A Rambling on Teaching
Between Cal Arts and Harvard I know something about teaching painting that no one wants to know.
We all evolve in ways we cannot control, I wanted to be an abstract painter, interiority was my middle name. It just didn’t happen.
What I learned about teaching is about stretch, about being uncomfortable in uncharted territory. We want our students to get brighter, radiant, more alive with curiosity as they gain experience. But most teachers play It safe. We teach what we know, what we are sure of, and we try to apply their individual needs to our own model. Our small organized system. You can’t teach art and want your students to be brave and wild, if you are not brave and wild, at least in some ways. Students respond deeply when you are out on a ledge, and the contradiction is that you also have to be rock solid
I was the painting teacher at Cal Arts for close to ten years, from the mid eighties to the mid nineties. I provided the only formal, esthetic critique. I was the only faculty member that didn’t use text as a structure for EVERYTHNING. I felt like someone who never got asked to the metaphorical dance.
This was many years ago, when art departments were usually doing real academic training, with ridged curriculums, and locked in sequences of study. (this appeals to many but is often soul killing.)
And in the Cal Arts version of an intellectual innovative political environment I stuck to painting. It provided me with a very strong base. So now that the whole world of art teaching is dealing with a cultural and social critique and most schools provide courses like Post Studio 101, I’m still sticking to it.
Many students worked with me for the four years of undergraduate school and the following two of graduate study. The campus was like the home of a great and diverse wonderful cult in the middle of what once was Ranch country and onion fields and became a suburban community of Mormons, and is now mostly an above ‘valley’ shopping mall.
I taught painting and drawing at Bard College for the seven years before and was an outsider there also. At Bard the mantra was abstraction. At Cal Arts it was Cultural Theory and Sexual Identity.
I couldn’t pour out my intuitive romantic heart for the kids to chew on. It isn’t efficient in terms of subject matter or discipline. And I doubt they wanted to gnaw anyway.
I had to learn ways to engage these students and I had to help them armor up for the hard critical conditions of ‘back then,’ painting is dead and only functions as a commodity, ‘and now’ it is skills are obsolete.’
I am explaining these conditions because I want you to understand the pressure. I was present. I was given a place at the table. But I was insecure. At Bard they thought I was anti-intellectual. I didn’t have a way to talk about my own work. I was frightened but I could not imagine caving to the status quo. It didn’t matter how fond I was of Michael Asher.
I kept trying to figure it out. I tried to set up a pigment workshop, but was told it would be too seductive. My classes worked with oil paint, on stretched canvas. We dealt with identity issues, we dealt with questions surrounding representation and I invented new theory based ways to teach very old disciplines.
I had to let go of my precious convoluted safety net of painting in high risk, attack mode – make change fast, find a rhythm, operate inside of your own experience. And wail. Because, these students were not studying Jazz, for one, and secondly they were always there. Repetition chokes, even if it is about freedom.
I was the only painting teacher. If they wanted to paint there wasn’t much of a choice. They got beady eyed, daring me not to bore them. Every other course told them painting was just plain stupid as well as ‘over,’ they were criticized brutally and often. I was a wreck. I was often attacked by my own students, criticizing my early, unmasked intuitive approach. I have a dreadful memory of crying in the bathroom for five full minutes once. I had yet to learn how to repel attacks. (The rules of street fighting come in handy sometimes.)
I was up against the wall feeling like my execution was immanent and the fear of failing forced me to change my operating system. I can’t imagine anyone going through this sea change unless they have to.
I learned to build anthologized readers that dealt with specific subjects, drew from many sources, including theoretical. The readers were compelling, and allowed for discourse. And my hidden agenda of teaching people how to paint flourished inside the cloak of intellectual inquiry.
At Cal Arts in those years the subject of Painting became an underground hidden deeply protected kind of secret. It was a traditional study. Which was a phrase that could not be spoken out loud. I don’t like to say it either.
In this time it is the opposite in terms of discourse, Teachers everywhere are desperate to get students to read and engage in issues that are not about formal visual arrangements. This of course is important as well as essential. To be educated isn’t just about making interesting objects
But knowing how to make objects, and understanding that in the physical experience of finding a way to construct something, dealing with the mistakes that happen in real time a kind of knowledge evolves that lends itself to understanding and experience in the actual daily life of being in the world. Knowledge of the physical can become reality in a way that thinking about the possibility of experience only, can not. (of course the time comes when one can afford a fabricator, but that is later)
I understand that virtual reality reigns. However we live in bodies, and although sensuality and fine dining experiences have never been more popular, that one can measure a life span is deeply unpopular and creates a narrow vision of youthful experience that has become our culture. My gripe is that the making of art is often a list and a mind game for the theory versed only. But our instincts and nature as well as knowledge of many cultures create powerful and meaningful desire. Desire and curiosity is a large part of what makes art. An academic analysis of globalization is a good tool for more analysis. When something is academic it isn’t raw. When arts largest influence is the Academy it looses vitality and visual power. It is easier to write about. The problem with visual language is that there are no words.
The only syllabus I have ever been able to find from that time is from the Erotic Still Life Class. I gave very clear directions for the work, and the readings were required. Students could choose a text from a long list attached to each project. I have included a copy in this section of the web site. It was written on a typewriter.
One of the burdens of teaching Contemporary Art is that under-graduates love conventional practice. They want to paint portraits, nudes, and still lives. It seems like real art to them. They haven’t had a chance to find out how vast the subjects in art really are, and they don’t want to know either. Unless someone comes from a very sophisticated family, Joseph Boise is not their model. They have never heard of Gerhardt Rhichter or Laura Owens and the easy read of the surrealist work of Salvador Dalli is often their great ideal.
Many hip schools set students up to hate art historical work, the kids get shamed. They begin their investigations with the impossible task of not being derivative in any way. This fact alone can account for the paucity of the contemporary style of serious study. ( I have seen freshman semester after semester use urine, fecal matter, menstrual blood and semen in attempts not to be derivative.) There is only so much to do outside the box when you don’t know what is inside of it. The fantasy of being an artist is seductive. An often used assignment is to have sophomores design their show at The Modern.
Representation is really ‘OUT.’ And for a young artist starting out, if they want to be ‘with it,’ it is a very narrow road. I think making visual work from texts is restrictive. Teachers from English departments have a hard time helping artists create something sublime and luminous. But at least using ‘the edge of cultural theory’ as a base for visual discourse keeps art Professors from being embarrassed inside scholarly institutions.
Why can’t the teachers who believe in some form of craft be less afraid of study and the currant movements? And the text dependant embrace the fact that a couple of years being connected to making and learning from experience, tolerating the ambivalence of one’s own evolution, make for less rigged thinkers as well as makers.? It seems to me that both sides are lazy.
A conceptual guy used to walk thru my classroom at Harvard and would roll his eyes sadly, considering the plight of my students. But there are many ways to get them through the ‘dreadful painting stage’ without having to put up with the worst of art school art.
One of the ways is to keep passion wily, and not worry about territory right away. Let them make objects that are real and not practice. Let the work be strong and alive and not teach techniques apart from making.
Show tons of images. Use images from surprising sources. Use all cultures. Don’t discriminate. Show other art forms. I think it is better to be uncomfortable than narrow. Try to help them not worship the Renascence. Ancient Chinese calligraphy is great for beginning drawing courses.
Working in a large scale is easier for painters in the beginning. And determining the scale oneself lends itself to individual experience. Painting on cut cardboard that is the right size for an image and particular mark is more conducive to good painting than working on fascistic sizes determined by the convenience of corporate producers of art materials.
And continually introduce good art historical writing, theoretical texts that are possible to understand, Currant information about what is going on in galleries and museums and alternative spaces, and on the street.
Don’t be embarrassed by what it takes to have a devotee of Dali’s melting clocks understand the nature of modernism and how to sail right past in terms of acquiring knowledge and investigating possibilities. Sometimes it looks like shit for months. A really good teacher is like a detective and a farmer. one has to know when the manure pile is going to become something else in time, or just become dirt.
AT Cal Arts when they wanted portraiture I taught a class on decapitation. We started with serial killers, worked with body parts as well as faces, made a deep study of Eddie Gein, who was so much sicker than Hitchcock ever got near to (His story was the model for Psycho.)
We dealt with glamorous decapitations like Jane Mansfield and Isadora Duncan and worked our way down to Artemisia Gentileschi who painted Judith and Holenefarnas, John the Baptist, and Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate. Then went back up the centuries again. The students read Foucault and analyzed aspects of representation as well as well as worked on the nature of sensations that were not depictive. It was a difficult study because painting faces sideways is hard. And operating visually without depiction of some kind is close to impossible.
Illusion, desire and the difference between the rational and irrational is fertile ground for subjects. The history of science is a deeply resourceful subject. Cabinets of Curiosities provide fabulous subject matter. Why should our students paint seated nudes in dirty chairs and ugly stupid still lives that are not at eye level? Why should any beginner have to paint or draw a bowl of fruit? When overlapping spheres are so difficult. It creates insecurity not strength of purpose.
I made a set of assignments once about the various differences between doctors offices in terms of medical practice. Sexual Identity is an all time favorite. Landscape painting doesn’t have to come out of the 19th century. Alex Katz is a useful model. Sometimes I take artists whose work I love like Brice Marden’s, and make exercises around his use of loops in space.
Figuring out surprising ways to connect subjects to action is endlessly compelling. Making work that has to do with a state of mind helps create an abstract lexicon. And students respond to the innovative. People still want to paint Chianti bottles with dripping wax. This is not good news. The power of emotional content should be allowed even in the beginning of the study of painting and drawing.
To be continued: