Imagine being able to ask Vermeer: Who is the girl with a pearl earring? A daughter? A lover? Someone he imagined? And what is she thinking? Or to question Leonardo about why he adopted the radical technique of applying oil paint to dry plaster for his Last Supper. Did it bother him that the painting began to flake and fade so quickly?
We will never have the chance to have these conversations. But, today, it is a regular part of the research practice of curators, conservators, and art historians to conduct oral histories with living artists to talk with them about their aims, ideas, and methods for making art. The archives of the Getty Research Institute (GRI) contain over a thousand such oral histories and interviews with artists, architects, curators, critics, collectors, and dealers. But, they are not always easy to find.
To allow scholars and the interested public better access to the firsthand accounts of these fascinating figures—and in keeping with the Getty’s ongoing efforts to make more of its holdings accessible digitally—Research Institute staff is working to make our oral history collections available online. A new Oral History Collections page highlights over 200 curator-selected interviews to connect scholars and enthusiasts with firsthand accounts of the work and lives of some of the most influential people in the art world of the 20th and 21st centuries. The selected audio interviews showcase the breadth of the oral history collections that researchers can access on-site at the GRI Research Library, while the selected videos feature artists, architects, and other individuals significant to Los Angeles’s vibrant postwar art scene. Many of these were conducted in conjunction with the first Pacific Standard Time initiative, and these and all the multi-part videos from this series are available in their entirety on a playlist on the Research Institute’s YouTube channel.
These videos showcase how oral history benefits scholarship, answering crucial questions about how artists created their works and allowing us to grasp what inspired an artist’s creative process. Some examples of the insights one can glean from these interviews:
- Karl Benjamin, one of Los Angeles’s most important Hard Edge painters, explains that he had invented a machine to help him apply the tape to his paintings to achieve the innumerable straight lines that produced his famous hard edges.
- Ed Ruscha discusses how the movies have always had a tremendous impact on his work and that every summer he embarked on an extremely ambitious painting that he called a “summer blockbuster”—using the aspect ratio of the Cinemascope screen to determine the work’s dimensions.
The Research Institute’s full collection of oral histories is available to researchers at the GRI Library.