Like most important events in life, it was accidental. The year was 1959, and I was writing for Newsweek, in the foreign news department. Newsweek didn’t cover art in those days. There were weekly sections on music, books, movies, sports, religion, and other cultural necessities, but art was apparently of too little interest to our middle-class readers. Every so often, though, an editor would come up with an idea that involved the visual arts, and somebody would be assigned to write it. One day, I got the call to go and interview Marcel Duchamp.
He was seventy-two at the time, and the first monograph on his work had just come out, in French and English editions. I had a couple of hours to skim through it before the interview, but I knew almost nothing about him. We met by arrangement in the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel. He arrived before I did, and as I sat down he waved at the large Maxfield Parrish mural behind the bar and said, “I like that, don’t you?” I assumed he was kidding, but no, he did like it. This was the first of the many surprises that followed. I had a list of questions, most of which were banal or worse, and he managed to turn every one of them into something unexpected. When I asked how he spent his time, now that he had stopped making art—a common mistake; he had been working for twenty years on a secret, room-size environment that is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art—he said, affably, “Oh, I’m a breather, a respirateur, isn’t that enough? Why do people have to work? Why do they think they have to work?” There was something enchanting about this man. All his life he had played with words and ideas, turning them inside out, finding new combinations and connections, and I soon stopped trying to control the conversation. When it appeared in Newsweek, one of my colleagues said he had never read an interview like this, in which none of the questions were answered.
Before Duchamp, artists and non-artists alike were pretty sure they knew what art was. Duchamp changed that. He used to say that his readymades, common manufactured objects transformed into art works by the decision of an artist, were a means of denying that art could be defined. When I left Newsweek in 1960 to write profiles for The New Yorker, one of my first subjects was Duchamp, and I sometimes feel that I have been writing about him ever since. His work, his life, his thinking, his way of being in the world—the lightness and agility of his presence—has influenced my approach to all the other artists I’ve written about, many of whom claimed Duchamp as a primary source. Duchamp does not go out of date. His Etant Donnés: 1° la chute d’eau 2° le gaz d’éclairage, the installation he worked on in secret for twenty years, still shocks first-time viewers and Duchampian scholars. (Jasper Johns once called it “the strangest work of art in any museum.”) Whatever you say about him, the opposite can also be true. As he once explained, “I … contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”