Behind Green Hall lies the nucleus of the Yale School of Art, 353 Crown St. Beyond a candy-colored spectrum of vintage bicycles, and through a double meniscus of glass doors, a gallery overlooks The Pit — the painter’s equivalent of a gladiator’s arena. It is here that the School of Art’s MFA painting candidates, members of a powerhouse commune, submit their work for critique. On two floors, private studios leak an aroma of warm fried rice and hookah, turpentine and spray fixative. Six-foot-tall paintings lean casually against doorjambs.
Someone greets you as if nothing could surprise anyone here. You may as well go in and lie down — it’s 7 p.m., and they’ll be here all night.
This dizzying Bohemia is an incubator, of sorts, for some of the most important artists of the professional world. Familiar names include Chuck Close ’63 MFA ’64, Eva Hesse ’59 and Richard Serra ’62 MFA ’64. Even Matthew Barney ’89 — husband to swan maiden Bjork and “the most influential American artist of his generation” per New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman — studied at Yale as an undergraduate, and performed a tedious senior project involving Vaseline, steel and public nudity in the Payne Whitney Gym.
In fact, there is a laundry list of veritable art stars: Bow-tie clad Robert Reed BFA ’60 MFA ’62 and Peter Halley ’75 have both returned to Yale to offer seasoned expertise and gesticulations as professors at the School of Art. Given its role as a puppy mill of art stars, and its proximity to the New York gallery world, one wonders whether Yale’s tradition of fame has spoiled artistic innovation with promises of success. Intellectual potential, it seems, has overcome the financial temptation of a market-driven aesthetic.
An artful enterprise
Recently, a working paper by University of Chicago economist David Galenson encouraged a flood of reporters and art speculators to take a closer look at the Yale School of Art. In the article, Galenson speculates that the School of Art offers a viable business venture from which ravenous collectors and savvy consumers alike can profit.
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn — who owns Studio94, a gallery for contemporary artwork on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — said strong MFA programs are often productive places to scout new talent.
“Over the last decade, Yale has had a very strong program,” she said. “Our industry is a very inefficient business, so schools that have very rigorous programs are a good place to start.”
In the 1990s, Rohatyn curated a show of contemporary photography with Yale’s own photography professor Gregory Crewdson, and she showcased the work of Wangechi Mutu MFA ’00 at Studio94 just a few months ago. Rohatyn said she even makes the occasional traffic-laden commute to New Haven if she hears news of a particularly inspiring student.
This is hardly a recent phenomenon — according to Peter Halley, director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking, Yale’s relationship with New York has been an ongoing dialogue since the Second World War. Studying art in New York is “a little like making art in Grand Central Station,” he said. Yale is especially well-placed to facilitate the development of young artists in the idyllic New Haven, far enough from the glib, Prada-swathed New York frenzy to allow students to focus, but close enough to provide them with the opportunity to observe and participate in the international art scene.
Many of Yale’s art students resist the moneyed temptations and austere galleries of New York. Second year painting student Logan Grider MFA ’07, emerging from a studio littered with cardboard and spray-on foam sculptures, said that while New York’s centrality in the art world can help young artists establish connections, Manhattan is “too much of a pressure cooker.” Similarly, the fabled existence of the starving New York artist in a (now impossibly expensive) SoHo loft is virtually unfeasible.
Robert Storr’s version of this exploited fairytale reads something like this: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an economic recession and the de-industrialization of Manhattan allowed artists to move into expansive sun-soaked lofts in SoHo, before exposed brick was a purchasable aesthetic.
“The scene was much looser, the rewards were much lower,” Storr said. “You could work two or three days a week doing something, … and you could pay for a big loft, materials and beer.”
But the idea of a young artist trying to do today what Yale’s famous graduates did 40 years ago is almost laughably implausible.
Regardless of an encroaching New York market and the moot promise of SoHo bohemia, the goal of the Art School is to provide the artist with the confidence and skill to concentrate on his work, regardless of his situation. And students said they came to New Haven not because of the School of Art’s famous graduates, but for the opportunity to study under exceptional art instructors.
“You can name some art stars that graduated from the MFA program,” Grider said, “but I don’t know how much I’m really in admiration of all of their work. Yale’s Art School is so influential because the faculty has been so consistently reputable.”
Yui Kugimiya MFA ’07 said Yale’s faculty is very intimately connected to the New York art community, which enables students to benefit from those valuable relationships and allows the University to invite superlative visiting artists throughout the year.
Patrick McElnea MFA ’07 said Yale’s art program has been significant in the international art community since the late 1950s, when Josef Albers taught a group of students who went on to be particularly successful — including Close and Hesse, whom McElnea calls Yale’s first powerhouse team.
Robert Reed, who has taught at the School of Art for 37 years, said that even though the faculty is continually changing, a vigorous dedication to teaching remains.
“Over my 30-odd years here, I’ve seen the way the faculty has changed,” Reed said. “We don’t have the greatest facilities that other schools sell themselves with, but we have a commitment to teaching. Other art schools often live off of their past reputations, but I’ve been around long enough to see that Yale’s reputation is constantly evolving.”
The importance of a
liberal arts experience
Many of the School of Art’s most illustrious graduates studied at Yale as undergraduates only, once wearing residential college lanyards and dining in Commons. In addition to the misconception that many art students are drawn to Yale solely because of its affiliation with famous artists, the undergraduate art program is often overlooked as a mere subsidiary to the graduate MFA program. Robert Reed, emerging from the variegated clamor of his “Intro Painting” studio, offered zealous support for Yale’s artistic undergrads.
“Graduates from the undergraduate art program are part of that same group of artists that people know and talk about, even though most people only think about the MFA program,” said Reed, who is known for his commitment to undergraduate education. “Some graduate students even come to Yale because of the big names associated with the program, and don’t realize that many of those big name artists were here as undergrads.”
And yet some current undergraduate art majors have expressed dissatisfaction with the department. Eunice Cho ’07, an undergraduate art major concentrating in painting, lauds the faculty the undergraduate and graduate programs share. But Cho notices a discrepancy: There are so few undergraduate art majors that courses fill up with non-art majors. Consequently, professors tend to demand and expect less from their students, she said.
On the other hand, an undergraduate liberal arts program can also provide the stimulation a young artist needs to fuel their work.
“Art isn’t about simply manual skill or formal training,” Peter Halley said, “but rather the ability to integrate ideas from all areas of human endeavor.”
Reed seconded Halley’s comments and added that these undergraduates’ successes were due, in part, to an interdisciplinary education.
“The future of the education of artists is in college and university settings,” Reed said. “Art students feed off of all of the other things they learn — biology, literature, architecture — as undergraduates.”
Reed expressed the hope that Yale’s art program become more integrated with the rest of the University.
“We’re on the periphery of campus, but I’d like to think that what we do here should be more a part of a liberal arts education,” he said. “Every self-respecting Yale undergraduate should take at least one visual arts class — specifically drawing — before graduating.”
The School of Art applies the theory of contextualizing art education within a broader liberal arts setting as well: Grad students are required to take two non-art courses at Yale each year. While this requirement is an annoyance to some MFA students, others appreciate their access to Yale’s resources.
“Taking this course is making me wish I had come to Yale as an undergrad,” said McElnea, who is taking a course cross-listed in the Comparative Literature and German Studies departments.
In-session art stars
Despite the program’s efforts to broaden the scope of the School of Art’s MFA program, some students feel that studying art at the graduate level has become too pre-professional.
“Careerism is coming to Yale, and I’m starting to realize how negative the art world can be for a young, developing artist,” Grider said.
McElnea said it can be dangerous to be exposed to the art world too early, because collectors and exhibitors expect a consistency that is difficult for “students who are trying to articulate their own visual syntax” to achieve. Grider pointed out the difficulty of mastering the language of painting when forced to compete with other, more widely available forms of visual communication and entertainment.
Grider said young artists are very marketable, but he maintains that a market driven on young art will bottom out.
“Showing your work while you’re still a student keeps you from developing,” he said. “With very few exceptions, it takes a long time to develop a consistent artistic voice. The less interesting work out there is usually young work. What is a 20-something-year-old going to enlighten?”
Grider said he hopes to begin exhibiting in his 30s, once he has had ample time to let everything he has learned at Yale sink in. McElnea also said he is not interested in exhibiting now.
“I’m in this for the long haul, so I’m not up at night worried about who is going to buy my art right now,” he said. But Grider did acknowledge that exhibiting while still a student can be very helpful financially.
Kugimiya said Yale’s MFA program used to be more about facilitating student discussions and debates about art and less about making art marketable enough to be sold in galleries. But the New York art scene has changed, she said, and the Yale School of Art has evolved to reflect these changes.
Halley, however, stressed that producing marketable students is not the goal of the art program.
“There are some people who are professionally involved with art who visit, but it’s really the minority,” he said. “[Open studios at the end of the academic year are] the only time people like critics or galleries are ever allowed officially to set foot.”
The purpose of open studios, he said, is not to sell students but “to throw open the doors and say ‘Look what we’ve been doing all year!’”
Preserving an intellectual discourse
Burgeoning economy aside, the School of Art is still very much a place of dialectics and conversations. Grider said the program encourages students to question their professors, each other and themselves. He added that both the students and faculty are extremely diverse, so no one viewpoint dominates the program.
“If you do well here, it’s because you’re questioning and changing,” he said.
While students may come to the MFA program to continue what they were working on before enrolling, Kugimiya said the program is about experimentation and the exchange of information.
“The first year was mostly about deconstructing our thoughts and philosophies about art, and this year — my second year — is about the process of reconstruction,” she said.
Aligned with this idea, Reed said the graduate program is particularly rigorous in its demands.
“One of the things that distinguishes our graduate program is accountability,” he said. “The school demands a high degree of accountability from the students. A lot of people don’t know that you’re kind of admitted into your second year after being reviewed and critiqued throughout the first year.”
Robert Storr, the dean of the School of Art, recalls a conversation between Close and Serra that best illustrates the Art School’s philosophy: At the time, it was believed that art historians created problems and artists were expected to solve them. But, as Serra told Close, artists should be creating, not solving, problems.
“So, if somebody comes to Yale thinking that they’re problem-solving, and leaves Yale thinking that they’re problem creators,” Storr said, “then they will have spent their time well.”