Art School?

Why Art School Wasn’t for Me

In 1969, after less than six months of drawing and painting, my girlfriend, a sophisticated artist with a MFA in Fine Arts, urged me to apply to the New York Studio School in the West Village. She said I was a “natural,” who could benefit from training in a classical, figurative teaching of art. She offered to help me assemble a portfolio of my minuscule selection of work. With no idea of what art was or how it is taught in school, I agreed to apply, thinking that there was virtually no chance I would get into the program.

My experience with art, at that point, was almost non-existent. I didn’t know any artists, had only visited MOMA for the first time a few months earlier (despite living in NYC for 22 years!), couldn’t tell a Manet from a Monet, and was, in general, lacking in any substantive knowledge of the process of making art. I had a desire, an interest, liked playing with color, was enticed by the texture and smell of oil paint, and had, maybe, some untrained raw talent. Maybe.

Golly, Johesphat! To my surprise, a few weeks later I was informed that I was accepted into art school. Apparently, my portfolio met the school’s criteria. I may have even had a personal interview. I don’t recall. I can’t imagine what I might of talked about though I am sure I communicated my eagerness to learn. Blissfully, I bought paints, charcoal,  pencils and paper for what I thought was going to be an exciting education in art, and an opportunity to meet other artists. 

Instead, the few months I attended art school turned out to be an awful mistake and a disaster. Not only wasn’t I sufficiently skilled to apply the instruction I received but I was also rebellious. Coming from years of participation in political and social protest (this was 1969 or ’70), I found it difficult to accept someone, the teacher, telling me how a figure is properly drawn or whether my blue sky was not blue enough. Many of the teachers didn’t seem interested in me, just how well I imitated them. The other students were self-involved and competitive. They were experienced artists---or so they thought--- and were looking ahead to bright futures in the art world. I am sure some have had their dream come true.

The final straw broke when Mercedes Matter, one of the school’s founders, walked over to me, glanced at my figure drawing and declared: “How did you get into this school? If I were on the committee, I would never have let you in.”

“Well I’m here,” I said defiantly but knew she was right. I didn’t belong, and would, most likely, never belong in any art school or art movement. I walked out before the term ended and never looked back. I was stuck with myself: a stubborn self-starter who couldn’t or wouldn’t take help. I had to do everything “the slow hard way.” 

I had, first, to unlearn what I had been taught. Immediately out of school, I retained the school's system of drawing: the construction of space using intersecting angular lines into which the figure is placed. Drawing this way always made me feel inadequate. It didn’t leave room for my strong feelings which were the basis of my sensibility. Some twenty-five years later, I returned to drawing the figure. After a two years of work, I found my own approach the subject. When I stopped, I no longer felt the necessity of proving that I could, if I chose, successfully draw a figure to my satisfaction.

For the first twenty years after art school I worked virtually without any instruction or encouragement. The one or two artists I knew held tightly to their secrets---if there were any. Stubbornly, I just kept working, on weekends and nights after my nine-to-five job. My wife, herself an academic, urged me to go back to art school. She thought that making art was like studying anthropology or sociology: the more you know, the better you will be at what you do.

This time, I flatly rejected art school. I preferred to fail, or succeed, in my own way. I remained isolated. I received no help or advice--- nothing. When I looked at my artwork it felt as if I was staring at myself in the mirror. I didn’t know if I was learning anything or producing anything of value. I didn’t even know what “meaningful” was. I just kept working---in a void. 

Early charcoal drawing of Faye. 1969. Included in my portfolio for art school.

Early charcoal drawing of Faye. 1969. Included in my portfolio for art school.

Should I have returned or stayed in art school? Many school-educated artists have told me I am better off not having gone. The schools, I was told, produce student-artists out of department approved aesthetic moulds. As for myself, I know I did it my way--- good or bad. I feel I can be proud that I stuck it out, struggled through the difficult process, taught myself a few things, and, more than 40 years later, am producing quality art that reflects who I am and the values I hold dear. This is my definition of “success.”