Leesfragment: The Lives of Artists

10 september 2019 , door Calvin Tomkins
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Nu in de winkel: Calvin Tomkins' zesdelige The Lives of Artists: Collected Profiles. Wij brengen de Preface en David Remnicks inleiding.

The definitive collection of artist profiles by legendary journalist and New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, from the 1960s to today.

In 1959, Calvin Tomkins interviewed Marcel Duchamp for Newsweek, beginning his sixdecade- long career writing about art. He then joined The New Yorker, where he has contributed dozens of profiles on the most interesting artists of the time, from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Cindy Sherman and Mark Bradford. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit.



Writing about art and artists was not something I planned to do. It began in 1959, by accident, when I worked for Newsweek. In those days Newsweek and Time covered books, music, theater, and movies on a regular basis, but not art, which was assumed to be of little or no interest to literate Americans. The first-ever monograph on Marcel Duchamp was about to be published, though, and one of the editors, sensing a story, called me out of the Foreign News department one spring day to write it. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” had caused a sensation at the 1913 Armory Show, but his fame had dimmed; in 1959, not many people knew that he had become an American citizen, living in New York, and hardly anyone suspected that the rediscovery of his work and thought during the next ten years would make him the most influential artist of the twentieth century. My meeting with him was scheduled for that same afternoon, at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel. I’d had about forty-five minutes to prepare for it, so my questions were predictably dumb, but his answers were not. Everything he said surprised me. When I asked how he spent his time since giving up art for chess (a common misconception at the time), he smiled and said, “I’m a breather, un respirateur, isn’t that enough? Why do people have to work? Why do people think they have to work?” The interview became a conversation, and that conversation has continued, with Duchamp and many other artists, for six decades.
There was no grand plan, no decision to make living artists my main subject, although that’s what eventually happened. Aside from one college course in Italian Renaissance painting and frequent lunchtime visits to moma, I knew very little about art, so my on-the-job learning curve was steep and haphazard, but the timing was close to perfect. Abstract Expressionism, the first homegrown American art movement to have an international impact, was losing momentum by then, but a new generation of young artists had emerged, bringing fresh energy and a hunger for experiment into what had been, until then, a very small and largely invisible New York art community. Pop art, minimalism, conceptual art (Duchamp’s legacy), performance art, video art, land art, language art, and a cornucopia of other nontraditional developments surfaced in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies. Although Pop was reviled or ignored at first by established critics, it quickly found an enthusiastic and increasing audience, and the market for contemporary work was born. My great luck was to arrive on the scene when I did, and to work for The New Yorker, whose writers were encouraged to pursue their own interests.
New Yorker Profiles in the sixties could be book-length and extend over several issues. Mine never did that, but the early ones often ran very long. That began to change in the nineteen-nineties, when the increasing flight of advertising money to other media forced cutbacks in the magazine’s page count, and my writing changed as well. The Profiles became shorter, less discursive and more focused, and they also became more personal. I had started out thinking that the writer should be a peripheral and unobtrusive presence, to allow for maximum transparency between reader and subject. This was partly a reaction to the New Journalism, where the emphasis was on a reporter’s response to what was being reported, but I eventually realized that being part of the action was more fun for me and probably for the reader. What I came to believe, and still believe, is that the kind of profile I had in mind was a collaboration between the writer and the subject.
The Profiles and a number of shorter pieces on artists are presented here in the order in which they appeared, without corrections or attempts to stifle repetitions or alter usage that may now, several decades later, be considered obsolete or politically incorrect. The relative scarcity of women reflects, I’m sorry to say, the reality of the art world until quite recently. (Guerilla Girls and other brave spirits have done a lot to remedy that imbalance.) Some important names are missing—Cy Twombly, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, and Ellsworth Kelly, to cite only four—and I can only attribute that to chance, timing, or myopia on my part. Jasper Johns turned me down three times over a period of thirty years; he finally agreed on the fourth try, when my wife suggested that we just start talking and “see how it goes.” The Profiles all reflect lives and careers in motion, caught at a particular moment and open to change.
Art since 1960 has been more eclectic than at any time in its history. Pop and minimal were the last real movements, in which artists found divergent paths through similar landscapes. To be recognized today, artists have to make it new, in one way or another, and because the traditional requirements and skills for art-making are now optional, there’s little to lean on. I often think that making art today is much harder than it used to be, and also much easier—since art can now be anything, anyone can (supposedly) do it. The limitless freedom that modern artists have claimed is an unrelenting burden, at any rate, and the seemingly insatiable art market, which too often equates quality with sales, threatens to debase the whole enterprise. And yet, and yet—against all odds, important work gets made. The mysterious, undefinable, surpassingly difficult practice of art continues, and thrives.


Introduction by David Remnick

The abundant blessings of the Italian Renaissance included its recording angel Giorgio Vasari, the great historian and short-form biographer of the artists of sixteenth-century Florence and Venice. Cimabue, Giotto, Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian ... it seems that Vasari got to all the important artists of the time, and plenty of the second-tier as well.
If there is a Vasari of the postwar art scene in America (and beyond), it is surely Calvin Tomkins, and the book you hold in your hands is the first volume of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. An important distinction: Vasari was not immune to the charms of making things up. He played by older, less scrupulous rules of the form and wrote, for instance, that the painter Andrea del Castagno murdered his contemporary Domenico Veneziano. Which is a juicy anecdote that does not, alas, survive reinspection, or Google. As it happened, del Castagno died four years before Domenico. Since 1958, Tomkins has been publishing in The New Yorker, which is blessed with a superb fact-checking department. The magazine is blessed with Tomkins. The New Yorker has sponsored the work of some extraordinary critics over the decades—Pauline Kael on the movies, Lewis Mumford on architecture, Edmund Wilson on books, to name a few—but the magazine has also featured a number of extraordinary talents who are fluent in the arts but are best known as masters of the Profile. Whitney Balliett, who wrote prodigiously about jazz throughout the second half of the twentieth century, was one. Balliett was versatile, sympathetic, and as capable of depicting a mainstream swing musician such as Benny Goodman as he was an avant-gardist such as Ornette Coleman.
Tad Tomkins—he goes by “Tad,” and that’s just the way it is—makes fine aesthetic discernments throughout his work, but his most telling judgment is often in whom he decides to portray. He is not going to pursue a subject who holds no interest for him. He does not take up a Profile subject to cut him down to size. He almost always writes about the art he loves—the art that strikes him as fresh, enigmatic, shocking, bewildering, possibly lasting, and certainly worth our notice. He is the least academic writer imaginable, possessing no theories, no philosophies of art. But he sees magnificently, both the work and the creator.
Tad grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. The family was prosperous. His father sold a plaster company to Allied Chemical and the family decorated its walls with a Utrillo, a Dufy, and a painting of wolves that may or may not have been by Courbet. Like Whitney Balliett, Tad overcame the depredations of a Princeton education and set out to be a journalist. After graduation, in 1948, he served an extended apprenticeship, first at Radio Free Europe, then at Newsweek. In the late fifties he published some short, humorous fiction in The New Yorker. In those days, such pieces were known as “casuals.” They were undoubtedly funny at the time, but they don’t read now, at least to me, with the promise of the shining career to come. And yet in 1962, Tomkins made what I think of as his “real” debut, a Profile of the Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely. The piece ran with a small, washy portrait of Tinguely standing next to one of his contraptions. It began this way, and immediately the Tomkins voice—clear and river-swift—is in the reader’s ear:

It is characteristic of Jean Tinguely, the Swiss motion sculptor, that the bizarre, down-at-heel, anti-functional machines that constitute his art usually fail to work in the way they are expected to, and sometimes do not work at all. This is not always the fault of the machines. In Amsterdam last spring, at the opening of a comprehensive show called “Art in Motion,” at the Stedelijk Museum, a large Tinguely “meta-matic” painting machine, powered by a gasoline engine, was installed in the reception room, where it was supposed to produce abstract drawings and at the same time pump the exhaust from its engine into a balloon, which would eventually fill up and explode, pouring forth fumes and driving the guests from the room; the machine was unable to do any of this, because another artist, perhaps enraged at such theatrical egocentricity in a mere machine, had poured beer into its fuel tank.

There is just no way in the world that you are not going to keep reading. Who is this nut? The Swiss Rube Goldberg? The prose is vivid and hilarious, and yet there is not a trace of condescension. Elegant and boundless curiosity—this is the Tomkins signature. He is well schooled in art, of course, and undaunted by looking at things and having patience with objects that might, to his readers, seem alienating, difficult, foolish, weird. He is our patient, better-educated, non-patronizing friend, the guy who knows way more than we do but understands that, without him, our attention might wander. He holds our interest with anecdotes, concise description, and dollops of incandescent history. He is open to everything and gets us there with him. He is capable of being moved by a tremendous range of art objects and artists; he is unshockable; he is full of equal measures of intellect and wonder, a man looking to be astonished, thrilled, even repelled, but in an entirely good way. Tad Tomkins is in possession of rare things: taste and an open mind. And, as the Tinguely Profile made plain in 1962, this was a sensibility, a receptivity, that was in place from the start.
Tomkins is particularly good at bringing out the humor in experimental art. It is not surprising that one of his most ambitious explorations is a book-length portrait of Marcel Duchamp. I was once sitting with Tomkins at a long awards dinner (he was among those getting an award), and I took note that an immense butt plug—the size of a stout Christmas tree—was being auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I would think that it might hurt a bit,” Tomkins said. I thought I saw him wince a little, but I could not be entirely sure. It was dark.
And yet while he is not cloaked in arty self-seriousness, Tomkins is never mocking or dismissive, either. When I tried to chime in with a joke of my own about the large object before us, Tad tilted his head and regarded it more closely, which made me do so. He knew very well what it was all about. Patiently, he said that this was the work, in fact, “of a very interesting artist,” Paul McCarthy, who had also done “some absolutely fascinating videos,” such as “Mountain Bowling” and “Hold an Apple in Your Armpit.”
Tad Tomkins is wired into the art world; even now, in his early nineties, he, along with his wife Dodie Kazanjian, is tireless in his curiosity. It is hard to imagine that anyone has spent more time in the lofts, museums, auction houses, garrets, and galleries of New York City. Tomkins knows all the artists, museum honchos, curators, and collectors. And the few he doesn’t yet know, he will soon. He has witnessed the rise of pop art, happenings, earth art, installations, minimalism, video. Most people, as they settle into old age, decide that their remaining time is best spent reviewing old favorites, old masterpieces. Why waste time on the new ephemera? Tad is too curious for that, too hungry for new sensations. He writes in order to have access to an ever-changing art world. As he has grown older, his taste has, if anything, expanded.
This series of Profiles cannot take in everything and everyone since the sixties, but the names come at you like a roll call of the modern world: Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Romare Bearden, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Richard Serra, Lee Bontecou, Christo, Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Bruce Nauman, Ryan Trecartin, Julie Mehretu, Carl Andre, Ed Ruscha, Chris Ofili, Charles Ray, Dana Schutz, Peter Doig, Danh Vo, Alex Katz and others. And the book is, in a sense, open-ended. Every few months or so, Tad and Dodie come to the office. Our editorial meetings are brief. “Here is what’s happening,” Tad says. “This artist is astonishing.” And then off he goes, yet again, adding to his ever-widening encyclopedia of the lives of artists.

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