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A New York Times Notable Book of 1996
Booklist Editor's Choice, 1996

The celebrated, full-scale life of the century's most influential artist. One of the giants of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp changed the course of modern art. Visual arts, music, dance, performance--nothing was ever the same again because he had shifted art's focus from the retinal to the mental. Duchamp sidestepped the banal and sentimental to find the relationship between symbol and object and to unearth the concepts underlying art itself. The author's intimacy with the subject and glorious prose style, wit, and deep sense of irony--"the only antidote to despair"--make him the perfect writer to bring this stunning life story to intelligent readers everywhere.

560 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1996

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About the author

Calvin Tomkins

45 books27 followers
Calvin Tomkins has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1960. He wrote his first fiction piece for the magazine in 1958, and his first fact piece in 1962. His many Profile subjects have included Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Philip Johnson, Julia Child, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leo Castelli, Frank Stella, Carmel Snow, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Frank Gehry, Damien Hirst, Richard Serra, Matthew Barney, and Jasper Johns. He wrote the Art World column from 1980 to 1988. Before joining The New Yorker, he was a general editor of Newsweek, a post he held from 1957 through 1959. In 1955, he joined Newsweek as an associate editor. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “The Bride and the Bachelors,” “Merchants and Masterpieces,” “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” “Off the Wall,” “Duchamp: A Biography,” and “Lives of the Artists.” A revised edition of his Duchamp biography came out in 2014.

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Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews
Profile Image for Frank McAdam.
Author 8 books5 followers
September 2, 2015
No book in a long while has made me think as deeply about art as has Calvin Tomkins' excellent biography of Marcel Duchamp. Long before the end, it becomes apparent that it was Duchamp, not Picasso, who was the great artistic influence of the 20th century. Duchamp's constant refusal to see art as "retinal" and his insistence that any object made by anyone could be a work of art, made him a leading figure of movements as diverse as Surrealism and Pop. He had personal acquaintance with every important artist of the century and was a subversive influence on them all.

Calvin Tomkins is simply a great writer. I had not realized until I had finished Duchamp that it was Tomkins who had written Living Well Is the Best Revenge, a wonderful short biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy. One of Tomkins's greatest strengths is to bring to life not only the subjects of his biographies but also those, famous or not, with whom they interacted. In Duchamp, Tomkins has found a biographer's greatest challenge -- a subject of such wide ranging intellect that the biographer must himself possess great intelligence and imagination in order to grasp the implications of the ideas which he's outlining.

A biographer also has to have an above average sense of humor to bring out the humanity in Duchamp. My favorite part is when the elder Duchamp attends a lecture about himself that accuses him of incestuous feelings toward his sister. The lecture is given by Arturo Schwarz, a scholar obsessed with reading occult meanings into Duchamp's work. Afterwards, Duchamp meets Schwarz and simply says, "I couldn't hear a word, but I enjoyed it very much."
Profile Image for Siuxxx.
13 reviews
June 14, 2020
Excelente libro. Gran introducción al arte moderno
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Seamus Thompson.
166 reviews47 followers
June 22, 2012

I see from other reviews that there is some discussion/debate about Tompkins' strengths as an art critic and whether his admiration for Duchamp goes too far. I can't speak to any of these concerns as this is the first book about Duchamp I have read.

What I can say is that as someone who had a slim but strong appreciation for Duchamp's work and knew almost nothing of his life and personality, I found this book to be readable, interesting, and insightful. I understand much more than I did before. Tompkins writes well and has a knack for well-chosen details, many of which are quite funny (this biography only strengthened my feeling that Duchamp's work is frequently hilarious). I found myself sharing anecdotes and tidbits with friends nearly every day.

I looked at several other books about Duchamp before choosing this one. Many of the other titles were "thesisy" (smacking of academia) and I thought this popular biography would be a better place for a laymen to start. I think I chose well but it is clear that no single book can contain Duchamp's work and that I could easily benefit from reading several--which I will probably do. Tompkins provided exactly what I wanted: a way in.
Profile Image for Maya Man.
191 reviews12 followers
April 7, 2019
This book was really long and in depth but I suddey just NEEDED to know more about Duchamp. Tomkins is a crafty writer he kept it interesting. Now I am in Philadelphia because I want
to see all the Duchamp stuff it's museum of art has and also I am visiting Laura :-). I decided to pull out all of my pulls on the bus but jeez didn't realize there would be so many. Tomkins x Duchamp = some
good words to think about.

On the large glass: "Duchamp thought it should be approached as a mixture of verbal and visual concepts"(4).

"He had asked himself, in a note dated 1913: Can one make works which are not works of art?" (5).

"Duchamp said that he wanted to 'put painting once again at the service of the mind'" (11).

On new cubist techniques of Picasso and Braque: "the picture was no longer a window to look through but an object in itself" (49).

"I always gave an important role to the title, which I added and treated like an invisible color" (51) - Duchamp.

Mallarme's famous phrase, "to paint not the thing itself, but the effect that it produces" (66).

"Duchamp's work demands the onlooker's active participation" (87).

"I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter" - Duchamp (91).

The 1913 Armory show in NYC: "American art jolted from its provincial slumber by the shock of European Modernism" (117).

After 1912 in Munich for Duchamp: "The whole notion of artist sensibility as the guiding creative principle simply disappeared from his approach, to be replaced by ... experiments with chance as a substitute for the artist's conscious control" (123).

First readymade! Accidentally the Bicycle Wheel in 1913.

Duchamp on America's future as a center for art: "New York itself is a work of art, a complete work of art..."

On the war: "What an absurd thing such a conception of patriotism is! ... Personally I must say I admire the attitude of combatting invasion with folded arms" (153).

"Only by giving it a title and an artist's signature could it attain the odd and endlessly provocative status of a readymade, a work of art created not by the hand or skill but by the mind and decision of the artist" (157).

"a readymade, in fact, was a 'form of denying the possibility of defining art'" (159).

"the genius of the modern world is in machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression..." - Picabia (168).

On Man Ray's object sculptures: they "made their point at first glance, but did not reverberate in the mind" - Tomkins (168).

In Henri-Pierre Roche's novel: "To remain yourself while loving. Not to take up residence in someone else..." (175).

"could not acquire the knack of misbehaving" - English poet Mina Loy (179).

From the editorial in The Blind Man called "The Richard Mutt Case": "Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object" (185). 1917!

"Dada demanded that article be a part of life rather than a commentary on life or an improvement on life" (193).

"one of the things he loved about chess was that its most brilliant innovations took place within a framework of strict and unbendable rules" (211).

"while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists" (211).

"Surrealism ... avowed purpose was to 'change life's by freeing the human mind from all the traditional structures that enslaved it, including religion, morality, the family, and the 'straightjacket' of rationality" (261).

"Please understand that I am trying for a minimum of action, gradually" - Duchamp (288).

He won the First International Chess by Correspindence Olympiad, which took four years to complete (290). !!!!

Since the only art that interested in was idea art (301)...

On Nude Descending a Staircase: it was not really a painting but "an organization of time and space through the abstract expression of motion" (306).

"infrathin" ... it had to do, in a decidedly nonscientific way, with infitesimal spaces and subtle relationships (350).

"My capital is time not money" - Duchamp (381).

"While nobody dares to butt into a conversation between two mathematicians for fear of being ridiculous, it is perfectly normal to hear long conversations at dinner on the value of one painter in relation to another" (391). I LOVE.

"But there is something other than yes, no, and indifferent-it is for example the absence of investigations of this kind" - Duchamp (371).

Words were suspect, he felt, because they tended to take on a life of their own (394).

the artist as an "irresponsible medium" who was by no means fully aware of what he was doing (395).

For Duchamp it was very clear that a work of art was incomplete until it had been seen and thought about by one or more spectators--there coould be no such thing as an unknown masterpiece (396).

"All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone" -Duchamp (397).

Duchamp proposes the work of art as an independent creation, brought into being in a joint effort by the artist, the spectator, and the unpredictable actions of chance--a free creation that, by it's very nature, may be more complex, more interesting, more original, and truer to life than a work that is subject to the limitations of the artist's personal control (398).

On not painting: "I became a non-artist, not an anti-artist" (407).

Jasper Johns on The Large Glass: "it involves you with yourself and with the room you're in, and it seems to require a kind of alertness on your part. It's not just something you look at," (412).

"Art is a habit-forming drug," - Duchamp (427).

As Duchamp would say on another occasion, the book was not about him-it was by Schwarz (447).

Duchamp wrote his own epitaph: "Besides, it is always the others who die" (450).

Uh I just went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday to see their Duchamp collection and am still shaking from Etant Donnes.

52 reviews
December 21, 2021
I enjoyed learning about Duchamp’s life. Tomkins is an unapologetic fanboy. I understand this impulse: most readers would pick up this book because they also find Duchamp alluring. However, the author’s admiration may distract him from a rigorous engagement with his subject. Here are some examples:

a) He summarily dismisses critics’ analyses of Duchamp's work instead of addressing them as parts of Duchamp’s legacy. At the same time, he neglects to engage with the playfulness and contradiction in Duchamp's own comments on his work. The reader is encouraged to take Duchamp at face value, even while Duchamp's attitude toward art and interviews suggests that we should not.
b) He largely skips over how Duchamp fits into the wider intellectual movements of the time. Duchamp was not the only French person exploring creativity, creatorship, and so on. The biography would have benefitted from some consideration of semiotics, for instance (a prominent French theory), or New Criticism, a prominent American theory with which T.S. Eliot is associated -- and we know from Duchamp's brief essay on creativity that he was familiar with Eliot's thought.

The author is a journalist, not a scholar, but his research and analysis are less than vigorous. For example:
c) Tomkins often makes statements that appear to be his own interpretation of events and Duchamp’s motivations, but which he presents as facts.
d) The author is dismissive of women. He generally comments on their appearance, how attractive they were at this time, and their sexual habits. He depicts a number of these women as shameless sexual predators who resent the pure men that reject their overtures. Men, meanwhile, whose attractiveness is usually not mentioned, have affairs, fall in love, and leave their wives, all in the ordinary way of things.
e) The story wanders sometimes. Duchamp’s family quickly falls off the radar. Although we are told that they were very close for the first 30 or so years, we hear of his sister’s death long after it happens, as a one-sentence afterthought to his relationship with Yvonne Savy. Is this meant to allusively suggest that his relationship with his sister had fallen off in recent decades, but that they were linked by a silent but unbreakable familial bond? … I doubt the author is trying to be that clever.

Altogether I would have preferred a more critical exploration of Duchamp’s life, but biographies are unwieldy, and Tomkins has written a nice story that introduces us to quite a funny archetype of Frenchness.
Profile Image for Chris Browning.
920 reviews9 followers
May 2, 2020
In the excellent Ruth Brandon book on the surrealists, Marcel Duchamp hovers like a spectre over the action just occasionally shimmying into full view with an idea or concept that has probably the most influence on the thinking of the movements of Dada and surrealism. But he is hard to pin down, a phantom that Andre Breton desperately wants to cling to but never quite does

Duchamp is still pretty hard to read after reading this wonderful book. He feels like a sort of blur of an artist, almost coming to focus but always resisting it: one of a group of artistic siblings, but more thoughtful than any of them; about the only person linked to surrealism who encouraged the female artists in the movement in their own right (not quite a proto feminist though; there’s some problematic stuff here but even as a sexual dilettante he was remarkably faithful to even the most brief of flings in his own way); a huge influence on the move of art away from the figurative to the conceptual but also never quite fitting into any mould himself... he’s fascinating and frustrating and fascinatingly frustrating

But Tomkins real genius - and genius it is - is to confront this most thoughtful and basically absent of artists in clear, lucid terms, explaining his ideas in a way that you don’t quite realise how much erudition has been provided to you until you move on to the next big idea. Tomkins sort of suggests that his expertise in art almost comes from Duchamp himself, after a rather touching interview he relates towards the end of the book. Tomkins is a very funny writer, delighting in Duchamp’s humour and with a particular brand of eye rolling disdain for the self important (mostly Breton and fellow Duchamp expert Arturo Schwarz, but even the latter is treated pretty sympathetically in the end). It’s a beautifully written book that never feels like it’s over reaching or under selling the subject. Duchamp feels at the end of it all just as nebulous as ever but Tomkins has managed to evoke something of the man’s spirit and wit to which we can be eternally grateful
Profile Image for Dylan.
Author 3 books12 followers
January 12, 2021
When someone has charmed so many and a mythology has been built up around their greatness, when you actually look at the details of their life—at least in this case—you actually find their greatness and the trajectory of their life quite underwhelming. Perhaps this is reassuring to all of us who live less than "great" lives.

Bursting the Myth Spoilers as Purposed by Tompkins:

•Duchamp didn't quit art to play chess as much as he ran out of ideas and didn't want to repeat himself

•He was always very charming, but also very detached, indifferent, and semi-heartless when it came to romance for a large majority of his life. He could be quite secretive when it came to his actual emotionality.

•His chess style though it got quite good when he was still seriously trying to compete was very by the book, classical, cautious, and not that creative (maybe this loosened up a bit towards end of life)

•He would contradict many of his views on art and commercialization, at times saying money had no reason to be coupled to art, at others capitalizing on reproducing readymades and selling modern art

•He was seen as such a mysterious sort of guru of art who packed all sorts or secrets into his art, but really he was much more into puns, wordplay, jokes, and making art that made you think rather than just assess it from a visual perspective. The various academics who've put in countless hours and treatises into trying to present Freudian, alchemical, and other disciplines in his work are really missing the point.

•He did have some interesting art and philosophical theory anecdotes, but they didn't constitute any great body of thought

These burst myths really aren't shocking or even that chastising, and there are likely others left out, but it just goes to show that a lot of "mysterious" famous people are much less so on closer inspection.
Profile Image for Danica.
109 reviews33 followers
November 18, 2017
I'm taking a class on Duchamp right now and this effortlessly readable biography has been such a fun companion to the more theoretical things I've been assigned. Seems pretty exhaustively researched, is humorous and entertaining, and is also great at discussing the various main interpretations of Duchamp's work and legacy.
Profile Image for Sergio.
229 reviews2 followers
August 9, 2017
É um livro rico de fatos e descrições de uma época em que a arte esta dando largos passos, se transformando e transformando o mundo. Duchamp é um homem muito interessante e lúcido. Recomendo para quem gosta de biografia, uma dose de história e quer entender como a arte dos dias atuais foi gestada.
Profile Image for Kevin McDonagh.
228 reviews42 followers
September 17, 2017
The authoritative Biography on the original "non-artist". Until the very end, Dandyish Duchamp was determined to live a life of full of fun and optimism. His antics are awe inspiring as they are heart warming.
Profile Image for Claire.
115 reviews
November 29, 2020
An excellent and absorbing read which I loved. Calvin Tomkins has written a detailed and thought provoking book about the life and works of the most influential - and yet often least understandable - artist of the 20th Century.
126 reviews
March 13, 2021
Attempting to unravel the life and art of this influential artist is no easy assignment but my favorite writer/critic is up to the task. Duchamp is well served in this definitive, superbly, well-written biography. See also: "Living Well Is The Best Revenge."
Profile Image for Thet Swe.
27 reviews2 followers
October 21, 2020
"May be it's all just an illusion. We are so fond of ourselves, we think we are little gods of the earth---I have my doubts, that's all."
73 reviews
February 25, 2023
Duchamp’s gentleness and humor are often obliterated by postmodernist agendas. His favorite work of his own was the “Bicycle Wheel”, “because— it is so useful!” Bless his silly heart.
285 reviews5 followers
June 29, 2021
As my recent book reviews reveal, I have been on a Marcel Duchamp kick of late. I had a transformative experience reading about his art and I appreciate his belief that art doesn't need to be good or bad just art. He opened up a nonjudgemental side to me that I hadn't explored. Now I am doing all kinds of art and uncovering wonderful and exciting aspect of myself I had no idea existed.

I read multiple books on his art but not about his life and I had questions. How did he get the freedom to do whatever he wanted? It was clear that he didn't have or make much money. It was also clear that he didn't particularly have a home. I also wondered how planned his 'retirement' from art was? Did he know that eventually his art and his ideas about art would eventually get celebrated? There was also the question of his relationships; both love related and those that were friendships. Tomkins does a good job at uncovering the man and debunking the myth.

Luck played a big part in Duchamp's life. In particular, the luck of 'Nude Descending a Staircase' becoming the art sensation of New York's Armory show of 1913. The painting caused a scandal and when Duchamp came to live in New York a couple years later that painting open doors for him in the avant garde and modernist art worlds. It got him connected to wealthy and important people which was useful because at 28, he claimed to have retired from painting. He mostly made money in New York giving French lesson but it also seemed that his rich and connected friends bought his painting or helped him find other rich and eccentric people to buy them.

Duchamp also was very successful with women and didn't necessarily require them to be young, thin and beautiful. Katherine Drier appears to have had a motherly crush on Duchamp and she was instrumental in sponsoring him to complete one of greatest unfinished works of art, 'The Large Glass' a multi-layered mechanistic presentation of courtship. Duchamp had a reciprocal long term love affair with another wealthy woman, Mary Reynolds and they collaborated together on art and ideas. Finally, he married Teeny Matisse in 1954 who had just divorced the youngest son of Henri Matisse Pierre. She wasn't particularly wealthy but she was extremely well connected.

Duchamp's life is a terrific example of the importance of social capital. He didn't paint much nor did he care about selling it. In his thirties he retired as an artist and takes up chess full time and becomes a top French chess champion but there wasn't any money in playing chess. He tried his hand at a few business ventures but none of those panned out. By the late 1950s, his art and idea came back in vogue and the value of his work went up but he didn't do much to exploit that fact (there was a project to sell a limited edition of his readymades in 1960s). What he had for his entire life was a group of friends and acquaintances who had money and could open doors. While he took advantage of that fact, he never profited from it. Late in life he would travel with nothing more than a toothbrush.
6 reviews1 follower
March 2, 2010
Although he was sociable and a leader in the Village art scene for decades, Duchamp always kept himself a bit aloof and didn't reveal all that much about his thinking or his personal life. This makes a biographer's job difficult. Tompkins does his level best to provide a context for the work, but while he uncovers information about how the work came into being (as in his account of the famous "Fountain" readymade) and does a good job of describing the formal qualities of individual pieces, he doesn't seem to have the theoretical equipment for more trenchant analysis. To him, the accumulation of critical interpretations over the years obscure the essential playfulness of the work, and he likes to whip Arturo Schwarz for taking a psychoanalytical approach, but surely he could have found a more worthy and interesting opponent. More often than not, he ends up taking Duchamp's own explanations at face value, a very dodgy procedure. I suppose you could say that Duchamp's real work of art was his life, and while Duchamps himself remains elusive, the portraits of Picabia, Jarry, Wood, Arensburg, etc are fascinating. I think they were as curious about Duchamp as I am.
Profile Image for Diego Cascón Castro.
25 reviews6 followers
October 3, 2021
Resulta realmente abrumadora la cantidad de información que Tomkins recopila sobre Duchamp. Posiblemente a partir de cientos de conversaciones con algunos de los protagonistas de la propia historia de Duchamp, que es en realidad el relato de la historia del arte del siglo XX, junto al estudio de toda la documentación y archivos personales.
Quizás lo único que hace que no le de la máxima calificación es que se trata de una obra escrita desde una óptica periodística y no desde el punto de vista del historiador del arte. En cualquier caso es una obra imprescindible para conocer los aspectos y detalles personales de Duchamp y para tener una visión amplia de la historia del arte desde las vanguardias hasta el Pop art.
Profile Image for Antiabecedarian.
43 reviews122 followers
October 21, 2007
hey, WHO DID I LOAN THIS TO? Goodreads graciously downloaded the books I bought from Amazon, and since they don't come up on any list that I can get to, I had to go to Amazon to see what I actually bought when once I had money and didn't "borrow" books, myself, here and there.... so here I am, looking at a book cover of a book I am said to have purchased; yet, it is not with me. Who has it? Did someone take it while I was away? Who have I given this liberty to? WHO WHO???? WHERE IS DUCHAMP'S BIOGRAPHY! I haven't read it yet!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Profile Image for Maria Gambale.
36 reviews4 followers
May 18, 2013
A totally readable, casual set of interviews by someone who's comfortable enough with Duchamp to call him out on some funny little b.s. moments, but not so smart as to be able to really go deep into some of the trickier philosophies. I didn't expect a deep artistic analysis and I got in spades what I expected - a bit of insight into the thinking of Duchamp and the human being he was.
Profile Image for Liisa.
70 reviews
October 27, 2008
Tomkins, along with Octavio Paz, is the foremost expert on all things Duchampian. I enjoyed this biography, because -- even through the cold, hard stare of the art historian and critic -- you can hear Tomkins' awe and admiration for the man I feel is 20th century's most important artist.
251 reviews3 followers
December 21, 2014
I wanted to know why Duchamp gave up art to play chess. Tomkins states he isn't going to speculate about Duchamp's interior life, and he sticks to his word. There are many facts about his day to day life, but after while it gets boring.
Profile Image for Ashley.
1 review
June 17, 2007
typical tomkins survey/ hagiography/gossip minus the attempt at a more formal critique of specific works that stevens and swan attempt in de kooning
cabanne dialogues more interesting
5 reviews4 followers
January 3, 2008
This is the best Duchamp bio. I've read. A little rambling at times but awesome if you're into Dada or any other ism.
Profile Image for Roberta.
72 reviews7 followers
March 15, 2008
Very readable biography that immerses you in the world Duchamp lived in and explains the way Etant Donne got made.
Profile Image for Tim.
5 reviews3 followers
September 23, 2008
I like the exhaustive biographical research put into this book, but Tompkins unabashed hero worship of Duchamp has been taken a bit too far, despite the long shadow Duchamp has cast upon art.
Profile Image for Megan Kirschenbaum.
7 reviews1 follower
December 15, 2016
A great biography of a very influential man by a very important art critic. The more I learned the more I liked Duchamp less, but that makes for an interesting read. A must read for any art lover.
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