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NEW YORK — As the guest of honor at Tuesday night’s book party for “Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews” at the Marshall Chess Club, Calvin Tomkins was getting quite the flashback. In addition to the photos of the famed artist from his book that were on display, there were also framed shots of Duchamp playing chess in the seemingly untouched West 10th Street space. And Tomkins merely had to look out the window to see the brownstone Duchamp lived in and where the interviews were conducted.
Forty-four years after their first conversation, Tomkins said what still stands out about Duchamp was his complicated nature. “He seemed so complex. He was the unusual combination of being very relaxed and easy, and ready to talk about anything on any level. But he said things that you really didn’t get the full meaning of until you wrote them down,” Tomkins said.
Then a foreign-news writer for Newsweek, Tomkins was asked to interview Duchamp after the artist’s first monograph was released in 1959. Even though the magazine’s art coverage was biannual at best, that assignment spurred what would become a lifelong interest in the arts. His numerous profile subjects include John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Damien Hirst and Merce Cunningham. The New Yorker writer’s 2006 biography of Duchamp is one of more than a dozen books he has published.
This month’s release of the 110-page paperback and an enhanced e-book marks the centennial of his “readymades,” found objects Duchamp chose and presented as art. In 1913 he first installed a bicycle wheel in his studio to challenge the notion of art, and the adoration of art, which Duchamp considered “unnecessary.” Four years later he rocked the art world with “Fountain,” a urinal signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” (In 2004 the piece was named the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 renowned artists and historians.)
Tomkins drew from five-and- a-half hours of taped conversations with Duchamp for the new Badlands Unlimited-published book. D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers and Walter Konig Books are distributing the paperback, which has more than a few telling insights. Asked if he had close friendships with artists, Duchamp said, “Never very close friendships. I’m very friendly with them, and they with me, no question about that, but there’s no real bond…I’ve never been a bond-ish man, because I don’t believe in talking. Here we have been talking for hours! But don’t believe what I say.”
Recalling his afternoons at Duchamp’s West 10th Street address, Tomkins remembered the art. “It wasn’t really his apartment. His [second] wife, Teeny, who had been married to Pierre Matisse, created this wonderful island. He was surrounded by paintings by [Henri] Matisse, Miró…They all belonged to Teeny, but he was quite comfortable in that. I never saw him uncomfortable in any situation.”
Carroll Dunham, Massimiliano Gioni, Cecilia Alemani, Michelle Kuo and Eve MacSweeney were among the friends on hand Tuesday night to help keep Tomkins company.
In regards to “art for the moment, which doesn’t care for the future or past,” Duchamp told Tomkins, “That I think has been characteristic of the whole century, from the Fauves on. And as a result, slow work is considered bad: You must do a painting at the most in an afternoon. Otherwise, you’re stupid. I mean, you are not considered important at all. And that is, for me, a thing I can’t admit…I think there is an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression, that will be considered important five centuries later.”
When Tomkins mentioned how Duchamp’s method of perpetual invention can be seen as scientific, the artist said it was more that anything he came up with should be given a fourth-dimensional look. The intention was to see some other side of it that might even be contrary to whatever importance or design it makes. “I would try to see it with another set of senses, hmm? It’s been like that all my life,” Duchamp said. “It’s been that way all my life. That’s why I’m not that interested in art, it’s one occupation, it’s not all my life, far from it.”
Before ducking out with his wife, Dodie Kazanjian, for an after party at Carol Greene’s apartment, Tomkins said he doesn’t think there is anything else in his personal archives that would have the lure of his current subject. “People are interested in everything about Duchamp,” he said.
Badlands’ Paul Chan, who opens the book with a Q&A with Tomkins, couldn’t agree more. “As an artist, speaking for myself, you always pay attention to people who endure and have endured.”
More than 50 years into his run at The New Yorker, Tomkins has proven his own endurance. But he wasn’t at liberty to talk about any upcoming articles for the magazine, due to signed confidentiality contracts. As for the general state of journalism today, he said, “Does it still exist?” before adding, “It’s always interesting in some form or another. I think it’s quite healthy in spite of everything.”