The American Art Tapes. Voices of Twentieth-Century Art

Tate Publishing

In 1965 English artist John Jones set off to the US, his objective, to spend a year interviewing America’s greatest artists. 

The resulting taped interviews provide the material for The American Art Tapes. It’s been a while since I’ve been so gripped by an art book. All of America’s key artists feature, and through them it is possible to grasp first-hand the excitement of the era and the cultural and political debate the sixties spawned. Pop art, conceptual art and art happenings reflect the quiet revolution going on in Greenwich Village and further afield.

Out of the twenty artists featured in this book, the majority have become household names: Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, to name but a few. Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray also make a crucial appearance. Yoko Ono, as a living artist, is a welcome inclusion, and it is so good to hear her words pre-Lennon!

The foreword by John Jones’s daughter, Nicolette, is illuminating and necessary too, to put everything into context. Growing up, she must have enjoyed her father’s stories about his quirky artist friends and acquaintances.

Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein, had a special code of entry for visitors. You had to let the phone ring once, hang up and ring again. 

One forgets, and Nicolette Jones reminds us, that Lichtenstein’s success had made him enemies. Following an article about him in Life magazine entitled ‘Is He the Worst Artist in the US?’, Lichtenstein was understandably wary of journalists and critics who thought his comic-strips ‘vulgar’. And yet in interview with John Jones, he talks freely and describes his thought processes behind his comic-strip cartoons and how he considered them ‘abstract’. He goes on to describe his new respect for French painter. Fernand Léger painted factories which symbolised industrialisation and standardisation, themes which Lichtenstein and other pop artists took to another level. 

Nicolette’s introductory notes before each interview finish off what her father had started with his taped conversations. Knowing that her father worried about the gulf between the spoken and the written word, Nicolette helpfully describes the interviewee’s voice, states his or her age, the time the interview was done and describes the studio. If there is a pause in the tape, Nicolette writes it down, or a telephone ring. All of these minute observations heighten and enliven these artistic encounters.

And the interviews do read like conversations, for John Jones was an artist himself. Being thirty-nine years of age, Jones had had much time to ponder and discuss the grand ideas in art and his reflections are as important, as that of the artist he is questioning. 

The book also introduces you to less well known American artists. At least, less-known to us in Europe.

American Abstract artist, Ad Reinhardt for example, who died two years after the 1965 interview with Jones. In interview he comes over as intense, intellectual (sometimes overly so), playful, and very opinionated about art and other artists. When I viewed his monochrome abstract paintings on the MoMA website, I loved their stillness, clarity, and neatness.

This got me thinking– does a book mostly made up of artists’ words work? Are we more likely to want to view their art? I played a game with myself – with the artists I hadn’t heard of, I read the interview and tried to guess what their art would look like. I found pop artists tended to be more garrulous. 

Interestingly, not all the artists featured in The American Art Tapes were producing art in 1965. Artists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp were by then in their mid-seventies and reflecting on their influence on a new generation of American artists. John Jones sought them out knowing the role the Frenchmen had played in bringing about conceptual and pop art in the US. 

Man Ray, who produced his ground-breaking ‘rayographs’ in the 1920s comes across as modest, uncommercial – part of him is still the anarchic Dadaist. “We never thought of selling our things. I used to give away my things”. He appreciates nonetheless, the influence his images had on future pop artists and doesn’t resent the money they are making out of works using his ideas. Marcel Duchamp too, takes on the establishment when he states: “People say that art is essential. It is not. For the majority of people, it isn’t necessary at all. It’s only a decision of a group, a minority, to say let’s have art…”

Yoko Ono could be considered a Dadaist. I was particularly keen to read this pre-Lennon Yoko Ono interview of 1966. Yoko Ono was thirty-three and since 1961 had been performing her radical music, dance, plays and constructions. Interestingly she tells Jones, that she wasn’t influenced by Dada as a young woman, stating that she was a music composer and read many books on philosophers and “wasn’t too interested in (THE) art world”. She describes her work as being “connected strongly with classic Japanese art and concept and Zen Buddhism”. Her father wanted her to be a professional pianist and she played from age four. She admits to being a “lousy” pianist and she laughs on tape. This is the Yoko Ono I imagine she still is – one who doesn’t take herself too seriously. Needless to say, this is a fascinating interview and I leave you readers to make your own mind about it.

The inclusion of women artists is so encouraging and refreshing. Artists such as Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock’s wife), Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler. The lesser-known Louise Nevelson and Grace Hartigan were a revelation to me. I loved Grace Hartigan’s abstract expressionist canvas entitled Reisterstown Mall 1965 . Its colour and sensuality. I was also intrigued by Nevelson’s painted wood sculpture An American Tribute to the British People 1960-4. 

This is not the sort of book to be read in one sitting – it’s so rich and dense with ideas that need to be mulled over. 

Finally, this is an important book, for so much of what we know about artists is gleaned from essays and biographies. We view the artist as if he or she were set in aspic.  In The Art Tapes the artists are very much alive, even though some would have but a few years to live. But reading the interviews, it is as if they are still here with us, and that they are enjoying conversing with someone they must have considered their equal in intelligence and sensibility. 


American Art Tapes by John Jones and Nicolette Jones out now

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