New Yorker Art Scribe Calvin Tomkins on What Makes Great Artists Tick


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Six decades ago, an editor at Newsweek magazine summoned a young journalist named Calvin Tomkins out of the foreign-news department to interview the legendary conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who had allegedly left art-making in favor of playing chess and... simply breathing. Although it would be years before Tomkins discovered Duchamp had in fact already been at work on his magnum opus, Étant Donnés, for years before their first meeting, this chance encounter altered the trajectory of his career and life. Duchamp was the gateway to what would become a prolific collection of artists—many of them eccentric or otherwise challenging, all of them great (or at least noteworthy)—that Tomkins went on to profile in the pages of the New Yorker beginning in 1962.

Dozens of those profiles have now been compiled into a lavish new multi-volume set, titled The Lives of Artists, published by Phaidon. The collection joins 18 other books that Tomkins has previously published on artists and the art world, including an essential biography of the man who started it all for him: Marcel Duchamp. In the process, Tomkins has arguably become known as the world's authority on not only many of the most consequential postwar and contemporary artists in the canon, but also on the art of profiling itself. To celebrate the release of The Lives of Artists, Tomkins joined Artnet News editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein in studio to discuss his one-of-a-kind journey, what David Hammons shares with Duchamp, and even the editioned banana that took over the world, AKA Maurizio Cattelan's Comedian.

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