Playing it by ear: Kasmin in the 1960s
I started listening to John Kasmin’s Artists’ Lives recording as part of my research for a paper on the Kasmin Gallery published in the Oxford Art Journal in 2007. Why Kasmin? For several reasons. First, his beautiful, purpose-built gallery at 118 New Bond Street in London, which opened in 1963. At the end of a long corridor was a magical top-lit space, with white walls and a Pirelli rubber floor. Kas had the courage of his convictions and his backer Sheridan Dufferin’s money. (Sheridan, the young Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, was a Guinness heir.) He showed the American artists Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Frank Stella when the Tate Gallery was still something of a backwater under John Rothenstein’s directorship. Kasmin used to complain, in a jovial kind of way, that art students would come and eat their sandwiches on his Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs. (I’m afraid I was one of them.) Second, because I’m interested in the cultural field, in a social history rather than an art history of discrete objects, the Kasmin gallery provided a useful case study in the London art market. Third, there was untouched primary material in the gallery archive of stock books, press cuttings, and correspondence. There were also the recollections of others including importantly the gallery architect, Richard Burton of ABK.
Richard Burton: On persuading Kasmin and Sheridan Dufferin to buy extra space for the Kasmin Gallery
Kasmin (left), unknown figure, Sheridan Dufferin (right) with Kenneth Noland painting, 1968. Courtesy Collection Kasmin. Image not licensed for reuse.
Richard Burton (1933-2017) and his colleagues at the architectural firm, ABK (Ahrends, Burton & Koralek) transformed a traditional exhibition space in Bond Street into the most talked about gallery in London. This was the Kasmin Gallery, which opened in 1963, and Burton’s clients were John Kasmin and Sheridan Dufferin. The gallery was approached via a long corridor leading from the street, a problem for the architect.
Richard Burton was recorded by National Life Stories for Architects’ Lives in sessions between 2014-2015. The interviewers were Geraint Franklin and Cathy Courtney.
Dufferin, his partner, was very discreet. Although he was providing, obviously I didn’t know this, but he provided a lot of money and so on for it, money wasn’t uppermost, but, it was extraordinary that at that time you could really get something for very little, and I seem to remember the gallery itself only cost, I think it was, the whole thing, we had it done by a shop fitter actually, something like £6,400 for the contract, which, I mean you know, there was so much in it, it was just amazing. And, I managed to argue the spatial qualities of the entrance. It was very very important to get that entrance right, and I did it with lighting, and I did it with exhibition material at the kind of, end of the, end of the corridor, so you could see what you were going for. And then, we, I persuaded Dufferin and Kasmin to give me a little more space, against their better judgement I have to say, but I, I became their better judgement, and I, I did it, and it made a kind of, a little anteroom before you went in to the major space, which was unbelievable at the time, that, you know, it was such a simple idea. It was so well lit.
Kas is a remarkably informative, entertaining and unbuttoned interviewee, perfect for a researcher. It was a pleasure to hear the occasional piece of rather scurrilous gossip. This is a bit flippant, and isn’t to say that he isn’t a reliable source, though it may be easier to be seduced by a voice and a chuckle than the printed page. A first person narrative like any account – primary or secondary, published or oral – has to be tested against other material. Listening to Kas’s voice reminded me how much warmth and immediacy goes cold on the printed page.
Kasmin’s long recording could be thought excessive and there’s certainly gossip in there (where are the grey borders of memory/hearsay/gossip and fact?). But gossip has been rehabilitated, at least in part, by writers such as Irit Rogoff and Gavin Butt (who wants to reclaim it for a queer art history). Gossip can be a kind of ‘discursive flotsam’, a scandalous underside to serious comment. But it can also be, in Butt’s words, the medium ‘through which artists and poets go about conducting their creative business […] a form of social activity which produces and maintains the filiations of artistic community’.1 It can be the unofficial channel for questions unasked in public (artists’ thoughts on other artists, for example, on dealers, critics or curators).
If we could hear Manet or Van Gogh talking about their work wouldn’t we leap at the chance? Artists’ Lives has, commendably, sought out those below the radar, especially the women. In addition to the usual suspects we can hear Rasheed Araeen, Frank Bowling, Lubaina Himid, Eileen Agar, Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow, Rose English, Elisabeth Frink, Maggi Hambling, Mary Kelly, Alison Wilding and so on. We can hear Sheila Girling, with her side of the story on painting Anthony Caro’s sculptures, and raising their boys, on Clement Greenberg at Bennington College. And, importantly, on resuming her own work as an artist. I can’t stress too strongly how refreshing and significant it is to hear the women speak. Of course some tapes are closed for the moment – there’s an inevitable toss-up between frankness and access. But Artists’ Lives is an altogether remarkable project, of inestimable value to social and art historians of the recent past.
Gillian Ayres: On leaving Kasmin Gallery
Gillian Ayres with canvases, photographed by Roger Mayne. © Roger Mayne. Courtesy The Roger Mayne Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.
Gillian Ayres’s (1930-2018) sense of humour and her approach to life come over strongly in this conversation with interviewer Mel Gooding. She recalls a telephone conversation with the art dealer, John Kasmin, during which she decided that he should no longer represent her. As well as Kasmin, Ayres mentions the architect, John Prizeman, and the curator and art historian, Norbert Lynton.
Gillian Ayres was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1999-2000. The interviewer was Mel Gooding.
I think I had two or three shows at Kasmin. You’ve got to check.
Well ’65, ’66, and then in ’69.
Yes, right, it’s three shows. But then what happened was, in the end I started to do very very big paintings, and they went up to thirty foot. I have actually decided I don’t like that size, I actually like…
Yes. And they went on in the back garden. And, one had very strange attitudes, goodness knows, about this. The rain could come and wash them away and I didn’t seem to mind. Other things developed, these paintings. Three were shown at the Hayward, Norbert put them up, and people wrote me funny postcards, ‘You need a bicycle to see them.’ Because they stretched so far. Funnily enough, there’s a man called John Prizeman that was a friend of Kasmin, he always said how excited he felt. I took up some of these, they probably were twenty to thirty, and unrolled them. Prizeman always said, ‘I never forget the day you came up and you unrolled these things the whole length of the gallery.’ Well, he said, ‘It was so exciting.’ Well, exciting or not, Kasmin phoned me up and said, ‘What are you doing? I’m moving out to Clifford Street. Are you going to sort of be sensible, or not?’ sort of thing. Like, I can’t… What am I meant to do with these things? And, I must have been off my head when I look back, because one really had a rather hard time after that. And I said, ‘Well, you’re a dealer, I’m a painter; I must get on with what I want to do.’ Well quite frankly I think, mostly people didn’t want these things.
Listening is a skill. It’s not just taking in what’s said after it’s said, it’s creating the space and attention for its saying in the first place. In fact two kinds of listening take place here. First, the interviewer listens to the interviewee, face-to-face in a particular location, usually their home. Sometime later, the researcher, detached, listens to them both with a particular stake or outcome in mind. The interviewer needs to know when to let a silence run on as well as when to prompt or interject. The researcher needs to listen for the non-verbal signals – she can’t see the body language but there is still the grain of the voice and (the analyst’s speciality), the repetitions, pauses, stammers and slips of the tongue.
Sheila Girling: On visiting the studios of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler
Kenneth Noland. Courtesy Barford Sculptures Limited. Image not licensed for reuse.
Sheila Girling’s (1924-2015) discovery of acrylic paint occurred whilst she was living in Vermont, America, in the early 1960s. Her husband, the sculptor Anthony Caro, was teaching at Bennington College and the couple were invited into the closely-knit circle of artists either living at Bennington or visiting often from New York. The extract contains a secret that Girling was at first hesitant to share.
Sheila Girling was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 2009. The interviewer was Hester Westley.
And also, being in each, you know, the studio was wonderful. Seeing Ken paint, and how he organised his studio. He was very generous with the way he was painting, he didn’t keep anything secret, you know?
Can you describe that to me a bit more, how was he painting?
Well I mean he was painting flat to start with, not up on an easel. He was painting flat, either on the floor or on trestles. And he was painting on raw canvas, and, with very liquid paint. And then I discovered acrylic for the first time. I saw acrylic being used, which, well I suppose started with Liquitex, but, you know, you could pour it, you could do anything with it really. And Jules was painting very much in the same way then. He wasn’t painting with impasto paint, it was really thin paint when we were there. He was really being influenced by Ken a lot, and Helen. And Helen used to come up, and Larry Poons and Frank Stella, we all used to meet up, you know, on the weekends, and, you know, all these ways of doing things were so new for me. I mean I wasn’t painting but I was there all the time and looking and learning. But Ken would let you put a bit of paint on his picture for him, you know, and whatnot, just… And, I mean you learnt so much with them, and it lasted me.
Did you paint any pictures for Ken?
Well we weren’t, mustn’t say it, but, yes. Yes, we did. I mean he’d choose the colour, but, and he would draw it, but you filled it in, you know. Just sometimes, as the mood hit us, you know. ‘Ah come on, have a go!’ you know. It was all very very free and wonderful really.
Oral history undermines, in a positive way, the certainty, the sealed-and-delivered nature of the printed page. The page is fixed. The conversation unfolds in time. Sometimes we sense an often repeated story now dried to a husk. At others we follow the process of formulation moment by moment, as an event is recovered for the first time, or understood in a new way – a sudden epiphany for the speaker perhaps (and for the interviewer, and for us).
The social psychologist George Herbert Mead called this ‘minding’. Minding is the delay in a thought process, a pause in the inner dialogue as we think what to say next. Aside from health warnings on the fallibility of memory and the temptations of self-aggrandisement, there are attractions in oral history as a way to understand ‘affect’ and ‘everyday life’, on each of which there’s a recent literature. For example Ben Highmore, Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday, Routledge 2011. See also Ben Anderson, Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions, Ashgate, 2014.
Missed call / missed recall
There is mis-remembering – we are each an unreliable witness with our own investments, recognised or not – and memory is unreliable. But there are also the disagreements that emerge from different standpoints. Looked at from my point of view this event was x; looked at from yours it was y. Diverging perspectives are in themselves informative.
There are facts, and there can be a richness and splendour in the detail. It’s good to learn from Artists’ Lives that Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One was ‘a little gallery, two rooms lined with sackcloth, [and] wooden floors’. That Kas was interviewed in French for a job at the Marlborough Gallery, which had not yet grasped that the art world’s centre of gravity had shifted from Paris to New York. That when he worked at Marlborough New London he was made to keep the ‘scruffy’ Hockney drawings behind the velvet drapes in the ‘pressure room’ where potential clients were entertained. And so on.
Kasmin: On his interview for a job at Marlborough's New London gallery
Marlborough Fine Art, 39 Old Bond Street, London. Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, London. Image not licensed for reuse.
John Kasmin (b. 1934) was 25 when his colleague, Euan Philips, suggested he go for a job interview at the New London Gallery. The New London was a second space opened by the directors of London’s Marlborough Gallery in 1960 with a view to showing modern and contemporary art.
In this clip from Kasmin’s Artists’ Lives recording, he evokes the end of a period when the art market was dominated by Paris, just before the influence of the American abstract expressionist painters took Europe by storm.
John Kasmin was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2004-2016. The interviewers were Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney.
At the time of Ewan’s suggestion, I was very undecided about the future, unfocused. But it interested me. So I listened to what he said, and, decided to go for an interview, at least to meet them. And he’d described me as a, bright young fellow. He probably accentuated the fact that I was Jewish too. And, my youth and energy must have had something to do with it, I don’t know. Anyway, I went along for an interview. As far as I can remember I met Fischer, but the interview was really with Lloyd. He asked me a lot of questions, about my background, family, life. The entire interview was conducted in French, not because it was his first language, but because he wanted to know if I could speak it at all. His first language obviously German. And because it was a necessary language. In the art world, if you couldn’t speak French… I mean, one really regarded Paris still as the centre of the art world, and French as the international language, of diplomacy as well as of the art world, the cultural international language. And, even for German-speaking people it was the language that you had to have some sort of grip on. And he asked me a bit about what I liked most in the contemporary world.
The point about the job that he needed to fill was that everything that he did was going to cross the road to the new building the other side of Bond Street above Lloyds Bank. Incidentally, he had taken the name Lloyd from the bank, he’d liked the name. His real name was Franz Kurt Levai, and he had called him, changed his name to Francis Kenneth Lloyd, and, the idea of having premises above a Lloyds Bank really tickled him. He had a great sense of humour. Rather malicious, a mischievous sense of humour, but… And, he said to me that what he wanted to do was to have more modern art, including contemporary, and he liked to get his finger in with young living artists, but that there would undoubtedly be some shows there that were already planned.
The point about the Marlborough Gallery was that they, they had resources to do shows on the scale of museums, not just the space, but they had the ambition, the desire to have a curator, a scholarly catalogue, and to actually pay to borrow work from museums and from private collectors. They, they saw big. He had a big vision, Mr Lloyd. And, what was evident in talking to him was that he was, ambitious, and ruthless, but had a sense of humour. That he was not going to go in for any unnecessary bits of finesse or grace, but… You know, I had met, I had come across people like Lloyd in a way in my father’s world, I mean not of the scale of a Lloyd but you know, I mean, it didn’t seem foreign to me. I understood what he was up to, and I didn’t find it so scary. I just wondered what I could do in it all. And there was a necessary amount of bluff here, because what he wanted was someone that had a feeling for the contemporary scene and connections in it. And, we must have bluffed each other. In any case, he did offer me a job, saying, ‘Yes, you can run this gallery if you want to, and you can start at the end of the summer.’
It’s standard protocol with Artists’ Lives to begin with family and childhood. This is often interesting, if sometimes frustrating when time is short and you need to fast-forward to something immediately relevant to the project in hand. But think of it in a different way. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu sees artists as agents shaped by their histories and by the expectations and constraints of the art world they enter. He rejects social theories dependent at one extreme on ‘subjectivity’ (on autonomous, free-willed individuals doing what they like) and at the other on ‘objectivity’ (on the determining effects of overarching social structures).
To overcome this polarity – between extremes of subjectivity and objectivity – Bourdieu developed the interrelated concepts of ‘habitus’ and ‘field’. Habitus is understood as a system of dispositions – schemes of perception, understanding and action that emerge in response to social origins and life experience – which are practically embodied and often unconscious. A habitus (to simplify) is something like a set of dispositions that short-circuits to a self-evident way of being-in-the-world (something simply inhabited in the course of everyday life). But just as a habitus absorbs the structures of the field, so the field is constituted by the activities of the various social agents active in it. This interdependence of subject and structure, habitus and field, means that no social field is entirely stable.
One of the objections to oral history is that it’s subjective – and it is – everyone is the hero or, at least, the chief protagonist in their own narrative. But it’s the historian’s task to read across interviews, archives, publications and other sources. To select, sift, test, aggregate, assess and generally round out a more three-dimensional account of the topic. Meanwhile, the very subjectivity and relative immediacy of oral sources can register something of the interaction of agent and field. Artists with particular dispositions emerge into the structure of a pre-existing art world, which shapes their options but is shaped by them in turn. For example, Peter Blake, who in his recording said that as ‘someone from the working class’ he was able to go to art school only through a grant in ‘that euphoric time after the war’: ‘in a way we were intruders, in a way we shouldn’t have been at art school, we were vulgar, we were common’. Pop Art emerged in Britain in the 1960s from several sources, but partly as a result of Blake and his Royal College of Art peers bringing their own enthusiasms into, and thus shifting, the field. They are all grand insiders now.
Peter Blake: On life drawing classes
Peter Blake and Richard Smith (right), as Royal College of Art students c. 1956. Robert Buhler, Courtesy Royal College of Art Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.
Artist Peter Blake (b. 1932) sets the scene in the life rooms at the Royal College of Art, where he was a student from 1953-1956. Fellow students, tutors and models are among his cast of characters. His account captures the interactions between them all, and includes his own reassessment of the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who had been taught by David Bomberg before becoming students at the Royal College.
Peter Blake was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2003-2005. The interviewer was Linda Sandino.
There would have been about five life rooms, three models in each life room. So, so there were at least fifteen models, all the time. And what you would do, you would stake your claim. So on a Monday morning you would go in, and get an easel, and put it where you wanted it to be, and you could either keep it there for the whole session, which might be a week, might be two weeks, or you could then give up your place and find another place. So, round each model would be, fifteen people, something like that. You’re in a circle. The people you wouldn’t want to be near were people like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, because they drew in charcoal, and they were very physical, and they drew very vigorously. They always used three sheets of paper, because their passion is so much that they know they’ll draw through at last two. But they never drew through three. [laughs] I mean it was never four sheets of paper.
You could either stand at the easel, or you could sit on what was called a donkey, which was a long bench which you straddled, and at one end it had a kind of prop which you leant your drawing board against. So you were sitting facing this drawing board and looking round it at the model. And at any time there’d be two or three tutors, like vultures, going round the studios, and they could say at any point, ‘Stand up, I’m going to demonstrate how you should be doing that.’ And you’d dread them coming. And they’d, at that point they’d actually draw on your drawing; I mean they’d rub out your drawing, and show you how… You couldn’t do it now, I mean you’d be taken to some tribunal if you tried to do it now. So you were always aware of these kind of figures, like sharks I suppose, circling around. And you didn’t want them to come and talk to you. But of course looking back, it was always wonderful, and they could all draw well, and they could all teach you. So they would actually teach you to draw. If you were drawing from a figure and you had got the angle of it wrong, they’d come and sit down and, and explain why it was leaning like that, because the weight was on that leg, and this muscle was doing that. And it was a great way of learning.
I was always rather a meticulous drawer, in the kind of, spirit of Ingres or, or Degas or somebody like that, so, so that’s what I would be aiming for. And I suppose I would judge the other students by those standards. I probably didn’t at the time, wouldn’t have understood what someone like Frank Auerbach was working towards. I mean he would have been working in a completely different tradition, having been trained by Bomberg, and, aiming for something different. You know, I mean I, I would have thought these weren’t very good drawings, whereas now I see that they, I mean he’s a brilliant draughtsman.The models were interesting. Because they, they were professional models. You’d often get families of models, and they, they would have been the same families as were posing for Millais or whatever. I mean they would have been the younger members of… So you’d get Italian families for instance, professional models, and they’d arrive, there would probably be a, a man and wife and a, maybe a daughter, and they’d arrive with their holdalls. So if you wanted a Roman centurion, or, if you wanted a Gypsy, they’d have their costume with them. And they were incredibly professional models.
 Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World 1948-1963, Duke University Press, 2005
Related oral history recordings
Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:
Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.
Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.