Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art teaching

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

October 10, 2011

Thomas Struth 2011 - courtesy Schirmer/Mosel

I just finished reading Janet Malcolm’s excellent article (New Yorker, September 26, 2011) on the photographer, Thomas Struth, whose 30-year survey I saw last July at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I often cringe when art world outsiders attempt to write about art; editors can forget that it’s a specialized field like science or sports, with specialized practices and precedents. They might assign a music writer to write about art (as the Chicago Tribune did back in the day) but an art writer to write about football? Hardly. Outsiders tend to idolize and idealize the artist, make too much of technique (which can seem magical to them), and emphasize the wrong things—Anthony Lane’s 2003 article on Howard Hodgkin in the same magazine is a case in point: Lane, normally a perceptive film critic, made much of the fact that Hodgkin would date a piece over the years it took to make it, i.e. “1998-2002,” an utterly common artistic practice, and wrote “If you know Hodgkin’s work, you can spot it across a crowded room.” Uh, that’s called personal style.

Also, to a frightening degree, most writers of profiles (art and non-art) tend to be so cowed by their subjects that they rarely question or evaluate their statements. Malcolm, however, isn’t afraid to intelligently correct what she perceives as Struth’s “mischaracterization” of photo-realist painting, and point out how, while not a conscious influence, that work anticipated Struth’s generation of photographers.

The piece begins and ends with the story of Struth’s recently commissioned portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The photograph is remarkable for its subtlety, not a quality usually associated with pictures of monarchs. Generally the poses are dry and formal or the opposite, smiling with dogs or small children, as if the photographer is trying to say, “See? Royals are human, too.”  Instead Struth wraps vulnerability, power, and constraint into a single package. Seeing the reproduction (although with no indication of size, which turns out to be 59” x 79”) and learning about the sensitivity with which Struth approached the project gave me insight into his work to the point that I wished I could go back and see the Whitechapel show all over again. If all art writing were like that, I wouldn’t be so vehement on the subject.

The Struth piece reminded me how much I learned in the 23 years I spent working with TIME’s estimable collection of cover art (from Warhol to Alice Neel, Alex Katz, and Christo, with my hands-down favorite being Marisol’s sculpture of Bob Hope) and commissioning pieces from “gallery artists” (the only term I could come up with that would distinguish them from illustrators) for the covers. It seemed that when the subject was a given I could see the artist’s peculiar vision more clearly—the special twist that could turn yet another image of an over-exposed celebrity into a genuine work of art.

And speaking of teaching, as we were in the posts below, it comes as no surprise that Struth studied with Gerhard Richter (described by Struth as “ironic,” with “coded” language and behavior) and photography icons Bernd and Hilla Becher of whom he said:

The big pedagogical influence was that they introduced me and others to the history of photography and to its great figures. They were fantastic teachers…in the way that they demonstrated the complexity of connections. It was an outstanding thing that when you were with Bernd and Hilla they didn’t talk about photography alone. They talked about movies, journalism, literature—stuff that was very comprehensive and complex. For example a typical thing Bernd would say was “You have to understand the photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.”

Which leads me to the idea I’ve often fantasized about, that until specializing at the college graduate level, we should be teaching not subjects but eras—Warhol in the context of the moon landing, birth control pills, Catch-22, and Marshall McLuhan makes much more sense than as part of some artificial trajectory from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. When I was at Bennington I wanted to put together a multi-disciplinary class entitled “1968” (ideally to be followed by 1954, 1944, 1929, 1917, etc.) that would go into not just the cultural, political, and scientific events but what people were eating, what their houses looked like, their religious and educational practices, important legal disputes of the day, and so on.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching everything like it’s 1890.
September 27, 2011
I love it when comments or questions spark ideas for new posts.
This comment from Kenney was in response to the post below:

In grad school there was a beautiful young woman who was looking through slides in the slide library. She was a teaching assistant for studio, I was one for art history. I started my rap, "That's pretty cool that you're using art historical examples for your drawing class."

She replied, "Yeah, but I don't like to show them too much stuff too often. If they know to much about the past, I feel like that other painters imagery will influence them too much and they'll repeat it."

I decided not to ask her out.

Well I agree with both of them, and think there was a missed opportunity for fruitful conversation over coffee, if not more.

My point in the last post was that it’s important that museums, and the artists who show in them, have a deep understanding of their place in the art history continuum.  When teaching studio art, however, the issue becomes much more complex, because students are so easily influenced. They want to make art that “looks like” art, and are often encouraged in this by their instructors, who have their own expectations about what art should look like.

Most of the art I see falls flat because it lacks inspired idiosyncrasy—something artists develop not by looking at other art, but by learning to trust their singular intuition.

In his lecture at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) last week, Rob Storr talked about a piece by Robert Ryman, shown at MoMA, which incorporated four small strips of masking tape. The museum installers were fastidious in measuring and matching the strips with those in the photographs, but it was flat, had no energy. Then Ryman came into the gallery and Storr watched fascinated as the artist placed the strips himself, seemingly in the same places, and the piece came alive—became a Ryman.

I had a big lesson in the value, or lack of it, of exposure to outside influences during a period when I was simultaneously teaching undergraduates at Bennington College in isolated Vermont, and graduate students at the School of Visual Arts, with its proximity to the galleries. My younger, unexposed Bennington students produced more original work because they were working primarily from their own resources—unlike the SVA students who were into cloning Chelsea, they hadn’t (yet) acquired superficial assumptions about what art should look like (and here I must give credit here to those few SVA students who were able to overcome their environment).  

Like Ryman, I didn’t study painting, and am glad for it. Music was my first love, my most evident natural talent, and in a perfect world I’d be Radiohead or Sigur Rós.  However after 20 years of rigorous classical piano training, I no longer had a clue who I was musically, and eventually gave up trying. While it’s easy to point out musicians who have evolved their classical training into something more contemporary (like, perhaps, Sigur Rós), history doesn’t count those like me who tried and failed.

As a teacher, I’m cautious about how and when I introduce the work of others, because I’m aware that to be faced with work of accomplishment when you do not yet have skills can be extremely intimidating.

At Bennington I had the luxury of creating my own beginning painting class the way I’d always wanted to teach it, and enjoying the results. [I was also abetted by the most excellent TA, Catherine Hamilton who, with her thorough RISD training in techniques, proved to be the perfect resource.]

I started with abstraction because an understanding of abstraction is important to every successful painting, regardless of content, and often with figurative work it’s easy to get so wrapped up in representing the image that other necessary painting decisions go by the wayside.

So the first assignment was to paint, with acrylics, 3 to 5 squares or rectangles using only primary colors on a 2’ x 2’ canvas stretched on a professional support (none of those crappy pre-stretched canvases for my students—you have to be a really great painter to make those things look good, and then, why bother?). My secret agenda here was that I wanted the students to have a positive first painting experience, build confidence for what would come later, and that formula is hard to screw up.

First painting by unidentified Bennington student, acrylic on canvas, 2' x 2', circa 1998.

The second assignment was to do the same, now adding curves and mixing primary colors to make secondaries, as desired.

The following assignments were to paint a landscape, then a portrait, then a still life without any preparation—somewhat like the way my grandfather was taught to swim by being thrown off the end of a dock—always on the same 2’ x 2’ format, as it’s important to accustom oneself to a particular scale, and I had laid in a supply of inexpensive strainers from Richard Britell, who tells the story of a class he was teaching where he set up a still life with the instruction to “paint it like Vermeer.”  That nudge was all one student needed. After that class, Richard said, “She no longer needed me”—and indeed, Janet Rickus has been successfully painting in the manner of an updated Vermeer ever since.

Diff’rent strokes, as they say.

Janet Rickus, Turnips on Table, oil on panel, 14" x 27", 1996