Calvin Tomkins is a writer whose distinguished profiles of artists and its various other characters have been published in The New Yorker since the early 1960s. He is well regarded and beloved in the arts community of a certain age and stature and his ability to write well should also not be overlooked. He was recently honored at the 2011 Whitney Gala and with his salt and pepper hair and New England good looks it would be no surprise if this Americana gentleman has been to more artist’s homes and dinner tables then possibly anyone else. In his compilation of profiles on various artists that were published in The New Yorker, entitled Lives of the Artists, one gathers a succinct understanding of Tomkins’ writing style as well as his method of presenting certain artists. For this, he chose to re-feature; Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Richard Serra, James Turrell, Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, and John Currin. This list, I think, reveals the drift and tone of the book.
Tomkins works in the classic New Yorker formula: Give present day specific introduction of subject, describe in brief what makes subject a person of interest, describe in cursory terms the subject’s physicality (quirks most pointedly described), talk at length about biography (especially childhood and relationships with parents or other family members), discuss first budding of inclination towards the subject’s field of interest, describe failures in early attempts, describe ascent, climax on their mastery of field, talk of what is to come next. This is the formula, the foolproof recipe to make any profile lop and loll with guaranteed readers’ satisfaction. If this a bad thing? No. Possibly it is boring, but the truth of it is, is that it works and it works exceptionally well when one has the ability to write well, which Tomkins does.
Tomkins, to me, is not a very interesting writer but he is very proficient. The way he can get in a lot of information with optimal speed yet with words and sentence structure that does not pummel or tire the eye is probably the best I have seen in art writing. What also makes his work so successful is the distance of his own opinion or thoughts in them. Tomkins is not so much an art critic as he is an art documentarian. Like a film documentarian, of course he has a certain style, a certain edit, and way to cut things but the end point is to reveal and show versus to breakdown and tell. He is not giving an opinion about any of the artists he writes about but merely introduces them to you, but with Tompkins as the director and script writer, he does it in the most personal way possible. He grants you entry into artists’ lives and thoughts as he himself experiences them. This entry is key. Tomkins is not a journalist, he is not neutral, he is not outside of anything. His interactions with artists are through extended periods of time; days, weeks, years. He is invited to Thanksgivings, as with John Currin’s family, or to see the unveiling of a long awaited sculpture seen by the artist for their first time, as with Cattelan and Koons. He knows the families and the love lives of Schnable and Sherman. Most essentially, he is a collector of artists’ lives and his access and his politeness towards them continues the "this request granted" on the part of artists.
As mentioned, his exposés are packed with biography and because of this you are helpless in attempts to not like most of these artists, for me only Cattelan and Currin can still take a hike. You do get to see these artists who are the elite, when it comes to living artists, become more relatable, likable, and flawed. The feature that was most educational was that of Matthew Barney. Tomkins really broke down Barney’s Cremaster Cycle in such a way that I feel like I actually sort of get it. Also the way that he presents Barney’s ideas of restraint being the tool for growth was like watching a master sensei with words to thoughts. In this profile too, you can see that he is not about just pumping people up for the accolade of the art illuminati, but that he really can get to the point of an artist, of their practice or intent and spell it out for you but without being rude of mean to either the subject or the reader. To me the worst profile to read was of John Currin, what a charade he appears to be. Maybe he was just nervous, who knows, who cares, but it is a bit unnerving how flat Tompkins opinion about him, or anyone, is. It’s as if he refuses to be critical, which, is possibly why he has such longevity and such a good mass of hair.
This is what I learned most about reading this compilation, that you can be very successful for a very long time if you play the game right. For me, this is not very appealing but I can understand its value and necessity. No one can have influence by throwing shit on the walls. There were things that irked me in other ways too though, he always seems to bring his wife, Dodie Kazanjian, who has high culture cred of her own, but he always inserts it in, the “my wife,” “with my wife,” etc. It felt infantilized in a way but this may also be relayed to press upon the fact that this is his world, these are his intimate spheres and he has been lucky and gracious enough to invite us in on it, but it's still his world and he can bring his wife if he damn well pleases.
Lives of the Artists is undoubtedly a very good book to read for those that may want to know more about any of the artists listed above. It really does its job and does it well, he doesn’t write for The New Yorker for nuthin, but still, there is a grating tinge of exclusivity to the whole thing. It’s like he drank the Kool- Aid (well in this strata a minted unsweetened iced tea) and then says, "come to the party, you are invited, isn’t it all so delightful?" Then in turn this is also what makes him and his cadre so above it all, he really isn’t seeking any acceptance by anyone else besides a very rarefied field and the elites in that field. For goodness sake he only included one women, Sherman of course, and that probably doesn’t even phase him. In that way, I have to give “keeping it real” points to him because unlike others who force politically correct agendas and thus make those agendas more encumbered for failure, he just shrugs it off, he’s a white guy writing about art and it is white guys who rule that roost still. Whatever you’re opinion about that whole matter is, that’s for another time, but to wrap it up, one should read this book but only if you really want to know more about certain artists and you want to further imagine that you are with them on the Rivera having a swanking good time.