Corrections or additions?
This column by Frank R.Rivera was prepared for the September 10,
2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Clean Sweep Season
A new art season has begun and in one gorgeous, clean
sweep, my new status has ushered in a sense of adventure and fluidity
that I had forgotten was possible. For the first September in 20
I am not headed back to the classroom. I now have more time to pursue
my own work, painting. What has greater impact for me is my release
from an academic calendar — and the predictable summons of school
bells (so to speak) each September.
Asked to reflect on my experience in art education, and perhaps
a few of those ineffable touchstones that go into the making of a
working artist, I hesitated, questioning how my personal experiences
would be of interest to anyone. Then I realized that although almost
everyone will eventually face the challenge of forsaking a regular
job for the freedom of "retirement," the experience may be
different for an artist. Here’s how it is for me.
Psychologists tell us that rearranging one’s life and disposing of
encumbrances — including what one does for a living — can
play havoc with one’s notion of self. Not so with me. Apparently I
never defined myself solely as a "teacher" despite the fact
that I have taught almost continuously from my first appointment at
Michigan State University in 1962 up to my separation from Mercer
County Community College in May, 2003.
To be sure, I’ve taken many sabbaticals — formal and informal.
Several of these leaves were taken for large chunks of time in special
charismatic places — like Paris and New York; but I have also
had smaller, weekly bites of discretionary time in nurturing places
like the little town where I live.
For an artist-teacher, and equally for an artist-student, there are
two places to be and they are not mutually exclusive. There is that
physical place where one lives and works and there is that place in
one’s head, which by degrees forms the art one produces. These two
very different places have a symbiotic relationship; and if artists
are removed from the physical place that inspired their art, they
must carry that place around in their heads.
For me, long periods of living in New York lofts while commuting to
teach in central New Jersey have furnished that head place rather
richly. Artists must be exposed to art in some physical place. That
exposure can be distilled and stored, but its shelf life is limited
and it must be renewed periodically. I have learned during my long
career in teaching that this obligation to renewal is fundamental
and is a prerequisite for growth. Making art new again is the only
goal worth pursuing. The failure to renew is to be forever an art
student and never an artist.
Many of the best students are found in the better competitive schools,
where there is a better faculty, i.e., working artists and art
in a growth environment. Students will glean what they can; and their
ideas will initially have the look and feel of their teachers’ work.
It is, of course, derivative — that dreaded "D" word, and
that’s OK as a starting point.
Trying to communicate the way to true artistic independence is next
to impossible, even when the students are very good. New talent is
like a newborn infant with no concept that growth and development
are even remotely possible. Some individuals eventually pass through
the eye of the needle, breaking the yoke of derivation as they travel
The way in which a teacher may jump-start such a breakthrough may
be "mostly luck," as art educator Johannes Itten has observed.
In an essay on the Bauhaus he writes, "A good teacher is an alert
teacher. A word spoken at the right moment will unlock the door to
the creative center."
I could not find a good teacher in Ashtabula, Ohio, where I grew up.
I did not find such teachers until I arrived at the Yale Art School
in the early 1960s. Even more importantly, it was there that I found
myself in the company of some very good students, including Brice
Marden, Robert Mangold, Richard Serra, and Janet Fish. Only tomorrow
will we learn who their counterparts are today.
Growth also occurs outside the formal institutions of higher learning,
in environments where artists live and work. It is the interaction
between good students that leads to great art.
My own breakaway from the derivative occurred in 1964,
when I worked as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). During
the ’60s, the guard staff was said to be as well educated as the
staff. The guards were mostly painters and sculptors; many with MFA
degrees, during a period in which the MFA was still something of a
novelty. As guards and studio artists we celebrated (in a kind of
perverse way) the gulf between ourselves and the art historians, who
made up the curatorial staff. In a triumph of fantasy, we guards felt
we were engaged in making the history of art, while the curators
Our paychecks reflected a more humbling reality, but we guards were
able to live comfortably on our $86 weekly salary. That sum permitted
me, for example, to share an apartment on East 14th Street with enough
money left over to pay the $45 monthly rent on a fifth-floor walk-up
loft on Broome Street and West Broadway.
The real epiphany for us recent graduates of famous art schools
inside the museum, where we were able to commune with the great art
of the 20th century. Sometimes those conversations with great pictures
occurred in exquisite solitude, for MoMA then was not the cultural
multiplex that it is today. At 10:45 a.m. sharp, we would spread out
like an invading army of caretakers to our assignments. Typically,
the first gallery visitors would not penetrate our space until 11:15.
The phenomenon of crowds queuing up an hour before the doors opened
was unheard of.
New York was a kinder, gentler place in that decade from 1960 to 1970,
but it was not an easy place. Fortitude was required then, no less
than it is today, for ambitious painters and sculptors, struggling
to penetrate the system. In those days — before Soho, Chelsea,
Hoboken — there were fewer contenders, but there were also fewer
opportunities. Galleries like Hirschl & Adler, Knoedler, and Castelli
were the behemoths that ruled a restrictive, narrow corridor known
as Madison Avenue. The art world of glitter and money was well-armored
against nuisance assaults by recent art graduates with dreams of
I have come to realize, however, that growth as an artist is not
upon acceptance — although acceptance is always welcome; and that
art is far more enduring than the art establishment of New York. If
the right people come together — either by choice or by chance
— if they talk and make demands on one another, an open, joyous
approach to making art will ensue.
As the new art season begins in central New Jersey, we can give thanks
to the many fine school galleries that shape it. Our community has
only a few commercial galleries and the schools, colleges, and
provide a valuable showcase for a large population of professional
artists, including many recent talented graduates to whom this article
My counsel to each of you would be to retreat to that place in your
head if you must. Should you tire of your assault on the system, seek
the company of others like yourself. Challenge authority, and break
the yoke of derivation.
emeritus at Mercer County Community College who has contributed to
U.S. 1 Newspaper since September, 2002. He plans to spend the month
of November on an unpaid, non-sabbatical leave in Paris.
Art at the Colleges
painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, computer graphics,
fiber art, video, and animation. To October 8.
October 22 to December 3. "BFA Thesis Exhibition," December
5 to 16. "Mercer County Photography Exhibition," January 21
to February 18. "National Drawing Show ’04," February 25 to
March 31. "Art Student Exhibition," April 14 to 18. "BFA
Thesis Exhibition," April 30 to May 7.
West Windsor campus, 609-586-4800, ext. 3589.
five emerging artists and launching the new season at MCCC. Featured
artists are Dan Hodgkinson, Jason Houck, Eric Kennedy, Matt Lucash,
and Kathryn Sclavi. Artist panel discussion September 17 at 7 p.m.
with Kate Somers, curator at the Bristol-Myers Squibb gallery; Frank
Rivera, art critic with U.S. 1 Newspaper; and fine arts professors
Greg Drasler of Princeton University, Mel Leipzig of MCCC, and Kyle
Stevensen, also of MCCC. Show runs to September 27.
exhibition by painter and printmaker. A lecturer in the Department
of Visual Arts at Princeton University, Wiener is working on a series
based on the medieval book of hours. Gallery talk and reception is
Thursday, September 25; show runs to October 17.
and "Recent Acquisitions in Asian Art: 1998 to 2003," both
shows to January 6. "Aaron Siskind at 100," photography show
on view to November 11. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to
5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Highlights tours every Saturday at 2 p.m.
University Collections," September 13 to January 11.
from the Princeton University Art Museum Collection," September
23 to December 8.
More than 100 Centaurs, Satyrs, Sphinxes, Sirens, Gorgons, and other
fantastic creatures in ceramic, stone, bronze, gold, and terracotta.
October 11 to January 11, 2004. "The Book of Kings: Art, War,
and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible," March 6 to June
Nassau, 609-258-4712. Fall lecture series; all talks at 4:30 p.m.
Fernandez," sculptor and installation artist, October 21.
Sikander," figurative painter, November 4. "Philip
abstract painter, November 11.
instructor Keary Rosen. Observing the classical genre of portraiture,
Rosen uses himself, his wife, and their two cats as the subjects for
his current works. The title of his show is a play on Isaac Asimov’s
1950 sci-fi novel, "I, Robot." September 12 to 25.
K. Brodsky, Princeton printmaker, Rutgers art professor emerita, and
founder of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper.
series of 100 photo etchings were created from snapshots of various
members of her extended family, dating back to the 19th century. Each
image carries the artist’s personal anecdote about the people
and her thoughts on the process of assimilation; September 25 to
streets, New Brunswick, 732-932-7237.
"Themes in Focus: Cartoon-ography," to January 4. "Soviet
Artists, Jewish Imagery: Selections from the Norton and Nancy Dodge
Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art," featuring 40 works on
a variety of Jewish themes, to November 21. "American Sculpture
from the Zimmerli Collection," to November 16.
from the George Riabov Collection of Russian Art," celebrating
the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding with rare prints and
watercolors. September 18 to February 1.
Printmaking Studios," "Selections of Soviet Nonconformist
Prints: A Western Point of View." December 7 to March 21.
June 27. "Something to Treasure: Original Art for Children’s Books
by Roger Duvoisin." January 25 to April 18.
21 to July 27. "Soviet Propaganda Posters," February 26 to
July 6. "Transcultural New Jersey: The Mainstream and the
April 4 to July 31. "A-Mazing: Illustrations for Mazescapes by
Roxie Munro," May 1 to July 18.
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-932-2222, ext. 798.
and Rutgers University, 1958-1972" tracing the early years of
artmaking based at Rutgers organized by faculty member Geoffrey
a founding member of Fluxus. Opening reception is Saturday, October
4; closing reception, Saturday, November 1, 5 to 8 p.m. Show runs
October 1 to November 5.
Art at the Schools
Duchamp’s appropriation of the lowly flat iron as its point of
with reference to Man Ray’s "Cadeau" of 1921, a flat iron
with tacks. Guest curator is John Goodyear, professor emeritus at
Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Opening reception
is Saturday, September 13, 3 to 5 p.m., for the show that runs to
of nature photography, to October 3.
19 to October 3. "Myself, My Camera, My World," the
of the Ennis Beley Project, a four-week photography program for
or formerly homeless teens, September 19 to October 3.
show by Tim Trelease, chair of the Peddie arts department. September
19 to October 10. "Michael Maxwell," paintings and interactive
works, October 17 to November 5.
January 9 to 30. "Catherine Robohm Watkins," mixed-media works
by Catherine Watkins. Show runs February 6 to 22. "Contemporary
Directions in New Media," a show of works by up-and-coming artists
working in new media. April 2 to 18.
Corrections or additions?
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