The most influential piece of modern art

Something by Picasso or Matisse? No, just a humble urinal, according to a poll of 500 experts.

Published December 2, 2004 3:39PM (EST)

A humble porcelain urinal -- reclining on its side and marked with a false signature -- has been named the world's most influential piece of modern art, knocking Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse from their traditional positions of supremacy.

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," created in 1917, has been interpreted in innumerable different ways, including as a reference to the female sexual parts. However, what is clear is the direct link between Duchamp's "readymade," as the artist called it, and the conceptual art that dominates today -- Tracey Emin's "My Bed" being a prime example.

According to art expert Simon Wilson, "the Duchampian notion that art can be made of anything has finally taken off. And not only about formal qualities, but about the 'edginess' of using a urinal and thus challenging bourgeois art."

The Duchamp came out top in a survey of 500 artists, curators, critics and dealers commissioned by the sponsor of the Turner prize, Gordon's. Different categories of respondents chose markedly different works, with artists in particular plumping overwhelmingly for "Fountain."

"It feels like there is a new generation out there saying, 'Cut the crap -- Duchamp opened up modern art,'" said Wilson. He said that it was "something of a shock" that Pablo Picasso was not top, particularly since, he argued, the artist's cubist constructions of 1912 to 1914 were Duchamp's "jumping-off point." However, Picasso has not been totally erased: "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and "Guernica" were second and fourth in the survey.

Wilson said: "'Les Demoiselles' was the beginning of cubism, and cubism was the most influential formal innovation in modern art. This is the single work to which we can pin the origins of modern art." Of "Guernica" -- the artist's unflinching depiction of the horrors of the Spanish civil war -- Wilson said: "Picasso reestablished that art could be modern and still deal with historical events, which had been junked by impressionism."

Andy Warhol's "Marilyn Diptych" -- with its resonances of celebrity, death and tragedy -- was named the third most influential work, and Matisse's "The Red Studio," the fifth. Extraordinarily, however, not a single artist put Matisse among his or her top choices.

"Today's artists expect art to contain some social or political comment, even if that's very indirect," said Wilson. "Matisse said that his art was like an armchair into which one sinks at the end of the day -- it's a sort of pure sensuousness that artists today don't warm to."

And the rest of the top 10: 6) Joseph Beuys, "I Like America and America Likes Me," 7) Constantin Brancusi, "Endless Column," Jackson Pollock, "One: No. 31," 9) Donald Judd, "100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum" and 10) Henry Moore, "Reclining Figure" (1929).

By Charlotte Higgins

MORE FROM Charlotte Higgins

Related Topics ------------------------------------------