Described once as the most intelligent artist of the twentieth century, the words of Marcel Duchamp – with the passage of time – have become more important than his works. Although his ground breaking artwork, Fountain, created in 1917 as a readymade and signed by R. Mutt has ensured his high and permanent place in the hall of Modern Art, but his interviews, notes, texts and comments also open up new ways of seeing world, world of art and the personality of an artist.
There are a number of books – now translated in English, including ‘Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp’ by Pierre Cabanne, in which Duchamp declared “I like breathing better than working”. In fact, the personality and oeuvre of Marcel Duchamp relied on his conscious decision to leave ‘retinal’ practice for the sake of more complex and conceptual work – for example ready-mades.
Calvin Tomkins, a contributor for Newsweek magazine, first met Marcel Duchamp in 1959, and since that first encounter, built a professional relationship, resulting in a number of books dedicated to Duchamp, notably ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’, The World of Marcel Duchamp’, ‘Duchamp: A Biography’, with ‘Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews’ being the latest addition.
‘Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews’ (all Interviews conducted in 1964 in New York), interestingly begins with an interview of the author by Paul Chan, as an introduction. Tomkins recounts his meetings with Duchamp, his impression of the man and his opinion on the artist as well as the artist’s relationship with his wife, Teeny Matisse, who was “Totally delightful. She was a lovely woman…It was a wonderful match. And I think largely because of that, Duchamp changed. He became much easier on himself, and not nearly so aloof and isolated.”
However, the reputation of Duchamp remained of a solitary soul, so three interviews, collected in this slim volume bring out some aspects of his personality and his thoughts. The tone is informal, yet intelligent, since Tomkins tries to discuss a wide range of subjects, starting with the artist’s life in New York, his readymades, chess, Cubism, other artists, both his contemporaries and his followers.
In a sense Duchamp is regarded as the father of new generation of American artists (including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and several others) who were incorporating and assimilating industrial, common and familiar objects in their artworks. Tomkins asks that “a large number of people using things” of his as basis, to which Duchamp replies: “It may be that these things that I had done, not coming from anything before me, might be a source for these young people to start, a new step, which I accept with pleasure” and on finding other artists interesting along with Rauschenberg, “(Jasper) Johns and even some older folks. The only thing is, I don’t object to it, but I mean, to put it in balance, the fact that they do it so fast, and so many one-man shows, it’s just like a boom”.
Marcel Duchamp in his earlier works – particularly paintings – is linked to Cubism. His painting Nude Descending Staircase, 1912, is a significant work in the history of Cubism, as his The Bride Striped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1923 (also called The Large Glass) in the history of contemporary art. Talking about these two works, Duchamp explains his interest in motion. “I was still interested in movement, but not in the same way. [Nude Descending..]. And those things are not indicated in the Glass at all.”
The art and personality of Marcel Duchamp are not separate or delinked. Both indicate the innovative element that distinguishes man and maker. From his earlier paintings, he moved to a form of expression that brought a revolution in the tradition of image making. Answering the question “Could we talk some more about stepping out of tradition?” Duchamp states: “I suppose it must be the attitude of anybody who wants to find something of his own. To do something of your own you’ve got to forget what you’ve learned. And once you begin forgetting, you’re bound to find something… else. Of course, you can try and never succeed. You think you’re doing something entirely your own, and a year later, you look at it and you see actually the roots of where your art comes from without your knowing it all.”
Small book, of Marcel Duchamp’s interview spread to 70 pages, it testifies the great sense of humour of the artist. Actually, intelligence cannot be separated from the sense of humour, because both amounts to see normality in a new scheme. Example of his intelligence and humour is evident when Calvin Tomkins inquires: “What about some of the traditional things that an artist is supposed to do, such as the idea of self-expression on the part of the individual artist being relevant to the general unexpected state of affairs and thus leading people into a deeper awareness of their life?”
“Like aspirin or something for the headache of life?” Duchamp responds and laughs!