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Books: Small revelations only on lives of Duchamp, Johns, and Bacon

The recent biographies of these art-world giants promise much but aside from anecdotes little is shown of the subjects’ inner lives

Duchamp, Johns and Bacon are significant modern masters, by any account, which leads to wonder that so much of what is written about them here is inconsequentiality.

All three books point up the perils of being friends with the subject of the biography. At least Mr Peppiatt’s in-the-know account of Bacon rounds out knowledge of the subject rather than the author and is particularly moving towards the end. Its direct, robust narrative is engaging, despite repetitiveness (a shared feature in all three)—but why the portentous subtitle? It only serves to underline that Mr Peppiatt does not really close in on the Baconian enigma (thankfully) but there is plenty of entertainment on the way in grand guignol tales of the artist’s Soho scrapes—such as fleeing from a violent lover into the street wearing only fishnet stockings—as well as portraying the legendary slipperiness of a character who moved with consummate ease through different social worlds.

The genesis of Bacon’s will-to-artistic-power is charted through dysfunctional family life, the lure of the theatrical (more Marat/Sade than Greek tragedy perhaps) and most effectively, a vivid understanding of mid-twentieth-century existential solitude perhaps beyond that of any of his British contemporaries.

Nothing like the same balanced approach prevails Miss Johnston’s serio-comic dealings with Jasper Johns. She is snooty about the fact that he had fled his loft to dine with the rich and famous, which leads us to query why it is only business people who should be allowed to gorge themselves and remain morally undamaged?

The author has not been allowed to reproduce Johns’s work and so has to provide extended descriptions, a cruel task, making the text woefully overwritten. Grim latinisms like “exsanguinate” puncture the meaning, which is sometimes hard to discern; “For Johns himself between 1954 and 1958 or any time later, there was perhaps no sense whatever of a ‘perpetual waiting...(for something) to be turned.’”

The so-called “Privileged Information” (whatever that means) would seem to be that the hidden “text” in Johns’s work deals with various identity crises: of names and sexuality; repression in Fifties America; national and racial gulfs dating back to the Civil War; the meaning of heroism, all of which can be charted behaviourally.

Doubts as to whether the pursuit has been worth it are temporarily allayed in effective sections on Hart Crane’s poetry and suicide as well as on Johns’s contemporary and friend, the poet Frank O’Hara. Miss Johnston’s flair for literary criticism ironically shows up her turgidity when the paintings are evoked.

Calvin Tomkins, our third biographer, has a bit part in Miss Johnston’s run-through and -down of the American art-erati, while his friend Duchamp is very much the ghost in the machine-like thought of late-1950s and early-60s American artists. The problem for Mr Tomkins is that Duchamp’s life was, no so much uneventful, as oddly undirected. Too much Ready-made perhaps. There is no titanic struggle, no Baconian lapse of taste embellishing or tarnishing the passing years...

Oozing Gallic charm, Duchamp glided and hovered with elegant restlessness, ever witty (though few bons mots survive) while maintaining discreetly vampiric relations with elderly American heiresses (who so wanted to be vampirised!). Apart from one, calculated and short-lived, marriage, and that urinal, there was little to shock the bourgeois or anyone else. This reticence leaves a void at the narrative’s centre and there is in relief for Mr Tomkins cameos of the supporting cast: lusty playboy Francis Picabia, or equally lusty, less rich, playgirl Peggy Guggenheim, who always made dramas out of crises and vice versa, in contrast to Marcel, whose motto seems to have been “it’s of no importance.”

Again, as with Miss Johnston, the writing is pitched schizoidly, veering between the dense analysis of the “Large glass” with which the book opens and subsequent Hello-like accounts of New York 1920s parties. Nevertheless, Mr Tomkins’s hatred of the Freudians is amusing and he also manages the enviable feat of making André Breton, so apparently lacking a sense of humour, appear sympathetic among all the Duchampian acolytes for at least believing in something, as Duchamp himself recognised. “He was the lover of love in a world that believes in prostitution.”

The enigma of Duchamp resides in the monklike abstinence that governed so much of his life, areligious though it was. In America, land of consumers, this must have seemed both touching and weird, as did his refusal to be “packaged” for art consumers there. That sense of distance does have something exemplary about it, but in their hugger-mugger ways, all these books err on the side of being, as Poe said of Duchamp’s great passion, chess, “complicated without being profound.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Small revelations'