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.”
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.”
“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.
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