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The American Art Tapes

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

Voices of Twentieth Century Art

John Jones and Nicolette Jones

Image: The American Art Tapes: Voices of Twentieth Century Art

by John Jones and Nicolette Jones / Credit: Tate Publishing

John Jones and the American Art Tapes

Reading Nicolette Jones' Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week review Once Upon A Tune opened a window into illustrator, author, concert presenter and storyteller James Mayhew's creative world. The illustrated book, playlist and vlog, subtitled Stories from the Orchestra, is a fabulous introduction to stories in classical music for young minds.

Ripples in the water. Nicolette's agent Abi Sparrow responded to The Hub's blog of the book and interview request by suggesting a conversation on The American Art Tapes: Voices of Twentieth Century Art. Nicolette's new book with her deceased artist, lecturer and film-maker father, John Jones.

When the interviews went to Tate Archive after my father's death, I was worried they would be lost under Lichtenstein, or... I wanted to put him back in the story. - Nicolette Jones

An emotional journey of posthumously fulfilling her father's request to help him capture in words his 110 mid-60s interviews with"extraordinary" US artists like Man Ray and Jasper Johns. John Jones became the expert on US artists of the era and the Jones interviews are an invaluable modern art, cultural and historical resource. The interviews along with some films are now lodged at Tate Archive.

You can listen to The Hub's interview with Nicolette Jones on The American Art Tapes: Voices of Twentieth Century Art by clicking on the link below. Scroll on past the author credits for a bonus The American Art Tapes playlist.


John Jones: A Foundation in Art

Picture: Artist and lecturer John Jones interviewed 110 US artists in 1965-66

/ Copyright: Nicolette Jones

An Inspired Art Teacher

John Jones went to school in Bristol. His art school education was interrupted by serving with the Royal Engineers in the Second World War. Jones gained a National Diploma in Design (NDD) in 1951 and the Art Teachers' Diploma (ATD) in 1952 at the Royal West of England Academy.

He was an outstanding postgraduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he was taught painting, drawing and etching by the painter William Coldstream. Jones graduated in 1954 and was awarded the History of Art Prize.

By 1963 Jones was working at the Department of Fine Art at the University of Leeds. Under head of department Professor Quentin Bell, the nephew of Virginia Woolf, Jones lectured on the studio aspects of an equal academic and practical approach to art teaching - an innovation.

An inspired teacher, Jones' former students include the artist Patrick Hughes and The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell.


US - European Art: Continuity or Departure?

Family montage: In 1965 art lecturer John Jones moved his family,

wife Gaby as Liberty, and daughters Nicolette and Rachel, to New York

/ Copyright: Nicolette Jones

A Revelatory Art Road Trip

In 1965, John Jones embarked on a "revelatory road trip through twentieth-century art". With the support of Quentin Bell, Jones spent a sabbatical year living in Manhattan and travelling across the US. There he interviewed 110 American artists between October 1965 and November 1966. The names "are extraordinary" says his daughter Nicolette proudly.

Including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, and a young Japanese artist of the time, Yoko Ono. Many of the artists reflected the turbulent political and social events of the mid-60s in their work.

Funded by a Council of Learned Arts Society scholarship and sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, Jones discussed the connection, or disconnection, between European and American art with his interviewees. Effectively chairing a year-long debate. Jones would use the tapes and films from these encounters, later donated to the Tate, in subsequent lectures.

Nicolette's childhood experience of moving to America became a great adventure. She enjoyed the family's cross-country trip in a green Ford station wagon while her father interviewed artists. Taking in the Grand Canyon, visiting art museums, staying in cheap motels, gaining a love of America and later returning as a graduate student at Yale.


Turning Tapes into a Book

Image: The back cover of The American Art Tapes

with the artists' names / Credit: Tate Publishing

The book focuses on 20 of the 110 artists, chosen for variety, significance and recognition. Nicolette edited down the interviews, often a labour of love, as the transcripts at the Tate would differ from the audio.

An introduction snap shots each artist and their work at the time of the interview. Alongside there is a full-page photograph of the artist, and in a picture section, an example of their work. Then a 5,000 word "highlights" transcription of the audio interview.

It has been very exciting to listen to and emotionally very powerful because my father died 11 years ago. Suddenly I was getting up in the morning listening to my father speaking to people in the mid-60s. - Nicolette Jones

Many of the voices of the artists were familiar to Nicolette because her father would play the tapes at home. She would recognise Robert Rauschenberg's voice, and Claes Oldenburg and Yoko Ono became family friends. Nicolette believes her father's background as an art lecturer, film maker and practising artist helped his interviewees to open up about technique and other aspects of their craft.


The American Artists on Show

YouTube video - Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (trailer)

Recent exhibitions reveal how "of the moment" are the artists interviewed and filmed by John Jones. A few examples below.

Louise Bourgeois - The Woven Child at The Hayward Gallery: 9 February - 15 May 2022. In the last two decades of her career, Bourgeois began incorporating clothes from all stages of her life into her art - from monumental installations, to figurative sculptures and abstract collages. Bourgeois’ fabrics mine the themes of identity and sexuality, trauma and memory, guilt and reparation central to her career. "I have always had a fascination with the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It's a claim to forgiveness."

Helen Frankenthaler - Radical Beauty at The Dulwich Picture Gallery until 18 April 2022. The first major UK exhibition of woodcuts by leading Abstract Expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler. Monet x Frankenthaler displays two seminal works by Claude Monet and Helen Frankenthaler to reveal similarities in the artists' ambition and approach.

Jasper Johns - Mind/Mirror at the Whitney Museum of American Art (NY) until 13 February 2022. Jasper Johns helped spark Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, inspiring successive generations of artists to this day. Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror is the most comprehensive retrospective of Johns’ art. Including his most iconic works, some shown for the first time, paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures from 1954 to today. At the Whitney and Philadelphia Museum of Art, with which Johns has had long-standing relationships.

Isamu Noguchi - Noguchi at The Barbican Art Gallery: 30 September 2021 - 23 January 2022. Explores the kaleidoscopic career of a true artistic polymath. His first touring retrospective in Europe for 20 years, focuses on Noguchi as a global citizen and his risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment.

Yoko Ono - MEND Piece for London at The Whitechapel Art Gallery: 25 August 2021 – 2 January 2022. Yoko Ono retrospective. Ono presented Mending Piece I at her 1966 solo exhibition at Indica Gallery, London. A renowned centre for countercultural art where she first met John Lennon. Almost every work in the exhibition was designed to be completed through the actions of visitors.

Ed Ruscha - Explore sixty years of work at Tate Modern until July 2021. On a 1963 business card, Ed Ruscha explained how to pronounce his name (‘ED-WERD REW-SHAY’) and described himself as a ‘young artist’. He began creating commercial graphics for a Los Angeles advertising agency in the 60s. His subsequent work often references advertising, both in themes and technique. How words, sounds and images relate to each other is an ongoing fascination.

Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties at The Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), 2013. The largest exhibition to date on the early work of one of Pop’s most widely admired artists. Nearly 300 pieces from around the world, showcase sculptures such as Upside Down City (1962) and Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag (1966). Highlighting Oldenburg’s key role in Happenings and other interdisciplinary performance art of the early 60s.

Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg - Dialogues: DuChamp, Cornell, Johns, Rauschenberg at The Dallas Museum of Art, 2005. The first exhibition to reveal the aesthetic dialogue and shared visual vocabulary between Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Including over 40 works from the Museum's holdings and the Marguerite and Robert Hoffman Collection.


Listen to Nicolette

Picture: Nicolette Jones beside Jasper Johns' "Flags I"

at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (2017) / Credit: Nicolette Jones

In 2018, BBC Radio 4's Archive on Four 'The American Art Tapes' described John Jones' interviews as offering:"A unique insight into the vibrant art scene of mid-60s America from an archive of recordings made then and broadcast now for the very first time."

In conversation with The Hub, Nicolette Jones reveals the radio programme, produced by Emma-Louise Williams, opened the door to how she might "do something" with her father's material. She also discusses the material's potential use in future projects. You can listen to The Hub's interview with Nicolette Jones, co-author of The American Art Tapes: Voices of Twentieth Century Art by clicking on the link below.


About the Authors

John Jones (1926–2010) was a painter trained at the Slade School of Art, a filmmaker, and Senior Lecturer at Leeds University. Thanks to his personal interaction with the artists in The American Art Tapes, and many more besides, and his knowledge of their work, Jones became the foremost expert in the art of this period in the United States. He died aged 84 in 2010. Steve Bell wrote his Guardian obituary Painter, film-maker and teacher who inspired his students.

Picture: Nicolette Jones at home with her books / Credit: Brian Doben

Nicolette Jones is a writer, journalist, literary critic and broadcaster, and has been the children's books reviewer of The Sunday Times for more than two decades. Nicolette is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, a nominee for the 2012 Eleanor Farjeon Award for outstanding service to the world of children’s books and a former Henry Fellow at Yale University. Her books include The Illustrators: Raymond Briggs, and a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea. In 2018 she presented BBC Radio 4’s Archive on 4 documentary The American Art Tapes.


The American Art Music

Picture: Pop art meets Pop music: Andy Warhol - Velvet Underground & Nico

Mint Un-Peeled Banana Sticker Cover, 1967Album LP

/ Credit: US$2,250 from

Andy Warhol, the creative Wizard of Oz of the period, housed artistic Happenings at The Factory in New York. Warhol designed the iconic Banana debut album cover and acted as producer for The Velvet Underground. The house band to New York's creative movement in the 60s.

Many musicians of the day from The Underground's lead singer Lou Reed to David Bowie and Mick Jagger would hang out and play music at The Factory. Aurora Garrison called The Factory Andy Warhol's Silver Spaceship that launched the pop art revolution.

YouTube video: Pop turns Black: The Rolling Stones - Paint It, Black

Nicolette recalls how one logical conclusion of the"What is Art?" debate led Ad Reinhardt to paint black squares. Echoed musically by The Deep's When Rain is Black and The Rolling Stones' Paint It, Black.

Matthew Trzcinski references Paint It, Black as a break up song or being influenced by James Joyces' Ulysses. Inevitably, the dark shadow of the Vietnam war soon gave the song a more political association.

You can listen to The Hub's bonus The American Art Tapes playlist by clicking on the link below. A coast-to-coast mid-60s odyssey across the American highway from downtown Manhattan to the sunny shores of California. Drawn from the music in the BBC Radio 4 Archive on 4 programme with soundtrack to 1965-66 add-ons by The Hub.



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