After more than 60 years teaching art history and architecture at Yale, Sterling professor emeritus Vincent Scully is stepping away from the lectern and turning his attention to writing and research.
At the age of 89, Scully — a New Haven native who over the years has been called Yale’s greatest lecturer and, by the late architect Philip Johnson, “the most influential architecture teacher ever” — said he does not feel well enough to teach his “Introduction to the History of Art” course. Apologizing repeatedly for canceling his famed course and for not having made his decision sooner, Scully, who has been teaching at Yale since 1947, said simply that he is exhausted, adding that he thought he would not be able to do a good job.
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“I kept hoping it would be all right,” Scully said in a phone interview. “I feel very sorry.”
The course will not be offered this fall, and the History of Art Department has not yet decided who will teach the course next year in Scully’s place. The second semester of the art history survey — which spans the period from the Renaissance to the present — will continue to be taught by History of Art Chair Alexander Nemerov.
After retiring at Yale’s behest in 1991, when an institutional retirement age was still legal, Scully returned the next year as a professor emeritus. He alternated between teaching “Introduction to the History of Art” and a class on modern architecture. For the last three years, he has offered only the former course at Yale, which he said he loves for its exploration of the fundamentals of art history.
Each spring since 1992, he flew south to teach modern architecture at the University of Miami, where he is a visiting professor. But Scully said it is also unlikely that he will teach that course again.
“I’m going to miss teaching because that’s what I focused on [for] most of my life, especially because I’m retired,” Scully said.
His lectures are legendary; stories of Scully’s electric presence abound in the lore of Yale and the architecture community.
He is known for his passion and the intense, performance-like quality of his delivery. He is rarely still, his voice both rising to fill the room and falling to a whisper when passion overtakes him. He still uses a traditional slide projector and a bamboo pointer the size of a broomstick, and once ripped a hole in the screen — though he simply blazed past the mishap and even worked it into the lecture.
When a slide ended up upside-down or out of order, the projectionist suffered the brunt of his wrath.
“Kevin, if I had a gun right now, I’d shoot you!” he would famously shout at Kevin Smith ’80 ARC ’84. Smith, now an architect at the New York firm of Architecture School Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, remains good friends with Scully.
Another tale recounts the time that Scully became so carried away by his lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright that he fell off the stage. (Later, Scully told the Yale Alumni Magazine that it was merely an ill-timed jump.) The inimitable Scully clambered back up, bleeding slightly, to cheers from his students.
Perhaps one of the best-known Scully moments occurred in 1991, when Scully officially retired and was set to give his last lecture to his modern architecture students. A cadre of 75 of his admirers and former students stood in the back of the room to show their respect. Looking out at the sea of faces — from Johnson, then an 85-year-old architect, to 31-year-old Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, designer of the Vietnam War Memorial — Scully was so overcome that he had to go outside to compose himself.
“To be a Scully student is to sit in that lecture hall and be thrilled,” New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger ’72 said, as he awarded his former professor the inaugural Vincent Scully Prize in 1999. “It is to expect the transcendent and to be taught that learning about architecture can bring you to the transcendent.”
For Goldberger and many others, Scully’s course proved to be a life-changing influence. David Childs, a prominent Manhattan architect whose firm is designing the new World Trade Center, was a premed student before he took Scully’s class, according to a 1991 New York Times article. Lin has said Scully inspired her design of the Vietnam memorial.
The list of Scully’s famous students goes on and on. For many students, his class was the one that created their interest in art history. Scully focuses on helping his audience understand a work in the context of its human environment, and to feel emotion simply by looking at it.
Former projectionist Smith said Scully is unique among other teachers in the visual arts, who he says often find it difficult to elicit emotional responses to visual objects from nonvisual people.
“Vince has this amazing talent to bring people nearly to the verge of tears,” he said.
And Scully has influenced whole families of Yalies, across generations. Nancy Alexander ’79 and Phil Bernstein ’79 ARC ’83 both took Scully’s class, as did their daughter, Alyssa Bernstein ’10, and Bernstein’s father, Mark Bernstein LAW ’57.
Phil Bernstein is now an architect, and spent many years working for the office of Cesar Pelli, a former dean of the School of Architecture. For Alexander, a non-architect who majored in sociology and is the current associate Chubb fellow of Timothy Dwight College, Scully irrevocably changed the way she viewed art.
In an interview earlier this month, Goldberger suggested that perhaps Scully’s biggest influence has been on those who did not go on to work in architecture — those in other fields who walked away from one of his courses with an appreciation for art and architecture.
As a scholar, Scully has worked on a wide range of topics, studying and writing on forms as diverse as Greek temples and Native American architecture.
Scully said he would like to get back to his research and writing projects, one of which is a book about empathetic, or emotional, and associative, or intellectual, responses to a work of art, and how they have developed at Yale over the last sixty years.
Still, he continued to apologize for canceling the class.
“I’ll still be connected,” Scully said about his future work. “But I am sorry.”
Goldberger insisted that it was important to recognize that Scully did retire in 1991.
“There were 18 more years than we thought there would be. We certainly can’t say it’s a career cut short!” he said with a laugh. “One can’t get greedy here. There’s only so much of anybody that the world is entitled to.”