Former Students’ Memories of Classes Taught by Famous Artists

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They are a class of people who will tell you about the first time they saw a Kandinsky or de Kooning with the excitement of recounting their first kiss. They may tell you that they’re atheists, but the truth is that most young art students are idolators. Arriving on campus for the first time, before they think about where they’ll be living, what they’ll be learning, or what they’ll accomplish as bona fide art school graduates, many rising students are bracing themselves for the thought of studying with one of their heroes. This myth-making remains true, even afterwards, when they find that things didn’t go exactly as expected.

As a few of these accounts from art school grads testify, the trials and frustrations that come from studying with a giant can be as edifying as the joys and pleasures. This is especially true of students like Romare Bearden, who grew to believe that “art cannot be taught.” The same sentiment might arise from the notebook of critic Dave Hickey. “[The students] asked why I didn’t read their papers,” he said. “I asked them how much they would enjoy teaching a swimming class where everybody drowned.”

Josef Albers

Dorothea Rockburne on studying with Josef Albers:

But I painted all the time at Black Mountain. I painted and I did not know what I was doing nor did I want to know what I was doing. Because many of the art students were doing “New York” art, magazine art, which is fine. I mean it’s not a criticism. They were copying it and taking their place to later become their own person. But I did not like the Albers classes, I did not like the concept of giving color a job. It was like color was on the unemployment line and you have to make dark colors come forward and light colors go backward, and after having an academic training where you learn that in many of the Renaissance paintings for example, the dark blue of Mary’s robe will come forward. You know what I mean? It’s an old problem, and I just thought it was a big yawn and didn’t want to do those things. I wanted to make every mistake possible and I did. And I did have an exhibition here, at the end.

Read the full interview in Black Mountain Studies Journal.

John Cage on studying with Arnold Schoenberg

The questions he asked his pupils had answers he already knew. Answers his pupils gave didn’t tally with his. Schoenberg needed to be sure of himself, so that, when leading others, he might be ahead…I explained to Stravinsky that studying with Schoenberg I had become a partisan: pro-Schoenberg, pro-chromaticism. Stravinsky: But I write chromatic music; my objection to Schoenberg’s music: it isn’t modern (it’s like Brahms). Schoenberg pointed out others’ mistakes; aware of his own, he corrected them. Criticism is unnecessary. I disagree with almost everything.

From Mosaic, an essay which appeared in the book A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings, first published in 1967.

Neal Rantoul on Harry Callahan

In 1957 Harry had traveled to France for several months with Eleanor to photograph. When returning he had the same problem. Too overwhelmed by the new, too out of sorts compared to where he’d come from, the place too foreign to assimilate, not there long enough to get in it and understand what he could do with it. I certainly didn’t have a clue I was making such a scattered group of pictures in Europe in 1979. I thought I was just continuing to photograph as I knew how to. Wrong. I went home that day severely humbled as I knew Harry was right. I hadn’t made anything worthwhile except to succeed at making pictures of things I hadn’t seen before through first impression. Substance? No. Was I saying anything in the pictures, telling a story? No. Thank goodness I learned this lesson early in my career. I never did anything with all that work, never final printed them, never made portfolios, or took them around to museums and galleries to get them shown. Hard pill to swallow but a very good lesson. I see this very often today in other’s work when I review portfolios: making pictures from trips is very dangerous.

Read the full entry in Neal Rantoul’s blog.

Robert Storr on Roy Yoshida:

As a teacher he was mysterious and witty. The mystery would draw you in, and then he would say something funny but with an edge that would make you think — kind of like his paintings.

Read Storr’s full account in The New York Times.

Ad Reinhardt on Meyer Schapiro:

The course I took with Meyer Schapiro was just simply modern art and there were those exciting performances he put on mostly in the ’30s, later on he was to lecture to left wing groups down here on soap boxes and so on, but he put on such a terrific performance . . . And he was so stimulating. No, he wasn’t really talking about Mondrian and people like that until much later. But he was such a terrific eye-opener for everybody in terms of the expressionists and post-expressionists then. It was later, you know, someone like Hauser was to really write the book that Shapiro should have written I suppose, like a chapter on impressionism and expressionism. I just sound like my notes from Shapiro’s classes, you know, all the emphasis on the divided touch and the broken color and the — all the very profound analysis before — Now it’s all quite common.

Read the full interview in the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art

Roman Cieslewicz on studying with Henryk Tomaszewski:

I don’t think anyone influenced me. But my training with George Karolak at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow was important – I took his classes for four years and it was everything to me. Tomaszewski was a graphic artist of the same generation as George Karolak and he shared the same philosophy. He was one of the few who resisted socialist realism, and he was shunned by the establishment because he refused to modify his projects in line with its demands. Despite this, he produced superb posters for the theatre of Cracow. In his graphic composition course he taught us how to assemble the essential elements of a good poster. His method of teaching was absolutely free, but his kind of freedom was frowned on and subjected to all kinds of control.

Read the full interview in Eye Magazine

Romare Bearden on studying with George Grosz:

After I finished college I went to study with George Grosz at the Art Students League. Now you know Grosz was the great German artist who did the famous book Ecce Homo which has recently been republished. He was a marvelous draftsman. And when I started studying with Grosz, unlike the other students who usually were very tight, I would draw all over the paper. And Grosz said, “Now look, I want you to just draw the model’s hand, or maybe just the face. Just use the whole paper and draw it here because I want you to really observe.” And this is what I did. I spent a couple of years studying with Grosz…For two or three years I did political cartoons. Grosz had introduced me to a number of the great draftsmen of the past like Ingres, Holbein, Durer, and with my interest in cartooning I became intimate with Daumier and Forain and some of the other great satirical draftsmen. But then I become more and more interested in painting and gradually gave up my cartooning to concentrate mostly on painting because I felt that if I stayed too long in cartooning, you know, it would hurt my painting.

Read the full interview in the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art.