Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews

by Calvin Tomkins
Published by Badlands Unlimited February, 2013

June 18th, 2013

We just got our hands on the slim book Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews and we’re so glad we did. In 1964, writer Calvin Tomkins interviewed Marcel Duchamp in his apartment in New York; this book, based on those five-and-a-half hours of taped dialogues with the artist, is the first time their conversations have been made public. One of the most important and enigmatic artists of the 20th century, Duchamp sparked outrage with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 in 1912, then again by turning a urinal into art and titling it Fountain in 1917. He was already a celebrity when he arrived in New York from France in 1915 and was revered as a god-like figure for his subversive and ground-breaking body of work that continues to defy categorization. In about 1923, Duchamp was thought to have given up art for chess which he pursued vigorously, all the while working on his last major installation for some twenty years shrouded in secrecy. This series of frank tête-à-têtes offers insight into the artist’s work but also the principles that guided his fascinating life and practice.

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In the same vein as what follows, the introduction consists of an interview between the book’s publisher, Paul Chan, and Tomkins, providing important context as well as insights into Duchamp’s personality. Tomkins reveals his first meeting with Duchamp was in 1959 when he was working for Newsweek and knew little about art; Duchamp was able to transform his amateurish questions into interesting ones. It becomes immediately evident that Tomkins is a keen observer – he is quickly able to assess the artist’s character and notes his incredible ease and deep commitment to personal freedom, allowing him to think without constraint. The release of this book comes almost fifty-five years after their first encounter and during that time Tomkins has become an accomplished art writer profiling artists like John Cage, Damien Hirst and Bruce Nauman, and authoring twelve books, including a biography on Duchamp. With the weight of decades of art research and writing behind him, he is able to speak with authority on Duchamp’s importance within the art community and enduring legacy.

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But what is really compelling about The Afternoon Interviews is the rapport between interviewer and interviewee. The questions are poignant and provoke thoughtful, generous responses demonstrating an underlying trust between the two men and a real desire to reach a shared understanding. The subjects they broach are wide-ranging and captivating. Discussions about Duchamp’s artwork are interspersed with those about his relationship to various art movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism all of which he deftly avoids identifying with; the contemporary artists that interested him (Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg); the growth of the art market and the attendant development of artist as a career choice (“it’s what I call the integration of the artist into society…Fifty years ago we were pariahs – a young girl’s parents would never let her marry an artist.”); and the relationship between artist and society (“As far as art history is concerned we know that in spite of what the artist said or did, something stayed on that was completely independent of what the artist desired; it was grabbed by society, which made it its own. The artist doesn’t count…Society takes what it wants.”)

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While it’s apparent to those familiar with Duchamp’s practice that he was interested in aligning art with the mind rather than having it solely be at the service of the eye or what he referred to as “retinal art” (the domain of Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists), it may surprise you to know he was interested in the work of Andy Warhol. Tomkins notes Duchamp’s cultural sensitivity and his ability to intuit important artistic developments. The senior artist took an interest in Warhol saying “What’s interesting is not that someone would want to paint twenty-seven soup cans. What’s interesting is the mind that would conceive of painting twenty-seven soup cans” hinting at the burgeoning of Conceptual Art. Whether you are a seasoned art historian or someone looking for an introduction to the mind and work of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, this book will surprise and engage.


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