Last night I read Calvin Tomkins’ recent profile of video artist Pipilotti Rist in The New Yorker. Rist’s art and film is magical and the profile is worth reading, but this post is not about her. A few paragraphs in, I paused to wonder how old Tomkins is. Not because anything in the writing was dated or out of touch, but because I’ve been reading him for such a long time. The answer: he was born in 1925, just a nickel shy of centenarian Roger Angell, who I mentioned a few days ago. How many other centenarians and nonagenarians write for The New Yorker?
I first came to know Tomkins’ name in 1996. That year, not long after seeing a major show on Marcel Duchamp and his influence at the Walker Art Center (Duchamp’s Leg), I picked up Tomkins’ thick biography of Duchamp (recently revised and reissued). I hauled it around Minneapolis in my messenger bag for a year or more, reading a page on the bus, a page during lunch, a page while daydreaming with my sketchbook open at a coffee shop. I was a slow reader in those days and savored every detail of Duchamp’s transatlantic career as he pushed forward ideas that allowed art to exist outside of canvas and sculpture. A young Tomkins befriended Duchamp in the last decade of the artists’ life, and so the book also suggested a way of living in dialogue with artist-peers who could challenge, teach, and inspire you.
One hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp had already given up art for chess and would live nearly another half-century as his celebrity grew. Lately, Duchamp’s star has dulled for me as its become more apparent to me that his genius often was for self-promotion over generosity and inclusion. Scholars now attribute Fountain — the readymade urinal sculpture most often associated with his transgressive reputation — to another artist, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. After she returned to Europe and died in 1927, and as Duchamp’s influence grew, he took increasing ownership of the story of Fountain, ironic given Freytag-Loringhoven left a legacy of feminist writing and poetry critiquing the misogynist appropriation of women’s labor and ideas. But I knew none of this in 1996 as I took temp jobs and barista jobs and dreamt of running in avant-garde circles.
Jason Kottke often writes about “the great span,” the idea that one mind has carried direct knowledge forward for a century, including working alongside those who were already in old age; a “relay race” of passed on experience throughout history. He has another such example today. The 95-year-old grandson of the 10th U.S. President John Tyler, has just died.
John Tyler was born barely a year into George Washington’s first term and undoubtably met and even worked with some of the nation’s earliest political figures, including Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. Amazing to think that just three generations of the same family stretch almost all the way back to the founding of our country. It underscores just how young the United States is — after all, the last person to receive a Civil War pension just died back in June. You can check out more examples of The Great Span phenomenon here. ( more examples of The Great Span phenomenon here)—Jason Kottke
Even better when the nonagenarians and centenarians are writers like Tomkins and Angell. The number of people who they pass the baton of history to numbers in the millions.