Michelangelo would have been proud. There in the middle of a studio in the School of Visual Arts in downtown New York stood a motionless young woman, arms akimbo. Around her 30 students, their easels pressed close together, were busy trying to transfer her image to paper.
There is not way of measuring these things precisely, but it would appear that after an era of experimentation in art education there is a new interest in basic techniques among students, and a new emphasis on standards and required courses in the schools.
Ten or 15 years ago, the idea of technique, of “laying down a foundation,” was anathema on many campuses. At Brooklyn College, that hotbed of abstract expressionism, it was impossible for a time for a student to work from the figure. The faculty, dominated by such self-confessed revolutionists as Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Styll, simply wouldn’t allow it. “Don’t you know my dear?” Mr. Reinhardt is known to have said to one student who was interested in figuration: “The figure is dead.”
Morris Dorsky, chairman of Brooklyn’s art department, said that today the atmosphere at the school is much less doctrinaire. Though there are still a sizable number of abstractionists on the staff, “no one today would think of forcing their program on the students the way they used to do in the sixties,” he said. Moreover, if a student is interested in developing a figurative, or three dimensional style, there are plenty of representational painters around — Philip Pearlstein is one — to help him do it.
At the School of Visual Arts, where 1,676 students are earning Bachelor of arts degrees — 500 of them in painting and sculpture — entering freshmen have always had to take some courses in anatomy and figure drawing, as they have at most institutions. Now, however, many of them are continuing to work from the figure until they graduate. To accommodate them the school has recently had to add three new sections in advanced figurative drawing and painting.
The same thing has been happening at other schools. At the Chicago Art Institute, where there are 500 painting and sculpture students, the resurgence of interest in the figure — both on a technical and philosophical plane — has been so great that the school, lacking enough live models to meet the demand, has had to press several old plaster casts into use.
What attracts students to the figure, at least on a technical level, is its visual complexity. Robert Beverly Hale, former curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a member of the staff of the Art Students League, explains:
“The human figure is the most difficult thing there is to draw. Once you’ve mastered that you can master anything.”
Every Monday night Mr. Hale, who has been teaching drawing for 30 years, lectures in a classical manner on a different part of the anatomy. The upper back is the hardest part to draw, he says, because of its intricate musculature.
The desire to get down to basics has also manifested itself in allied fields such as film, video, and print-making. “What we’re seeing now is a return to the idea of technique,” said Roger Gilmore, Dean of the Chicago Art Institute. “Students want to have a grip on the medium they’re using before they go off and experiment on their own.”
Many colleges around the country, fearful of degenerating into rigid academies, have tried to maintain a balance in aesthetic orientation. There are no more “house styles.” At Boston’s School of Visual Arts, which has always had a strong figural orientation, many of the alumni have turned to nonrepresentational expression. This doesn’t bother Edward Leary, the ean. Indeed, Mr. Leary said, he’s all the more pleased when his graduates turn to non-objectivism, because “they know the difference.”
Mr. Dorsky, at Brooklyn, feels essentially the same way. “Even though the atmosphere surrounding art instruction may not be as exciting as it was in the ’60s, when various avant gardes were vying for attention,” he said. “It’s really much healthier. Artists today are more interested in conveying knowledge to their students than ideology. There’s more work and less talk.”
At the School of Visual Arts, David Rhodes, vice president for academic affairs, said:
“There was a time in the late ’60s when there were no standards at all in any field. All people were interested in doing their own thing. Now, that attitude has withered. Painters tend to see themselves as professionals.”
Because of this increasingly professional attitude among students, the school has found it easier to reinstate some of the required courses that had been dropped out during the years of protest.
Other schools have also tightened curriculums. At Cooper Union, students could jump from beginning drawing to advanced. Now an intermediate course is required.
Still, despite the optimism of many teachers and administrators, a certain malaise haunts many art schools today. After all, there is more to art than just technique. At one point an art student does have to decide on a personal style. Perhaps the student wants to be a representationalist or a minimalist or a conceptualist. Now, because all these styles are seen as legitimate, the decision is so much harder.
“It’s confusing,” John Anton, a freshman at Visual Arts in New York said. Mr. Anton, a media arts major, was busy with his latest exercise. Jennifer Bartlett, his instructor, had asked the freshman painting class to take a section of Matisse’s famed “Red Studio” and enlarge it into another painting. Mr. Anton, who seemed to be doing quite well, wasn’t entirely happy. “There are so many styles to choose from these days, and each one is equally good. It’s like sitting at a buffet.”
One of his classmates, Steven Pollara, a fine arts major, had already made up his mind to be an abstractionist. “Why do what the camera can do?” he asked. “You have to do what the mind can do.” He was one of the few students interviewed who was so sure.
Therein lies the dilemma of many art educators. How much can one teach? How much art is knowledge — and how much expression?
Raymond Brown, acting chairman of the art department at the University of California at Los Angeles, is hopeful. “As human nature is more objectively understood, the subjective nature of art can be freely developed,” he said. But he added that, for the time being, “we are all really very ignorant on the subject of teaching artists.”