Collection context


Tomkins, Calvin, 1925-
Professional papers of Calvin Tomkins, author, journalist, and contributor to theThe New Yorkermagazine.
The records are in English .
Preferred citation:

Published citations should take the following form:

Long version: Calvin Tomkins Papers, [series.folder]. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Short version: Tomkins, [series.folder]. MoMA Archives, NY.


Scope and Content:

The Calvin Tomkins Papers document multiple aspects of the author's life and work including his social and personal life and his long professional writing career. The records begin in 1962 after Tomkins was hired as a full-time staff writer forThe New Yorker. No records of his prior work are extant, nor does this collection contain any record of Tomkins' youth or college years. And while the documentation of Tomkins' major articles is comprehensive, there are no files for any of the shorter articles or fiction and humor pieces he wrote forThe New Yorkeruntil 1980 when the records present begin to document his entire output, including the unattributed captions for images and other squibs.

Otherwise, Tomkins' life and activity are well captured here. Series I, Tomkins' correspondence, begins in 1964. Professional correspondence includes regular material received fromThe New Yorker. There is correspondence here from Tomkins' long-time agent, Robert Lescher, and his later agent, Andrew Wylie. Tomkins' most frequent publisher was Doubleday and there is material present from his editor, Kate Medina. There are some contracts present as well.

Beginning in 1969 the files contain an increasing amount of personal correspondence. Tomkins received letters from his children and his ex-spouses as well as an extended network of aunts and uncles and other family members. The series contains large quantities of correspondence from friends and acquaintances. Numerous friends seemed to have carried on decades-long epistolary relationships with Tomkins. Many of these were people he first met through his writing and work.

Series II represents materials produced and acquired for the writing of major articles forThe New Yorkerbetween 1962 and 2007. While the majority of these articles were published under the rubric "Profiles," articles were also published under other departmental names. The materials in each folder are consistent and Tomkins grouped these folders separately from those of his other writings.

Tomkins organized these materials into two groups. In Subseries II.A, the materials include news clippings, magazine articles, gallery and exhibition catalogs and ephemera, correspondence with the article subject(s) and correspondence from readers. Handwritten research notes are scattered throughout, mostly consisting of lists of interview contacts and biographical and interview notes. Additionally, most files include tear sheets of the published article and a typescript draft of the article with hand edits and amendments.

Subseries II.B comprises the research and interview binders that Tomkins prepared for nearly every major article. The binders are composed of tabbed and paginated sections including contact lists of interviewees and additional resources, occasional topical indexes, chronologies and other biographical summaries, and interviews with the subject followed by interviews with other people. Complete or partial transcripts of interviews are rare and occur more frequently in later binders. Most often, Tomkins would summarize the content of interviews interspersed with extended direct quotes from the subjects. Tomkins also occasionally recorded thoughts and observations on his journey or visit to the interviewees; these notes are referred to as the "log." Final materials in the binders include bibliographies, extracts from published material such as reviews and news clippings, and miscellaneous items.

Series III is composed of reviews and smaller pieces of writing Tomkins wrote forThe New Yorkerbetween 1980 and 2004. These pieces were published under various rubrics; the most common department represented here is "The Art World," used for reviews and commentary about the arts. Other departments include "The Talk of the Town," "Portfolio," "At the Galleries," "Artist's Easel," "Books," and others. Frequently, these pieces were not whole articles but sidebars or captions to full-page photographs or double-page picture spreads. Tomkins also wrote occasional pieces for other publications including essays for books (such as exhibition and auction catalogs and artist monographs) and contributions to seminars and conferences, some of those materials are represented here. The materials present in this series are generally of the same composition and character as those in Series II.A, including news clippings, exhibition material, handwritten and typescript notes, interview summaries and quotes, contact lists, chronologies, and some received correspondence. Many folders include a typescript draft of the article and almost every article has a tear sheet of the published article or a photocopy of a galley proof.

Series IV addresses Tomkins' book publishing and contains material primarily from 1968 to 1996. The book,Eric Hoffer: an American Odyssey(New York: Dutton, 1968), is represented by only one file, as it was largely an expansion of the original article. Material on the other three books is much more comprehensive.Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art(New York: Dutton, 1970) required extensive access to the archives of the museum as well as historical research. Consequently, there are some century-old materials here (mainly news clippings and small publications) and copies of internal museum documents. The files also contain copious photocopies of external museum documents including bulletin articles, book chapters and other material, handwritten and typewritten notes, and research materials and resources gathered after original publication, in many cases used for additions included in the 1989 reprint of the book.

The files forOff the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time(New York: Doubleday, 1980) contain extensive interview notes and quotations, most culled from research conducted by Tomkins when writing articles forThe New Yorkerduring the preceding two decades. There are scattered news clippings, magazine articles, press releases, ephemera, and other published material. No portions of the manuscript in draft or galley form are present. Material also exists here, dispersed throughout these folders, that was gathered for Tomkins' original Profile on Rauschenberg, "Moving Out," published in 1964.

The research files forDuchamp: A Biography(New York: Henry Holt, 1996) are more extensive than for any of Tomkins' other books. There are large quantities of photocopies or hand transcriptions and translations of significant original documents pertaining to Duchamp and his social circle. The files also contain extensive correspondence with other Duchamp scholars and Duchamp's surviving family, including his widow, Alexina "Teeny" Duchamp and Jacqueline Matisse Monnier. As with the other book files, there is also an extensive presence of published materials and ephemera.

The collection contains no files forThe Lewis and Clark Trail(New York: Harper & Row, 1965) orThe World of Marcel Duchamp(Time, Inc.: New York, 1966), although files for the latter book may have been integrated into the records of the later biography. Neither are any files present for any of the reprint collections. Research and record files forLiving Well is the Best Revenge(New York: Viking Press, 1971) do exist but were withheld by Tomkins and remain in the author's possession. Finally, any extant files for the contributions to books by other authors are filed in Series III, in their original order, as Tomkins organized them.

Subseries IV.E contains a large quantity of photographs collected and used in the books on Rauschenberg, Duchamp, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, though many additional photographs can be found in the preceding series. Most photographs are duplicate prints received from photographers or owners of the images and the book files contain numerous folders of the correspondence and negotiations for rights and permissions necessary to publish the images.

Finally, Series V is composed of 494 audio cassettes and four open reel tapes, all the extant audio recordings made by Tomkins during the course of his research and writing. Tomkins did not start regularly taping his interviews until well into the 1980s but was prescient in preserving the spoken words of Jean Tinguely (1962), Marcel Duchamp (1964) and R. Buckminster Fuller (1965). The next recordings in the collection date from 1988 and by 1990 Tomkins was recording most, if not all, of his interviews up until the present. Regardless of whether Tomkins recorded his interviews or not, there is no change in the nature or composition of materials in the research files. The audio recordings are perhaps the most important primary source material to be found in the Tomkins Papers and will remain key original testaments to the activities and careers of many of the most important art world luminaries of the last five decades.

Biographical / Historical:

Calvin Tomkins was born December 17, 1925, in Orange, NJ. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 1948 and entered into a career in journalism, working first with Radio Free Europe from 1953 to 1957 and then, as a writer and editor, forNewsweekfrom 1957 to 1961. His first contributions toThe New Yorkerwere published in 1958 and in 1961 he became a regular staff writer while only occasionally writing for other outlets. In 1980, in addition to continuing his longer pieces for the magazine, Tomkins was appointed the official art critic and wrote art reviews and other content on an almost weekly basis. That position terminated in 1986 but Tomkins continued as a staff writer atThe New Yorkeruntil the present.

Tomkins' initial contributions toThe New Yorkerwere short humor pieces (now known under the rubric Shouts and Murmurs.) He contributed six of these pieces between 1958 and 1960 before publishing his first Profile, on Jean Tinguely, in 1962. Tomkins' career at the magazine coincided with a new burgeoning of talent in the New York art world and his first two decades of writing traced the origins and rise to establishment of Pop Art, Earth Art, Minimalism, Video Art, Happenings and Installation Art; as well as profiling the curators, collectors, and gallery owners who helped popularize those artists and movements. Tomkins continued publishing longer articles two or three times a year interspersed with light humor pieces, The Talk of the Town articles and other shorter pieces, through 1980, when he became official art critic for the magazine.

For more than five years Tomkins published art reviews on an almost weekly basis. The frequency of his major articles dropped during this time but did not cease. During his time as critic Tomkins was able to witness and chronicle the astonishing growth of the art market, the development of SoHo as a center of art and commerce, the revitalization of painting, and a host of new art movements. After this position ended, he resumed his former production of larger articles. During this time,The New Yorkeritself changed, including more photographs and pictures, often as full- or double-page spreads. Tomkins often wrote paragraphs and captions to accompany these images; in many cases the writings were unattributed in the publication.

In recent years, Tomkins' pace of article publication may have slowed, but he continues to regularly contribute toThe New Yorker; his most recent articles appeared in 2007.

Tomkins' first published book wasIntermission: A Novel(New York: Viking Press, 1951), but his ensuing books flowed directly from his work atThe New Yorker.The Lewis and Clark Trail(New York: Harper & Row, 1965) was written at the same time that Tomkins participated in an NBC documentary on the subject; an article concerning Lewis and Clark appeared inThe New Yorkerin 1966. Also in 1966, Time-Life published a volume by Tomkins in its series Time-Life Library of Art;The World of Marcel Duchamp(Time, Inc.: New York, 1966) drew on interviews and materials gathered for Tomkins' 1965 Profile.Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey(New York: Dutton, 1969) was likewise an expansion of a 1967 Profile on the famed autodidact and philosopher. In 1968, Tomkins was contracted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art to write a history of that institution coincident with its centennial.Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art(New York: E.P. Dutton, 1970) to this day remains a key reference work for the museum. Finally,Living Well is the Best Revenge(New York: Viking Press, 1971), a book on Gerald and Sara Murphy and the American Expatriate community in France between the world wars, was enlarged from a Profile of the same name published in 1962. It has proven to be Tomkins' most popular and enduring work, reprinted numerous times and published in a Modern Library edition in 1998.

During this same period, the first book that reprinted and collected Tomkins' articles fromThe New Yorkerappeared.The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art(New York: Viking, 1965) reprinted Profiles on Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg; later editions also included a fifth Profile on Merce Cunningham. In 1976,The Scene: Reports on Post-Modern Art, (New York: Viking Press, 1976) reprinted articles on Andy Warhol, E.A.T., Henry Geldzahler, Tatyana Grossman, Earth Art, Jonas Mekas, Nam Jun Paik, and Robert Wilson. In 1980, Tomkins publishedOff the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time(New York: Doubleday, 1980). While the book centered on the career of Rauschenberg, it also depicted the activities of the New York art community in the 1960s and 1970s and drew heavily on all of Tomkins' research, interviews, and writings of the preceding twenty years. In 1988,Post- to Neo-: The Art World of the 1980's(New York, Henry Holt, 1988) included reprints of twenty-seven Art World reviews and one Profile originally published between 1980 and 1986.

Aside from major books and collections of articles, Tomkins also contributed original or reprinted essays to artists' monographs and co-wrote books with his spouses. Monographs includeAndy Warholby John Coplans, (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society,1970);Christo: Running Fence, with David Bourdon (New York: Abrams, 1979);Jennifer Bartlett, with Marge Goldwater and Roberta Smith (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1985); andRoy Lichtenstein: Mural with Blue Brushstroke, with Bob Adelman (New York: Abrams, 1987). With Judy Tomkins, he wroteThe Other Hampton(New York: Viking-Grossman, 1974) and with Dodie Kazanjian,Alex: The Life of Alexander Liberman(New York: Knopf, 1993). In 2001, Tomkins contributed an original essay on R. Buckminster Fuller toBuckminster Fuller: Anthology for the New Millennium, Thomas T.K. Zung ed., (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001).

Tomkins had developed a long friendship with R. Buckminster Fuller beginning when Tomkins wrote his 1966 Profile on the scientist and inventor. For years, plans were discussed for Tomkins to write a biography of Fuller and in 1980 a contract for the book was signed with Doubleday. In 1984, after numerous extensions, the project was abandoned. Three years later, Tomkins chose as his next project a biography of Marcel Duchamp andDuchamp: A Biographywas published in 1996 by Henry Holt. It is his most recent major work and a capstone to a decades-long fascination with the artist.

Calvin Tomkins has been married four times: to Grace Lloyd Tomkins, to Judy Tomkins, to Susan Cheever, and finally to Dodie Kazanjian. Tomkins has three children by his first wife: Anne, Susan, and Spencer; and a daughter, Sarah, by Susan Cheever. Calvin Tomkins currently resides in New York and continues writing.

Acquisition information:
The collection was given to the Museum Archives by Calvin Tomkins in 2004. Additional accruals to the collection were received in 2005 and 2007.
Processing information:

The processing of the Calvin Tomkins Papers was funded by a generous grant from The Henry Luce Foundation.

The materials in the Calvin Tomkins Papers are largely of recent origin, in good condition, and physically stable. Processing the materials primarily involved removing paperclips and staples, flattening materials, and rehousing them in archival boxes and acid-free folders. Acidic published materials such as newspapers were photocopied and the originals discarded. If acidic materials were deemed to be of particular value they were isolated with acid-free paper or Mylar sleeves. Photographs, transparencies, and negatives were rehoused, individually or in groups, in Mylar sleeves. Facsimiles printed on thermographic paper were photocopied and discarded.


Materials were received from Tomkins in distinct groups of correspondence, major writings, other writings, books, and audio recordings. This organization was preserved in the series structure. That division was less distinct in more recent files so processing required some minor rearrangement of folders. Files in Series I, II, and III are in chronological order as they were found. Series II and III files have been rearranged slightly to correct the found chronological order. Files in Series IV were arranged as found. Usually the book files were arranged in two loose groups, one corresponding to the chapter structure of the book and one in a more thematic grouping. Particulars have been noted in the content notes for those subseries. The audio recordings of Series V were in no discernible order and so were filed chronologically to mirror the writing and research files they are associated with.

The five series are as follows:

  • Series I: Correspondence 1961-2006
  • Series II: Major New Yorker Articles 1961-2006Subseries II.A: Research Files 1961-2006Subseries II.B: Research and Interview Binders 1963-2006
  • Series III: Art World reviews and Other Writings 1970-2006
  • Series IV: Books 1968-1998Subseries IV.A: Eric Hoffer: An American OdysseySubseries IV.B: Merchants and Masterpieces 1860-1989Subseries IV.C: Off the Wall 1963-1991Subseries IV.D: Duchamp: A Biography 1953-1998Subseries IV.E: Book Photographs
  • Series V: Audio Recordings 1962-2006

Since the original donation of the collection to The Museum in 2004, Tomkins has continued to donate more current materials up through 2007. These files have been added to each series without particular note.



The records are open for research and contain few restricted materials.


The Calvin Tomkins Papers are the physical property of The Museum of Modern Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns.

Calvin Tomkins retains the right to grant or deny all requests to publish excerpts from, commercially exploit, or otherwise disseminate copies of any materials from the collection through the year 2022. For further information, and to obtain permission to publish or reproduce, contact the Museum Archivist.


Published citations should take the following form:

Long version: Calvin Tomkins Papers, [series.folder]. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Short version: Tomkins, [series.folder]. MoMA Archives, NY.

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