Artists Reveal the Tunes They Work To

The sonic muses of Terry Winters, Lisa Yuskavage, John Chiara, Jaime Hernandez, Demetrius Oliver, and James Casebere

Music has often been muse to the visual arts: boogie-woogie discs inspired Mondrian, and such '60s chart-toppers as the Supremes and Lesley Gore blared incessantly at Andy Warhol's Factory. "When a record ended, if someone else did not change it, Andy would start it from the beginning again," one Warhol assistant recalled, years later. "He never changed the record."

What's on the iPods of today's visual masters? The Voice bent an ear to six different studio doors.

"I've been on a kind of music of extremes kick," the painter Terry Winters tells me over the phone. "I've been listening to Stockhausen and Sun Ra, taking a look at what their two bodies of work look like and feel like.... Music changes energy in a space. Sometimes it's useful to create a place to get to work in."

Is God in these tiny houses?: James Casebere
Mark Hewko
Is God in these tiny houses?: James Casebere

Winters is working in his upstate studio, and adds, "It's like I've got John Cage's "4'33" " on repeat or something—it's quiet up here—listening to crickets. Actually there's a piece of music by [sculptor and musician] Walter De Maria called 'Cricket Music.' Been listening to that. It's him playing drums with crickets."

Winters's influential abstractions fuse natural forms with complex scientific theories, bruised beauty arising from adulterated colors and gnarly layers of paint. When asked if he thinks music influences the look of his work, he replies, "There's no direct one-to-one correlation between what I listen to and the shapes I make. It's more about a mood and an attitude."

Lisa Yuskavage greets me in her sunny South Slope painting studio with a five-page playlist ranging from Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, and Nina Simone to contemporary singer-songwriters Ray LaMontagne and Sia, whom she first heard on WFUV, Fordham's fount of musical eclecticism.

"Recently, I've fallen madly in love with Marvin Gaye," Yuskavage says as I look at a half-finished canvas of a nude young woman engulfed in light as palpable as taffy. "It's so relevant now," she notes of "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," a track from Gaye's 1971 What's Going On. "If you listen to the words, it's creepy relevant."

But lyrics—and everything else—fade away once she becomes fully engaged with a canvas. "When the music stops," she emphasizes, "I don't even notice."

We're sitting in the back office of Chelsea's Von Lintel Gallery, and photographer John Chiara is talking about "getting inside the camera and messing around with the equipment."

He means this literally: His camera is a black box the size of a walk-in closet, which he has mounted on a trailer in order to expose oversize prints of blanched vistas around the Bay Area, where he lives.

"When I process the images, then I'll listen to music," he notes. He uses a four-foot-long drum crafted from plastic sewage pipe to develop and fix pictures measuring up to five feet wide. "I fill it with chemistry and roll it across the floor, and I have to lift it to pour the chemistry out, pour the chemistry in." Such brawny methods leave a patina of chemical splatters across Chiara's visions of California's compromised paradise. With a chuckle, he ticks off his old-school rap playlist: "I still listen to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul ... Peanut Butter Wolf."

"I tend to listen to things that are going to pick me up," he concludes. "Dirtybird Records—they've put out some really intense beats."

"I was blasting a lot of punk," Jaime Hernandez says over the phone from his home in Pasadena, California, as he reminisces about publishing his first comics in 1981.

"Gee," he continues, "it was easier in those days. Now I just gotta concentrate more." Hernandez has created more than 1,500 pages for his ongoing "Locas" stories, which star the Mexican-American punkettes Maggie and Hopey. As they drift into frayed middle age, their convoluted relationship anchors a gorgeously drawn epic about life's basics—love, sex, death, and pro wrestling.

"Nowadays I write and draw at the same time, and I need quiet," Hernandez continues, though he says he'll still put on music when laying in backgrounds. "A Beatles record is always easy to play through because most of the songs are good. Or an early Roxy Music record, or even Mott the Hoople."

When told that one artist interviewed didn't want a fondness for a particularly "retarded" pop song revealed, he cracks up. "They don't want you to know they have a heart," he says. "I was never afraid to show mine—I put it out there in the comic every time."

We're sitting in an Applebee's restaurant in Harlem, and multimedia artist Demetrius Oliver is talking about listening to jazz in his studio. "It seems helpful for thinking abstractly, especially Coltrane's later stuff," he explains. Indeed, the saxophonist's '60s journey to distant harmonic realms is akin to Oliver's own celestial visions. His photos of uncanny domestic interiors projected onto lightbulbs reveal a Joseph Cornell–like knack for collapsing the cosmos down to street level.

Then Oliver mentions recently discovering Albert Ayler, the ecstatically intense sax player who died in 1970. "His stuff is so far-out. It really feels more like a religious experience listening to some of those guys."

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