A Conversation with Calvin Tomkins: “Duchamp: A Biography”

29 Sep 2023

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Ruth Fine, curator of modern prints and drawings, National Gallery of Art, and Calvin Tomkins, author and staff writer, The New Yorker. In this conversation with Ruth Fine recorded on March 17, 1997, Calvin Tomkins shares the history of his relationship with Marcel Duchamp and the process of writing a biography on this enigmatic artist. As a foreign news writer for Newsweek with hardly any knowledge of Duchamp or modern art, Tomkins was assigned to interview him in 1959. The interview was so fascinating that it led to Tomkins? first interest in modern art. After joining The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1960, one of Tomkins? early profiles was on Duchamp; two years later he was asked by the Time Life series to write its book on the artist. Eventually, Tomkins approached Duchamp?s widow about the idea of writing a proper biography on the artist. Alexina "Teeny" Duchamp asked why he would want to do that, but granted permission as long as he did not write anything too personal. Tomkins relied on hours of recorded conversations between himself and Duchamp, as well as interviews with his contemporaries and letters from Duchamp saved by others. Duchamp saved nothing, traveling light all his life. In this biography, Tomkins demonstrates that Duchamp was agnostic about art, believing that life was more important.


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