Duchamp's Life and Legacy at the New York Public Library

One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp was a magpie doubling as a prophet. He dabbled in Dada, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Surrealism, all to great effect. His work prefigured postmodernism and deconstruction, Pop and conceptual art, and he undertook what can be seen as the longest ever piece of performance art by pretending for decades to have quit art-making to play chess (he was playing chess, but he was also secretly making art).

Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp

Last Wednesday, New Yorker staff writer Calvin Tomkins appeared at the New York Public Library to discuss his definitive Duchamp: A Biography, originally published in 1996 and now being re-released by the Museum of Modern Art with additional material and a new design. Joining Tomkins were Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, and Paul Chan, an artist and the publisher of Badlands Unlimited, which gathered and released Tomkins’s 1964 interviews with the artist in book form as Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (2012). Part of the library’s long-running “An Art Book” series, the talk aimed to celebrate Duchamp’s “life and legacy,” drawing on Tomkins’s longtime friendship with the artist, though the resulting discussion was somewhat staid and polite for such a radically disruptive figure.

As gnomic and seemingly intellectualized as some of his work is, Duchamp was a bit of a punk, refusing to take the pieties of fine art seriously and reveling in their desecration. Drawing a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa—and inscribing the result with an acronym that phonetically translates from French as “She has a hot ass”—is not far from sticking a safety pin through a picture of the Queen. Such impulses flowed from his early association with Dada, to be sure, but they were also organic to the man, who adored the satirical artists and cartoonists of his youth and felt that art shouldn’t be cordoned off with velvet rope from other acts of making in any field of endeavor, however “high” or “low.” Indeed, his readymades were as much about his admiration for the design and manufacturing of the mundane objects he selected as they were about grand statements regarding what is and isn’t art. He set up his first upended bicycle wheel in his studio just because he liked to watch it spin.

Duchamp was temperamentally a loner and never wholeheartedly joined the art movements he became associated with, but as the panelists agreed, he tirelessly worked behind the scenes for decades advising prominent collectors and curators—Katherine Dreier, Walter and Louise Arensberg, Peggy Guggenheim, Alfred Barr, among others—about what they should acquire. He was instrumental in saving the sculptures of his friend Constantin Brancusi from uncertain fates, for instance, and despite being an artist who “cared nothing for posterity,” according to Tomkins, he strategically arranged to keep many of his own works in one collection (much of it residing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art today).

Asked how he felt about revisiting the biography, Tomkins said it was “not painful,” and that the artist is still so vivid in his memory that to this day he continues to “bore people left and right about Duchamp.” Tomkins first met the artist in 1959, on assignment from Newsweek. At the time, he knew nothing about him. The interview took place at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis hotel. In an attempt to break the ice, Tomkins derided the Maxfield Parrish mural inside the bar as “kitsch,” but Duchamp said he liked it. When asked what he had been up to since he stopped making art, Duchamp replied, “I’m a breather.”

One of primary additions to the revised version of the biography is material about Duchamp’s longtime love affair, later in his life, with Maria Martins, a sculptor and socialite who was the wife of Carlos Martins, a Brazilian diplomat who served as ambassador to the United States. Letters between the lovers have been published since the first edition, giving Tomkins fresh insight into their relationship, which he maintains sparked a change in the artist’s personality.

It was Maria’s naked body at the center of Duchamp’s last major work, Étant donnés (1946–1966), and Duchamp likely would have married her had she been willing to leave her husband. According to Tomkins, Maria could be catty and was fond of saying to acquaintances, “Tell me who your enemies are, and I’ll help you hate them,” but the affair actually made Duchamp more friendly and open. Temkin revealed that it was Maria who anonymously donated Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43) to MoMA (she had been in a show with Mondrian and bought the painting when it was relatively new).

Chan recalled that when he was in art school, there was an implicit message from his teachers that Duchamp had “destroyed art,” and that it wasn’t until he read Tomkins on Duchamp that he became interested in him. Throughout the discussion, Chan was at pains to highlight how relatively easy and inexpensive it was for Duchamp to live and work as an artist in New York City compared to now. Referring to Duchamp’s insider advocacy for his artist friends and colleagues, Chan lamented the lack of a similarly supportive community of artists in the city today.

For all of his quiet efforts at community- and canon-building, the public Duchamp remained fiercely iconoclastic (even toward himself) to the last, frequently reminding viewers and critics not to romanticize or overvalue the subjectivity of the artist. To honor this aspect of Duchamp’s thinking, Temkin ended the evening by bringing up his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (phonetic translation from French: “Eros, such is life”)—famously photographed by his friend Man Ray—a role less inspired by gender play than by the artist’s desire for a new, pseudonymous identity (Duchamp had originally considered a Jewish persona). The meaning of the name was uncharacteristically direct. As Tomkins reminded us, Duchamp liked to say, “Eroticism is the only ‘ism’ I agree with.”

Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury 33 1/3 series, 2003).