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Marcel Duchamp was an enigma to many, and the new collection of his interviews (conducted in the early 60s by a magazine writer attempting a profile on a mercurial figure) will fascinate those already hooked on the guy, while newcomers will find here an easy, painless and exceedingly swift introduction into the mind and humor of one of the world's leading artistic figures. At least our book club found it so: in our club there are veritable Duchamp newbies while at the other end of the spectrum there are those among us who have studied him for ages. One man revealed that his dad took his little hand in his big hand and walked our member into the Pasadena Museum of Art where under Walter Hopps wise tutelage Duchamp sat and played chess with a totally nude girl--a sight to dream of, not to tell, as Coleridge said in a similar situation.
Anyhow there are a few puzzles in the book, such as, why was this material been hidden for so long? The addenda to the slim volume fail to mention the provenance, though artist slash publisher Paul Chan interviews Calvin Tompkins about his long ago meetings with Duchamp; we just don't hear about it. Maybe Tompkins, who interviewed Chan himself for the New Yorker not all that long ago, stumbled onto these treasures in an old vase or attic and mentioned them to the young artist over drinks at La Cote Basque, 1965. But all of us were grateful that they are here for us now. Duchamp remains full of tricks, and so deadpan that some of his amazing provocations go unchallenged, and contradictory from afternoon to afternoon.
He grows irate--maybe not irate, but call it upset--only once or twice, when Tompkins tries to link him to one or another artistic movements--the Dadists, the pop artists, the Futurists, and Duchamp resists being put into a box and goes to absurd lengths and prevarications to escape categorization. Once or twice his resort to pidgin English betray anxiety, he speaks of people with good taste (whom he disdains) as "tast-y people," and any reader will find other examples, peculiar in such an erudite yet plainspoken guy. He can be quite funny and outrageous, but used I think by this date to hearing the words, "Yes Master" so often that he doesn't hear anything else. And then there's the question of Tompkins finding out only after Duchamp's death that he actually hadn't given up making art, and was busy for twenty years creating the sketches, maquettes, scaffolds and drawings of the "Etants Donnes." One thinks, if he could omit so smoothly the most important item on his agenda, what else is his bland, humorous tone keeping from The New Yorker and from Tompkins personally? And thus from us. I find it hard to believe a thing he says, and such are the lessons of postmodernism. As if to compensate, Tompkins argues that by the time they met (say, 1959) Duchamp had mellowed and warmed due to the influence of Teeny, his enchanting American-born wife who made life worth living for everyone she knew. He must have been horrid with a chip on his shoulder, but here, he's wise and paternal as, say, Walt Disney was hosting The Wonderful World of Disney.