PRINT December 1962/January 1963


Katharine Kuh’s The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seven­teen Artists

Katharine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seven­teen Artists (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row), 1962. 248 pp., illus. 

POPULARIZATIONS RARELY ADULTERATE the high quality of stock on the shelves of the bookshop at the San Francisco Museum of Art, but Christmas is the great leveler, and nothing makes better Christ­mas fare than a book of interviews with artists.

The strange results of interviews with contemporary artists have been accounted for in several ways:

1. A prevailing bias toward measuring intelligence in verbal terms puts the artist at a disadvantage. Trained in a non­verbal medium, he naturally appears awkward when he is called upon to ex­press himself in words.

2. “If he could put it better in words, he’d say it, not paint it.” The implica­tion here is that there are no verbal clues to the significance of a visual experience.

3. Artists enjoy “putting the inter­viewers on.” They therefore say things that are silly, false or infuriating simply to expose the inability of the interviewer to separate what is said seriously from what is not.

4. The contemporary artist is delib­erately anti-verbal and anti-intellectual. His best defense against an overly-so­phisticated and decadent verbal milieu is a front of thickness, a feigned simple­mindedness.

5. Since it is possible for an artist to create truly great work without having any insight at all into the processes gov­erning his creative acts, what he says about his work is of no importance in either evaluating or understanding it. (This view is often extended to a disdain for the reading of titles.)

In spite of the fact that these views, and many others like them, have be­come a kind of standard justification for the artist to remain silent and allow his work to do the talking for him, never has he been willing to talk so much and so often. He appears at panel discussions at the drop of an invitation; it has be­come standard for catalogs to include lengthy quotations; and the book of in­terviews (or “talks”) with artists ap­pears as regularly as Christmas, the latest being Katharine Kuh’s The Artist’s Voice.

The seventeen artists interviewed are Josef Albers, Ivan Albright, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Edwin Dickinson, Marcel Duchamp, Naum Gabo, Morris Graves, Hans Hofmann, Edward Hopper, Franz Kline, Jacques Lipchitz, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, David Smith and Mark Tobey. (Why just these particular seventeen and no other remains a mystery.) The “talks” take a brisk, no-nonsense turn; the artists an­swer the questions as if they were being fixed by a stare from Dr. Kinsey. Per­sonalities emerge: some are terse and intense, some are long-winded and fuzzy. At the end, one feels as if he knows not a bit more than when he started.

The problem is that there is almost as much difficulty in evaluating what an artist says as what he paints:

Question: Is there any social con­tent in your work?
Edward Hopper: None whatsoever.

Reproduced nearby are Early Sunday Morning and Nighthawks, two paint­ings which provide a more lucid, painful commentary on American urban civiliza­tion than a dozen texts on the subject. Which of our five explanations covers the dilemma? Is Hopper “putting her on”? Or is it possible that he has no insight into, no knowledge of the social content in his work? Or does he just not want to go into it? Perhaps a solution might have been to reproduce photo­graphs of the look on the artist’s face after hearing some of these questions. Like his paintings, they might have been better than a thousand words.

Philip Leider