Before Eva Hesse MFA ’59 was creating sculptures of rope, latex and cheesecloth, and long before her Minimalist work hung at the Brooklyn Museum and the Fischbach Gallery in New York, she was just another student in the Yale University School of Art.
Hesse went on to become one of the most well-known modern artists of the 1960s. But she was far from the only one. In the 1950s and ’60s, Yale produced a number of young painters, sculptors, graphic designers, architects and other artists who made their marks on the world of modern art. While the art department consistently turns out a crop of talents each year, the number of famous contemporary Yale artists is especially striking.
“Yale probably didn’t have a formal influence,” Jennifer Gross, a junior curator of the Yale Art Gallery, said of Yale’s effect on the Modern period. “But certainly, in terms of individual artists, Yale has always had a very strong influence. The art school has produced very noteworthy graduates.”
Like many of the other noteworthy graduates, Hesse studied under Josef Albers, a figure eminent in the Modernist movement and the head of the Yale design department from 1950-1958. Before he came to Yale, Albers taught at the Bauhaus School — the most famous of avant-garde art institutions.
Albers earned a widespread reputation for his paintings and murals, glass and metal sculptures, furniture and typography designs, and for his poetry, articles and books on art. But he was no less influential in New Haven — or in Hesse’s life. In Hesse’s earlier years, her pieces were brightly-colored, much like those of Albers. Later, Hesse became known for her monochromatic, organic approach to her work with industrial materials, Gross said.
And even later, when she’d fully adopted her own style, Hesse still planned some of her pieces out on grids, a technique she learned from Albers, Gross said.
Other students who attended the Yale School of Art during that period remember its vibrancy.
“You were seeing what people were doing in photography, film, sculpture, as well as architecture, graphic design,” said Sheila de Bretteville, a student in the graphic design department from 1962-64. “All of us were pushing to see what we could do.”
Now the professor and director of graphic design in the Yale School of Art, de Bretteville said that one of the foremost influences in the Yale School of Art during this period was the “perceptual method.” Basically, this method was the idea that the viewer of a work of art can, or should, be able to understand it just by seeing it; the viewer shouldn’t need to have a “conceptual position” to understand the piece.
At the same time, de Bretteville said, the perceptual method wasn’t the only one in the school during the period. For example, Richard Serra ART ’64, who became a famous contemporary sculptor, was an expressionist painter at the time. Members of the faculty specialized in everything from narrative to figurative styles.
Since that period, faculty members said, the school has only grown more varied. While it incorporated many styles in the ’50s and ’60s, the specific departments — painting, sculpture, architecture, and so on — were separate. In the past decade or so, however, programs have become more and more interdisciplinary, said Dean Sakamoto, a critic in the School of Architecture.
De Bretteville agreed.
“There’s a thick edge of overlap between departments and areas of study, as well as the traditional centers,” she said. “When I was a student here, we were separate. Our work did not overlap.”
But other things about the school have remained the same. The individuality and independence of the artists is one consistent aspect, Gross said.
Generally, the students did not work in the structured, tight-knit groups predominant in earlier periods — such as the Bloomsbury Group of early 20th-century Britain. As a result, Yale’s effect on the Modern movement was not very programmatic, Gross said.
Nonetheless, Yale’s influence was especially displayed in the 1950s and ’60s. Other than Hesse, famous Yale artists included Chuck Close ’63 MFA ’64, Janet Fish ART ’63, Nancy Graves ART ’64 and Jennifer Bartlett ’64 MFA ’65. Their pieces are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Tate Gallery in London.
One of Hesse’s friends, Serra, went on to have exhibitions of his sculptures everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris.
Brice Marsden ART ’63 had his Minimalist paintings exhibited everywhere from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. While at Yale, Marsden developed the aspects that came to characterize his work: his muted, unique palette, his fixation on rectangles, and his gridded compositions. And Robert Mangold ART ’62 also developed much of his signature Minimalist style at Yale. He, too, went on to prominence in the art world — his exhibition of paintings, “Walls and Areas,” was held at the Fischbach Gallery in 1965, and other of his pieces were exhibited in museums in New York, San Diego and Amsterdam.
The Yale Art School may have had a slight advantage during modern art’s heyday, Gross said, because few other schools had formalized art programs during the ’50s and ’60s.
When de Bretteville was looking at art schools, she said, there were only three she was interested in: Harvard, Yale and a school in Verona, Italy. Because Yale’s fine arts program was the oldest in the country, and because it had a graphic design department, she chose Yale.
While she knew many of the now-famous artists, she said, there were many other talents who never stepped into the limelight.
“Not everybody is that lucky or that ambitious, or happened to work in the styles that became popular,” de Bretteville said. “There are many different factors that work to make people visible — perseverance, working in the right place at the right time.”
Yet despite the number of obstacles on the road to art fame, each class at Yale claims renowned talents — and not only those from the 1950s and ’60s, Gross said.
“Yale has produced noteworthy artists for generations and generations. It’s been consistent since that time period,” Gross said. “Yale is widely recognized in the art world. [But these artists are] in a point in their career where they’re very public. By the time you’re Bob Mangold and Richard Serra’s world, you’re in the canon.”
“Yale’s fine arts program is the first in the country,” he said, “and I guess I would say that Yale has been tremendously influential through the work of its graduates.”
–Staff Reporter Hillary August contributed to this story.