Kasmin (left), unknown figure, Sheridan Dufferin (right) with Kenneth Noland painting, 1968.

Playing it by ear: Kasmin in the 1960s

Lisa Tickner assesses the place of National Life Stories Artists’ Lives recordings in the context of art history research.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

[1] 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:

Richard BurtonFrank Bowling, Lubaina Himid, Eileen Agar, Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow, Rose English, Elisabeth Frink, Maggi Hambling, Mary Kelly, Sheila Girling, Peter Blake, Paul Koralek

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.

  • Lisa Tickner
  • Lisa Tickner is Emeritus Professor of Art History, Middlesex University, and Honorary Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art. Her publications include The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-1914 (1987), Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century (2000) and Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution (2008). She is currently working on a study of the London art world in the 1960s.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.