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The Art of the Blues
As flurries of snow and traffic swirled past the rugged bulk of Yale’s Art and Architecture building, several students and faculty members from the School of Art were huddled in a darkened room in the heart of the A&A, their attention focused on a projection screen. Flashing slowly before them were slides of paintings done by an applicant to the school. Stacked along one wall of the room were more than 450 slide carousels containing the visual résumés of the other applicants to the two-year program. “We’ll be here all through the weekend,” whispered David Pease, the school’s dean, as he left the room, gently closing the door behind him. “We have to whittle those down to the 25 we’ll take in for next year.”
The fact that Yale’s art school accepts only one in 18 aspirants makes it probably the most selective such school in the country, and while such numbers are no guarantee of future performance, the prominence of Yale graduates in the upper echelons of today’s art world suggests an almost frightening level of accuracy in the selection process. Indeed, over the past few decades Yale has produced a veritable Who’s Who of top talent, including Chuck Close ’64, Jennifer Bartlett ’65, Richard Serra ’64, and Nancy Graves ’64, among dozens of others.
From painters to sculptors, graphic designers to photographers, students of the visual arts the world over compete to attend Yale, which offers what is arguably the best graduate-level art program in America. The school’s standing is reflected not just in the number of students who apply, but in the number of those accepted who attend—at nine in ten, the school has a “yield,” as the admissions people call it, all but unheard of elsewhere.
The fortunate few come to Yale knowing that they will be working with some of the world’s finest faculty, including many visiting artists from New York and across the country. They also know that they will be surrounded by the best students, colleagues who will prod, encourage, provoke, and stimulate them to move forward or step aside in the demanding, ever-changing aesthetic culture that is contemporary art. And they will be supported by some extraordinary additional resources: the University Art Gallery, the Center for British Art, and a first-class program in art history. “We want artists who are educated, not just trained,” says Pease, who is a distinguished painter in his own right. “We want them to be aware that they are part of a major university, that they are Yale students who are studying art, rather than art students who are just hanging out at Yale.”
To celebrate the accomplishments of its graduates, the Art Gallery has organized an exhibition titled “Yale Collects Yale,” a collection of works by Yale-educated artists. The exhibition, which runs from April 30 to July 31, includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other works by such alumni as Close, Bartlett, Graves, and Serra, as well as by Richard Anuszkiewicz ’55, Martin Puryear ’71, Robert Mangold ’63, Sylvia Mangold ’61, Janet Fish ’63, Rackstraw Downes ’64, Brice Marden ’63, Jonathan Borofsky ’66, and nearly 30 of their fellow graduates. Cementing the Yale connection is the fact that all the works are owned by Yale alumni.
“We have had alumni exhibitions in the past,” says Sasha Newman, the museum’s director of European and contemporary art, who worked with Director Mary Gardner Neill in organizing the show. “But this is much more. We are trying to make a statement about how desperately important the School of Art is. I’ve never seen a major contemporary collection without a Yale artist in it.”
One Yale artist who figures prominently in those collections is Chuck Close, who earned his master’s at the school in 1964 and has established an international reputation with his superrealistic, large-scale portraits. His works and others in the show were borrowed from major art collections such as those of Richard Brown Baker ’35, Peggy and Richard M. Danziger ’63LLB, and Thurston Twigg-Smith ’42E, all of whom have been generous contributors to the gallery over the years. But paintings and sculptures also were culled from smaller collections, such as that of a Pittsburgh woman who acquired a drawing from the late Eva Hesse ’59BFA, when both were students at Yale.
Among the other major lenders to the show are Horace H. Solomon ’50, who provided works by Serra; Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Carroll ’38, ’42MD, who loaned pieces by Don Nice ’64, Robert Birmelin ’60, George Nick ’63, and Joseph Santore ’73; and Robert Mnuchin ’55, of New York City, who contributed Brice Marden’s famous Picasso’s Skull.
Newman describes these people as “collectors who are passionate for works of art.” They are, she says, “knowledgeable and sophisticated, not just investors, and they were an integral link in the chain that resulted in ‘Yale Collects Yale.’”
In assembling the works, Newman traveled throughout the country, concentrating on California, Texas, New York, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. “Often, when we would inquire whether a particular collector had any Yale artists in the collection, he or she would say, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Then we would send a list, and they would respond ‘Oh, yes, I have one of those and one of those. I didn’t know they went to Yale’.”
Although most people familiar with the school associate it with the tenure of Josef Albers, the Bauhaus veteran who arrived at the school in 1950, the origins of the program go back well beyond that. Yale’s study of the visual arts actually dates to the early 19th century and John Trumbull, who immortalized the American Revolution on canvas. When he founded what came to be known as the Trumbull Gallery in 1832, it was one of the earliest art museums in the country and the first to be associated with a college.
The concept of art as an academic discipline was just emerging then, and Yale was at the center of the movement. But it had a very different mission from that of the modern art school. The first art classes at Yale were introduced as the result of the efforts of Professor Benjamin Silliman, the celebrated scientist who, as a member of the early Yale Medical School faculty, encouraged the teaching of anatomical drawing.
Eventually the study of art for its own sake found a place at Yale, and a School of Fine Arts was opened in 1869, offering classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, and art history. The offspring of that institution remains especially proud of the fact that women were admitted from the start, anticipating by exactly a century the decision of Yale College to go coed.
The school evolved over time, incorporating offerings in music (1890), architecture (1908), and drama (1923). Those later became freestanding programs, and the art school settled into its now familiar curriculum of course offerings in painting and printmaking, sculpture, and graphic design. Photography was added as an adjunct program in the late 1960s under Walker Evans before becoming a department in the 1970s.
But it was with the hiring of Albers as chairman of the department of design in 1950 that Yale acquired the reputation that it enjoys today. Albers, who had taught at the Bauhaus, came to the U.S. in 1933 after the Nazis forced the school to close. He became one of the most influential teachers of modern art in America, and although he stayed at Yale for only seven years, he made an indelible impression on the program. “The die was cast with Albers,” says Pease, as he gestures towards two Albers prints on his office wall. “There is still a strong resonance of him here.”
Albers’s modernism was rooted in attitudes associated with the Bauhaus, Constructivism, and Neo-Plasticism, movements that, along with Abstract Expressionism, forever changed the way art was defined and appreciated. Janet Dickson, the Art Gallery’s director of education, describes Albers’s most influential works—richly textured, tapestry-like block paintings—as “using a minimal format to maximize nuance.”
With Albers came a whole new breed of artists, both on the faculty and among the students, and Yale took its place in the forefront of the arts scene. “It was a symbiotic relationship,” says Pease. “Strong faculty attracted strong students, and the quality of the students drew faculty.”
Despite having a reputation as hotheaded and demanding, Albers was considered a brilliant teacher and a skilled recruiter. He attracted the best students from Cooper Union, the Rhode Island School of Design, and other professional art schools by offering higher degrees and generous scholarships to many of their best graduates. And, in addition to Yale’s own faculty, Albers was able to attract such distinguished and varied artists as Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, José de Rivera, and Burgoyne Diller to serve as part-time teachers.
Richard Mangold said a primary reason Yale got so many good students was that Albers allowed some artists who did not have undergraduate degrees into the program. “He let people with certificates from top art schools in, making all that Yale had available to them,” Mangold said.
Albers’s historical sense of timing also was impeccable. “In the 1950s Yale’s art school developed parallel to New York City’s emergence as the center of the art world,” explains Pease. “We had an arduous admissions process, a strong faculty, we were geographically well-placed, and we had momentum.” Among those drawn to New Haven in those days were Audrey Flack and Norman Slutsky in 1952; and William Bailey, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Ivan Chermayeff in 1955. In the ensuing years the list grew longer and, if anything, more distinguished. By the time Close arrived in 1963, the school was, as he put it, “the place to go to graduate school in art.”
The fact that Close and his schoolmates came as graduate students meant that they were artistically more mature, a difference that continues to this day. The average age of a Yale art student is 27, says Pease, with the range in age extending from 22 to 58.
Pease says that what characterized the Yale program then—as now—was its commitment to the idea that students were best taught by other artists. “They didn’t have the best facilities, and we still don’t,” he says, “but the unbeatable quality of our faculty, many of them from New York, creates a dynamic here.”
Close agrees, particularly about the facilities. Before the Art and Architecture building, designed by Paul Rudolph, opened in 1963, Close and several colleagues, including Graves, Downes, Serra, and Stephen Posen, had to make do in an old brownstone on Crown Street. “This gave rise to a sense of cohesion, a spirit of community,” says Close. The addition of “lots of visiting faculty and critics made it exciting.”
Richard Mangold, who met and married Sylvia Plimack Mangold while they were students as Yale, concurs: “Yale functioned very well for me. It was a very nurturing place, but it was also very close to New York, and we got lots of input and criticism from people based there.”
But there was more. “I think a lot of it was the mix of students,” Close says. “And the egos were something to be reckoned with. These people were ready to die for what they believed in. We would stay up all night sometimes screaming at one another.” Janet Fish also recalls the energy. “Everybody was just so fired up,” she says. “The students there were really eager.”
Another important factor in the development of that climate was the arrival in 1963 of Jack Tworkov as chairman of the art department. Like Albers, Tworkov was a practicing artist of considerable reputation who also was devoted to teaching. But unlike Albers, who tended to treat students as students, Tworkov treated them as beginning artists. According to those who worked with him he was more the passive moderator, letting students find their way.
Janet Fish says the fact that she and many of her colleagues were students between the terms of Albers and Tworkov helped her. “There was no clearly defined aesthetic attitude,” she says. “We had to look at a lot of ideas, wrestle with them, really, and come to our own conclusions. That was really important.”
Tworkov’s combined emphasis on self-exploration and rigorous course requirements created an eclectic mix that is obvious when one looks at the works of artists who passed through Yale during his stay. “There was no one ‘school’ at Yale,” says another alumnus, “no one way of seeing or thinking about things. We were searching, not performing. Our common denominator was that we were all driven to find our own idiosyncratic voice. Our differences were really what we had in common.”
That eclecticism extended beyond the boundaries of contemporary art. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, ’73, the creator of “Doonesbury,” is an Art School graduate, as is Jane Grossman Stern, ’71MFAP, preeminent food critic and author, with her husband Michael, of several best-selling books on popular culture.
The tie that binds such disparate talents, Pease points out, is that all art students take a rigorous set of courses which force them to think about and look at the very reasons they want to be artists. Between their own bouts of self-exploration, they critique one another’s works, challenging, prodding, and pushing the envelope of possibilities.
Those experiences create tensions, and it is from those tensions that artists often produce great works. “The climate here is essential,” says Pease, trying to put his finger on the elusive atmosphere that Yale nurtures. “What defines this place is its rigor, its relentless effort to move what we do forward. We try to expose individuals to experiences that will help them grow as artists.”
And grow they did. “When we left to go to New York in the mid-1960s, the city came to be known as ‘Yale South,’" recalls Close. “We all lived within a few blocks of each other around SoHo and TriBeCa. That made graduate school not just an isolated experience.” In Close’s case, that connection continues to this day. Two of his three assistants—Joe Letitia and Cayse Cheatham—are 1989 Art School graduates. “Once you go through the system, you’re always a part of this place,” says Pease.
There could be no better proof of that than the Art Gallery’s spring show.
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