Josef’s School of Art wunderkinds

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The year is 1951. Josef Albers, Dean of the Yale School of Art, looks around his classroom on the first day of the fall semester, and asks, “Who here wants to make art?” A few intrepid students raise their hands. Albers — German, unsympathetic — tells them to leave.

His students don’t make art, Albers says. ‘Artwork’ is something precious. His students make ‘work.’ And ‘work’ is something done with one’s hands: something messy, rough, and — at least in Albers’s view — never finished.

In the middle of the 20th century, Albers hand-picked each student at the School of Art, said Sam Messer, Associate Dean of the School today. In a process free of bureaucracy and ceremony, hopeful applicants would take their portfolios directly to Albers’s office, and the creative giant (though physically a man of slight build) would look over their work, critique it, and tell the student on the spot whether or not he was accepted. Harrowing, perhaps, but efficient. German.

“We don’t quite work that way anymore,” said Robert Storr, the current Dean. “I think I tend to be more permissive in terms of opening the doors, then really push people when I get them in.”

The School’s more orthodox, if still arduous, admissions process aside, much of the institutions’s character remains informed by Albers’s philosophy, according to faculty and students. His vocabulary, rigorous practices and theories about the marriage of art and technology are still revered at the school where he was Dean of the Design Department more than a half-century ago.

“People still talk about Albers all the time. I keep half-expecting to find some kind of shrine to him in a closet in the School of Art,” said undergrad art major Rebecca Schultz ’12.

HOMAGE TO THE ARTIST

In the time elapsed since Albers stepped down as Dean, the technological revolution and globalization have vigorously propelled the School of Art forward, and young, tech-savvy professors have taken the place of some old-world draftsmen on the faculty. Today, few of Albers’s contemporaries remain.

Professor Robert Reed, a highly-esteemed artist who taught under Albers and still teaches, said that the School has been thoroughly changed by the trappings of modernity, such as the internet.

“We may pay homage to Albers in many ways, but this is a very different school,” he said. “After all, it’s 2010.”

In the next decade of the 21st century, Storr hopes to see the Yale School of Art at the forefront of new media and fully engaged with the international art world. In many ways, these aspirations are in line with Albers’s Bauhaus and Black Mountain teachings, since the master artist promoted a set of ideals, rather than a specific aesthetic tied to era, medium, or place. A true modernist, Albers defined what the art critic Harold Rosenberg called the “tradition of the new.”

Ironically, Albers would later feud with Rosenberg over abstract expressionism, an art movement Rosenberg championed and Albers found overly self-indulgent. Fed up with abstract expressionism’s tormented existentialism and the tired claim that “painting was dead,” Albers sent Rosenberg a postcard that read: “Dear Harold, Angst is dead. – Josef.”

Albers could be gruff and abrasive in his opinions (his student Robert Rauschenberg famously feared his criticism), but he was tough about setting problems in motion – not bossy about what the answers should look like. And today those answers are manifested in contemporary media, such as video, mixed mediums, and computer pixels.

BAUHAUS BABY

In chilly Weimar Germany in the year 1920, Albers was one of the first students at the newly-founded Bauhaus school of design. Five work-filled years later, he was named a master at the school and began instructing young furniture designers and glass-blowers in unconventional techniques. ‘Bauhaus’ means ‘house of building,’ and it was there that Albers gained an appreciation for workmanship in art and a knack for experimenting with materials, said Storr. A set of Albers’s tables from that time could be stacked neatly to save space, and shattered glass bottles were melted into paintings or turned into factory windows.

Albers’s grandparents were blacksmiths and carpenters, and this modest lineage informed his theory that art could be functional and rational, and that the practice of art — like the practice of any craft — could be improved with rigorous study.

In 1933, the Nazis shuttered the avant-garde, rebellious Bauhaus as part of their suppression of “degenerate art,” and Albers made his way across the Atlantic with his wife Anni to the small but spirited Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, Albers taught that art was an essential component of a well-rounded liberal arts education, said Messer.

In 1950, Albers accepted the position of Dean of the Design Department at the Yale School of Art. He would hold that post for eight years, in which time he introduced pioneering ideas about color theory, discipline, and visual thinking to the curriculum, many of which persist to this day.

The lexicon that Albers favored — including the unassuming “work” rather than “artwork” — still circulates in the School’s halls among professors and students. Reed, who teaches the introductory art classes Basic Drawing and Intro Painting, insists that students not only use the term ‘work,’ but that they refer to assignments and evaluations as ‘investigations and ‘opportunities.’

The course of study in Basic Drawing continues to emphasize productivity and intense practice, as Albers intended. Students must make dozens of drawings, often repeating basic tasks, such as constructing ovals and straight lines, in each class or independent “investigation.”

“The expectation is that you will make a lot of work – that you will end up with both a large and cohesive body of work,” Schultz said. “The process is all about discipline and rigor.”

Storr credits Albers with bringing a seriousness to the Yale School of Art that had not been there previously. Under Albers’s deanship, art became an academic subject with expectations for its students as high as any other at Yale.

SCHOOL OF ART: THE START

The Yale School of Art opened its doors in 1869, with a curriculum based in the tradition of Italian and French Beaux-Arts academies. When these academies were founded, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the monarchs who created them meant for artists to study with the same thoroughness that others during the period studied rhetoric, geometry or history.

The academies also ended the old guild system, in which aspiring artists apprenticed to great masters for them to imitate. With the founding of the academies, students had a much broader base of knowledge from which to draw on (in every sense of the phrase). The Yale School of Art subscribed to this style of arts education until Albers’s arrival, when he up-ended long-standing traditions.

Albers immediately rejected the Beaux Arts hierarchy of artistic disciplines, said Storr. Where once painting, closely followed by heroic sculpture, was considered the most important and respectable medium, Albers insisted that students instead become proficient in a wide variety of skills. He encouraged them to use then-radical materials, such as found objects and general detritus.

Although Albers adhered to a particular visual composition — his most well-known series, “Homage to the Square,” consisted of layered hard-edge squares in various colors — he experimented with lighting and interaction of tones extensively within this framework. And, perhaps more importantly, he insisted on innovation from his students. He never intended for them to make the same style of art as he did, or as one another.

“Albers did not teach a style, but a way of thinking, a way of breaking problems down, and a way of working with your hands and mind simultaneously,” Storr said.

While some art schools have fallen into patterns over the years, churning out a particular type of artist, the Yale School of Art has largely avoided a single “house style.” Faculty members may hold strong opinions, said Storr, but ultimately the students get to decide what direction their work will take.

Sofia Ortiz ’11, a student in the painting concentration, agreed. You’re taught how artists in the past have solved problems you’ll then encounter in your work,” she said. “Of course it’s valuable to see how other artists have worked out issues of space and issues of color.”

Added Grace Needleman ’11, also a painting concentrator, “Very quickly, very early on, you’re asked to make something based on your own ideas.”

Needleman’s work draws on her own family history and Oriental design, delivered with a fluorescent palette, in spray paint, with collage and photographic elements.

ALBERS’S ENDURING MATERIAL PRESENCE

The class most closely identified with Albers to this day, Color Theory, examines how colors relate to one another and the effects of juxtaposing different values. Albers developed the class while at Yale, and wrote the textbook for the course, “The Integration of Color,” which was then published in 1963 and used in art schools across America, said Clint Jukkala, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Art.

Up until two years ago, the class was taught by Richard Lydell, who had been Albers’s teaching assistant when he invented the course.

“The principles Albers developed in that book have made it one of the most important texts in the study of art,” Jukkala said. “It has influenced pedagogies across the United States. At the Rhode Island School of Design and plenty of other art schools, Color Theory is also often taught by students of Albers or students of students of his.”

But while Albers’s theories could easily be applied to more traditional forms of art, in Albers’s day, there was little video art and film production. There were few performance artists, and the first primitive computer ‘art’ wouldn’t come about until 1962, when Dr. A. M. Noll designed a digital program to generate random patterns and shapes for purely artistic purposes.

Today, said students, the form that art takes is critical to its function.

“Modern art, post-Duchamp, is constantly, almost necessarily, in dialogue about form and discipline,” Schultz said.

Rarely do artists adhere to a single medium or set of materials in this era, faculty and students agreed. The idea of being a painting concentrator — and the idea that this would mean the artist uses only paint and canvas — is old-fashioned, if not antiquated.

“We’re behind almost every art school in the country in that we haven’t yet eliminated divisions between the disciplines,” said Needleman.

Although the school still distinguishes between concentrations — painting and print-making, sculpture, photography and graphic design — the sculpture track at the school now includes all kinds of materials, said Ortiz. And one graduate student in the painting program, Caroline Chandler ART ’11, almost exclusively knits.

Today, School of Art students rarely fall neatly into one category of art-making.

Painting student Brendan Smith ART ’11 uses liquid plastic and balloons in his work, in addition to oil paints and safflower oil — a type of cooking oil. Christopher Page ART ’11, another painting student, carves rigid insulation foam into abstract shapes, which he then paints for trompe l’oeil effects.

Smith said most painting students also use technology at some point in their processes — photographing the painting in different stages of work or incorporating digital projection and LCD displays into the final project.

In the Graphic Design department, Mylinh Nguyen ART ’11 does mostly web-based conceptual projects. She recently developed an internet piece called General Public Library, in which library visitors help curate the collection catalog online. Nguyen got her undergraduate degree from the Univeristy of California Los Angeles, where she said she learned Color Theory from Albers’s textbook.

Kristian Henson ART ’12 said School of Art students in the graphic design department are also encouraged to use web-based processes and materials. A student in sculpture, Andy Maas ART ’11, recently did a piece that sequenced different images drawn from Flickr, the public photo sharing website.

One student concentrating in photography, Heyward Hart ART ’11, said he only uses traditional black and white film and development techniques, but he is the exception to the rule.

“Of course everything’s digital now,” Hart said. “Film may be on the way out, but in the same way that books are on the way out. I mean, some people still do glass-plate photography, which is completely obsolete.“

Hart said most photography students who shoot film still use some digital processes in their work — by scanning or printing digital images, or using photoshop.

Though Albers died long before the internet was used as an artistic medium, it isn’t difficult to imagine him taking up the new tool. An enthusiast of the industrial revolution, Albers remained an artist with an engineer’s mind and a technical bent. He was at home in every kind of workshop – photoshop would have been right up his alley.

YALE SCHOOL OF ART AND THE REST OF THE PLANET

Acknowledging the School’s great debt to Albers, Storr articulated his desire to expand the School’s horizons internationally. He has brought in artists from around the world to speak in guest lectures, and he has devoted gallery space in the School of Art to exhibits of international art in recent years, including a showing of contemporary art from India just last year.

Susan Cahan, the Associate Dean for the Arts of Yale College said she is working with the Office of International Experience to encourage undergraduate art majors to take summer opportunities to travel and expand their understandings of art in the world at large while working on independent projects.

In his period, the globe-trotting Albers also subscribed to the idea that there is a kind of universal grammar to art forms that can be translated across countries.

“Internationalism was always a tenant of true modernism, which was very cosmopolitan,” said Storr. “The early phases of utopian modernism took the view that world was there to be reorganized.”

When asked how he felt about the living spirit of Albers in the School of Art today, Storr said: “Well, I’m certainly not going to let it die on my watch.”

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