If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine. Phaidon’s new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely crafted sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience, meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. Here are five short examples of how, in a few short sentences Tomkins can make you feel you’ve known the artist for years.
“Ten o’clock on a May morning in Paris, by the École des Beaux-Arts. Maurizio Cattelan, the world’s only punctual artist, is slightly late, but the sun is warm, the breeze is cool, and vividly dressed art students crowd through a narrow gate in the tall iron grille that separates the École’s courtyard from the Rue Bonaparte. “My wife’s mobile phone rings. It is Cattelan, calling from his bicycle to say that he’s three minutes away. Three minutes later, he glides to a soundless stop beside us. Cattelan is Italian. Tall and lean in his jeans and black T-shirt, he has close-cropped dark hair and a long, quizzical face anchored by an auspicious Roman nose. He wheels his bike into the courtyard, chains it to a stand, and looks around at the architecture. ‘Not bad,’ he says, whistling softly.” Maurizio Cattelan's Artspace page is here.
“Damien had not gone to bed at all that night but had moved on from Pharmacy to the Groucho and several other drinking clubs with [Hirst’s girlfriend] Maia and Mary Brennan, his mother, who lives in a cottage adjoining their Devon house and helps look after [Hirst’s son] Connor, and who doesn’t at all mind staying up late when she comes to London. After dropping Mary and Maia off around 3 a.m., at a houseboat on the Thames which is now their London living quarters, Damien had continued on his own, God knows where. By the time he showed up for the anniversary lunch at Pharmacy, around two the next afternoon, he looked pretty wasted—unshaved, clothes rumpled, eyes half shut.
He had a few drinks, sambucas and Ricard pastis. (Damien likes to mix things up, alcoholically.) He wasn’t being coherent, but this didn’t interfere with the carnival of affection that surrounded him the minute he arrived—friends and near-friends coming over to hug him, friends’ children pulling on his arm and spilling his drink, rock musicians shouting at him across the big, bright room whose high-style décor includes several butterfly paintings, a large plastic sculpture representing an atomic structure, colorful wallpaper reproducing pharmaceutical compounds from a drug encyclopedia, and, on the stairs, dangling human skeletons and four huge pharmacist’s jars filled with colored liquids.
"During the next three hours, as Damien continued to order, spill, and consume various alcoholic beverages, I was surprised to note that he became progressively more alert and articulate. We were scheduled to catch a six-o’clock train to Devon from Paddington Station. Long after I had given up hope that this might happen, at about five-forty-five, Damien rounded up Connor and Mary Brennan, went outside in the rain, found a taxi, and got us all to Paddington with three minutes to spare. As he walked to the train platform, carrying an exhausted Connor on his shoulders and holding his nice, cheery mum by the hand, he looked like the sort of family man you could really depend on." Damien Hirst's Artspace page is here.
“Christo, who is sixty-eight, wears a roomy black coat that fails to disguise or contain his lean, hyperactive frame, and he carries a black canvas bag containing fifty-two rolled-up maps of the Park, each showing a specific sector in detail. Jeanne-Claude, his wife, also sixty-eight (they both were born on June 13, 1935), has on a full-length down overcoat, but what one notices first is her bright-orange hair. It used to be thought that Christo was the artist and Jeanne-Claude was the support system, the one who kept the books, sold Christo’s drawings and collages (he has never had a dealer), arranged the bank loans, paid the bills, and effectively ran the show. She does all that, to be sure, but Christo does a lot of it, too, and since 1994, when they decided to put both their names on the Reichstag project, they have made it very clear that Jeanne-Claude is and always has been the co-artist on their projects, making aesthetic decisions along with her husband. ‘There are only three things we do not do together,’she likes to say. ‘I don’t draw. We never fly on the same plane. And I have deprived Christo of the pleasure of talking with our accountant.’” Christo and Jeanne Claude's Artspace page is here.
“Mark Bradford is the tallest artist I know—six feet seven and a half inches, and pencil thin, which makes him look taller. His paintings, as you’d expect, run large. When I visited Bradford’s industrial-sized studio, in South Los Angeles, this spring, one wall was almost entirely covered by a huge outline map of the United States, with clusters of numbers that represented the aids cases reported in each state up to 2009. For someone who had just spent sixteen hours on an airplane, coming back from the Sharjah Biennial, in the United Arab Emirates, Bradford seemed unnaturally well rested. He looks a decade or so younger than his age, which is fifty-three. Being tall and African-American and not playing basketball was an issue for him when he was a teen-ager, but now he’s comfortable with his height. He was wearing a white T-shirt and white painter’s pants, his working clothes, which he buys online for himself and his assistants, two of whom are from the same Mexican family. ‘When people see us on the street or at Home Depot, they think we’re housepainters,’ he said, happily. Most of Bradford’s art supplies come from the Home Depot. ‘If Home Depot doesn’t have it,’ he said, ‘Mark Bradford doesn’t need it.’” Mark Bradford's Artspace page is here.
“Growing up in Indianapolis, Celmins soon learned to fend for herself. ‘My mother and father paid no attention to me whatsoever,’ she said. ‘They were too busy with their own lives. This is maybe what’s strong in me, that my parents were like peasants—they had their own way of dealing with things.’ Her father, Arturs, worked long hours as a carpenter—in Latvia, he had been a bricklayer and then a small-scale builder. Milda, her mother, took care of other people’s children and was a laundress in a hospital. When Celmins was ten, her sister, Inta, eight years older and about to enter college, contracted tuberculosis and spent the next three years in hospitals. Their shared bedroom was now Vija’s alone, and she spent a lot of time in it, with the door closed. Drawing and reading were her refuge and her solace during her first year in America, when she was struggling to learn English. She could read in Latvian, and by the end of the year she was reading fluently in English. (She is still an avid reader of novels and nonfiction, as well as books on art.) Eventually, she emerged from her shell, made friends at school, became a track star in running and the high jump and, as the class artist, did the illustrations for her senior yearbook. ‘I never even thought about Latvia,’ she said.” Vija Celmins' Artspace page is here.
For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.