At 8:25 a.m. on the first day of classes of my freshman year, I walked into Basic Drawing. There were about thirty students; Professor Reed sat on a stool in the middle of the room. His face was stern and his gaze piercing. He told us that Basic Drawing should be required for all Yalies, because it taught people to see. I texted my mother after class to tell her that I would cry a lot but learn a lot with Professor Reed. Basic Drawing challenged me like no other class I’ve taken. I learned about spatial experiences, how to make a drawing convincing, about investing in each mark on the page. It pushed me to my limits and forced me to stretch myself in ways I didn’t know I could bear. Somehow I came out of it, and at the end Professor Reed called me a “goddamn soldier.”
I took Introduction to Painting last fall with him as my sophomore advisor. Room 207 in Green Hall became my second home on campus, where I laughed and sang and cried my way (again) through the semester with my classmates. We formed our own set of vocabulary for the visual literacy Professor Reed constructed in that room: “Marlon Brando,” “Straight No Chaser,” “make those colors behave.” Professor Reed could be very harsh, but I came to see with increasing clarity during my second semester with him that he demanded so much from us because he believed so intensely in us, often more than we believed in ourselves. A deep kindness pierced through his stern facade. One day I was sick, and he told me to either lie down on the couch or go home. When I lay down, he draped a blanket over me and kept one eye on me for the rest of class.
This year, as the wind turns sharper and the colors of New England autumn begin to tinge the leaves, I cry again, but for a different reason. It is hard for me to enter Green Hall without feeling the pang of absence. After a long battle with cancer, Professor Robert Reed ’60 ART ’62 no longer passes through the halls where he walked from 1958 to December 2014 as an undergraduate, a graduate student and a teacher.
I used to get so frustrated in his class. I felt that his expectations of our work were too rigid. He wanted observational drawings of convincing spatial experiences, and anything else was not valid. But this past summer, a painting of his up in the new Whitney Museum in New York left me happily astonished: happy to see a work by a professor I loved, and astonished to see the decided abstraction of that work. In the painting was the simultaneous ratification and denial of what he taught us about spatial experiences and ellipses and line weight. Seeing it freed me, somehow, from the strictness of his teaching.
Professor Robert Reed lives on in his works. There are about 30 of them on view in Green Hall until Nov. 12. If you didn’t have the opportunity to study with him, spending some time with these works in all their meticulous complexity might introduce you to the man who dedicated over 50 years of his life to sharing his passion for art with this community.
When I look at the smaller pieces in the first and second rooms of the exhibition, I can feel how painstaking Professor Reed was. These abstract works are highly complex and layered, yet his precision orders the chaos. The three large purple paintings in the stairwell deny depth to the composition through the impossible overlapping of sweeping color planes and flat, bare rectangles. Though they are less compressed, they still convey the exactness of Professor Reed’s eye. The latest paintings, in the pit space, combine the meticulous diligence of his early period and the large gestures of his middle works, bringing together Professor Reed’s endless carefulness and intensity.
And so I miss him. His presence remains in the conversations I have with other students of his, where we share in the private vocabulary of his classroom, in the stories about him we tell to people who didn’t study with him, and in me, every time I try to make something from the world around me into something wrought from my own hands.
The Yale School of Art is attempting to both establish the Robert Reed Scholarship Fund in his honor and name the classroom G-01 in Green Hall, home to many of the introductory art classes, after him. This would be the first classroom in the School of Art named after a person of color. If you would like to contribute, please send donations to the Yale University School of Art and note that the donation is for the Robert Reed Fund.