Weston's Aesthetic Vision Poses Alternate Modernist Path
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 05-29-11
toilet and form
Image Source

"The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges," (probably) wrote Beatrice Wood, an American modern artist and lover of Duchamp, defending the signed urinal he had submitted to the Salon des Independants in 1917.

The legacy of the urinal is often understood to be Conceptualism on the one hand -- a paradigm where ideas and gestures resonate over and above the technical skill of the artist -- and on the other, Avant-Garde (anti)-Institutional provocation, establishing a definition of the artist that included the continual reflexive questioning of the boundaries of art from within.

But what about, additionally, the extreme formal aestheticism implied by the selection of a mass produced object as an artwork? What if Wood's comment is taken to contain a good dose of earnest praise for American manufacture, in addition to the clear irony? There have been moves to this effect, such as the biographer Calvin Tomkins's claim that "it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal's gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance madonna or a seated Buddha," regards to Alfred Stieglitz's famous photograph of the original.

Yet none have taken the formalist aesthetics of plumbing as far as the American photographer Edward Weston, an admirer of Stieglitz and a member of the American Modernist circle; for him the toilet was a lifelong favorite subject. "I have been photographing our toilet, that glossy enameled receptacle of extraordinary beauty," he wrote in his journal, which has been displayed in a recent exhibit of his work at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington. "It might be suspicioned that I am in a cynical mood to approach such subject matter, my excitement was absolute aesthetic response to form."

If Weston's spirit had triumphed over the conceptualist heirs of Duchamp, the avant-garde artist might have come to be seen as less of a thinker, a wit, or a provocateur, but rather a seer, whose role it is to observe -- or rather perhaps whose sight in fact posits -- sublime aestheticism in the everyday built environment.

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