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The Art School on its Own
Not long after the Art & Architecture Building was completed in 1963, a graduate student in painting at the School of Art sarcastically proclaimed his new interest in “miniature painting” and thanked the school for “providing the environment that compels me to do so.” The comment, published in the New York Times Magazine, was but the beginning of 37 years of artist dissatisfaction with A&A, a situation that has finally come to an end this fall with the removal of one of the “A’s” to a new home across Chapel Street. In October, the University officially dedicated Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall, the former Jewish Community Center at 1156 Chapel that was renovated for the School at a cost of $20 million. With its space needs finally under control, the School is now better able to turn its attention to other challenges—most especially the job of figuring out how the digital revolution will affect the arts.
One of the first things you notice in Green Hall is that computers are everywhere: little iMacs, gleaming G4 cubes, printers and scanners—sometimes entire rooms full of them. Graphic designers live in front of them, photographers manipulate their work on their screens, and even painters and sculptors are at work on digital projects. But then you come to the part of the photography area where, despite the fact that square footage is at a premium, pairs of photographers share large, well equipped dark rooms.
If you mention this to Richard Benson, the dean of the School and an acclaimed photographer himself, he will say “Damn right we built traditional dark rooms. It’s like sailors studying celestial navigation when they learn to sail. Even if they never end up using it, it’s important.”
Such reverence for tradition is quite in character for Benson—a man who drives a fire-engine red Model A Ford truck to work—though his route to the deanship has been far from traditional. Benson’s father was a trained artist who took over a stonecarving and lettering shop in Newport, Rhode Island, where Benson grew up. After attending St. George’s School and trying Brown University for a semester, Benson served in the Navy and got a job at a small printing firm in Connecticut that specialized in art books. His interest in the art of printing photographs soon led to an interest in making them, and Benson has since earned a reputation both for his own photographs and for his books of photos, including A Maritime Album and his project for Yale’s Tercentennial celebration, a book of historic photos called A Yale Album. His unusual, labor-intensive process of making photographic prints by hand—with acrylic paint on light-sensitive aluminum sheets—earned him a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1986.
Now, though, Benson has given up on that process, explaining simply that it was “too hard.” Instead, he has embraced the computer, making pictures digitally and producing poster-sized images on enormous printers. He, for one, is glad to be out of the dark room. “Making art in a room in the dark is the stupidest thing imaginable,” he says.
Since becoming dean in 1996 after teaching part-time at the School for 17 years, Benson has served as the School’s top technology enthusiast. “Digital technology does two things,” says Benson. “It contributes to the practice of traditional forms, and it translates traditional media into binary form. It’s not a direct translation—it doesn’t take in the sweat of the conductor or the impasto of the paint or the grain of the silver—but once these translations are made, these different media are all in the same language and can be mixed up and blended together. Does that represent the potential for a new medium?”
Some would say yes without question. Other art schools have already established “new media” departments where artists can make digital art without ever picking up a brush, a pen, a chisel, or a bottle of developing fluid. In a related trend, many schools are eliminating traditionally defined departments such as sculpture, painting, photography, design, and film. But Yale is proceeding slowly and keeping its separate programs intact. “Some schools have rejected departmental divisions,” says Benson. “But the faculty here feel that one of the key ingredients in art is an understanding of medium. It’s hard to understand how to do that when you embrace all media. You have to master something.”
An exception to this somewhat conservative approach is the sculpture program, which has moved beyond bronze and marble. “Sometimes it seems that the people in sculpture are simply those who don’t fit into graphic design, photography, or painting,” says Jessica Stockholder '85MFA, the director of graduate studies in sculpture. Her program now includes performance artists, video artists, and people who do virtually anything within a space. “The practice of sculpture is bracketed by the container,” says Stockholder, who in her own work fills rooms with brightly colored assemblages of found objects. “Anything that happens within the container can be called art.”
Today’s Sculpture program—like much of the rest of the School’s offerings—would be unrecognizable to the students who came to Yale in 1869 to study in the brand new School of Fine Arts, the first art school in an American university. Funded by a gift from Augustus and Caroline Street, the school gave men and women (it was for many years Yale’s only co-ed school) an education in art based on that of the ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. That system combined studio courses in drawing, painting, and sculpture with lectures on the principles of art. The School gradually added programs in music, drama, and architecture.
The School remained a stronghold of traditional art techniques until the arrival of Josef Albers in 1950. Many faculty resigned as Albers brought the revolutionary modernist dicta of the Bauhaus to New Haven. Over the next half century, painting became by turns abstract, representational, and ironic, and sculpture broadened to include both abstract works in traditional media and assemblages of non-traditional materials. The School also expanded its programs to include graphic design and photography. The changes wrought by Albers and his successors secured Yale a place as a leader in contemporary art, a place that can count as alumni such prominent artists as the painters Chuck Close and Jennifer Bartlett, the sculptors Richard Serra and Martin Puryear, the graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff, and the cartoonist Garry Trudeau.
Today, the School remains attractive to young artists. Each year, faculty and students in each program must sift through about 750 applications to fill around 60 slots (about 23 in painting, 16 in graphic design, 10 in sculpture, and 8 in photography) for the next incoming class of candidates for a master of fine arts, the School’s only degree. The admissions process, which includes a review of portfolios and, for the few who make the first cut, an interview, is designed to identify, in Benson’s words, “people who will have fruitful lives as artists.”
Unlike other professional schools, though, the School of Art accepts people who are already practicing the discipline for which they are seeking further training. So the curriculum—two years of studio courses—is less a boot camp for artists and more a means to nurture young talent. “You can’t tell somebody how to make art or what to make,” says Stockholder. “But art school helps people articulate what they do and have an understanding of the nature of communication. What distinguishes us from a craft school is an emphasis on how craft intersects with thought.”
Since artists come to the program with their artistic sensibilities already partially formed, there is in all the programs a wide variation in their styles and interests. “We’re not looking for a particular style,” says Rochelle Feinstein, director of graduate studies in painting. “We’re trying to create a diverse program of people who make art.”
The teaching comes mostly in the form of frequent critiques by professors, visiting artists, and, less formally, fellow students. “What we supply is a critical structure,” says Feinstein. “We have frequent one-on-one crits. It’s a serious, rigorous, competitive place, and the criticism is grueling but important.”
Until recently, the critiques weren’t the only grueling things about life in the Art School. From 1963 until this fall, the School was housed along with the School of Architecture (the two were one school until 1972) in Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building. (See “The Building That Won’t Go Away,” Feb. 1998.) Artists have always felt that Rudolph, who was chair of the architecture program when he designed the building, had given them the short end of the stick, and the complaints about bad light and insufficient and inflexible space began immediately and continued for more than 35 years. (The sculpture program escaped to spacious but remote Hammond Hall, near Ingalls Rink, in 1970.) The art and architecture programs often battled over exhibition space and other turf issues, and the Art School, its programs scattered in A&A and other nearby buildings, cried out for more congenial space.
The opportunity to get it came when Yale acquired the long-vacant Jewish Community Center on Chapel Street (the Center had moved to Woodbridge in 1986), and the artists were ready. “The program for the building was better articulated this time than with A&A,” says Deborah Berke, the architect of the new School. “They knew what they wanted.”
With the help of a $7.5 million gift from Holcombe T. Green Jr. '61, who has since joined the Yale Corporation, and $2 million from Marian Rand, the widow of longtime graphic design professor Paul Rand (for whom the graphic design department’s facilities are named), the project got under way. Although the budget for the project didn’t allow a net increase in the amount of space available to the School, the space was to be better organized and better allocated among departments. Since the JCC building was not large enough to accommodate the entire program, an addition would have to be made. Berke, who was chosen by a committee, designed a two-story building behind the JCC to house the painting program’s offices, critique space, and individual studios.
The JCC building itself was, in Berke’s words, a “rabbit warren” of small spaces interrupted by some large ones: an auditorium, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and squash courts. Its most distinguished feature, a modernist façade of steel, glass, and marble, had been obscured for years by grime and plywood. It was only after Yale bought the building that it became apparent that the building—or at least the façade—had been designed by Louis Kahn, the famed architect of the Center for British Art and the Art Gallery. Kahn’s façade was restored as nearly as possible to its original condition, although thermal windows and a ramp for handicapped access were required additions.
Inside the building, Berke arranged offices, studios, and classrooms on three floors, including a basement. The auditorium became an experimental theater for the School of Drama (the one space in the building not controlled by the Art School), the gymnasium an open space for the graphic designers (who tend to be more gregarious than the other artists), the former swimming pool a space for photography critiques, and the squash courts an unusually high-ceilinged exhibition space.
Berke, who teaches at the School of Architecture, has a reputation for minimalist work. But she says the Art School does not embody the fetishized “slick minimalism” that has dominated design magazines in recent years. “That’s actually very expensive to do,” she says. “This is more of a workaday understatement, with the connections and materials showing.” The walls are mainly white-painted gypsum board, the floors are polished concrete, and the ceilings are simply the undersides of concrete floor or roof slabs (except in the corridors, where the ceilings were lowered to make room for new mechanical and wiring needs).
After spending so many years in the A&A Building, where Rudolph’s preoccupation with form had trumped most functional concerns, the denizens of the Art School liked Berke’s self-effacing approach. “The architecture should be willing to take the background,” she says. “The process of making art should be in the foreground.”
While three of the School’s four programs are now in close proximity, the sculpture program is still three quarters of a mile away in Hammond Hall. Almost everyone in the School agrees that it would be better if the sculpture studios could be near the rest of the School, but it remains to be seen if and when that will happen. Despite Hammond Hall’s inconvenient location, its character and spaciousness have earned it the love of a generation of students and teachers, and any new space in the arts area would have to be especially attractive to lure them away. But Richard Lytle '60MFA, a painting professor who chaired the building committee, says he hopes such a solution can be found within the next eight to ten years.
Lytle also directs the undergraduate major in art, a program he says has been strengthened by the move. Undergraduates now work under the same roof as graduate students after years of being scattered in different buildings. Lytle says the presence of the graduate students works to the advantage of the undergrads—almost all second-year graduate students serve as teaching assistants for Yale College art courses—and vice versa. “The graduate students in my color class are challenged to keep up with the work that undergraduates do. The graduate students are usually more skilled, but the undergraduates bring in unexpected perspectives.” In April, the senior art majors—there are about ten—will showcase their work in an exhibition that takes up all four of the galleries in the new building. Such an exhibition would not have been possible at A&A.
Whether graduate or undergraduate, though, most art students are pursuing in some way the possibilities of the computer, and the new building has helped make that easier. The graphic design program, which was the pioneer in digital technology in the 1980s, has its own Macintosh computer lab. In addition, the building has an all-school digital lab where students in different disciplines work side by side on technology-related projects. (Benson teaches a school-wide digital media course there.) Beyond the School itself is the Digital Media Center for the Arts, an experimental center at 149 York Street that is shared by Yale’s four arts schools, the art museums, and the history of art department.
Benson sees all these efforts as necessary for the school’s future. “Is there some new medium that will come out of this stew?” ask Benson. “I don’t know the answer. But we’re beholden to embrace the computer and keep our minds open.”
As the Art School leaves, the School of Architecture gets a $20 million gift—and some elbow room.
Now that the Art School has moved, the x Building has finally been left to the people for whom some say it was really designed: architects. With the help of a $20 million gift from Sid R. Bass '65 that was announced in October, the building is being renovated for the School of Architecture. The Art School’s departure has allowed the School to move its undergraduate affiliate program and its Urban Design Workshop into the A&A Building. It also means some of Paul Rudolph’s interiors, which had been carved up over the years to make more studio and exhibition space, can be restored.
An interim renovation over the summer gave the first glimpse of what A&A once was and could be again. The fourth-floor atrium, once the heart of the building, has had partitions and floors removed and is once again housing architecture studios. And the walls that had been erected long ago in the main second floor exhibition space were removed, opening up vistas across the building, down into the library, and out onto Chapel Street. This fall, the space was inaugurated with a major exhibition of the work of former Architecture School dean Cesar Pelli.
But the work on A&A is far from done. The building requires millions more in renovations, an effort that will be aided by the Bass gift. “We’ve landed in Normandy,” says School of Architecture dean Robert A. M. Stern, “but it’s a long way to Paris.”
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