene/584134/]

Bogost consults an expert on portraiture for a discussion about the particularities of portraiture and the shortcomings one might expect of an AI artist-agent (Note: A link has been removed),

“You can’t really pick a form of painting that’s more charged with cultural meaning than portraiture,” John Sharp, an art historian trained in 15th-century Italian painting and the director of the M.F.A. program in design and technology at Parsons School of Design, told me. The portrait isn’t just a style, it’s also a host for symbolism. “For example, men might be shown with an open book to show how they are in dialogue with that material; or a writing implement, to suggest authority; or a weapon, to evince power.” Take Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow, an early-16th-century Boltraffio portrait that helped train the AICAN database for the show. The painting depicts a young man, believed to be the Bolognese poet Girolamo Casio, holding an arrow at an angle in his fingers and across his chest. It doubles as both weapon and quill, a potent symbol of poetry and aristocracy alike. Along with the arrow, the laurels in Casio’s hair are emblems of Apollo, the god of both poetry and archery.

A neural net couldn’t infer anything about the particular symbolic trappings of the Renaissance or antiquity—unless it was taught to, and that wouldn’t happen just by showing it lots of portraits. For Sharp and other critics of computer-generated art, the result betrays an unforgivable ignorance about the supposed influence of the source material.

But for the purposes of the show, the appeal to the Renaissance might be mostly a foil, a way to yoke a hip, new technology to traditional painting in order to imbue it with the gravity of history: not only a Chelsea gallery show, but also an homage to the portraiture found at the Met. To reinforce a connection to the cradle of European art, some of the images are presented in elaborate frames, a decision the gallerist, Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim (yes, that Guggenheim; he says the relation is “distant”) [the Guggenheim is strongly associated with the visual arts by way the two Guggeheim museums, one in New York City and the other in Bilbao, Portugal], told me he insisted upon. Meanwhile, the technical method makes its way onto the gallery placards in an official-sounding way—“Creative Adversarial Network print.” But both sets of inspirations, machine-learning and Renaissance portraiture, get limited billing and zero explanation at the show. That was deliberate, Hoerle-Guggenheim said. He’s betting that the simple existence of a visually arresting AI painting will be enough to draw interest—and buyers. It would turn out to be a good bet.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

This is a fascinating article and I have one last excerpt, which poses this question, is an AI artist-agent a collaborator or a medium? There ‘s also speculation about how AI artist-agents might impact the business of art (Note: Links have been removed),

… it’s odd to list AICAN as a collaborator—painters credit pigment as a medium, not as a partner. Even the most committed digital artists don’t present the tools of their own inventions that way; when they do, it’s only after years, or even decades, of ongoing use and refinement.

But Elgammal insists that the move is justified because the machine produces unexpected results. “A camera is a tool—a mechanical device—but it’s not creative,” he said. “Using a tool is an unfair term for AICAN. It’s the first time in history that a tool has had some kind of creativity, that it can surprise you.” Casey Reas, a digital artist who co-designed the popular visual-arts-oriented coding platform Processing, which he uses to create some of his fine art, isn’t convinced. “The artist should claim responsibility over the work rather than to cede that agency to the tool or the system they create,” he told me.

Elgammal’s financial interest in AICAN might explain his insistence on foregrounding its role. Unlike a specialized print-making technique or even the Processing coding environment, AICAN isn’t just a device that Elgammal created. It’s also a commercial enterprise.

Elgammal has already spun off a company, Artrendex, that provides “artificial-intelligence innovations for the art market.” One of them offers provenance authentication for artworks; another can suggest works a viewer or collector might appreciate based on an existing collection; another, a system for cataloging images by visual properties and not just by metadata, has been licensed by the Barnes Foundation to drive its collection-browsing website.

The company’s plans are more ambitious than recommendations and fancy online catalogs. When presenting on a panel about the uses of blockchain for managing art sales and provenance, Elgammal caught the attention of Jessica Davidson, an art consultant who advises artists and galleries in building collections and exhibits. Davidson had been looking for business-development partnerships, and she became intrigued by AICAN as a marketable product. “I was interested in how we can harness it in a compelling way,” she says.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst[emphasis mine] for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

If you have the time, I recommend reading Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic in its entirety/ these excerpts don’t do it enough justice.

Portraiture: what does it mean these days?

After reading the article I have a few questions. What exactly do Bogost and the arty types in the article mean by the word ‘portrait’? “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is an image of someone who doesn’t and never has existed and the exhibit “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” features images that don’t bear much or, in some cases, any resemblance to human beings. Maybe this is considered a dull question by people in the know but I’m an outsider and I found the paradox: portraits of nonexistent people or nonpeople kind of interesting.

BTW, I double-checked my assumption about portraits and found this definition in the Portrait Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person [emphasis mine], in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

So, portraits that aren’t portraits give rise to some philosophical questions but Bogost either didn’t want to jump into that rabbit hole (segue into yet another topic) or, as I hinted earlier, may have assumed his audience had previous experience of those kinds of discussions.

Vancouver (Canada) and a ‘portraiture’ exhibit at the Rennie Museum

By one of life’s coincidences, Vancouver’s Rennie Museum had an exhibit (February 16 – June 15, 2019) that illuminates questions about art collecting and portraiture, From a February 7, 2019 Rennie Museum news release,

‘downloaded from https://renniemuseum.org/press-release-spring-2019-collected-works/] Courtesy: Rennie Museum

February 7, 2019

Press Release | Spring 2019: Collected Works
By rennie museum

rennie museum is pleased to present Spring 2019: Collected Works, a group exhibition encompassing the mediums of photography, painting and film. A portraiture of the collecting spirit [emphasis mine], the works exhibited invite exploration of what collected objects, and both the considered and unintentional ways they are displayed, inform us. Featuring the works of four artists—Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie—the exhibition runs from February 16 to June 15, 2019.

Four exquisite paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie detailing the home and private storage space of a major art collector provide a peek at how the passionately devoted integrates and accommodates the physical embodiments of such commitment into daily life. Grassie’s carefully constructed, hyper-realistic images also pose the question, “What happens to art once it’s sold?” In the transition from pristine gallery setting to idiosyncratic private space, how does the new context infuse our reading of the art and how does the art shift our perception of the individual?

Furthering the inquiry into the symbiotic exchange between possessor and possession, a selection of images by American photographer Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings question how the bilateral relationship permeates our interpretation when the collector and the collected are no longer immediately connected. What does de-acquisitioning an object inform us and how does provenance affect our consideration of the art?

The question of legacy became an unexpected facet of 700 Nimes Road (2010-2011), American photographer Catherine Opie’s portrait of legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Opie did not directly photograph Taylor for any of the fifty images in the expansive portfolio. Instead, she focused on Taylor’s home and the objects within, inviting viewers to see—then see beyond—the façade of fame and consider how both treasures and trinkets act as vignettes to the stories of a life. Glamorous images of jewels and trophies juxtapose with mundane shots of a printer and the remote-control user manual. Groupings of major artworks on the wall are as illuminating of the home’s mistress as clusters of personal photos. Taylor passed away part way through Opie’s project. The subsequent photos include Taylor’s mementos heading off to auction, raising the question, “Once the collections that help to define someone are disbursed, will our image of that person lose focus?”

In a similar fashion, the twenty-two photographs in Villa Iolas (1982/2017), by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depict the Athens home of iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas. Taken in 1982 by Jones during his first travels abroad, the photographs of art, furniture and antiquities tell a story of privilege that contrast sharply with the images Jones captures on a return visit in 2016. Nearly three decades after Iolas’s 1989 death, his home sits in dilapidation, looted and vandalized. Iolas played an extraordinary role in the evolution of modern art, building the careers of Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Giorgio de Chirico. He gave Andy Warhol his first solo exhibition and was a key advisor to famed collectors John and Dominique de Menil. Yet in the years since his death, his intention of turning his home into a modern art museum as a gift to Greece, along with his reputation, crumbled into ruins. The photographs taken by Jones during his visits in two different eras are incorporated into the film Fall into Ruin (2017), along with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum.

“I ask a lot of questions about how portraiture functionswhat is there to describe the person or time we live in or a certain set of politics…”
 – Catherine Opie, The Guardian, Feb 9, 2016

We tend to think of the act of collecting as a formal activity yet it can happen casually on a daily basis, often in trivial ways. While we readily acknowledge a collector consciously assembling with deliberate thought, we give lesser consideration to the arbitrary accumulations that each of us accrue. Be it master artworks, incidental baubles or random curios, the objects we acquire and surround ourselves with tell stories of who we are.

Andrew Grassie (Scotland, b. 1966) is a painter known for his small scale, hyper-realist works. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Tate Britain; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; institut supérieur des arts de Toulouse; and rennie museum, Vancouver, Canada. He lives and works in London, England.

William E. Jones (USA, b. 1962) is an artist, experimental film-essayist and writer. Jones’s work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern, London; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Austrian Film Museum, Vienna; and, Oberhausen Short Film Festival. He is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.

Louise Lawler (USA, b. 1947) is a photographer and one of the foremost members of the Pictures Generation. Lawler was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2017. She has held exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Museum of Art, Oslo; and Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris. She lives and works in New York.

Catherine Opie (USA, b. 1961) is a photographer and educator. Her work has been exhibited at Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio; Henie Onstad Art Center, Oslo; Los the Angeles County Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. She is the recipient of United States Artist Fellowship, Julius Shulman’s Excellence in Photography Award, and the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art Medal.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.

rennie museum opened in October 2009 in historic Wing Sang, the oldest structure in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to feature dynamic exhibitions comprising only of art drawn from rennie collection. Showcasing works by emerging and established international artists, the exhibits, accompanied by supporting catalogues, are open free to the public through engaging guided tours. The museum’s commitment to providing access to arts and culture is also expressed through its education program, which offers free age-appropriate tours and customized workshops to children of all ages.

rennie collection is a globally recognized collection of contemporary art that focuses on works that tackle issues related to identity, social commentary and injustice, appropriation, and the nature of painting, photography, sculpture and film. Currently the collection includes works by over 370 emerging and established artists, with over fifty collected in depth. The Vancouver based collection engages actively with numerous museums globally through a robust, artist-centric, lending policy.

So despite the Wikipedia definition, it seems that portraits don’t always feature people. While Bogost didn’t jump into that particular rabbit hole, he did touch on the business side of art.

What about intellectual property?

Bogost doesn’t explicitly discuss this particular issue. It’s a big topic so I’m touching on it only lightly, if an artist worsk with an AI, the question as to ownership of the artwork could prove thorny. Is the copyright owner the computer scientist or the artist or both? Or does the AI artist-agent itself own the copyright? That last question may not be all that farfetched. Sophia, a social humanoid robot, has occasioned thought about ‘personhood.’ (Note: The robots mentioned in this posting have artificial intelligence.) From the Sophia (robot) Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Sophia has been interviewed in the same manner as a human, striking up conversations with hosts. Some replies have been nonsensical, while others have impressed interviewers such as 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose.[12] In a piece for CNBC, when the interviewer expressed concerns about robot behavior, Sophia joked that he had “been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies”.[27] Musk tweeted that Sophia should watch The Godfather and asked “what’s the worst that could happen?”[28][29] Business Insider’s chief UK editor Jim Edwards interviewed Sophia, and while the answers were “not altogether terrible”, he predicted it was a step towards “conversational artificial intelligence”.[30] At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, a BBC News reporter described talking with Sophia as “a slightly awkward experience”.[31]

On October 11, 2017, Sophia was introduced to the United Nations with a brief conversation with the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed.[32] On October 25, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, the robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship [emphasis mine], becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality.[29][33] This attracted controversy as some commentators wondered if this implied that Sophia could vote or marry, or whether a deliberate system shutdown could be considered murder. Social media users used Sophia’s citizenship to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In December 2017, Sophia’s creator David Hanson said in an interview that Sophia would use her citizenship to advocate for women’s rights in her new country of citizenship; Newsweek criticized that “What [Hanson] means, exactly, is unclear”.[34] On November 27, 2018 Sophia was given a visa by Azerbaijan while attending Global Influencer Day Congress held in Baku. December 15, 2018 Sophia was appointed a Belt and Road Innovative Technology Ambassador by China'[35]

As for an AI artist-agent’s intellectual property rights , I have a July 10, 2017 posting featuring that question in more detail. Whether you read that piece or not, it seems obvious that artists might hesitate to call an AI agent, a partner rather than a medium of expression. After all, a partner (and/or the computer scientist who developed the programme) might expect to share in property rights and profits but paint, marble, plastic, and other media used by artists don’t have those expectations.

Moving slightly off topic , in my July 10, 2017 posting I mentioned a competition (literary and performing arts rather than visual arts) called, ‘Dartmouth College and its Neukom Institute Prizes in Computational Arts’. It was started in 2016 and, as of 2018, was still operational under this name: Creative Turing Tests. Assuming there’ll be contests for prizes in 2019, there’s (from the contest site) [1] PoetiX, competition in computer-generated sonnet writing; [2] Musical Style, composition algorithms in various styles, and human-machine improvisation …; and [3] DigiLit, algorithms able to produce “human-level” short story writing that is indistinguishable from an “average” human effort. You can find the contest site here.

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain

There is a controversy over one of the important pieces (it’s considered foundational) of modern art, “Fountain.”

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. The entry tag is clearly visible. [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_%28Duchamp%29

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven the real artist behind the ‘Fountain’

According to Theo Paijmans in his June 2018 article (abstract) on See All This, the correct attribution is not Marcel Duchamp,

In 1917, when the United States was about to enter the First World War and women in the United Kingdom had just earned their right to vote, a different matter occupied the sentiments of the small, modernist art scene in New York. It had organised an exhibit where anyone could show his or her art against a small fee, but someone had sent in a urinal for display. This was against even the most avant-garde taste of the organisers of the exhibit. The urinal, sent in anonymously, without title and only signed with the enigmatic ‘R. Mutt’, quickly vanished from view. Only one photo of the urinal remains.

Theo Paijmans, June 2018

In 1935 famous surrealist artist André Breton attributed the urinal to Marcel Duchamp. Out of this grew the consensus that Duchamp was its creator. Over time Duchamp commissioned a number of replicas of the urinal that now had a name: Fountain – coined by a reviewer who briefly visited the exhibit in 1917. The original urinal had since long disappeared. In all probability it had been unceremoniously dumped on the trash heap, but ironically it was destined to become one of the most iconic works of modern art. In 2004, some five hundred artists and art experts heralded Fountain as the most influential piece of modern art, even leaving Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon behind. Once again it cemented the reputation of Duchamp as one of the towering geniuses in the history of modern art.

But then things took a turn

Portrait of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

In 1982 a letter written by Duchamp came to light. Dated 11 April 1917, it was written just a few days after that fateful exhibit. It contains one sentence that should have sent shockwaves through the world of modern art: it reveals the true creator behind Fountain – but it was not Duchamp. Instead he wrote that a female friend using a male alias had sent it in for the New York exhibition. Suddenly a few other things began to make sense. Over time Duchamp had told two different stories of how he had created Fountain, but both turned out to be untrue. An art historian who knew Duchamp admitted that he had never asked him about Fountain, he had published a standard-work on Fountain nevertheless. The place from where Fountain was sent raised more questions. That place was Philadelphia, but Duchamp had been living in New York.

Female friend

Who was living in Philadelphia? Who was this ‘female friend’ that had sent the urinal using a pseudonym that Duchamp mentions? That woman was, as Duchamp wrote, the future. Art history knows her as Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was a brilliant pioneering New York dada artist, and Duchamp knew her well. This glaring truth has been known for some time in the art world, but each time it has to be acknowledged, it is met with indifference and silence.

You have to pay to read the rest but See All This does include a video with the abstract for the article,

You may want to know one other thing, the magazine appears to be available only in Dutch. Taking that into account, here’s a link to the magazine along with some details about the experts who consulted with Paijmans,

This is an abstract from the Dutch article ‘Het urinoir is niet van Duchamp’ that is published in See All This art magazine’s summer issue. For his research, the author interviewed Irene Gammel (biographer of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and professor at the Ryerson University in Toronto), Glyn Thompson (art historian, curator and writer), Julian Spalding (art critic and former director of Glasgow museums and galleries), and John Higgs (cultural historian and journalist).

The [2018] summer issue of See All This magazine is dedicated to 99 genius women in the art world, to celebrate the voice of women and the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the Netherlands in 2019. Buy this issue online.

It’s certainly a provocative thesis and it seems there’s a fair degree of evidence to support it. Although there is an alternative attribution, also female. From the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

In a letter written by Marcel Duchamp to his sister Suzanne dated April 11, 1917 he refers to his famous ready-made, Fountain (1917) and states: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”[33] Some have claimed that the friend in question was the Baroness, but Francis Naumann, the New York-based critic and expert on Dada who put together a compilation of Duchamp’s letters and organized Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, explains this “female friend” is Louise Norton who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton was living at 110 West 88th Street in New York City and this address is partially discernible (along with “Richard Mutt”) on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz’s photograph of Fountain.[emphases mine]

Or is it Louise Norton?

The “Fountain” Wikipedia entry does not clarify matters (Note: Links have been removed),

Marcel Duchamp arrived in the United States less than two years prior to the creation of Fountain and had become involved with Dada, an anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement, in New York City. According to one version, the creation of Fountain began when, accompanied by artist Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg, he purchased a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue. The artist brought the urinal to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, reoriented it to a position 90 degrees from its normal position of use, and wrote on it, “R. Mutt 1917”.[3][4]

According to another version, Duchamp did not create Fountain, but rather assisted in submitting the piece to the Society of Independent Artists for a female friend. In a letter dated 11 April 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne telling her about the circumstances around Fountain’s submission: “Une de mes amies sous un pseudonyme masculin, Richard Mutt, avait envoyé une pissotière [urinal] en porcelaine comme sculpture” (“One of my female friends, who had adopted the male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”)[5][6] Duchamp never identified his female friend, but two candidates have been proposed: the Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven[7][8] whose scatological aesthetic echoed that of Duchamp, or Louise Norton, who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton, who recently had separated from her husband, was living at the time in an apartment owned by her parents at 110 West 88th Street in New York City, and this address is partially discernible (along with “Richard Mutt”) on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz’s photograph.[9]

Rhonda Roland Shearer in the online journal Tout-Fait (2000) has concluded that the photograph is a composite of different photos, while other scholars such as William Camfield have never been able to match the urinal shown in the photo to any urinals found in the catalogues of the time period.[10] [emphases mine]

Attributing “Fountain” to a woman changes my understanding of the work. It seems to me. After all, it’s a woman submitting a urinal (plumbing designed specifically for the male anatomy) as a work of art.What was she (whichever she) is saying?

It’s tempting to read a commentary on patriarchy and art into the piece but von Freytag-Loringhoven (I’ll get to Norton next) may have had other issues in mind, from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

There has been substantial new research indicating that some artworks attributed to other artists of the period can now either be attributed to the Baroness, or raise the possibility that she may have created the works. One work, called God (1917) had for a number of years been attributed to the artist Morton Livingston Schamberg. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose collection includes God, now credits the Baroness as a co-artist of this piece. Amelia Jones idenitified that this artwork’s concept and title was created by the Baroness, however, it was constructed by both Shamberg and the Baroness.[30] This sculpture, God (1917), involved a cast iron pumbing trap and a wooden mitre box, assembled in a phallic-like manner. [31] Her concept behind the shape and choice of materials is indicative of her commentary on the worship and love that Americans have for plumbing that trumps all else; additionally, it is revealing of the Baroness’s rejection of technology. [emphases mine]

As for Norton, unfortunately I’m not familiar with her work and this is the only credible reference to her that I’ve been able to find (Note: The link is in an essay on Duchamp and the “Fountain” on the Phaidon website [scroll down to the ninth paragraph]),

Allen Norton was an American poet and literary editor of the 1910s and 20s. He and his wife Louise Norton [emphasis mine] edited the little magazine Rogue, published from March 1915 to December 1916.

There is another Louise Norton, an artist who has a Wikipedia entry but that suggests this is an entirely different ‘Louise’.

Of the two and for what it’s worth, I find von Freytag-Loringhoven to be the more credible candidate. Nell Frizzell in her Nov. 7, 2014 opinion piece for the Guardian has absolutely no doubts on the matter (Note: Links have been removed),

Men may fill them, but it takes a woman to take the piss out of a urinal. Or so Julian Spalding, the former director of Glasgow Museums, and the academic Glyn Thompson have claimed. The argument, which has been swooshing around the cistern of contemporary art criticism since the 1980s, is that Duchamp’s famous artwork Fountain – a pissoir laid on its side – was actually the creation of the poet, artist and wearer of tin cans, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

That Von Freytag-Loringhoven has been written out of the story is not only a great injustice, it is also a formidable loss to art history. This was a woman, after all, whose idea of getting gussied-up for a private view was to scatter her outfit liberally with flattened tin cans and stuffed parrots. A woman who danced on verandas in little more than a pair of stockings, some feathers and enough bangles to shake out the percussion track from Walk Like an Egyptian. A woman who draped her way through several open marriages, including one to Oscar Wilde’s translator Felix Paul Greve (who faked his own suicide to escape his creditors and flee with her to America)….

Mind you, there is a difference between theft and misattribution. While Valerie Solanas, the somewhat troubled feminist and writer of the Scum manifesto, openly accused Andy Warhol of stealing her script Up Your Ass and even attempted to murder him, other works exist in a more complicated, murky grey area. Matisse certainly directed the creation of his gouaches découpées – large collage works made by pasting torn-off pieces of gouache-painted paper – yet it is impossible to draw the line between where his creativity ends and that of his assistants intention begins. Similarly, while John Milton’s daughters ostensibly simply transcribed their father’s work, how can we say that in the act of writing they were not also editing, questioning, suggesting imagery and offering phrasing?

Art historians and academics have pointed out that in 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister, recounting how “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture”. Duchamp revealed that this model of urinal wasn’t even in production at the factory where he claimed to have picked it up; and that this artwork bore a more than passing similarity to the Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven readymade sculpture called God, both in appearance and concept.

Here is “God,”

“God” By Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Schamberg (1917)Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q1565911  Source/Photographer: TgGFztK3lZWxdg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum

The “Fountain” graced this blog previously in a March 8, 2016 posting about an exhibition titled: “Mashup: The Birth of Modern Culture” at the Vancouver Art Gallery where I did not have an inkling as to this controversy.  Given the zeitgeist surrounding women and their issues, it’s an interesting time to learn of it.