Considering the R. Mutt affair, Beatrice Wood famously declared, “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges,” a thesis that Robert Smithson set out to prove—or maybe falsify—in his Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. That was 1967, exactly fifty years after Duchamp’s Fountain. And fifty years after that is now. On the occasion of Fountain’s centenary, we are opening a new exhibition space in an old plumbing parts store in Alhambra, California. It’s called Potts.
A family tradition
Founded in 1939 by Norman Wallace Potts and his son, Norm Jr., Potts Plumbing Parts relocated a couple times before opening at 2130 Valley Boulevard in 1968. The shop then passed into the hands of the next generation of Potts, brothers Joe, Rick and Tom, founding members and central figures in the Los Angeles Free Music Society. The building will continue to house part of the LAFMS archives.
A modern homology
With the rapid growth of cities in the nineteenth century came the development of water supply and sanitation infrastructure. “The sewer is the conscience of the city,” wrote Victor Hugo. “All things converge into and are confronted with one another. In this lurid place, there is darkness, but there are no secrets. Everything has its real form, or at least its definitive form.” The city was also home to that new, distinctly modern type: the artist. And in art too, as the century wore on, things were increasingly seen to take their real forms, while paint now moved through tubes. In another sense, both figures—the sewer and the artist—signal modernity’s passion for division, compartmentalization, specialization. Everything in its place.
Of course a lot of other stuff happened in 1917. If the Bolshevik Revolution and US entry into World War I were the twin ushers of the short twentieth century—the conclusion of which, in 1991, we were told was nothing less than the End of History—then what are we to make of recent events? Is this the receding of the American imperium into isolationism, nativism, and anti-globalism? Is that a farcical reconstitution of the Soviet Union as apolitical kleptocracy? Is this the end of the post-historical coda, of the horizonless contemporary?
It might have been Duchamp who first said that art is like plumbing—you never think about it until it’s too late. Sure, it was a joke, but it does sound an awful lot like a premonitory summation of the condition of our young century, where it’s always already too late. The plumbing of the future will be efficient, they say: just a few drops of water will take away a lot of shit and then turn it into something we can use. A plumbing of scarcity. What will the art be like?
A Brief History of Plumbing Art