Yale School of Art professor Robert Reed ’60 ART ’62, a renowned painter who taught at Yale for almost 50 years, died on Dec. 26 in New Haven following a long battle with cancer. He was 76.
Born in Virginia in 1938, Reed attended Morgan State College, where he received a B.S. in 1958. After subsequent degrees from Yale, he joined the faculty in 1969 as a professor of painting and printmaking. He also served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in art and Director of Graduate Studies in painting. At the time of his death, Reed was the only fully tenured African-American professor at the art school.
Reed’s work has been exhibited across the nation and Europe, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
“He had a signal role in diversifying the upper echelons of the University and providing a model for the many students of color who have graduated since the 1960s,” Dean of the School of Art Robert Storr said in an email.
In the summer of 1960, Reed was a student at the Yale School of Art and Music in Norfolk. He went on to teach there and served as director of the program from 1970 to 1974. Reed later founded and directed the Institute for Studio Studies in Auvillar, France, which is associated with Yale Summer Session.
Throughout his life, Reed received numerous accolades for his work. He was a Yaddo Fellow and a board member for the McDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. He received the national award from the National Council of Art Administrators in 2000 and the Distinguished Teaching of Art award from the College Art Association in 2004.
At Yale, Reed was perhaps best known for his unwavering commitment to undergraduates, many of whom were not art majors. He wished that the art program would become better integrated into the greater Yale community and even told the News in 2006 that “every self-respecting Yale undergraduate should take at least one visual arts class [before graduation].”
Associate Dean of the School of Art Samuel Messer ART ’81 said he was overwhelmed by the number of non-majors who remember Reed’s class as a pivotal point in their undergraduate career. He added that students “just worshipped [Reed].”
Storr echoed these sentiments, noting that Reed possessed a unique gift in undergraduate teaching.
Among the classes Reed taught at Yale were Introduction to Painting and Basic Drawing, the latter of which attracted many students with no prior art experience.
Even though the course was held at 8:25 a.m., Reed was a stickler for punctuality and forbade students from taking the class if they arrived late. He was well known across the University for his “tough love” teaching style.
According to Josephine Massey ’15, who took Reed’s Basic Drawing course, his strict nature coincided with a paternal concern for student well-being and improvement, as well as a desire to instill confidence.
“I don’t think you could’ve taken a class with [Reed] and not cried or thought about crying,” said Carolyn Forrester ’15, who took Introduction to Painting. “But it came from a place of knowing and believing, and he made me realize I could be a painter if I worked and believed enough.”
Students also noted that Reed was nondiscriminatory in his approach — he expected the same from all students, regardless of their artistic backgrounds.
According to Forrester, Reed expected commitment unparalleled in any other class at Yale and once assigned six paintings due the same day.
“What he expected from us we didn’t even think was possible,” Massey said. “You’d do something and think it was the best thing, and he’d tell us all the things we could fix. [His class] was a constant attempt at improvement.”
“He treated each person like an artist,” Forrester added. “He made me see painting in a way I hadn’t seen it before.”
Despite battling cancer for several years, Reed still retained a passion for teaching and continued to teach at Yale and during the Summer Session in France.
In 2014, he received the William Clyde DeVane Medal for distinguished teaching and scholarship in the college, an award that students and faculty members said he fully deserved.
Professor of painting and printmaking Rochelle Feinstein said that despite physical weakness, Reed was active in the department in his last months, and that “his conviction and respect for his position was unflagging.”
Forrester agreed, adding that though Reed was quite ill, he would come in early every morning to review each student’s studio, and his attention to detail remained as sharp as ever.
“The man was in the hospital twice a week and could tell if you changed the tiniest shade of red,” she said.
Reed is survived by his wife, two children and three grandchildren. A memorial honoring Reed will be held at the School of Art in April, and his work will be shown in an exhibit in the school in the fall.
Correction: Jan. 2
A previous version of this article misattributed Carolyn Forrester’s ’15 statement about Reed’s expectations for his students to Josephine Massey ’15.