Artists Reveal the Tunes They Work To

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

"My main assistant is actually in a band himself," says the photographer James Casebere. "He likes to listen to Built to Spill quite a bit, and I will listen to that, and he'll be all pleased—we'll hook the iPod up to the speakers." We're walking around a huge model of foot-high homes situated on plastic grass that has been "mown" in stripes that convey both suburban conformity and resonant abstraction. Casebere had recently finished directing his assistants in the setup and lighting of a series of dramatic photographs measuring up to nine feet wide, images of densely packed McMansions surrounded by gaudy foliage that create a mood of environmental trepidation.

Casebere happily offers to crank up the "anthem" for this body of work, Nick Cave's sonorous "God Is in the House."

"I still never get tired of it, frankly," he says.

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

Casebere's studio manager recalls that after one model had been shot and rearranged, an assistant said, "OK, we've moved on to a happier landscape—we gotta change the song!"

Everyone laughs, but when asked how often Casebere would actually play the tune, the studio manager shakes her head.

"Over and over again."


On a Related Note…. A Few “Web Extras” About Artists’ Aural Fixations

Artists don’t always listen to just music while they’re toiling away in the studio. Before his suicide, in 2000, neo-conceptualist Mark Lombardi would tune in deafening radio static while plotting out his labyrinthine charts delineating corporate greed and government malfeasance.

Multimedia artist Jill Magid sounds a similar note. “I like a din,” she told me during a conversation in her Williamsburg studio. From 2005 to 2008, she worked on a commission for the Dutch secret service’s new headquarters. “What I loved about living in Holland was that I could go to the loudest bars with my laptop, because I didn’t speak Dutch.” Magid wrote a fictionalized account of her real-life meetings with some of the country’s spies to accompany neon sculptures, prints, and other artworks that she fabricated for the new building. Never read by the public, the book was shown sealed under glass at London’s Tate Museum. At the close of the exhibition, it was officially seized and permanently locked away by Dutch authorities, a forlorn piece of performance art.

Nowadays, Magid says, she might listen to the BBC online when she’s sketching. “Sometimes it’s the News Hour, which repeats. And if I do listen to music, or in the past when I listened to music, I usually put one song on permanent repeat—people would yell at me in grad school.”

Chuck Close, on the other hand, is known to have listened to soap operas and game shows—Hollywood Squares was a fave—when he was first painting his colossal photo-realist portraits. He once told an interviewer, “It was like having a dumb friend in the room chattering away at you.”

Lisa Yuskavage will sometimes watch an astonishing video of Nina Simone singing “Feelings” before starting in on a canvas. “It’s like watching Philip Guston think—out loud—while he’s painting,” Yuskavage says of the Simone’s fractured vocals and fervid piano playing before a flummoxed Montreux Jazz Festival audience. “Whenever I come into the studio and I want to get into this real zone,” she concludes, “I would watch that before I work, because it would remind me of what was great.”

A list of musicians who attended art school before world stardom would include Keith Richards, John Lennon, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, David Byrne, Joe Strummer, Kim Gordon, Freddie Mercury, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, and Kanye West. Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra were both passionate painters, as is Tony Bennett.

Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) deserves special mention in any art/music nexus. Look him up.

And every John Cage fan should check out his beautiful prints and watercolors, which are imbued with the same focused serendipity that makes his music so compelling.

We’ll also note that Andy Warhol is probably the most sung-about artist of all time. Here are some of the ditties that use him as subject:

“Andy Warhol,” David Bowie

“Andy’s Chest,” Lou Reed

“Songs for Drella,” a 15-song Warhol memorial written by John Cale and Lou Reed

“13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” Dean and Britta

And any list of songs about art and artists should certainly include:

“Artists and Models,” Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

“Vincent,” Don McLean

“Vincent Van Gogh,” Jonathan Richman

“In the Gallery,” Dire Straits

“Pablo Picasso,” The Modern Lovers

“Max Ernst,” Mission of Burma

“Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” Paul McCartney and Wings

“Art Class (Song For Yayoi Kusama),” Superchunk

“Art Star,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs

“When I Paint My Masterpiece,” Bob Dylan

“The Night Watch,” King Crimson

“Painting by Chagall,” The Weepies

“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” Simon and Garfunkel

“Comic Strip,” Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot

“Jaques Derrida,” Scritti Politti

“The Old Master Painter,” Frank Sinatra

“Jeff Koons,” Momus

“A Case of You,” Joni Mitchell

“Run Paint Run Run,” Captain Beefheart

“Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” Paul Simon

“Pictures at an Exhibition,” Modest Mussorgsky (1874), Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (1971)

“Mona Lisa,” Nat King Cole

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