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Vol.1 / Issue3

"A very normal guy"

Robert Barnes on Marcel Duchamp and Étant Donnés
An interview by Thomas Girst


Tout-Fait: How old was he?

Robert Barnes: I'll tell you in a minute. He was very old. And in order to stay and pay the rent, Paul would have his soirees on Saturday evenings and you could go, he couldn't charge because it was his apartment but there was a donation box. And he would dance and then he would give a little lecture.  If you timed it right, you would get in on Paul's bacchanal.  And Marcel introduced me.  Matta found Paul Swan, made Marcel go, and then he became a fan. And the best thing that he did was the bacchanal of the Sahara Desert in which he danced naked, virtually; he had veils, very gay.  All by himself, he would do the bacchanal of the Sahara Desert losing his veils and ending up totally naked.  Paul was in his late 80's at this time and then he would stand in front of the audience stark naked and would explain the reason why his body was in such great condition and why his skin was so perfect was that he bathed daily in a vat of olive oil and that everyone should do that if they want to stay as young as he is.  And he was one of the first health food addicts, he and Francis Stella, they were the first ones to be fanatical about health food.  The trouble is, only Paul Swan thought that he still had smooth skin that looked really young. He was really a wreck.  His little thingy was all shriveled.  And of course everyone would throw money into the box afterwards because it was such a marvelous event.

Tout-Fait: So it wasn't publicly advertised? Only artists went there basically? It was only known through word of mouth?

Robert Barnes: Yeah, basically. The thing is, he must have made a fortune because no one wanted Paul to get kicked out of Carnegie Hall. I don't know what happened.  I went to Europe after that and lost track but he probably died. Oh, those performances were so superb.  It made the happenings seem mundane.  You know, they think they started that stuff down at Judson Church. No! Swan's soirees were a million times more exciting.

Tout-Fait: Every week?

Robert Barnes: I don't know. I think every week.

Tout-Fait: How many people were there usually?

Robert Barnes: Twenty people.  I know Matta always loved to go there and a whole group would go up there.

Tout-Fait: I have another question: You have a few works by Duchamp that he simply gave to you.  That was very generous at the time. What did you think?

Robert Barnes: He gave something to me and he would always say, "Look, if you need money sometime, you could probably sell this." We were thinking like a couple hundred dollars probably. I never sold them.  I've had hard times.  I'm sentimental. 

Tout-Fait: It's not about monetary value; it's about this guy giving it to you.

Robert Barnes: I'm also not a "hem of the cloak" person.

Click to enlarge
Figure 27
Robert Barnes,
Belle Haleine
, ca. 1995

Tout-Fait: What's that?

Robert Barnes: Touching Marcel's hand to become empowered.  You know, I did a painting about Marcel and I hate myself for it (Fig. 27).

Tout-Fait: I like it.

Robert Barnes: Well I don't because I swore that I would never use Marcel in any way as a stepping-stone to anything.

Tout-Fait: Which a lot of people did who didn't know him as well as you.

Robert Barnes: Yeah, well if you notice, the people that really did know Marcel, don't like to talk about him.  The fact that I'm doing this is really kind of weird.  I shouldn't be. And in some ways it is blasphemous.  But there is nothing to blaspheme if you don't turn Marcel into a God.  Marcel was normal and very, very bourgeois.  He was a normal guy, very normal.  He smoked terrible cigars.  He smoked "Blackstones" and he also smoked "La Frédéric," which is like smoking rope.

Tout-Fait: He never did any drugs?

Robert Barnes: No, why would he? Wine's good enough, isn't it?

Tout-Fait: Now, Duchamp…

Click to enlarge
Figure 28
Marcel Duchamp's tombstone at the Cimitière Monumental in Rouen, France

Robert Barnes: He's dead now, you notice? What is it on his grave? It's wonderful.

Tout-Fait: "Besides, it's always the others that die" (Fig. 28). I like that too.  We were talking before about how he gave you three or four works of his, and you didn't ask him for, he didn't want to get paid for...

Robert Barnes: Get paid?! Marcel never got paid anything.

Tout-Fait: …for the favors that you did for him or was it just because he felt a certain friendship towards you?

Robert Barnes: That's what makes real friendship comfortable, when you don't count favors.  I've counted favors, all on his side. The guy was generous. Everyone knew that and I think that probably people did take advantage of him. I'm not sure that Schwarz didn't.

Tout-Fait: And you didn't run to him and want him to sign certain stuff.

Robert Barnes: Oh yeah, sign.

Tout-Fait: Well that's good, because some people did.

Robert Barnes: "Oh, mister, can I have your autograph on my ball?"

Tout-Fait: And he probably wouldn't have refused.

Robert Barnes: No he wouldn't have.

Tout-Fait: You left New York when?

Robert Barnes: I'm not sure. I went to London to Slade School and had more contact with Matta and Copley, because Copley had a home over there.  I had a great dinner once at Copley's house.  We ate off of Magritte plates with parts of the body painted on them and since we were guests of honor, my wife and I (my first wife) got first choice. She got the male plate and I got the female plate. Thought you might have hair in your food, kind of an interesting dinner.  Matta always made things interesting.

Tout-Fait:  And Matta you were the closest with, he introduced you to everyone and he was just one wild person.

Robert Barnes: Yeah he was a good painter too.  You know, I'm not sure where Matta fits in, in the history.  You know, who cares.  What's interesting is that we're living in a generation of young people who are constantly preoccupied with their place in history.  What the hell does it matter? Marcel never thought about that. Maybe later on when he started cataloguing stuff, he starting thinking that maybe he wanted to leave some legacy.  But legacy is bullshit.  But everyone now is "where's my place in history." How many times can you ask?

Tout-Fait: Well your generation will not decide who makes it into the history books.

Robert Barnes: No one will decide.  Some lizard or something might decide in the final.  But people are so worried about whether they are going to be known.  Now they create money and become attached to it.  I thank God I lived in the era of Marcel and those people, who weren't. Money was certainly not much of a preoccupation. It drifted across their brains, but it was definitely not much of a preoccupation. It was interesting, I did a talk on de Kooning. (16) While they were circulating that show of his and I got to the middle of the talk and I suddenly realized and said it out loud that I didn't think anyone thought they were going to make money from their work, a lot of money, and it wasn't until the ‘70s that it started changing and people started clawing each other to get known, get a gallery, a good gallery, to get this and get that and the art is boring because of it.  I mean how much can you be shocked by all the latest things? We have some guy cutting off pieces of his penis in a gallery, good for him.

Tout-Fait: Well it becomes shallow and hollow and everything has been done before and done better mostly.

Robert Barnes: I'm afraid Marcel unleashed some of that and I know he knew it and I think he was a little bit dismayed or amused; it would be both in this case.

Tout-Fait: Well that is what Apollinaire, who first wrote about him in 1913, said-- that he was the artist who was going to reconcile people and art (17).  The people and art come together and I think in a weird way he did.

Robert Barnes: And then you have to decide whether you want that. It sounds good but I'm not sure that's what you want.  I mean I'm really kind of intrigued by the bardic tradition as the artist being a mysterious power or medium.  And in a lot of ways Marcel fit that very well.  The Bards could intervene in worlds and stop them and create a poem that would solve everything.  Not very realistic.  There is something about art not being democratic that might be good.  I certainly couldn't justify it. But I'm functioning on instinct; maybe it's not good that it's available so much.

Tout-Fait: I think it is probably something that will change again.  Maybe people will get into something else and then art is just there and will survive on its own, hibernating. Look at what is happening to poetry now.  Not too many people read poetry.  Poetry is really in a state of hibernation.  And I mean you don't really know.  Two hundred years down the line poetry might be "the thing." Everyone goes there and reads that as much as art is being looked at today. That very well might happen but we don't know.

Click to see video (QT. 1.09 MB)
Video 3
Interview with Robert Barnes (Excerpt), January 2001.

Robert Barnes: I don't object to what's going on in contemporary art but I do think that it's kind of boring.  I also think that it is so closely meshed with fashion.  That fashion brand having the show at the Guggenheim, what show was that?

Tout-Fait: The Armani Show at The Guggenheim, New York, between October 2000 and February 2001.

Robert Barnes: It is totally appropriate. Since it is hard to distinguish art from fashion anyhow.  It is kind of interesting that always in the kind of painting that I did, people were denigrating the idea that art imitates life.  What we have now is life imitating art and it's recoiled on us a little bit, hasn't it?

Tout-Fait: Now with your own art, what I've looked at and what I've seen in catalogues always seems to be in action, very much so.

Robert Barnes: Figure it out. I mean, what did you do today? We kept moving. 

Tout-Fait: Futuristic approach.

Robert Barnes: Oh no, that's what Marcel knew, transience, everything is in transit and you have to watch it and watch it evolve and transit.  Going to a store and watching things move and turn into junk.


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16.Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Born in Rotterdam, the action painter was one of the founding members of what came to be known as The New York School.

17.French poet, art critic, writer and socialite Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was an early admirer of Duchamp. In his book of 1913, Les Peintres Cubistes, he made the statement that "[p]erhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people."


Fig. 28
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.